"I was so bitter and angry inside," Cameron remembers, "I pressed my car horn and held it until the light changed."
Weeks later, after he committed his life to Christ on one especially lonely night, Cameron felt an urge to find the people on the bus he had blasted with his horn. Something about the togetherness he glimpsed at the stoplight intrigued him. Besides, with hair halfway down to his waist he had had trouble "connecting" with people in more traditional churches.
The busload of young people turned out to be the Jesus People Traveling Team, USA, a group of countercultural communal Christians traveling the country by bus, doing street witnessing, holding concerts at churches with their Jesus rock group, Resurrection Band, and passing out copies of Cornerstone, a hip evangelistic tabloid. Now located in Chicago, Jesus People USA (JPUSA) still includes Tom Cameron plus 500 others. This year it is celebrating two decades of growth and ministry.
Cameron was not the only child of the seventies seeking an authentic community to belong to. Back then, Jesus communes, or "Christian houses," as members called them, seemed to multiply like loaves and fishes, with one 1971 estimate putting them at 600. All but a handful, however, came and went.
If community was a buzz word that failed to outlast the seventies, it may be making a comeback in the nineties. Americans in general, and Christians in particular, seem disillusioned with "rugged individualism" and do-it-yourself, a la carte faith. After the so-called "me" decade, a recent Time cover story noted, the nineties is turning into the "we" decade as Americans make room in their hectic lives for relationships. A new Gallup poll reveals that three out of ten Americans say they are involved in small groups that offer support, and another 10 percent say they wish they were.
Amid this shared hungering for community, the Jesus People offer a provocative case study for how Christian groups—from neighborhood Bible studies to sprawling megachurches—can experience true community. While few churches can or should replicate JPUSA's expressly communal life, 20 years have given them lessons about community that are worth pondering by the wider church.
Open to change
To stay vital, a Christian community must make friends with change.
The group Cameron stumbled upon developed a knack early on for responding creatively to new situations—whether on the order of interpersonal dynamics or cultural shifts.
For example, Cameron's new "home" in 1972 (the group had no permanent address the first six months he traveled with them) began as a spin-off from Jesus People of Milwaukee, a group a 1972 CT news report called a former "doper commune." But the Milwaukee group disintegrated, leaving the team traveling in Florida without a base. Cameron's new-found friends were not fazed, however. They kept alive their vision for street witnessing, parking-lot concerts, and church youth rallies.
Even the decision to settle in Chicago was not so much a part of a master plan as it was a concession to circumstances. Many on the "Jesus bus" had relatives in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois, Cameron recalls, so they drove north to visit over Christmas 1972, expecting to return to their work in Gainesville after the holidays. Then word of mouth brought them a string of opportunities to put on concerts and church rallies. "We would sleep in church basements, and the ladies would cook potlucks for us," Cameron remembers. "We went into many small towns that had had no contemporary evangelism for ages."
Next entered Henry Carlson, president of the Chicago chapter of Full Gospel Business Men's Association and elder of Faith Tabernacle in Chicago. He offered to let the group stay for a couple of weeks in the basement of his church (a former restaurant and wrestling ring). But two weeks slipped into two years, and the group increasingly realized, as elder Dawn Herrin recalls, "that God's call was not only to do evangelism on the road, but to reach out to the needy right around us."
"We didn't want to come to Chicago at first," remembers Victor Williams, an elder and early member, now with a salt-and-pepper beard and job as financial manager overseeing the community's extensive properties and businesses. "But we found that you could stand on a street corner and in one day witness to thousands of people. … We realized this was a great opportunity; if God wanted us here, we'd better take it seriously."
Long-time members of JPUSA tell story after story about changes in their community's life as they responded to new challenges. Cameron himself, now in his forties, with trimmed hair and a bit of middle-aged sag around his waist, has gone back to law school, enabling him to take care of the community's far-flung businesses, ministries, and properties as general counsel, symbolic of the group's movement away from earlier impatience with "establishment" values. And JPUSA's local responses to the needs of their neighborhood are as diverse as the community they have adopted as home.
Members head up and staff a crisis-pregnancy center and homeless shelter, a "dinner guest program" that feeds up to 250 hungry people a day, a free food pantry and clothes closet, informal mentoring of countless hurting or burned out young people, and an impressive resident-care program for the 63 seniors that inhabit the top three floors of Friendly Towers (until recently, a dilapidated senior-citizens home). Over half-a-dozen businesses provide jobs for JPUSA's breadwinners and income for the community's common purse. The companies, with names like Jesus People Electrical, JP Painters, and Lakefront Roofing Supply, also give unnumbered witnessing opportunities for workers who crisscross the greater Chicago area for service jobs.
Intimate and honest
To remain healthy, faith communities must safeguard themselves from potential abuse and become oases of intimacy and honesty.
It is here that JPUSA is both most intriguing and most controversial. For while few fault the group's works of evangelism and compassion, eyebrows occasionally rise at JPUSA's communal arrangements at Friendly Towers, the converted ten-story hotel they call home in urban Uptown, Chicago. Concerns about excessive conformity or the loss of personal freedom make some parents of members nervous. And even veteran residents admit the communal life is sometimes "intense."
"No one in the community holds an outside job individually," notes 38-year-old elder Neil Taylor. In this arrangement, JPUSA is much like the Anabaptist Hutterite communities in the U.S. and Canada. And guidelines, while generally enforced only by the honor system, require surrender of certain freedoms. "When we leave the building," Taylor says, for example, "we go off in twos," in a rather strict application of the buddy principle. Meals are always community affairs, with several dozen other members of extended "family" groupings.
Taylor believes the closeness, while not for everybody, can work wonders for others. "Some people look at us as a large 12-step group," he observes. "When we first came into the community, we had abused ourselves and the system. So accountability has become a very important part of growth for us."
Jon Trott, associate editor for the 60,000-circulation Cornerstone magazine, admits dangers go with the blessings. Some of the members from the Jesus People of Milwaukee days, Trott recalls, came out of their experience "shell-shocked" and bruised. Now, he says, "we have built in some safeguards."
The most notable of the safeguards is JPUSA's shared system of leadership. The community is overseen by nine pastors, none of whom is designated as head pastor or lead elder. Much of this wariness of investing any one person with too much influence grows out of the abuses and immorality of one of the early founding pastors, who had to leave the group shortly after Jesus People's arrival in Chicago in the early seventies. The practice of shared leadership is more than a safeguard, however; it allows for the exercise of many persons' gifts.
Another healthy factor is members' conviction that their version of community life is not the only valid, faithful one. Not all who come to the community end up staying for good, nor do they receive pressure when it becomes clear that they are not called to remain.
Says Glenn Kaiser, one of the pastors and lead singer for the Rez (short for Resurrection) band: "We don't believe the community we have here is the consummate answer for each and every Christian." But churches should, he believes, be more involved in members' lives: "If church is run as a business or corporation, it ceases to be a family. But if church truly is a family, we not only will support one another, we will confront one another. Otherwise, there is little accountability."
Open and inclusive
To avoid becoming ingrown or exclusive, a body of Christians will open its doors to the needy outside its membership.
This, too, was a pattern established early in JPUSA's life. As the group continued its witnessing in the streets of Chicago, it began to grow, taxing the basement facilities (and patience) of Faith Tabernacle. Cameron recalls, "All of a sudden people began to come home with the street witnessers. Then some people stayed. During the two years we lived at Faith Tabernacle, we grew from about 30 people to about 120."
While they moved in 1978 from the more middle-class Ravenswood section of Chicago to be nearer Uptown's poor, social ministry came primarily as a response to specific needs. Kaiser, one of the few elders still to sport sixties-style hair and a beard, reflects, "If a guy down on his luck comes to the Lord and makes a legitimate commitment, what do you do? In discipling him, you don't just say, 'go and be filled.' He may need food. Or if a single woman with children comes to Christ, what do you do? Tell them to have a better life, but not do anything to help?"
Such thinking meant that to the evangelistic zeal of early years, JPUSA has added other ministries as needy people have shown up—literally—on their doorstep. Part of this has to do with JPUSA's decision to settle in one of Chicago's most culturally and ethnically diverse areas. Cambodians, native Americans, Nazi skinheads, African-Americans, gang members, and homeless whites all inhabit the blocks around the unremarkable brick building JPUSA calls home. They are not far, ironically, from Lake Michigan's plush Gold Coast condos. More immediately at hand, however, are government housing projects and halfway houses.
Katherine Williams, wife of Victor and one of the leaders of the school run for the community's hundred or so school-age children, explains how "people in need were just there. They were outside of our door on cold nights with no place to go. So we would say, 'Of course you can come in and stay with us.'"
Members put up the homeless in the rooms of members away on vacation or visiting relatives. But the needs seemed to mushroom in the eighties. "It got so big, we started letting them sleep on the floors of large rooms," Williams recalls. "The men were in the lobby, women and children in the dining room. But they had to get up early every morning, pack up their belongings, and get going."
With help from their new-found denomination, the largely middle-class, 100-year-old Evangelical Covenant Church (which they joined in 1989), JPUSA purchased a squat, brown-brick printer's warehouse and turned its second floor into a shelter that now houses over 50 homeless women and their children. Many of the women have been abandoned or are fleeing abusive husbands. Women needing longer-term help are relocated at JPUSA's Leland House, a "second-stage" housing program that incorporates educational and rehabilitation programs for as long as two years. Says Chris Ramsey, a long-time member of the community and one of the directors of the shelter programs, "Sometimes we have to develop a relationship of trust, over time, to make a lasting difference in the situation."
Members of JPUSA refer often to Jean Vanier, Catholic founder of the international L'Arche communities for the mentally handicapped, and something of a hero to JPUSA folks. In their selfpublished promotional brochure, they quote Vanier: "A community is never here for itself. It belongs to something greater—to the poor, to humanity, to the church, to the universe."
To be faithful, a Christian community never gives up essential distinctives, even while ministering to a wider culture.
JPUSA has always been distinctive in dress, in its adoption of the sometimes wild styles of America's youth culture. One sees, in the lobby of Friendly Towers, a lot of T-shirts, dreadlocks, and hair dyed a wild color. But JPUSA is countercultural in an even profounder sense. It maintains a frugal lifestyle, for example, in the midst of a culture of affluence. It cares for the homeless people society would often like to forget. At a time when rock bands make big money, members of JPUSA's successful Rez band live as simply as other members of the community. And in a culture that prizes youthfulness, JPUSA has made a commitment to provide sophisticated care for the senior citizens who live with them.
And while members admit a debt to a wide range of "mentors" such as A. W. Tozer or Jean Vanier or ministry pioneer John Perkins, their statement of faith holds no surprises for the most traditional of evangelicals. For all of the spiked haircuts and musical experimentation, JPUSA's basic commitments have changed little since the seventies.
Henry Huang, a low-key 40-year-old who is a "dissertation short" of a doctorate in social research, coordinates JPUSA's Cornerstone Festival, an annual gathering for music and teaching held on JPUSA's recently purchased farm in northwestern Illinois. JPUSA's vitality, Huang believes, grew out of a clear, early vision, rooted in Scripture. Of the original group, he remembers, "so many of the 'Jesus freaks' on the West Coast were falling away from the Lord because they lacked training and grounding in biblical teaching. So the vision of the Milwaukee group was to start a training program that would ground young people in a solid faith and then turn them out for service."
Even when Jesus People moved to Chicago, Huang remembers, "we clung to a simple vision. We didn't jump from one glorious vision to the next, because we just weren't that sophisticated. And I think there was a faithfulness to the daily small things that allowed us to develop slowly." Bible study and teaching times were a part of each day, even when the group lived off donations and spent most of its time in street witnessing.
In 1984, this commitment to the fundamentals of evangelical faith led JPUSA to a Christian rock music festival that would keep core beliefs central. After sampling several other events, the group concluded that most festivals lacked consistency and good teaching. Says Huang: "One time, for example, a speaker came on and told about how God had done great work in her life through her physical handicap. The next speaker came on and said that if she had faith she'd be healed and be walking. You could look around and see a lot of confused young believers. What they needed was teaching in the core issues of Christianity."
Every summer Cornerstone Festival draws between 10,000 and 12,000 young people—from all 50 states and many foreign countries. Music styles range from metal to blues to Celtic folk. But alongside the strains of the likes of Crashdog (a hard-core, punk band), one can hear the reasoned admonitions of Josh McDowell or Edith Schaeffer.
JPUSA's Sunday-morning services give a similar impression. While T-shirts and blue jeans are the closest worship leaders get to liturgical vestments, and electric guitars are the instruments of choice for church musicians, the sermons would pass muster in any Bible Belt church. They are amply peppered with references to Bible verses and God's "redemptive plan" in Jesus. When JPUSA pastors preach or lead worship, they don't budge an inch on matters of essential belief or basic morality.
A divinely given gift
To thrive, faith communities need to see their life and work together as a divinely given gift, not a human-centered program.
Community, JPUSA members have learned, is not something they can manufacture by dint of effort or good intentions. Says Trott: "There's something miraculous about our life together. If people ask me, does God do miracles, I say, I live in one."
His words echo Dietrich Bonhoeffer's classic words about community's source: "Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate." Like the Jerusalem church in Acts, the deeply corporate life of JPUSA is not so much the goal, but the fruit of life in the Spirit. Indeed, Acts 4:32, which speaks of the early believers being "one in heart and mind … [sharing] everything they had," comes only after chapter 2, where we learn about the Spirit's outpouring upon Christ's gathered followers. "We never preach community," says Trott; "we preach Christ."
Whatever the countercultural oddness of their communal sharing—in this day when privacy and individual freedoms are cultural idols—JPUSA offers a living reminder that life with others can be more than American Christians have typically experienced.
In the book Habits of the Heart, sociologist Robert Bellah and his cowriters argue, "We find ourselves not independently of other people and institutions but through them. … We never get to the bottom of our selves on our own. We discover who we are face to face and side by side with others in work, love, and learning."
What Bellah said on sociological authority, Tom Cameron would affirm personally after 20 years of sometimes gritty, usually joyous community life at JPUSA: "What happened here was that a group of people became committed to living their lives for Jesus Christ no matter what. We entered a grand adventure with God and saw that he would be there. God has met us in some desperate situations over the years. But I know that God is faithful. That's why we're all still here."
This article originally appeared in the September 14, 1992, issue of Christianity Today. At the time, Timothy Jones was associate editor for the magazine.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today is posting this article and others today in response to the Chicago Tribune's series on JPUSA. Our other articles include our 1994 Christianity Today article reports on the conflict between sociologist Ronald Enroth and JPUSA, "Conflict Divides Countercult Leaders," and today's Weblog.
The 1994 Cornerstone magazine articles responding to Enroth's book are available at the Cornerstone Web site. The magazine has also reposted "Growing Together, Growing Apart | Coping with church conflict and communal controversy." Enroth's response to the Cornerstone special issue is available at several sites.
JPUSA's John Trott revisited the 1994 controversy in a chapter of Bad Pastors: Clergy Misconduct in Modern America (New York University Press) titled "Is Abuse About Truth or Story: Or Both?" The chapter prompted a response from Enroth on the Apolgetics Index site.
jpusainfo.org calls itself "the JPUSA diaspora site for critical thinking and reflection on community life, sharing old memories, contacting old friends, and maintaining relationships." It's also pretty critical of the community.
John Bozeman examined JPUSA eleven years ago for his master's thesis in religion for the University of Florida.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more