Calling Jews to Jesus

Southern Baptists go on a not-so-kosher search to convert Jews to Christ

Southern Baptist churches sponsor at least 12 Messianic congregations, Sibley says, including Adat Shalom, a small congregation of about 30 believers that meets at Preston Highlands Baptist Church in North Dallas. Most, however, are independent. Nationwide there are at least 200 congregations of Messianic believers, including Dallas's Baruch Ha Shem, one of the nation's largest.

Even if converts who attend Messianic congregations don't fill Southern Baptist pews on Sunday or display the universal Christian symbol of the cross, Sibley is a full-fledged supporter of them. "We are not interested in bringing Jewish people to Christianity," Sibley says. "We're interested in bringing them to their Messiah."

The readiness of evangelicals to discard age-old terminology may be surprising to some, but then again, evangelicals have never been big on pomp and ceremony, discarding liturgy and other elements not biblically rooted in Christianity.

The Anti-Defamation League's Mark Briskman says Sibley is ignorant of the current Jewish revival.
Mark Graham
The Anti-Defamation League's Mark Briskman says Sibley is ignorant of the current Jewish revival.

"Use terminology that emphasizes the Jewishness of our faith," Sibley wrote in an April 1999 article for the Baptist Press, the denomination's official news service. "For example, instead of 'Christ,' which is based on the Greek word for 'the Anointed One,' use 'Messiah,' which is based on the Hebrew. Instead of the 'Old Testament,' refer to the 'Hebrew Scriptures.' "

Estimated to number anywhere from 10,000 to 132,000 worldwide, Messianic Jews have made the strongest inroads in the United States, mostly since the 1960s (there are about 5.6 million Jews nationwide).

Messianics profess resistance to assimilating into mainstream Christianity. "We want to retain feasts and holidays, the beautiful richness of Judaism," says Robin Rose, congregational leader of Adat Shalom.

But Jewish critics say Messianic Judaism flunks the truth-in-advertising test because it's designed to lull Jews into a false sense that they can accept Jesus and still be Jewish. "These folks are Christian," argues Rudin. "They don't have the right to distort my symbols, my text, my holidays, my sacred objects."

Inside, Baruch Ha Shem looks like a regular synagogue. There are no representations of Christ on the cross, but there are 12 colorful banners signifying the 12 tribes of Israel from Asher to Zebulun, plus two extra banners for Goyim, the Hebrew word for the gentiles, and the Lamb, for Jesus. On a recent Saturday, the 300-capacity building filled rapidly. About two-thirds are gentile, congregational leader Marty Waldman later says, and overall the congregation is quite diverse by age and ethnicity.

Michael Sisson, a young man and former Baptist who joined Baruch Ha Shem four years ago, welcomed a visiting journalist. What is he doing here? "I was intrigued by learning more about the Jewish roots of my faith," explains the friendly gentile, who also persuaded his family to join. "The church has by and large divorced itself from its Jewish roots."

Today Sisson is reading from the Torah, which is the first five books of the Old Testament, written in Hebrew and preserved on scrolls in a synagogue's "ark." Every Shabbat, Jews in synagogues across the world read the same Torah portions in Hebrew. (Pressure by mainstream Jewish groups has forced Baruch Ha Shem and other Messianic congregations to stop calling themselves synagogues, and their leaders to stop calling themselves rabbi.)

Most Jews would find Sisson's reading of the Torah bizarre, since the Torah consists largely of laws handed down by God to only the Jews. What do other Christians think of him attending Saturday Shabbat services? "I have generally found Christians to be very receptive to us," he says. "They understand that one day the Jews will come to faith in Jesus Christ."

Sisson says he believes he's doing God's work by helping bring Jews to Christianity. He mentions his belief that the Second Coming will be on hold until the Jews are converted. Well, shouldn't you get busy, then? "To phrase it like that, it sounds like I do it for selfish reasons," he answers. "My life is richer and fuller and more meaningful because I know Jesus, and my incentive is I want others to know the same joy."

A few days later congregational leader Waldman proudly shows off Baruch Ha Shem's Torah. From behind the ark's red curtains he takes out the scrolls. He bought it used, and markings on it appear to indicate it's from Europe and is at least 65 years old, he says.

Why so many gentiles in the flock? He says most Messianic congregations are more than half ethnic Jewish, but Bible Belt congregations attract more gentiles because of greater interest in the Old Testament. "Many Christians don't understand they believe in the same God as Israel," he explains.

A thin, middle-aged man with gray-speckled hair and a mustache, Waldman founded Baruch Ha Shem in 1984, and since then it has become the area's largest Messianic Jewish congregation. And it's expected to mushroom further. This summer, Waldman says, the congregation will break ground on a series of expansions that will result in a maximum capacity of 1,100, making it the largest Messianic congregation in the Southwest.

Waldman's parents are Holocaust survivors, and he was born in New York, a locus of Jewish-American life. But he converted 25 years ago when a friend told him about Jesus. "That bothered me so much, I decided to go out, get some books and do some research to prove him wrong." But the study session had the opposite effect. "It was like the scales fell from my eyes," he recalls.

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