We piled out of our cars then prayed in the parking lot that God would bless our efforts. We walked around the comer to where we could see hundreds of people pouring from the movie theaters while hundreds more lined up for blocks waiting to pour in.
The aroma of pizza and pastry was everywhere and neon lights flashed their invitations to see this or buy that. It would have been so much easier to blend in and be part of the crowd: to watch and listen and eat along with everyone else. But the jingle-jangle of the dancing Hare Krishnas down the block seemed to heighten the urgency of our task.
Baruch Goldstein and his wife Marcia had left the Los Angeles branch to begin an outpost work in Florida. Taking his place as branch leader was a little intimidating, but one thing I knew to do was bring my co-workers to Westwood Village. This is a glitzy, upscale little area, replete with restaurants, movie theaters and all kinds of boutiques.
On weekends, the place is teeming with the future yuppies of America, including a bevy of blonde and beautiful midwestem transplants who trek west to attend UCLA. Amidst these foreigners are hundreds of Jewish people who live in the classy residential areas of Bel Air and Beverly Hills. They, too, come to Westwood for food, films and a fun time. We came to hand out gospel tracts. Something that comes naturally to Jews for Jesus, right? Wrong!
Doing What Comes Naturally
You @#*! *#@#! fool,” someone yelled in my face. “You disgust me! Get outta here before I come back with five or six of my friends to teach you a lesson.”
How would it look if everybody knew that the new leader of the Los Angeles Branch of Jews for Jesus wanted to go home? I don’t know if it was cowardly or what, but I had already “turned the other cheek” enough times. I’d had my glasses smashed the week before and having your glasses smashed doesn’t make you a hero. It just makes it harder to read, which is inconvenient when you’re in seminary.
At that moment, certain comments I’d ignored from fellow Christians came back and I was astounded at how much sense they made. Handing out tracts on the street was offensive. No one would listen to us out here. We were intruders. Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense for us to just go about our business, live our (intermittently) godly lives, and be well prepared to answer the questions which our Jewish family and friends would certainly…hopefully…maybe…ask?
To think that I didn’t have to take the initiative! To think how grateful my even-younger-than-l-was staff would be when I told them of this revelation. The more I thought about “lifestyle evangelism,” the more I wanted it to be the best way, the only way to tell people about Jesus. What could be more natural? And shouldn’t serving God be something that comes naturally?
That was my fatal mistake. Because I knew all too well what was really natural. And it wasn’t serving God. It dawned on me that it is natural to be lazy, to seek our own comfort and to avoid angry, unsaved people. No method of “evangelism” is more natural than the one which enables us to do things the easy way. No, God did not commission us to do what comes naturally. It’s a lesson I never forgot.
Some believers say they have learned to “keep quiet until the right opportunity comes” to tell about the Messiah. But sometimes “right opportunities” come and still those believers keep quiet. It’s not that we should talk so much so quickly. Some of us ought to wear messianic muzzles until we learn some tact!
Certainly we should be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
But most unbelievers do not want to hear about Jesus: especially gospel-resistant groups like Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, animists, nominal Christians and of course, atheistic communists. Even if they should accidentally hear the gospel in passing, they know how to avoid listening. Evangelistic strategy which places initiative on the unbeliever contradicts Rav Saul, who writes in Romans 3:11: “…there is none that seek after God.” If we expect right opportunities to tap us on the shoulder, we will spend most of our time waiting and not witnessing.
(Non) Evangelistic Methods
The Scriptures teach that one plants, another waters, and God causes the seed of the gospel to bear fruit in the lives of men and women (I Corinthians 3:6). This is a comment on the sovereignty and transforming power of God. This is not a justification for us to avoid the conflict Yeshua said his followers would face in telling the gospel to a world that would rather not hear.
Who wouldn’t prefer speaking to someone who is assuredly interested? Which one of us would choose rejection over the rewards of reaping in this spiritual harvest? Let’s face it, witnessing to those who haven’t (yet) shown an interest is no one’s idea of a good time! But God help us if we resort to re-defining “evangelism” and “witness” to show that we are only responsible to do the pleasant part.
How in the world do we go about finding those who want to know about Jesus? The answer is: take risks. That is the most difficult part of evangelism, the part most of us wish to avoid. When it comes to Jewish interest in the gospel, there may be an occasional windfall, but even then, we usually have to shake the tree a little. When we refuse to risk being bonked on the head by an apple we end up with unfruitful methods of non-evangelism.
The most popular method of non-evangelism is sometimes called witnessing through presence, or more commonly, “witnessing through our lives.” It goes something like this: we live for the Lord, and as unbelievers notice dramatic differences in our lives, they ask all the right questions. Evangelism is actually answering the questions raised by our transformed lives.
Joe Aldrich, author of Lifestyle Evangelism was shocked when I told him how portions of his book on evangelism have been misconstrued. He never intended believers in Yeshua to witness with their “lifestyle” as a substitute for a spoken statement of faith. He told me that such teaching is a misuse of the strategy outlined in the book, and knowing him and his ministry, I know it’s true.
Evangelical Castles in the Air
Witnessing through presence is based on suppositions that sound good but are Scripturally insupportable.
Delusion of Grandeur—Our Holy Lives
Some presume that our lives will attract unbelievers to Yeshua. And sometimes it happens. But living for the Savior is not bait for evangelism; it is obedience to God. And when a believer is living a holy life, they will be willing to forthrightly confess Yeshua before men and women.
We should commit ourselves to holy lives, and that includes repenting of unholy silence, which is a sin of omission based on a self-righteous presumption.
To be holy, we must be separate. Believers should be openly known so those who want to steer clear of us can, while those who want to talk to a believer know whom to approach. If neighbors and co-workers have to guess what you believe, you might be nice but you are not holy. We cannot be holy and silent about our faith! Some believers are living godly lives but have not matured enough to realize this.
Even when, by God’s grace, we are holy, should we expect people to be drawn to us? Many people whose values are conditioned by the world view us as prudish and full of unhealthy inhibitions. They think we are boring—not holy! Holiness repels some unbelievers as often as it attracts others who want to know God. If holiness were not offensive, Yeshua would never have been crucified.
Come Unto Me
I keep hearing that we should witness where we are. And that is absolutely true—but can we stop there? The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) does not tell us to stay comfortable and make disciples. It moves us forward; we are to go to people beyond the usual sphere of our lives. Our purpose in meeting them is to tell them about Jesus. And that motivation should not be incidental but paramount.
But let’s be honest…extend ourselves to strangers?! Vey is meer…isn’t that why God gives some “the gift of evangelism” (which many misinterpret as “the gift of extroversion”)? Most of us have discerned that we neither have nor want that gift! The desire to insulate ourselves from a world of unbelievers who might reject us is understandable! Many of us wrestle with feelings of inability and inadequacy in the face of a seemingly impossible task. But how can we be victorious unless we admit our feelings of failure and seek help from the Lord and from other believers?
When we deny that we have fears, we never overcome those fears and we come up with some real mishegas…such as thinking that people get saved by having us answer their questions. The only question ever asked which led to a person being saved was the one asked by the Philippian jailer.* But if we wait for people to come running after us to ask that question, we are remiss in our duty. (*Acts 16)
We must prepare ourselves and be ready to give a good reason for our faith. That includes being able to answer honest questions and objections. Preparing to answer questions is good and right…but any good thing we might do becomes a stumbling block and a sin if we allow it to preoccupy and distract us from the reality of the lostness of humanity. We must not be so unconscious or uncaring as to search out all the answers without also searching out the people who need to hear them.
Waiting for and witnessing to those who might approach us is a strategy for “safe-evangelism,” which in reality is non-evangelism. Yeshua and the early Jewish disciples practiced anything but safe evangelism; they risked their very lives for the sake of strangers! We must recognize that our safety is in Christ. Unwillingness to risk the disapproval of non-believers demonstrates a lack of faith. Evangelism requires that we trust the Lord.
And They’ll Know We are Messianic by Our Jewishness?
Some have the notion that our Jewish lifestyle will impress nonbelievers and provide us with “natural” opportunities to witness. Yet the content of the Apostolic message was not lifestyle, (Jewish or non-Jewish), but Yeshua.
We make a tragic mistake when we try to convince unbelievers that we really are Jewish instead of showing that Yeshua really is the Messiah.
(If we could get them to admit the obvious and unchangeable fact that we really are Jews—would they be saved?)
We should never neglect our Jewishness. We should appreciate and develop it as the good thing to which God has appointed us. But right motivation for living a Jewish lifestyle is critical.
If our motivation is evangelistic in nature, then we are merely using our Jewishness to attract other Jews, and that is religious seduction. Or, if our motivation is to be “Jewish enough” to prove accusations against us are false, we are using our Jewishness to deflect verbal attacks. It is crucial for us to realize that (1) the attacks have to do with who Yeshua is, not how Jewish we are and (2) our only defense is who Yeshua is, and not how Jewish he made us.
When we allow ourselves to become defensive, we spend too much energy telling how Jewish we are and too little telling that Yeshua is the Savior of both Jews and gentiles.
Our reason for “living Jewishly” should be that we are Jews and to live any other way is to deny our calling and election. What does it mean for a Jewish believer in Yeshua to live a Jewish lifestyle? That’s a subject we should grapple with, but it’s also a whole other article!
Many of us of the Messianic faith have been rightly offended and disturbed when certain churches present a form of Christian culture rather than the message of the Messiah. We would do well to make sure that we don’t commit the same sin!
On the other hand
There are Jewish believers who stand unconvinced as to the need to make any distinction between witnessing to Jews and witnessing to gentiles. Such people ask, “Why should our church develop a special outreach to Jewish people? After all, I accepted the Savior without all that Jewish stuff—why all the fuss?”
If that is you, dear brother or sister, would you consider the possibility that you have merely grown comfortable sharing your faith with non-Jews? Perhaps you’ve drifted just far enough from your Jewishness to avoid the rejection and hardship which comes in trying to reach Jewish people for the Messiah. If you think that witnessing to Jews really is the same as witnessing to gentiles, try calling your grandmother to engage her with the four spiritual laws!
We can neither forget our Jewishness nor focus on it if we want to be obedient witnesses. We have to remember Yeshua and focus on him. That means going out on a limb sometimes, and facing rejection for his sake.
Playing down our Jewishness (denying that witnessing to our people is any different than witnessing to anyone else) has the same effect as playing up our Jewishness (denying the validity of anything as offensive to our people as missionary work). Those who are committed to keeping other Jews from hearing the gospel are happy to see us do either, for both result in the gospel being kept at what they perceive as a safe distance. (See article below, “Promoters of the Silent Witness”)
Do Actions Speak Louder Than Words?
Our actions do speak louder than our words. But our actions don’t speak louder than God’s Word! Yes, our lives should be in accord with the witness of our lips and we should authenticate the message we preach through the story of transformed lives. But the old adage is “practice what you preach” not “keep practicing until you’re good enough to preach.” We were not “good enough” to be saved but by God’s grace, he saved us anyway. And we are not good enough to preach the salvation we received, but by God’s grace, he uses us to bring the gospel to others anyway.
We must never forget that we preach a far better gospel than we can live, and we are calling people to believe in Yeshua, not to believe in us.
God himself chose the medium of words to communicate his love for the human race. The “Ten Words” (the Hebrew phrase for the “Ten Commandments” is literally ‘aserim devarim’…ten words) became the foundation for the Jewish faith. The most profound expression of God’s concern came through Yeshua…the living Word. It Is our privilege and our duty to speak up for him!
Does this mean that there are no instances of Jewish people who have been drawn to Yeshua by Christians who live a distinctly holy lifestyle? No. God certainly uses such Christians.
Just the other day I had a letter from a Jewish sister in Yeshua whose story was replete with references to the difference in lifestyle she observed in her Christian friends. She explained how they never “preached” the gospel to her, and how this was right because previously she had “tuned out” more active attempts others had made to share their faith.
This sister’s spiritual search was largely based on the disappointment she felt in her own life, and so she received the best witness she possibly could have from these Christian friends. There are times to be silent, and this woman’s story is evidence that the Lord had orchestrated a witness that she was able to accept. Perhaps you have a similar story.
The misunderstandings come when we think this typifies all Jewish believers’ testimonies, and therefore exemplifies silence as the way to witness. Sometimes we exalt the silent witness because it never seems to evoke resentment or rejection—and we assume such resentment or rejection means the unbeliever is “turned off” or alienated from the gospel.
But remember, you cannot turn off anyone whom the Lord is turning on! Don’t think this to be a justification for insensitivity, but rather an encouragement. God will use our efforts to bring people into the kingdom, but he won’t allow our efforts to keep anyone out! Besides, for some, that initial resentment and rejection is part of the process of their coming to Yeshua.
Some Jewish believers have told me they were outraged over receiving a tract or hearing someone say that Jesus is for Jews. That outrage motivated them to read the Scriptures…just to dispute and disprove it. And the Holy Spirit reached from the pages and grasped their hearts in an embrace of God’s love.
Others were so hostile to Messianic Jews that they began to question their own angry reaction. They discovered a programmed response based on “what the Christians have done” instead of the question, “Who is Yeshua?” They were then ready to make an honest inquiry.
Many Jewish believers were satisfied with their lives before they accepted the Lord. They had no reason to ask a Christian “what makes you different.” They knew what made Christians different. They weren’t Jews. What good would a silent witness do for them?
We cannot assume that Jewish people will want to know about Jesus because of our lifestyle. We can only praise him for the ones that do, and use our initiative with the ones that don’t.
The Bottom Line
My real job, next to witnessing to people, is recruiting and training others to be missionaries. Some people tell me they are called and I believe them. Then I watch them gravitate toward that which is safe and comfortable; a ministry which insulates them from rejection, pays enough to keep two cars in the garage, and enables them to live near their family. To be safe in a sinful world is to be part of that sinful world; to feel secure in a world which rejects our Messiah is to be of the world. And we know we are to be in the world, but not of the world.
I’m not saying that every Jewish believer should always go about handing out gospel tracts. I’m not even saying (much as I’d like to!) that all Jewish believers should be doing full-time evangelism. I know God has placed many of you in other vocations for his purposes. But many who should be full-time evangelists never consider this calling and thus they settle for careers that are less demanding and less rewarding.
We have all heard the story of the Melamed (Jewish teacher) who said, “If I were as rich as Rockefeller, I would be richer than Rockefeller.” To which a student said, “Why?” The teacher replied, “Because I would be as rich as Rockefeller and do a little teaching on the side, too.”
Evangelism is not a sideline, it is the lifeline and future of the Messianic movement.
I want to tell you something that Moishe said which might surprise you. He never liked the name “Jews for Jesus.” When the organization began back in 1973, the official name was “Hineni Ministries.” He hoped that eventually the meaning of “hineni” (here am I: Isaiah 6:8) would be a means of equating faith in Yeshua with obedience to God. “Jews for Jesus” is what others chose to call us, and it raised the issue more effectively.
We might wish “our label” sounded more dignified, less “abrasive.” I know that’s how I feel when I face my mother and father. But there’s a narrow line that we walk like a tightrope, and we must keep our balance. The blowing winds of disapproval can cause us to lose our balance and overcompensate to gain approval. Being satisfied with Yeshua’s approval is our balancing rod.
I’m still waiting and looking and hoping for people who will say with the Apostle Paul, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” We all face the pressures of friends and relatives who want us to keep s I lent about Jesus. It is important that we pray for one another, because we all need boldness, and we all need balance. And we all need prayer to care about unbelievers…enough to risk their disapproval as we tell them that Yeshua is the light of the world.