by Stan Guthrie
Jews who believe in Jesus have been the perennial Rodney Dangerfields of evangelical Christianity—they get no respect. Their nonbelieving Jewish brethren have long denied their very existence. In recent years, as their growing numbers have been impossible to deny, they have been excoriated as Jewish heretics.
Jews who believe in Jesus have been the perennial Rodney Dangerfields of evangelical Christianity—they get no respect. Their nonbelieving Jewish brethren have long denied their very existence. In recent years, as their growing numbers have been impossible to deny, they have been excoriated as Jewish heretics. Gentile Christians, when not ignoring them altogether, for years have assimilated Jewish believers into non-Jewish churches, essentially erasing their cultural heritage. More recently, in the spirit of interfaith “tolerance,” Jewish Christians have been a source of embarrassment to their non-Jewish colleagues, some of whom have gone so far as to decide that the sons and daughters of Abraham don’t need to believe in their Messiah, Jesus, to be saved.
David Brickner, a fifth-generation Jewish believer who last year became executive director of Jews for Jesus, has been stung by the double discrimination. He recalls a discussion he had with a friend who is a leading evangelical author and scholar. This man was active in promoting dialogue between Jews and Christians. Yet he never invited Brickner or any other messianic Jews to participate.
One day Brickner called him on it. “We’ve been friends for a while,” Brickner said. “Why don’t you recognize that unless you invite Jews who believe in Jesus to these dialogues, you’re really avoiding some of the key issues?”
The scholar replied, “We believe that Jewish Christians bring more heat than light to the subject.”
Brickner sums up his feelings: “It makes me feel like the idiot stepchild who is welcomed into church to give a testimony, but when it comes to dialogue with the Jewish community, we best be kept behind closed doors.”
But thanks to last summer’s resolution by the Southern Baptist Convention affirming the validity of evangelizing Jewish people, the closed doors have been blown wide open, forcing Jews and Gentiles to face the issue anew. Approved in New Orleans last June and sandwiched between resolutions supporting parental choice in education and hunger and relief ministries, the “Resolution on Jewish Evangelism” urges that Southern Baptists “direct our energies and resources toward the proclamation of the gospel to the Jewish people.”
Reactions to resolution
Jim Sibley knows more about the resolution than most. With the support and encouragement of messianic Southern Baptist congregations, he wrote it. In June, Sibley, formerly a missionary church planter in Israel, began serving as coordinator for Jewish ministries for the Home Mission Board of the SBC. The position had gone unfunded and unfilled for the previous eight years. Sibley first submitted the resolution to the convention in 1993, but it did not get out of committee until last year, when the Interfaith Witness Department of the Home Board became a cosponsor. He said the response has been varied, both from Jews and Christians.
“Nonbelieving Jewish communities have expressed a great deal of fear and dismay, because they believe we intend to convert them from being Jewish to being Gentiles,” Sibley said. “Our purpose is more to convert them from being Jews who do not have a relationship with the God of their fathers to Jews who do.”
Moishe Rosen, founder of the San Francisco-based Jews for Jesus, estimates the existence of about 60,000 Jewish believers in Jesus worldwide. He commended the Southern Baptists for sticking their necks out. “I think they need to be encouraged, because the strategy of the Jewish leadership is to manipulate through indignation,” Rosen said. “In a sense, they choose to be offended.”
Indeed, the reactions of the Jewish community have often been sharp, with words such as “spiritual genocide,” “a great disservice . . . to Christian-Jewish relations,” and “intolerance” generating, perhaps, more heat than light. Christians who have been engaging in dialogue or cooperative social actions with Jews have been wary of getting burned.
In contrast, Hebrew Christians have been some of the most vociferous backers of the resolution. Bricknerstated, “What Jewish community leaders are calling a ‘great setback’ in Jewish-Christian relations is really a great leap forward in crystallizing the issue that Jesus is the Messiah for everyone, including Jews.”
Phil Roberts, chairman of the Interfaith Witness Department, says some in the denomination have actually been outspoken in their opposition to the resolution, the 11th such resolution in the convention’s history (but the first since early this century). One pastor in San Antonio visited a synagogue in San Antonio and apologized. The president of a Southern Baptist university wrote a letter to a newspaper distancing himself from the resolution. A group of pastors in Houston proposed modifying the statement almost beyond recognition.
Even Billy Graham has been a disappointment to some. The international evangelist said in a prepared statement, “I have never taken part in organizations or projects that especially targeted Jews. I preach the gospel to any and all who come to our meetings—whether Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, Christian or people of no faith—they are all welcome.”
Graham’s calibrated response was particularly disappointing to groups involved in the Lausanne Movement, which Graham helped found. An offshoot of the movement, spearheaded by various Jewish Christian groups, is the Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism. The LCJE formulated the Willowbank Declaration on the necessity of witness to Jews; it was incorporated into the Manila Manifesto at the “Lausanne II” conference in 1989. The LCJE, which produces a journal and holds regular meetings, has brought Jewish believers into the evangelical mainstream, according to Arthur Glasser, professor at the School of World Mission, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, Calif. With that mainstreaming has come a new focus on contextualization. In the first century one of the key debates was whether a Gentile had to become a Jew to embrace Christ. Today it’s whether a Jew must become a Gentile to be a follower of Jesus. Increasingly, the answer is No.
The rise of messianic congregations
“During the last 20 years, there has been something of tremendous significance that has taken place within Jewish mission work,” Glasser said. “Among Jewish believers in Jesus, there is no longer a desire to just become assimilated members of Baptist churches and that sort of thing. They want to be Jewish through and through. The Lausanne Movement stressed the validity of culture and cultural identification. You had the beginnings of messianic Jewish congregations.”
Jewish congregations, which observe feasts and other Jewish cultural traditions while maintaining their Christ-centered focus, are now the preferred means to reach out to Jewish people for many organizations. Sam Nadler, former CEO of Chosen People Ministries, Charlotte, N.C., ticks off cities such as Washington and Berlin where congregations of Jewish believers are having an impact. According to Glasser, there are about 100 messianic congregations in the United States now. (Thirty of them have ties to the Southern Baptist Convention.) Glasser says members in Israel want to make a visible stand for their faith, which they insist is Jewish. “Wherever you go among Jews,” Glasser said, “you find now that there are messianic congregations of believing Jews—not just Jews who have melted into the wallpaper of Gentile Christianity.”
Nadler notes, “The fact is that the local church is God’s means of reaching the community. They do the work of service and outreach. Our missionaries are training people to be effective workers in their communities.”
Brickner says messianic churches have altered the terms of the debate. “I would say that prior to the 1970s, Jewish evangelism was seen as a fairly fruitless endeavor,” Brickner said. “The Jewish community leadership could say, . . . ‘Jews don’t believe in Jesus.’ That was the only answer that was needed when someone would proclaim the gospel . . . . Now they just try to cast a cloud over our identity and try toexcommunicate us, which they have to do. If they were to say, ‘It’s okay for Jews to believe in Jesus,’ the floodgates would open. I believe there’s a great deal of curiosity among Jewish people concerning Jesus.”
As evidence, Jews for Jesus reports that 1.1 million people accepted gospel tracts during last July’s Summer Witnessing Campaign in New York City. The theme of the campaign was “Be More Jewish—Believe in Jesus.” A counter-campaign by Jewish community groups had its own slogan: “NO WAY.” When the dust had settled, more than 700 people publicly received Christ (including 57 Jews), and 7,500 more gave their names and addresses for follow up. Brickner said interest was “way up.”
Estimates vary as to the number of Jewish believers in the United States, with an upper limit generally of about 50,000. The president of the SBC’s Home Mission Board, Larry Lewis, points out how strategic the oft-overlooked U.S. is when it comes to Jewish ministry. “There are more Jews in New York City alone than there are in the whole nation of Israel,” he said. “(Yet) here in the United States we had no one working with Jewish people.”
Former Soviet Union
Overseas, Jewish people are open as well, with increasing numbers turning to Christ, although the dynamics seem to be changing. Last June Jews for Jesus held its fourth annual campaign in Moscow, right before the hotly contested presidential election. (Organizers weren’t taking anything for granted with the Communist Party and nationalist candidates garnering widespread support.) Eighteen volunteers handed out 1.3 million tracts and got more than 5,000 contacts, including 1,200 unsaved Jews. “The need for answers is getting more and more pronounced and desperate,” stated Avi Snyder, who leads JFJ’s ministry in Russia and Ukraine. “People were still eager to hear about the Lord and about the messiahship of Jesus.”
During and after the fall of the Soviet Union, tens of thousands of Jews poured out of Russia. Christian ministries saw them as prime candidates for evangelism because they did not have to contend with Jewish indoctrination common to places like the U.S., where opposition to conversion is well organized. And many Russian Jews, both in Russia and in their new homes in America, Israel, and elsewhere, have responded and continue to respond. Snyder conservatively estimates the presence of 5,000 believing Russian Jews in the region.
“More than 90 percent of the opposition we encounter over there is from non-Jewish people because of ignorance and deep-seated trends in anti-Semitism,” Snyder said. “If you are asking for an outstanding trend, it would be the fact that despite the rising anti-Semitism and despite fears that are permeating the whole society, and the uncertainties, there is still a wonderful receptivity among my people, who want to know who Jesus is and if it could possibly be true.”
But ministry leaders are having to temper some of their original rosy assessments. Nadler said, “We’ve seen an openness, but not the revival fervor that we saw in the early ’90s.” While Brickner says Russian Jews remain open to the gospel, there have been some caution signs. “In general, it seems that the Russian population is more eager to give the people in authority what they think they want to hear,” he said. “There are a lot of decisions and not a whole lot of disciples.”
Along with a certain amount of nominalism, missionaries in the former Soviet Union are having to contend with rising anti-Western and even anti-evangelical sentiment. To address the problem, many Western-initiated ministries are turning over the reins to local believers. Snyder says the work in Ukraine is “completely indigenous,” while its counterpart in Moscow is nearly so, even with his presence.
“The Russian people there don’t want to hear the gospel from the people from another country,” he said. “When they stop and talk with me on the streets, it’s one thing. When they stop and talk with one of my colleagues who is from there, it’s something else and has much more power.”
Snyder says Russians are readers. He is trying to discover writers among the many new converts to reach them. He tells of a Jewish woman in Odessa who approached him as he was handing out broadsides at the train station several years ago. “Have you seen this?” she asked Snyder, extending a beaten-up evangelistic pamphlet with the title, “Is It Possible for Jews to Believe in Jesus as the Messiah?” She told him to turn it over, and on the back was the publication date—1918.
“That was an original piece of literature. It had been in this woman’s family for three generations,” Snyder said. “Literature really speaks to the people. Even if they don’t like it, they’ll read it first before they get rid of it.”
Snyder is working alongside Jewish and Gentile congregations with a vision for Jewish outreach. He sees interest among the traditional Baptists and Pentecostals to reach out to Jews, as well as some efforts to start messianic fellowships.
Trends in Israel
Also becoming bolder are Jewish believers in Israel. Messianic Jews in Israel probably number somewhere between 2,200 and 4,000, in about 40 congregations. Rosen and Brickner say relatively few Jews have been converted there, however. Yet the church is growing. Sibley attributes this both to the influx of Russian immigrants and to a deepening spiritual hunger among Israelis who realize the “sterility of secularism” and some hypocrisy by religious leaders.
Wes Taber, executive director of AMF International (formerly American Messianic Fellowship, Lansing, Ill.), and others point to an increasing interest in evangelism on the part of Jewish believers, alongside a greater willingness to cooperate across organizational lines. Brickner says more and more Jewish Christians are willing to pass out gospel tracts on the street, although follow-up and discipleship efforts are still weak.
Last year’s stunning victory of the Likud Party’s Benjamin Netanyahu, powered by the resurgent Orthodox Jewish community, has given evangelicals working in the country pause. Most foresee a tightening of their freedom to preach the gospel, although some also believe political events will continue to soften Jewish hearts. “I can tell you there are a lot of people who are searching right now—a lot of Israelis,” said Taber, who visited the country last summer. “There’s a lot of uncertainty about the future. . . . I had people definitely state that there’s going to be another war.”
Concerning the influence of the Orthodox, who traditionally have been hostile to Christian efforts in the country, Nadler said, “I don’t doubt that there will be some pressure and difficulty that may come out of the Orthodox having a little bit more clout.”
A renewed call to Jewish evangelism
Snyder says Russian Christians who genuinely care for Jewish people and are helping them emigrate and providing for their material needs are facing some of the same issues. He says some have agreed with some Jewish organizations not to evangelize Jews.
“I’ve met Christians who say, ‘We don’t really need to preach the gospel to the Jewish people—all we have to do is bring them back to the land,’” Snyder stated. “I say, ‘No!’ If a Jewish person dies in Moscow without the Lord, he enters a Christless eternity. If he moved to Jerusalem and still dies without the Lord, he still enters a Christless eternity. God is not interested in our relocation. He’s interested in our redemption.”
Rosen is even more blunt about the trends he finds among some evangelicals, who promote “love for Israel” or hold an eschatological view as a means of lessening their responsibility to evangelize Jews. “You can comfort my people all the way to a Christless eternity and bid them goodbye when they come to the door of hell,” Rosen said.
Among the rationalizations commonly advanced for not preaching to Jews is the Holocaust. Glasser finds this excuse lacking as well, noting that in 1948, when memories of the genocide were still fresh, leaders in the World Council of Churches were calling Christians to “returnto our task of evangelizing Jewish people. Here we are in 1996, and they’ll have none of it.”
Nadler and others encourage Gentile Christians to buck the inclusivist trend and continue reaching out to Jews without timidity. “Wherever Christians share their faith openly and lovingly, there are opportunities,” Nadler said. “Jewish people need to know that the gospel is for them.”
Jewish evangelism is finally getting the respect it has long been denied—by friend and foe alike. Many leaders sense that something even more significant is about to happen. “Just before lightning strikes, the hair rises on the back of your neck and you can feel the electricity,” Rosen said. “The feeling that I have right now—after 40 years of experience—(is) we’re getting ready for lightning to strike.”
Art Glasser, whose interest in Jewish ministry was sparked when he began distributing Scriptures to Jews while a student at Moody Bible Institute in 1938 and 1939, concurs. Glasser points to the continuing prominence of the Jewish people on the world stage, the increasing numbers of Jewish believers worldwide, and to the state of Israel itself.
“I’m no person for charts,” he said. “(But) you and I live in significant days. Things are happening today that haven’t happened for a long time.”
EMQ, Vol. 33, No.1. Copyright © 1997 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.