No Sunday services take place here; this congregation meets only on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings. You will never see a cross or an altar; there is an Aaron Hakodesh (holy ark) with a star of David adorning its velvet cover, and a Bimah (stage for prayer services) in the center of the sanctuary. The majority of the men who worship here wear kipot, and their tzitzit hang down the sides of their pants. This congregation's rabbi, among many other functions, reads from the Torah and makes Kiddush every Shabbat. Most of the women are modestly dressed. Joyous shouts of "Shabbat Shalom" and "Baruch Hashem" can be heard as young couples greet each other. The sanctuary pulsates to a modern Israeli musical beat.
If this sounds like a description of a traditional Jewish house of worship, think again. The above is actually a description of any one of the hundreds of Messianic "synagogues" which flourish throughout the world.
Confused? Many are.
Fundamentalist Christian churches use traditional Jewish symbols to lure vulnerable Jews.
Such congregations are designed to appear Jewish, but they are actually fundamentalist Christian churches which use traditional Jewish symbols to lure the most vulnerable of our Jewish people into their ranks. Messianic "rabbis," many of whom are Jewish by birth, are committed to bringing the Jewish people to know Jesus. Their agenda is to make Christianity more palatable to the uneducated Jew, and to the astonishment and horror of the Jewish community, their marketing ploys are proving to be successful.
Twenty-two years ago, twelve Messianic congregations existed in the United States. Today, more than 300 actively attract and recruit Jews who, because they lack a sound Jewish education and support system, are buying the manipulative rhetoric and persuasive techniques of the Hebrew-Christian missionary movement.
Additionally, there are over 600 Christian missions dedicated to converting the Jewish people. It is estimated that there are more than 200,000 Hebrew-Christians in North America and Israel. As an exit-counselor who works with families to reclaim their Jewish family members from these churches, I can testify that the cost in terms of Jewish souls is dear.
WHO ARE THESE MISSIONARIES?
In order to understand the dynamics of the missionary problem, we must first understand who exactly these missionaries are.
To the Jewish community, the word "missionary" is a charged word, with a multitude of misconceptions attached to it. Typically, the word "missionary" is associated with those people who stand on street corners, annoyingly and ubiquitously distributing literature that tries to persuade individuals to believe in Jesus.
When we think of missionaries we might think of an organization with members, mailing lists, secretaries, and buildings to which we can point and say, "You see that building on 31st street, between Lexington and Park (New York headquarters of Jews For Jesus)? They are the missionaries."
This is merely one of a variety of misconceptions we have about missionaries and how they operate.
A number of years ago I lectured at a large university campus in Ohio. In my conversation with a dean we began to discuss the work I do. He immediately reassured me that at his university, they did not have a missionary problem. He recalled how years earlier there were indeed missionaries on his campus who distributed pamphlets and misused traditional Jewish symbols for the purpose of evangelizing. "But we don't have that here anymore," he insisted.
"Tell me, are there any fundamentalist born-again Christians on your campus?" I asked.
A serious missionary problem exists on any campus where fundamentalist Christians are present.
He quickly snapped, "What? Are you kidding? This is the Midwest! We're packed with them!" I then told him that indeed he had a serious missionary problem on his campus because, in reality, fundamentalist, born-again Christians are dedicated to the idea of bringing every Jew to a belief in Jesus.
Our second mistake is that we tend to view the Christian world as a monolithic group of gentiles who all essentially believe the same thing. In fact, the Christian world -- with hundreds of variant denominations that differ on numerous fundamental theological issues -- is far more diverse than the Jewish world. At a baseball game, it is sometimes difficult to know who the players are without a scorecard. Let's break down the Christian world for a moment so that we know precisely to whom we are referring.
THE COMPLEX CHRISTIAN WORLD
The Roman Catholic Church is by far the largest denomination in Christendom. Yet despite its past often-bitter relationship with the Jewish people, today Catholics are for the most part not interested in converting Jews. I need not worry that a Catholic priest is going to evangelize any of my patients at a hospital. If anything, he is one of the people who will show me where I can secure a kosher meal.
Another significant segment of the Christian world, especially in North America, is the Protestant community. For our purposes, we will over generalize and divide the Protestant world into two groups.
One group, the mainline or liberal Protestants (Methodist, Unitarian, etc.), is not at all interested in converting Jews. Liberal leaning Protestant denominations tend to shy away from any form of Jewish evangelism. It is, however, the other highly motivated and vocal segment within the Protestant community -- the fundamentalist, born-again Christians -- who are unyielding in their staunch commitment to convert the Jews.
There are two rules about Jewish evangelism that must always be kept in mind.
- The first rule is that the Christian who makes the very first critical and successful contact with the Jew is never a professional missionary. It will not be a paid staff member of Jews for Jesus or Chosen People Ministries. Rather, it is almost always a layperson -- perhaps a secretary at the office, a roommate in college or someone on the same swim team -- who makes that initial connection. Only after the lay evangelical Christian has made this preliminary contact will the professional missionaries step in to the conversion process.
- Secondly, the Christian layperson who makes that all-important first contact with the Jew is invariably a gentile. It is extremely rare for a "Hebrew-Christian" to successfully make that initial contact with a Jew. The perceived betrayal of the Jewish people by the Hebrew-Christian's apostasy sullies his message in the mind of a Jew. Only after the lay gentile born-again Christian has made that first crucial and successful encounter with a Jew will the Hebrew-Christian missionaries step in to finalize the conversion.
In essence, the central role that Christian missions like Jews for Jesus plays is to act as a clearinghouse and support system for evangelical churches around the world. As a result, these "Jewish missions" spend much of their resources and manpower teaching lay missionaries in gentile churches.
How serious a problem are these Protestant fundamentalist Christians? How many born-again Christians are there in the United States?
Their numbers are not small. According to most estimates, there are well over 50 million Americans who identify themselves as born-again Christians. That is, approximately one in five Americans is part of this army of lay people dedicated to "share" their faith with a Jew. When I spoke in Nashville a number of years ago, an Assemblies of God minister bluntly told me that he would rather convert one Jew than 50,000 gentiles.
WHY THE JEWS?
A question that naturally comes to mind is: Why the Jews? Why are these fundamentalist Christians so consumed with bringing the Jewish people to "know Jesus?" Why has the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention, passed numerous resolutions encouraging more than 15 million American members to target and evangelize the Jewish people?
There are several reasons.
Jesus said: "Go not into the way of the gentiles ... but only go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
Firstly, the New Testament specifically prioritizes Jews for conversion. In the book of Matthew (10:5), when Jesus is instructing his apostles, he warns them, "Go not into the way of the gentiles ... but only go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." The Apostle Paul echoes the identical sentiment in the first chapter of the book of Romans when he declares, "Go to the Jew first, then to the Greek (i.e. gentile)." We find a recurrent and unique emphasis on reaching the Jews in the New Testament, especially in the Gospels, almost to the exclusion of the gentiles.
A second reason for this obsession relates to the Church's fascination with eschatology, the study of the End of Times. Fundamentalist Christians are consumed by the prophecies surrounding the end of days. They want to know when the Messiah will come/return. How will this take place? To which nations did the prophet Ezekiel refer when he described how apocalyptic nations would wage war against Jerusalem before the final hour leading to the messianic age (Ezekiel 38-39)? Christian bookstores typically set aside an entire section dedicated to eschatological inquiry.
How does all this apocalyptic speculation and discussion relate to our subject?
At the end of the book of Matthew (23:39), Jesus is quoted making a very important statement. He says, "I will not return until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'" Because Jesus was speaking to a Jewish audience at the time he made this statement, Christians have always understood this statement to have one meaning: Jesus will not make his second coming until the Jews are converted.
The Jews, therefore, are holding up the show.
Fundamentalist Christians also believe that Jesus is going to make his second coming in or about the year 2000 (counting from Jesus' birth); therefore, the Jews must be converted by then, en masse, in order to enable Jesus to return.
(Bear in mind that there remains considerable controversy among Christians as to the year of Jesus' birth. Many Christians -- largely based on Luke's narrative -- place the 2,000th year from Jesus' birth in the year 2007).
Finally, the most significant reason for the church's preoccupation with the Jews stems from the credibility problem that the faith of a Jew presents to Christendom.
THE MESSIAH COMPLEX
Jesus was a Jew and Christians claim that he is the promised Messiah about whom the prophets spoke. The idea of the Messiah -- who will come at the end of days to usher in a utopian society of love, peace, and the universal knowledge of God -- is exclusively Jewish. Fundamentalist Christians insist that if the Jews would only look in their own Hebrew scriptures they would find Jesus literally bouncing off every page. It, therefore, stands to reason that the Jews should have been the first to embrace Jesus and his teachings, if in fact Jesus was the prophesied Messiah. Yet, the Jews were the very people who did not accept Jesus.
Jews should have been the first to embrace Jesus, if in fact Jesus was the prophesied Messiah.
This has always been a troubling reality to the Christian Church since its inception. It is for this reason that only the conversion of a Jew to Christianity can lend credibility -- never the conversion of the gentile.
Peering back into world history, it would probably be quite difficult for any of us to think of another program that has been a more miserable failure than the church's persistent effort to convert the Jews to Christianity.
Bear in mind that Christianity swept through Europe almost overnight. The same is true for Latin America. Yet the Jews, with all their problems of persecution and forced exile, still would not convert.
With the approach of the end of the second millennium, evangelicals were faced with a serious dilemma: How were they to finally bring the Jewish people to accept Jesus?
This quandary was no small theological challenge to the church. With the year 2000 in sight, two critical conferences were convened a little more than a quarter of a century ago. The first was held in Switzerland and the other in Thailand. The main questions that were asked at those two symposiums was: Why has the Church been so unsuccessful in their past efforts to convert the Jews, and what new techniques can be employed to attract masses of new Jewish converts to the church by the turn of the century?
It was at these two unlikely locations that devout evangelists placed the Jewish people under a microscope. Indeed, it was at these symposiums that those Christians understood that the church had a number of serious challenges with respect to converting the Jews.
PUBLIC RELATIONS PROBLEM
The first problem they discovered was that the church had a significant public relations problem. They concluded that Jewish people historically tend to equate Christianity with persecution. Jewish people often feel somewhat uncomfortable just hearing the words "Jesus Christ," and when they see a cross or a church icon, it rarely conjures up warm, affectionate feelings. On the contrary, whereas Christians tend to feel quite comfortable in synagogues, or observing Jewish ceremonies, Jewish people tend to feel alienated by churches and their icons.
Taking this public relations problem head on, these evangelists initiated a unique approach. It goes something like this, "You're Jewish? We Christians just love the Jewish people! Persecution? Oh, no! Any Christian who persecuted a Jew in the name of Jesus couldn't be a real Christian. A real Christian only loves the Jewish people!"
This novel technique enables Christians to freely evangelize Jews by distancing themselves from their Christian forbears. In this way, potential Jewish converts will not feel alienated by Christendom.
Jews would not simply start converting to Christianity because evangelicals condemned anti-Semitism.
These evangelists realized, however, that simply smothering us with love could not in itself be totally effective. Jews would not simply start converting to Christianity en masse because evangelicals loudly condemned anti-Semitism. They understood that the essential reason why Jews do not convert is because they do not want to stop being Jewish, and Jews view Christianity as antithetical to Judaism.
With this realization, these highly motivated missionaries developed an entirely new and remarkably simple approach to Jewish evangelism. It goes like this, "When you're becoming a believer in Jesus, you are not converting to another religion. On the contrary, you're becoming a 'fulfilled Jew' or a 'completed Jew.' After all, Jesus was a Jew and his followers were Jewish; therefore, believing in Jesus must be the most Jewish thing you can do."
Messianic "synagogues" do not observe Christian holidays. You will never find a Christmas tree or blinking colored lights around December in a Messianic congregation. Instead, these missionaries celebrate Jewish holidays with a "Christological" spin. Throughout the world, Messianic congregations hold elaborate and well-publicized Passover Seders.
A MESSIANIC "SEDER"
At first glance, a Messianic Seder table appears quite traditional, with all of the customary essentials: Seder plate, matzah, and wine. Once the ceremony begins to unfold, however, even the most uninitiated will immediately realize that something is askew. Participants are told that the wine at the Seder table represents the blood of Yeshua/Jesus, and the matzah represents his body. Do you know the real reason why Jews have three matzoth at the Seder table? To represent the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Do you know why the matzahs are perforated? Because Jesus was pierced through when he was crucified. Why does the matzah have stripes? Because Jesus had stripes across his back as a result of the beating he endured during his trial. Why is the middle matzah broken? Because Jesus was brutally broken on the cross. Why is the matzah wrapped in a white towel? Because Jesus was wrapped in a white burial shroud. Why is this middle matzah hidden? Because Jesus was hidden away in the tomb following his crucifixion. Why is the matzah brought back at the end of the meal? Because Jesus will return in the Second Coming at the End of Days.
Messianic congregations will never be listed in the Yellow Pages under churches. They are always listed with the synagogues. Additionally, the Messianic movement has created a remarkable tool for Jewish evangelism called a "communications card." This card carefully guides evangelicals on how to talk to a Jew in a manner that will not alienate them as potential converts. A two-column card which is usually wallet-sized for easy transport and access reads:
- "Don't say Jesus Christ; Do say Messiah Yeshua,"
- "Don't say convert; do say "Messianic, completed, fulfilled Jew."
- Don't say "Christian; do say Bible believer," etc.
In essence, the Messianic movement's fundamental approach seeks to blur the distinctions between Judaism and Christianity in order to lure Jews who would otherwise resist a straightforward Christian message. To the horror of the Jewish world, it is a tactic that has achieved remarkable success with the most vulnerable segments of our community -- the very young, the very old, and our Russian brethren.