I Found the Lord in Jerusalem

by William R. Watters, Jr.

In 1974, Dr. Watters, a United Methodist minister, was a research scholar at the Ecumenical Institute for Advanced Theological Studies, Tantur, Jerusalem.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 6, 1974, pp. 1037-1040. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Most Christians in Israel do not proselytize among the Jews; but a few high-keyed evangelists have created in the minds of Israelis the illusion that many Christians are actively seeking to convert Jews.

Most Christians in Israel do not proselytize among the Jews; but a few high-keyed evangelists have created in the minds of Israelis the illusion that many Christians are actively seeking to convert Jews.


Hardly a month goes by but that some article about Christian missions in Israel appears in the news media. Lately, for instance, we have read that Israel’s chief rabbi, Shlomo Goren, visited the heads of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches in Great Britain to "ask them for support in stopping missionary activities in Israel, especially ‘the use of unreasonable means to persuade poor families to convert.’ " Again, under the caption "Israel May Attempt Missionary Ban," newspapers have reported that the conversion to Christianity of 5,000 to 6,000 Israelis yearly since the Six-Day War accounts for the activities of Jewish anti-missionary forces. Christian bookstores have been burned and the homes of church people fire-bombed. In both East and West Jerusalem, rocks were thrown through church windows, and Christian libraries and hostels were entered and damaged. On one night not long ago three Christian properties in Jerusalem were burned. But despite attempts on the part of substantial numbers of Israelis to end it, Christian proselytism is flourishing in the Holy City.

The Jerusalem Scene

"If you’re Jewish, I’d like to share my faith with you. I found the Lord Jesus as my Savior in Jerusalem": a resident of or visitor to certain parts of Jerusalem today is likely to be greeted with words to that effect by some young man or woman. But to suggest that Jerusalem Christians commonly or usually introduce themselves in this fashion would be to do injustice to many Christian groups and individuals in that city.

In the past few years I have spent a great deal of time in Israel, studying Jewish-Christian relationships there and, incidentally, learning Hebrew.

Having examined the more than 160 Christian religious and social service communities in Jerusalem, I can state that only about ten of them have even minimal interest in proselytism. Moreover, except for individual Anglicans and Baptists, this small proselytizing minority has no affiliation with any major denominational body; that is, the 5 per cent of all Jerusalem Christians who promote missions to Jews are neither Roman Catholic nor mainline Protestant, nor are they Eastern Orthodox. Rather, the missionaries who do give themselves labels are "Messianic Zionists," "Evangelists to the Jews," charismatics or Pentecostals, and their financial support comes from evangelical sectarians, rather than from representative Christian denominations.

Yet despite their small numbers, the zeal and vitality of these evangelists are not to be underestimated. They conduct as many as 50 worship services, Bible study sessions and prayer meetings per week. But, as I said, they are a minority. The majority of church personnel in Jerusalem live there in order to provide a religious life for its Christian residents and for tourists and to maintain the Christian shrines, not to carry on a ministry to Jews.

However, citing the proselytizing 5 per cent does not tell the whole story. Within this 5 per cent a distinction must be made between those missionaries who use high-keyed conversion tactics and those who offer low-keyed witnessing to Jews. To the latter, "evangelization of Jews" means sharing religious convictions with them. These missionaries present their beliefs, then "step back and allow God to assist the Jew in making his final judgment." Low-keyed witnessing groups are openly happy to welcome any Israeli who approaches them of his or her own accord; they do not exert pressure upon Israelis, nor do they actively seek recruits on the street or in private.

In contrast, the four or five energetic, high-keyed Jerusalem mission organizations that are fully committed to winning Jews to Jesus all share the same objective: that Israelis become "completed, Hebrew Christians through the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ." Their methods and approaches differ, however. Generally, these high-keyed missionaries work quietly, though their purpose and methods are such as to draw attention to themselves. They work on an individual basis, with one-to-one contacts. They distribute tracts, invite browsing in their bookstores, offer Bible courses by mail, sponsor student activities, approach Israelis who might visit Christian shrines, and conduct small home meetings. The missionaries express their convictions to all who will listen.

One missionary of this type, I discovered, devoted his Saturday afternoons to driving about Jerusalem in his auto, and whenever he saw Israelis out for a Sabbath stroll he slowed down and threw a copy of the New Testament in Hebrew translation at them. Another missionary, who managed a bookshop located on a street frequented by Hasidim walking to and from the Western Wall, scattered books and tracts on the sidewalk in front of the shop, in the hope that passersby would pick them up and read them. As a matter of fact, printed matter bearing the stamp of the Hebrew Evangelization Society and the American Board of Missions to the Jews can be found in all of Jerusalem’s public places, especially in hotel lobbies. But the zeal of one young man I encountered was even greater: he passed out Christian literature at the Western Wall during the Jewish High Holy Days of Pessah!

Since many Israelis are not able to tell whether particular Christians are Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox or sectarian, they blame all Jerusalem Christians for this high-keyed evangelism. Thus a few missionaries have created in the minds of Israelis the illusion that a great many Christians are actively proselytizing among the Jewish people.

Be that as it may, the results produced by the high. keyed missionaries are very limited. Israeli government statistics for 1948-68 confirm that reports of converts from Judaism to Christianity published by these missions are highly inflated. The government figures show that in the 20 years in question 201 Jews applied to have their religious status changed to "Christian," while 3,408 Christians applied to have their status changed to "Jew." The newspaper reports cited above (conversion of some 5,000 Jews to Christianity annually) are unsubstantiated. Since 1948, the Christian church has been a negligible spiritual force so far as Jews in Israel are concerned. One local missionary confided to me: "In the good old days, when we gave out food rations to Jews who converted, we had them sign for their gifts as proof of conversion. Also, when families brought their children to us for care because they were starving, we had converts who signed. We knew they converted to get the food, but that didn’t matter. We needed statistics. Things haven’t changed much -- we still need statistics. But now it’s harder to get converts. If you want to know the truth, I count everyone who comes into my bookstore and to my meetings as a convert."

Reaction to Mission Work

Though Jerusalem missionaries to the Jews are few and conversions just as few, missionary activities and tactics have angered and repelled both Jews and Christians. Agents of mainline denominations in the city point out that the evangelists are neither representative nor characteristic of Christianity. They remind us that many mainline churches and religious welfare organizations have been operating in Jerusalem for over 50 years and that, since the birth of the state of Israel, they have developed with its people positive relationships that exclude intentions to evangelize Jews. These church leaders believe that the missionary motive has no place in an atmosphere based upon respect.

But, Jerusalem church people are not alone in their opposition to missionary work. The news media have reported that the strongest objections to hyperactive missionaries come from "Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews," who dislike Christianity on principle. That is to say, according to the media, it is religious Jews -- those who would not convert under any circumstances -- who voice the greatest opposition to the missionaries and resort to violence against them. But I doubt that Orthodox, Hasidic or religious Jews would use violence for such an end. It is significant that the persons recently apprehended for attacks on mission enterprises turned out to be members of political groups and university students. I think it an injustice to Orthodox and Hasidic Jewry to put them in the same category as those perpetrators of violence.

Jerusalem Jews have been accused of oversensitivity in their reaction to Christian missions. But their response to open proselytism is understandable. Christian persecution of Jews in Europe has left lingering suspicion of Christianity and its motives in Israel. Experience has taught Jews to consider any Christian activity around them as a threat. Swastikas, for example, have been painted on the Zion Messianic House in Jerusalem, thereby identifying the Holocaust with proselytizing Christianity. "Any Christian presence around me," one young Israeli said to me, "must be regarded as dangerous. Missionaries are certainly my cultural and religious enemies."

Another reason for Israelis’ objection to missions is nationalism. The new Jewish state naturally promotes values and a climate that are conducive to the growth and preservation of Jewry. Christian missionary work runs counter to those aims. Thus an Israeli dislikes any Christian activity which endangers his own or his children’s or country’s Jewishness. True, everyone in Israel enjoys religious liberty. However, when a Jew or a Muslim or a Christian tries to force his own views on another, many persons become incensed. In a recent interview Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek said. ‘Missionaries are here and they are working. But we dislike their presence. The evangelists are a living reminder to Israelis that even in the Jewish state they have not escaped the Christian world: Christians are afoot seeking their souls.

A Problem of Understanding

Central to the conflict of interests between a handful of Jerusalem Christian evangelists on the one hand and Jewish and Christian antimissionary citizens on the other are basic Christian conceptions of Christianity, Judaism and the state of Israel.

First, many Christians today understand Christianity to be a mission-oriented religion. They see the conversion of non-Christians, especially Jews, as a critical step in preparing for the Messiah’s return. They insist that they "have an obligation to bring our Jewish brothers to Christ," and they believe that the duty to convert Jews carries with it the right to convert them anywhere and in any way. International Christian meetings -- the Jerusalem World Conference on the Holy Spirit, for instance -- announce that Christianity has the plan of salvation for all human beings. The embarrassingly arrogant proclamations issued by some Christian groups, who call themselves "Missionaries to the Israelites" or speak of "A Messiah for Israeli Believers," indicate clearly enough that in some parts of the church the conversion thrust has not ended.

A few Christian theologians have begun to question the assumption of many Christians that they have the right to present their faith to others and to work to convert them. They argue that it is exclusivistic Christian pride which allows missionaries to force their beliefs upon Jews and to assume that the Jews will gladly accept it. They point out that few Christians take seriously the Jewish conviction that Christian missions are an attempt to liquidate Judaism.

These same theologians are re-examining traditional Christian views of salvation and covenantal relationships in Judaism and Christianity. They stress, for example, that the concept of two covenants from one God (to Jews and to gentiles) recognizes coexisting means of salvation for both; and since neither group needs to approach the other for salvation from God, it follows that Christianity is no longer duty-bound to impose its faith upon Jewry.

A second problem is the Christian understanding of Judaism. Historically, Christianity has looked upon Judaism as an "incomplete" religion, a perverse faith to be tolerated only because it was the vehicle for bringing in the Christian era of universal salvation through Jesus. Indeed, the return of Jesus has been linked to the conversion of an Israel blinded by its own sinful, past. The Second Vatican Council, though it changed the form of prayers for the conversion of Jews, saw Jewry as still seeking the Messiah who had already come.

The church has always resented the continuing presence of Judaism and Jewry because it held that the Old Testament covenants were entrusted for safekeeping exclusively to Christians. To admit that Judaism was a religion as valid as Christianity was to question the status of Christianity. Did Christianity supersede the "Old Testament faith" or did it not? The answer for many Christians has been manifested in an intense, personal hatred of Jews, expressed even today by way of seeking their conversion, expulsion or annihilation.

Deeply rooted as such ideas are in the Christian psyche, they are changing. Some enlightened Christians are discovering that the existence of Judaism is by no means a scandal. They even assert that Judaism is a strong and vital religion and that its follower need not accept Jesus as Messiah. The living Judaism of today does not require the "solution" Christians have prescribed in the past.

Finally, a third problem regarding Christian missions to the Jews is Christian understanding of the state of Israel. To mission-oriented Christians, the Jewish state is as important as it is to Jews. In Contrast to Jews, however, evangelists strive to convert Jews to Christianity in the belief that their conversion will help to usher in the endtime. The evangelists are usually strong supporters of the state of Israel, for they consider its existence an eschatological sign that the eternal Israel is near. As one evangelist puts it in his sermons, the state of Israel is "God’s plan for the unfolding of prophetic and messianic truth." Accordingly, mission-minded Christians host international conventions on prophecy, the Holy Spirit and millennialism in Jerusalem, but do not evince even the slightest concern for the human needs of the Israelis. They and their evangelists fail to see the state of Israel as a real nation which, like every other nation, has shortcomings. This inability to relate to terrestrial Israel is evidenced in the epithets missionaries use in speaking of the Jews and their state. They refer to the Jews not as a people, but as "Children of the Bible," "Sons of Abraham," "Israelites," "Hebrews" or "the People of the Book"; and they call the state of Israel "the Promised Land," "the Holy Land," "the Land of the Bible" or "Zion." From the point of view of the evangelist, the Jews and their nation serve merely a utilitarian purpose: they prefigure the endtime.

Surveys on anti-Semitism among Christian denominations have shown that it is the Bible-oriented, evangelical Christian who exhibits the strongest anti-Semitic sentiments. He may support the Jewish state, but he is also the Christian most likely to translate the charge of deicide against the Jews into violent action. As for the fundamentalist missionary, he too may support Israel for eschatological reasons but at the same time be deeply anti-Semitic. He and his group are lions among the lambs, for in masking their real reasons for supporting the Jewish state they are a special danger to Israel,

The Future

What about the future of Christian missions in Israel? It is true that the extent of proselytism in Jerusalem today is minimal and its threat to Israelis small. Even so, those missions can and should be further reduced. And in that process both Jews and concerned Christians have a part to play.

First, the news media need to tone down their enthusiastic coverage of conversion activities and the Israeli retaliation that sometimes follows. These are, after all, comparatively minor events in the whole picture, but giving them such prominence can only encourage further excesses. So long as Israelis are concerned about mission efforts and fearful of their success, evangelists will assume that, they are getting results. As one evangelist proudly said, "I measure my effectiveness by the amount of hate mail and negative response my work stimulates!" Thus it should be clear that the media not only present a false picture but suggest the false conclusion that mission efforts are productive.

Second, evangelists commonly adopt the tactic of blurring the differences between Jewish ethnicity and the Christian religion. They attempt to convince secular Jews that they may remain ethnically Jewish while becoming religiously Christian; that is, Hebrew Christians. Religious Jews are more or less proof against such guile. They are not misled when they see the Star of David pictured with a cross in the middle. Yet the fact that Israeli Jews are viewed by missionaries as particularly ripe for conversion must be taken seriously.

One missionary instruction book declares: "Never be afraid of discussing the Bible with an Israeli. While he may know history and text, he will most likely be ignorant of the theological implications of the verses." We may do well therefore to question the idea that there is a significant lack of religious awareness among Israelis. That a few Jews fall victim to evangelical rhetoric says nothing about the value of the Christian message; rather, it speaks about ethnic Jews who seek to compensate for sociological deficiencies through religious change.

Christians who oppose mission work ought also to consider their relation to evangelists. The Israelis’ outcry against mission activities proves that they find evangelists offensive. Concerned Christians surely should prevent a kind of proselytism that evokes such negative Jewish reaction. The Christian in Israel who seeks to impose his faith upon Jews is guilty of the sin of arrogance.

Again, the mainline denominations might begin to undermine biblical literalism by bringing biblical criticism to bear. For example, they might seek to combat fundamentalist attitudes on the life and death of Jesus. An exclusivistic view of Christianity, which insists on the centrality of Jesus in the salvation of all humankind, fosters intolerant evangelism and perpetuates Christian anti-Semitism. The missionaries must be checked both theologically and practically.

The basic question is whether proselytism has a place in a religion which claims to be ecumenical. Certainly an ethical Christianity cannot proselytize and ecumenize at the same time. Christians have rarely shown openness and tolerance toward other religions. "We" were always right and "they" were always in error; and why tolerate error? Until Christian exclusivism subsides and tolerance toward all faiths increases, Jews everywhere must be on guard lest missionaries succeed in winning them to Jesus.