Evangelism efforts creating hard feelings among non-Christians, Christians

The Orlando Sentinel, November 4, 1999
By Mark I. Pinsky

For most Christians, spreading the Gospel -- the "good news" of Jesus -- is The Great Commission. But, in an increasingly multicultural society, that imperative doesn't always sit well with those targeted for such attention. Recent efforts by evangelicals to target Jewish Americans have raised the issue anew, especially in Florida and the South, where large numbers of Southern Baptists take spreading the Gospel very seriously.

Non-Christians, including Muslims and Hindus, whose numbers in Florida also have grown dramatically in recent years, are acutely aware of their minority status both numerically and culturally. They say they sometimes feel besieged by such efforts.

The result has been some hard feelings on both sides of the issue.

"The Great Commission is more than sharing," said Bill Bright, founder and president of Orlando-based Campus Crusade for Christ. "We talk about presenting the Gospel to every human being on planet Earth so that everyone will have a chance to say `yes' to Jesus Christ. They can't respond if they haven't heard of God's love and forgiveness revealed through the Lord Jesus."

But evangelism in the modern age has its limits, said Bright, who has steadfastly refused to target Jews for conversion.

"No matter how gifted the speaker, ultimately it's impossible for anyone to proselytize, because it is the Holy Spirit of God who draws men to our savior."

There are conservative Bible teachers and evangelists who take a much harder line. R.C. Sproul, whose national radio ministry is based in Lake Mary, Fla., said that evangelism is not simply a matter of making an offer or issuing an invitation, as Billy Graham does. God, Sproul said in a recent broadcast, "will not tolerate the rejection of Christ." Quoting the Apostle Paul, Sproul said that the New Testament "commands and demands" submission to Jesus.

Yet forced conversions, at the point of the sword or the threat of the stake, have given evangelism a bad name over the centuries.

"Those `conversions' could not have been real unless the Holy Spirit worked in the heart of the believer," Bright said. "The only way anyone can become a believer is through the wooing of the Holy Spirit in the life of that person."

The issue may not be as simple as it first appears. A headline in a recent issue of the magazine Christianity Today asked, "If Grace is Irresistible, Why Evangelize?" And most Christians believe there is an inherent responsibility to accept "no" for an answer if the Gospel is refused.

"I never argue," Bright said. "If I did, I would be violating God's role. If I pressed and tried to twist their arm and use psychological gimmicks, I would be violating God's role in the matter."

World War II and the Holocaust of European Jewry led leaders of several major Christian denominations, including mainline Protestants and Catholics, to re-examine their relationship with the Jewish faith. They developed a theological concept called "the dual covenant," which holds that even though Jews do not believe in Jesus they retain God's favor by obeying His laws.

Under the leadership of Pope John Paul II, who has voiced regret for historical excesses of the Catholic Church, the Vatican has clearly signaled that Jews are off limits for its evangelism. During the High Holy Day period in September, New York Cardinal John J. O'Connor wrote a conciliatory letter to the Jewish community. In the letter, which was printed as a full-page ad in the New York Times, O'Connor expressed sorrow for any harm inflicted on the Jews by members of the Roman Catholic Church.

Some evangelical Protestant leaders strongly disagree, insisting that The Great Commission requires them to approach all people, including Jews. In 1996, the Southern Baptist Convention ignited a controversy by voting support for a nationwide effort to convert Jews, saying that Southern Baptists "have largely neglected the Jewish people."

The issue flared again when the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board issued a booklet asking the denomination's 15.6 million members to pray for the conversion of the Jews during the Jewish High Holiday period. The B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League called the timing of the initiative "offensive and disrespectful."

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, agreed.

"We respect the right of Southern Baptists to hold beliefs that are different from our own," he said. "But we do not welcome a campaign that singles out the Jewish people for conversionary activities and which suggests that Jews must relinquish their faith for Baptists to strengthen their own. We are particularly saddened that this campaign comes during the holiest time of the Jewish year."

Southern Baptists, who are among the State of Israel's strongest political backers, did not retreat. As the controversy simmered, the denomination's president flew to New York City for a conference on evangelizing Jews. In a letter to one of the groups, the Rev. Paige Patterson brushed aside what he called "false and reckless" objections from Jewish leaders that Southern Baptists used deception to convert Jews. Patterson said his denomination, together with other evangelicals, were "about the only groups on earth who fight for and pray for absolute freedom from coercion in religious matters."

Other non-Christian groups, such as Muslims and Hindus, have been targeted for conversion.

"We consider it routine," said Imam Muhammad Musri of the Islamic Society of Central Florida. He said he has been approached about Christianity outside a local supermarket. Many members of his congregation have received unsolicited mail and phone calls from Christians, asking them to abandon their faith.

"It happens so much that they are used it," he said.

The continuing controversies with Southern Baptists have left many American Jews, especially in Sunbelt cities such as Orlando, feeling besieged by Christian evangelists. Zion's Hope, a national "faith ministry to the Jewish people," whose goal is to "graciously" share the Gospel, opened a new, $2.5 million headquarters in 1997. This year, Zion's Hope announced plans for a Christian tourist attraction, "The Holy Land Experience," on its grounds.

There is particular concern when Jewish holidays such as Passover, and occasions such as Holocaust Remembrance Day, are appropriated -- some say hijacked -- as vehicles for Christian evangelism. Local and national rallies in support of the state of Israel, a cause close to the heart of most American Jews, also have been the occasion for ill feelings.

Jewish leaders object to the prominence at such events given to Messianic Jews, converts who have accepted Jesus. But rather than Christians, they are referred to as "completed Jews." This term is as offensive to Jews as "recovering fundamentalists" would be to Southern Baptists.

It is not surprising that in September, when Jews in Central Florida began receiving unsolicited invitations to a "Thank God for Israel Day" at Crossroads Baptist Church in Maitland, there was concern throughout the community. The letters arrived between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, addressed to people in the phone book with Jewish-sounding names. They were invited to a Sunday morning service featuring "Jewish style music" and a light lunch to be followed with "Jewish specialty items." The Rev. Rylan Millett wrote in the letter that his sermon would be on "Why we should thank God for Israel and the Jewish people." Those who did not respond received a second letter and a telephone call.

Although Crossroads Baptist Church is not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, the timing of Millett's effort was disastrous, making the letters the subject of at least one angry synagogue sermon. Millett said his only purpose was to demonstrate support for Israel and not to make a deceptive pitch for Jewish conversion.

"I had no clue," the minister said. "It wasn't my desire to bring people and try to convert them, to beat them over the head with Jesus."

The handful of Jews who attended Sunday's service "seemed to enjoy themselves," Millett said. "I told them upfront that we were not trying to make Baptists out of them, and they seemed to appreciate that." Millett said if he had it to do over again, he would go to area rabbis first to explain his purpose.

"I made some mistakes in this situation," he said. "I respect the Jewish faith. We serve the same God."

By tradition, Jews do not evangelize. Converts are welcomed but not sought. Orthodox groups such as Chabad take as their mission reclaiming Jews who have fallen away from their faith. Reform Jews concentrate their outreach efforts on non-Jewish spouses of interfaith couples.

"Jews believe that God loves all people, that God hears the prayers of all people," said Rabbi Aaron Rubinger of Congregation Ohev Shalom of Orlando, a Conservative congregation. "We don't feel we need to save other people's souls. Their souls are not in need of being saved. The righteous of all people have a place in the world to come."

But Rubinger acknowledges that he has started to move in a new direction, advertising a "Discover Judaism" course that is open to the general public.

"There are a lot of people who do not have faith and who are looking," he said. "Traditional Judaism would tend to put these people at arm's-length, to push them away. Today if there are people who are searching for a faith, who are looking for some spiritual direction in their lives, then Jews should be willing to give instruction to those people, to acquaint them with Jewish traditions and the teachings of Judaism. That is very different from targeting people. We're saying that you don't need to convert."


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