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SPECIAL ENQUIRY: THE JESUS PEOPLE


THE BUSINESS OF RELIGION


Source : 29/09/1982 Northampton Chronicle and Echo

Mixing business with religion has proved a powerful formula for the Jesus Fellowship.

The Fellowship's expansion into enterprises as diverse as building and clothes retailing, has been fast and successful.

Mr. Noel Stanton, Bugbrooke's Baptist Pastor, said: 'Our funds need to be invested and used for the sake of the members, hence setting up businesses seems to be a right way of doing it.'

'I think that business shall always be part of the community's viability.'

'The original vision for the businesses was to make sure we had plenty of employment opportunities for the members,' said Mr. Stanton.

'Obviously, we teach diligence and industry, so there is also an aspect of what we call discipleship involved in our business life, in the same sense of people learning to apply themselves.'

'And as Christians we obviously desire to be of help and hopefully our business life makes some contribution to the outside world.'

The profits of the businesses appear to be used mainly to finance expansion, to judge from the large number country properties now owned by the Fellowship.

The Fellowship is known best for its Northamptonshire chain of Goodness Foods shops and the Jeans Plus Casuals store in Gold Street, Northampton.

Its other major businesses are Skaino Services Ltd., building contractors, hauliers and motor engineers, which in 1980 had a turnover in excess of 425,000 and profits of about 61,000, and Towcester Building Supplies Ltd., a subsidiary of House of Goodness Ltd.

Skaino is about to open a vehicle repair depot at Long March, Daventry.

There is a bakery in High Street, Braunston, and a building and landscape designers at Daventry called Midland Design Group Ltd. An architect's practice, Heritage Design, is run by fellowship members.

The Fellowship also holds more than a quarter of the shares in White and Bishop, the long-established family clothing and camping business in Northampton. The group's 550 shares were donated to it by the son of founder Mr Walter White.

Both the son and his mother have been members of the Fellowship since the 70's. A room above the shop is used for Fellowship's business.

Traders in the outside world have not always favourably received the Fellowship's business contribution.

A builders' merchants in Daventry claimed it livelihood was under threat last summer when a Fellowship company, Towcester Building Supplies, set up a warehouse on the town's Long March Industrial estate.

The firm, SRBE Daventry Ltd., said it had lost customers to the new business, which drastically undercut its competitors. And another Daventry trader, Mr Ron Olivera, or Drayton Heating and Plumbing, made the same allegation against Skaino, another Fellowship firm.

Both traders blamed the low prices on the Fellowship firms' low labour costs, and it was claimed that community members worked for something like 50p plus board and lodgings.

The community reject the claims of undercutting: they accept that wage levels are low, but nothing like as low as 50p.

Mr. Stanton said 'It is a case of what you might call normal competition. Obviously we have got to make sure that businesses keep going.'

'It is certainly the case that our wage levels are what you might call risible as compared with some of the higher wage levels in some businesses. But I would not have thought our wage factor made much difference'.

I was told that members employed in Fellowship firms earn an average of 3,000 a year, including directors, who are chosen for their business aptitude and do not receive directors' emoluments.

All members pool their incomes in a common purse operated by each household. Daily living expenses are met from each household purse and any money left over is put into a central Trust Fund in the name of community members.

This fund is operated by the trustees, consisting largely of the senior brethren, to buy houses and land, finance businesses and meet other large needs, like evangelism and education.

Also into this fund goes the capital wealth of new, fully-fledged members of the community.

The Jesus Fellowship Church has two categories of membership: the Covenant Member (Baptism) and Covenant Member (Baptism and Community).

Only the latter category involves a full commitment to community sharing. A compulsory 'waiting period,' formerly of six months, but now 12 months, operates before new community members contribute any personal wealth and no wealth or possessions are received from people under 21.

New members do not always bring wealth into the community, which accepts people it deems suitable regardless of their financial position.

'We have paid debts amounting to thousands of pounds,' said Mr. Stanton.

Once a member, individual needs are met out of the common purses and through the community distribution centre which supplies food and most other household needs.

Personal expenditure is scrupulously accounted for and can involve people keeping even their bus tickets for checking.

In theory people have access to any sum they wish, but buys like clothes are discussed among household members and inevitably the wishes of individuals come a poor second to group interests.

And wherever possible goods are supplied cheaply from the Fellowship's own businesses: It is also part of the Fellowship's ethos for its members to have very few personal possessions.