Behind the happy, clappy Jesus Army

Radical church that talks in tongues and recruits asylum seekers and the homeless

Sunday Mercury, UK/March 4, 2007
By Crystal Luxmore

"Would you throw your whole life away for Jesus?" boomed a fiery young man.

"Yes!" and "Hallelujah!" issued forth from the 1,000-plus crowd.

For once, I kept my mouth shut.

The modern Jesus Army was on the march at a rally in Birmingham last weekend.

The radical Christian church has previously been labelled a sinister sect, a cult that preys on the vulnerable. They are claims it has always denied.

Dozens of mJA members campaigned across Birmingham last week to attract potential new recruits.

Happy, smiling followers handed out glossy flyers to myself and passers-by, as well as a tabloid-style 'Street' newspaper which boasted about life in the church.

I showed an interest and was invited to drop in to the rally at Cocks Moors Leisure Centre, Kings Heath.

When I arrived, it was packed with a colourful congregation, mainly made up of mJA members. They included men with flowing beards, women in long skirts, teenage boys and girls, skinheads and what looked like down-and-outs.

Although from obviously differing backgrounds, they were united by the stark fluorescent orange crosses hanging from their necks.

Others wore matching black t-shirts with 'mJA' and their 'virtue name' - Meek, Perceptive and Befriended were just a few emblazoned across the back.

As I looked around, rock bands warmed up on a stage fitted with two jumbo-TVs and a baptism pool.

I was greeted by Dave, a bearded, fiftysomething with a permanent smile. He was sporting a modern Jesus Army football jersey that boasted: "Alive!"

He joined the church at its inception in Northampton in 1973.

"The church now has 2,500 members," he told me. "At its core are 500 of us, who live in New Creation Christian Communities.

"There are 20 people in my house, from an 80 year-old retired nurse to a 15 year-old schoolgirl."

He beamed: "We are the largest Christian community in Europe."

"You mean like communes?" I asked.

"Erm, well, yes, sort of," he said, shifting uncomfortably.

Communities are at the heart of the controversy surrounding the church.

The mJA owns 60 large houses across Britain where 'brothers and sisters' live an ascetic existence in 'families'.

It has previously been claimed that members are asked to give all their wages and possessions to their church, and must also take a vow of celibacy.

And critics say while marriage is allowed, spouses must be sanctioned by the mJA and sex is only permitted for procreation. Meanwhile, competitive sports, TV, non-church music, the internet, smoking, and drinking are all said to be banned.

And despite glossy mJA leaflets promising 'no prejudice', only men can be leaders - and they seem to take all decisions.

Women are encouraged to wear long skirts and behave in a traditional manner. Relationships with people outside the church are discouraged.

The UK Cult Information Centre says that the mJA is on a list of religious groups it has concerns about.

Spokesman Ian Howarth said: "We're very concerned about the Jesus Army. Over the years we have had many concerns expressed about it.

"There have been no major changes that merit removing it from our list."

It is fair to say the mJA has seen its fair share of scandal.

Three years ago, it was reported that a church member was jailed after 'trying to beat the devil out of a six year-old boy'.

And in 2002, two church members were locked up following allegations of rape and child molestation.

Despite such cases, the mJA's numbers continue to swell, and 85 members now live at eight community houses in Birmingham and Coventry alone.

Dave introduced me to Mhairi, a timid, silver-haired, ex-hippy from Canada who is now part of the mJA community in Birmingham.

"I know this is what God has chosen for me," she said matter-of- factly.

"I followed the hippy trail across Europe and ended up in England, training as a nurse. That's where I discovered the Jesus Army.

"I was attracted to the youth, energy and colour of the movement."

Mhairi's son grew up in the Jesus Army but left when a teenager. Today, he lives in Canada with the rest of her family.

She admitted that being away from her relatives was painful, but added: "It's part of God's plan.

"We do things very differently, we even speak in tongues," she added.

And they do.

As one of the rock songs reached its crescendo, followers flung their heads back and began speaking incomprehensibly.

For the next few minutes, people around me were talking in tongues, orchestrated by a man on the stage who was doing the same.

Modern Jesus Army disciples also believe they can perform miracles, hear prophecies, heal people and exorcise demons.

I mentioned the high number of youths in the crowd to Mhairi.

"We have all kinds of members: a lot of drug addicts and asylum seekers - oh, and some normal people too!" she said.

The mJA is famous for its late-night marches and double-decker bus patrols of city streets.

The homeless, prostitutes and drug addicts are coaxed to the modern Jesus Army houses, or its farm HQ in Northampton, with offers of food and shelter. Many are converted.

Asylum seekers are also boosting numbers.

"We are getting a lot of Iranians," said Mhairi. "It is something God has given us."

In fact, the mJA is pro-active and asks immigration agencies to refer to them asylum seekers, including Muslims, who have also been converted.

As the service continued, Mhairi told me this was the first rally that charismatic leader and church founder Noel Stanton, now 80, was not leading.

"He is handing over the reins to five other elders from across the UK," she told me. "But he'll preside over tonight's service."

For the next two hours the crowd swayed and sang with the Christian rock, arms outstretched, ready to be touched by the healers who began moving through the throng.

During these amazing scenes, mJA targets for 2007 flashed up on the jumbo TVs… 200 new community members… 40 new probationary celibates… 150 new congregation members…

But when the five heirs to the throne took to the stage, they failed to whip up the same kind of enthusiasm.

Each leader reported on the 'battles' being fought in their regions to keep, and recruit, new members.

"This year we must re-invigorate our cell groups," preached Huw Lewis, the leader of the East Midlands region. "They are the river that feed us."

Mhairi informed me that modern Jesus Army 'cells' meet weekly in houses all over the country. After building their numbers, they divide and form more cells.

There are currently cell groups in Dudley, West Bromwich, Wolverhampton, Tamworth, Rugby, Coventry and Leamington.

Increasing numbers could mean splitting up households and forcing them to expand into new areas, London leader Steve Calam announced.

"Don't you think it's time for them to divide?" he raved to an unresponsive crowd. "Hello?… HELLO???" he asked.

"We're listening…" Mhairi muttered under her breath.

As I made my exit, I began to wonder if this group would die out with its ageing leader, or whether the modern Jesus Army would continue to divide and conquer.

The modern Jesus Army has always strenuously denied cult allegations.

Spokesman John Campbell said: "The Jesus Army (also known as the Jesus Fellowship Church) is not a cult, but an evangelical Christian church with a charismatic emphasis."

Fact File

  • Started by Noel Stanton at the Bugbrooke Baptist Chapel in Northamptonshire in 1973.
  • Expelled by the Baptist Union and the Evangelical Alliance in 1986 because of recruitment methods and isolationism.
  • Re-named modern Jesus Army (mJA) the following year.
  • mJA boasts of 2,500 members.
  • 500 of them live as the New Creation Christian Community in 60 large houses around the UK.
  • The church runs an expanding business empire called House of Goodness Ltd.
  • In 2002 the mJA opened its first Jesus Centre in Coventry.

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