In the 9 months since I helped someone leave the JA (and he stayed with me over the summer), a further 4 people have left the same household and contacted me and another two have left it to be part of another one, where they can be confident of less friction with the house leader. The leader they are leaving, whose style of "shepherding" most closely follows the more traditional, hardline, central zion model is a zealot for Noel's style because he attached his church group to the JA only in recent years, and presumably wants to make a good impression.
So the household with which I was in contact a year ago now only has three adults and a child; only one adult is not actually a member of the elder's family. This household now has fewer members than when it joined the JA wholesale about five years ago, suggesting that, far from the JA regime bringing more people to Christ and nurturing them, it is stifling and oppressive....and certainly this has been the experience of all 7 of the people who opted to leave this household in the last year.
The two adult non-community members, a husband and wife, who ironically bought the house for the elder's house-church, originally (before it became subsumed into the JA), have opted to be associated with another one in another city, where the model of shepherding has a more laissez faire reputation; or "slack and compromising", as the elder they are leaving characterises it. It may have been his judgementalism which confirmed this couple in their belief that this would be a more appealing place to worship.
The irony which will be lost on the declining household is that the "slack and compromising" one has a thriving congregation. It's elder, Ian, was in the church when I was a member twenty-something years ago and is a lovely chap, who I know to be a solid Christian with a large family, all of whom are enthusiastic Christians, while the more intense elder's children who are old enough to have left home have done so, and while devoted children, are not associated with the church in any way.
The JA will usually tell anyone who alludes to the church's unsavoury past that things have changed, that the church has outlived its earlier experiments in community, where many mistakes were made, but where the church is now mature, more sensitive. But all 5 of my contacts tell me just the same sorts of stories about bullying and control as were typical in my time. What I think is most interesting though, is that their experiences were at the hands of someone who did not join until nearly two decades after I left, while the more liberal households are those that are considered backslidden...and are led by people who were around in my time. As an outsider, it was strange to be told by the intense elder that this other household was backslidden. It seemed that there was no sense of faithfulness to fellow members of the Jesus Army....even when talking to me, a known critic of the JA.
It was inevitable, surely, that Noel and the leadership of the JA would not be able to maintain the intense level of control which the fellowship had in the early days. This is not a fellowship which has grown anything like as large as its PR suggests, not when it counts almost any type of association as membership (with its many levels of commitment). In fact, one of the first signs of its number manipulations dates back to my time, when Noel, our Prophet, prophesied that the church, which then had about 100 Servant Groups (church-growing cells), would have twice as many groups within a year. Frantic effort and lots of naming and claiming went on...but the church did not grow, so that we were forced to make the prophesy come true by dividing every cell group in two. Where previously I had been part of a thriving group, I found myself the leader of just three of us in our cell - myself and two sisters.
The most noticeable difference in the fellowship from my time is the shrinking emphasis on "community" which had always been what made us distinct from the rest of Christendom, so much so that we were dismissive of Christians who did not live in community, which we held to be God's model. Community (and its structures) was what made it possible to control people. Numerically, there are no more people in community now than there were in my time and a schism in styles of shepherding, even within this number, has been made clear to me in the last year.
The schism makes it possible for some people, rather than leaving altogether, to find households where leadership styles are far less cultic and where the lifestyle is far more normal, some would say "worldly"...while others would just say that it more closely imitates more mainstream evangelical house churches. I predict, and the recent experiences of the local JA household bear this out, that the hard-line JA will die out and those who stay at all will do so in clusters of Christians, the type of which Noel always charaterised (when it happened elsewhere) as having "the form without the power". Perhaps, given the fact that such clusters appear to thrive, while Noel's model is under threat of extinction, Noel should give some thought to what he means by "power" and whether it is really such a good thing?
The form without the power? What form, what power?