The Desert Hasn’t Blossomed Yet
This year, Israel is celebrating its 50th birthday, its modern Year of Jubilee. In the last 50 years the world has seen the Israeli desert blossom like the Garden of Eden. Yet there has been no such spiritual blossoming in the hearts of the people of Israel—our Jewish people—who live in the Land.
There have been many spiritual farmers.” Kaarlo Syvanto, a Finnish missionary in Israel since 1947, has distributed well over one million Bibles and New Testaments among the Israeli people. Much seed has been sown, but the harvest has been minimal. Most of the seed of God’s Word still lands along the path or on rocky places where it cannot grow.
Though there are approximately 3,200 people in Israel today who receive overseas funding to do missionary work in the Land, most of these workers are not engaged in direct evangelism. Many are pastors, Bible teachers, publishers or shop owners who sell Bibles among their other wares. The pastor has his congregation, the Bible teacher has his class, the publisher and shop owner have their customers, but the task of going out to proclaim the gospel doesn’t happen as it should. There are many “missionaries” in Israel, but too little missionary work is actually being done.
Why, then, is the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) currently considering an amendment to restrict evangelistic activities? The provocation for this proposed legislation was a mass mailing of an evangelistic booklet, HaShalom, to some 900,000 homes in Israel by a controversial American evangelist. The mailing caused such an uproar that many Israelis publicly burned the books at the encouragement of Orthodox leaders. In response to the mailing, two Knesset members proposed a law that would make it a crime to “possess, produce, reproduce, import, distribute or publicize literature which may serve to persuade another to change his religious views or affiliations.” The punishment for offenders would be one year in jail.
Though the law is buried in committee, it has stirred world attention among Christians. Coalitions, committees and organizations have sprung up to fight the proposed law. Moreover, the evangelist and his organization have been blasted for their effort to reach Israelis with the gospel. He’s viewed as a troublemaker who came in and created a mess for those believers living in the Land.
But stop for a moment and think about what he did. He got the gospel into the hands of 900,000 Jewish homes in Israel. I don’t know what percentage of the population he reached, but if the total Jewish population of Israel is around 4.5 million, he did pretty well. It’s no surprise that the Orthodox were infuriated by the evangelist’s actions, but should we share their outrage? I’ve spoken with Israeli believers who have told me that the book was “kosher” in its gospel presentation. The content of the book was something with which evangelical believers would agree. Why, then, have so many distanced themselves from this effort so angrily?
Certainly there are many who don’t like the distribution of literature—passing tracts on the street or through mass mailings. They think it’s ineffective or intrusive. Yet certainly God didn’t think the written word was a bad way to communicate, and neither should we. One native-born Israeli evangelist told me that he’s seen many Israelis and others come to faith through his story book.…
Another evangelist in Israel says that literature evangelism, “when done hand to hand, is without a doubt very effective.” And on our recent Project Joshua trip this was certainly borne out. I led 15 college students on three two-hour evangelistic adventures in which we handed out Hebrew gospel tracts. Well over 9,000 Israelis took our literature and over 60 gave us their names, addresses and phone numbers to hear more about Yeshua. In addition, our local missionary began to receive phone calls and letters from even more Israelis who wanted to hear from us. So, literature distribution doesn’t seem to be a losing proposition in Israel.
Are mass mailings the problem? They shouldn’t be. Why is this type of mailing different from any other form of evangelism, whether that be door-to-door, street preaching, open-air parabolic drama or friendship evangelism?
Maybe some people don’t like the fact that the American evangelist didn’t consult with many local believers before launching his literature campaign. But the fact is that he did work with a recognized messianic leader in the Land. It is important to work with local believers and to be sensitive to their concerns. Learning what we can about the language and the culture of those we want to reach is always important, whether in reaching Israelis or any other people group. But at the same time we don’t necessarily need to give up plans for evangelism if there’s disagreement. We must listen and learn but first we must be faithful to what we believe God would have us do.
Direct evangelism is the most important thing we can be doing in Israel
Direct evangelism is the most important thing we can be doing in Israel. The dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision have come together, but there is no life in them. Our people need God’s Spirit to give them life and to change their hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. But let’s realize that there is a price to pay. If the anti-missionary legislation is passed, the believers will be faced with a tough choice. Yet we should all have our minds made up that if proclamation of the gospel becomes a crime we’ll all be willing to become outlaws! I’m gratified to know that the Messianic Action Committee in Israel has decided that if the law takes effect, their evangelists will stand outside the Knesset and pass out tracts to Knesset members as they file out. That’s the resolve we must have!
In light of the situation in Israel, we need to uphold our brethren in prayer. I asked believers how we can pray, and this is what they are saying: “Pray for boldness, like the apostles. Don’t pray that the opposition would be taken away, but that the Israeli evangelists would be made strong within it. We need workers. Pray that the Lord would send workers!”
I want to add—let’s pray for our unsaved brethren. They need the breath of life. The physical desert has bloomed, but the spiritual landscape in Israel is still parched and lifeless. Let’s pray that God will give our people open hearts and minds to consider the claims of Messiah Yeshua. Let’s pray that many are humble enough to take His yoke upon themselves, willing to pay the price of rejection from family and friends. Let’s pray that the desert will indeed burst forth with eternal life!
North American Director
Stephen's grandparents immigrated to America from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, ultimately settling in the Chicago area. As a boy, Stephen enjoyed sports and excelled in school. In his high school years he began to question the values he had been raised with, and instead of focusing on academics, began to spend all his time playing guitar and harmonica. Over the next few years he searched for answers to his many questions about life, eventually becoming a follower of Yeshua. Three weeks after receiving his bachelor's degree in social work from the University of Illinois, he got married and began to work with abused and neglected youth in a residential treatment center in Chicago, which he did for 10 years (taking one year out to live on a kibbutz in Israel). He received his master's degree in social work from the University of Illinois in 1984. He and his young family attended a messianic congregation for 13 years, where Stephen served as the worship leader. In 1989, Stephen began missionary training with Jews for Jesus and now serves as North American Director. For 12 years he oversaw our work in Israel and still continues to be involved with our work there. Laura and he have four children, three of whom are married. He received a master's degree in intercultural and Jewish studies from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1997. Stephen is known to be a warm-hearted and engaging teacher and a good listener.