To the Jew First and Also to the Gentile
We spoke to several pastors who are Jewish and who also lead evangelical churches. Their stories are testimonies of God’s faithful leading to bring three men to Himself from their Jewish backgrounds, as well as leading them into ministry in the church. They feel the liberty of the Spirit to minister to the general population with an undeniable Jewish flavor.
Frank Susler – Pastor, Grace Christian Fellowship, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
I grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in Milwaukee. After we married, my wife (who grew up in a liberal Lutheran home) and son gave their lives to the Lord. At that time we were living in Anchorage, Alaska. One day, when my son Jim was seven years old, he and I went fishing together. It began raining hard and we needed to wait out the storm. Jim began preaching to me because he was concerned that his father wouldn’t go to heaven! You know, you don’t tell your child to be quiet when they’re talking to you about religion. It was quite a fishing expedition!
I usually did not attend church with my family, but watched football instead. However, the next Sunday I felt strongly that I wanted to go with them to church. That night, my wife asked me if I had ever received Jesus, and did I want to? She led me to the Lord right there, kneeling by the side of our bed. She bought me a Bible the next day and I began reading the book of John. At church someone passing by me asked if I loved Jesus. I realized I hardly knew Him, and I was filled with the desire to know Him better. Soon after, I enrolled at a local Bible college.
I never thought of going into the ministry. One day while at a shopping center I saw an old friend. I knew he used to go to church but he told me he had stopped attending. I invited him to our house that week for dinner and he received more than just physical food that night; I was able to lead him back to the Lord. He came back the next Friday night, too! Before I knew it, about 25-30 people began meeting in our living room once a week. One of the elders in the church we attended told me, “I believe God is making a pastor out of you.” I felt at the time that I had a difficult enough time looking after my own soul, but if God wanted to do this.…
Our church, Abbott Loop Christian Center, had a small Bible college and I received my training for the pastorate there. However, I felt called to move back to Milwaukee. I took a team of nine adults with me; one by one they made the move to the Midwest. In 1981 we began Grace Christian Fellowship in Milwaukee.
An interesting twist has taken place in the last few years. Throughout my Christian walk, people would tell me that they believed I would be in Jewish ministry someday. I did not think so. At first, I did not incorporate almost anything about my Jewishness into the church. But three years ago I was invited to Ukraine to speak at a church that was next door to what had once been the Great Synagogue of Uzhgorod. I decided to take a walk outside. I could still see bullet holes in the synagogue’s walls and I realized that 60 years ago I could have been shot on the street here. The Lord began speaking to my heart about working with His chosen people, Israel.
I worked with Nehemiah Ministry in the Ukraine and I thought that my contribution to the work of Jewish evangelism would be to support them so that they might continue their work. I did so for about two years. Soon after that, a Jewish believer from Israel came to Milwaukee to speak at the Governor’s Prayer Breakfast. He had an unexpected opening in his schedule and was free that Wednesday night before the breakfast. I invited him to come speak to our church.
While there, Asher asked me some pointed questions about why I wasn’t involved in any type of Jewish ministry. He used the very answers I gave him to show me why I should be! Something like an explosion went off in my heart, almost like a confirmation of what the Lord had spoken to me in Ukraine.
Since then, one thing has led to another. I’ve met some Messianic leaders, attended some Messianic conferences, and have talked to the elders in my church. A core group of families has banded together to form the only Messianic congregation in Milwaukee! Our church is supportive of my leading two groups, Grace Christian Fellowship and Beth Messsiah-Milwaukee. Pray with us as we begin this new endeavor to raise up the name of Yeshua in the Milwaukee area.
Richard Ganz – Senior Pastor, Ottawa Reformed Presbyterian Church, Canada
I was raised in a Jewish home in New York City. While growing up, I studied the Hebrew Scriptures five afternoons a week and attended synagogue every Friday night and Saturday morning. As I grew older I worshiped at the synagogue each morning and evening, and laid tefillin each day before dawn.
However, one cold midwinter night my life was shattered. My father had a heart attack. I ran for comfort and hope to the one place I thought I would find it—the synagogue. The doors were locked and as I hammered on them I looked up into the New York night sky and I cursed God for the first time in my life. I cried out to Him, “I am through with you!” Even as I turned away from God that night, little did I realize that He was far from being through with me.
During my college years I became obsessed with the world and what it offered. I was obsessed with getting ahead in life; mostly, I was obsessed with Rich Ganz. I went through university and graduate school and graduated at the top of my class. During my year of post-doctoral studies, the realization hit me one day that psychoanalysis, the area of study I thought provided solutions to life’s issues, left me with more questions than answers. Yet, I felt it was a worthwhile pursuit if I could become wealthy while practicing it.
On a trip to Europe, through a series of unusual circumstances while looking for a place to stay, my wife Nancy and I ended up at L’Abri, a Christian teaching center. There we both were challenged with the person of Jesus. Over a period of time we both, independently of each other, came to believe that He was the promised Messiah of Israel, and we accepted Him into our lives.
The rest is history…which is still being written! I went on to study counseling at Westminster Theological Seminary. Following my graduation, I had the opportunity to engage in ministry in Europe. During our time there, it became more and more clear to me and to my family that God had prepared me to work directly in ministry within the context of the local church. We left Europe and returned to North America, where we began a church planting ministry.
My identity as a Jewish person who believes in the Messiah is at the heart of everything I do in ministry. In some ways, the most direct way I am able to bring my Jewish background into the life of my congregation is in just bringing myself in an honest way into their lives. In being open with people, they learn what being Jewish means to me. The church learns about the feasts and festivals of my heritage, but I am also able to give them the perspective of how these traditions are inextricably interwoven into the blood of the New Covenant. Our church is continually able to see just how Jewish their belief in Jesus is. I tell them again and again that they must learn how to “think Jewish” if they really want to understand the Word of God. I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had in ministry to enrich peoples’ lives through the experiences God has given to me. And I also think they are afforded a unique perspective because of my heritage.
Rich Nathan – Senior Pastor, Columbus Vineyard, Ohio
I was raised in a Conservative Jewish home in Queens in New York City. Although I studied regularly at a Jewish school (yeshiva) and then later attended a Hebrew high school and regularly attended synagogue, I did not have much of a connection with God that meant anything to me. By the time I entered college at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, I had a sense of my Jewish identity but no real belief in God; in fact, I was more of an atheist than anything else.
During my first week of freshman year I sat next to a pretty student named Marlene, who I invited to go drinking. Her answer, “No, I’m a Christian” prompted me to respond, “So what, I’m Jewish. Why are you telling me your religion?” Marlene explained what being a Christian meant, but I was more interested in the fact that she was so pretty.
Our friendship deepened and seven months later I experienced God’s presence and I knew it was Him, the God of my ancestors. I had not been seeking God up until that point, so it might sound strange (it sure felt that way!) that God had obviously been seeking me. Soon after, I became very interested in finding out more about the Bible. Marlene invited me to a Passover seder that was being presided over by a Jewish believer. They needed someone Jewish to recite the Hebrew prayers, which I did. During the seder, when the speaker broke the matzoh and explained how Jesus was betrayed, I had an overwhelming sense that the way to know God more personally was through Messiah Jesus, and that His body was broken for me. It was in that moment that I found Him. In the months that followed, Marlene and I became involved in an InterVarsity fellowship on our campus. I eventually went on to become chapter president and was able to reach out to the large Jewish population at Case. Marlene and I married, and we moved to Columbus, Ohio so that I could attend law school. We got involved in a small church while I was also teaching business law at Ohio State University. I began teaching in our church’s Sunday School, but I felt something tugging at me not to get too settled in my academic lifestyle. Soon thereafter I attended a Vineyard Fellowship conference in England, where a Messianic Jewish friend, Adey Wassink (see Havurah, December 2002) encouraged me to obey God’s call into pastoral ministry. I returned to Columbus and became the first senior pastor of our church. In 1987 we had 200 members; today we have about 6,700! We have also had the privilege of planting 19 churches.
At our church, we do hold a Passover seder each year, but my opportunity to minister as a Jewish believer comes out constantly through my preaching each week. For instance, while preaching through the Gospel of John, I was able to show how John structures chapters five through ten around the events of various Jewish holidays. At Advent I’ve spoken on how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Jewish Messianic hope. When Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ came out, I was able to write newspaper articles on how the film portrays and impacts Jewish people.
I think our church is happy to have a Jewish pastor! I know this is often a topic of conversation amongst our constituency and their friends. Many of our members bring their Jewish friends to church because they know they’ll find a welcome and sensitive reception. I’ve been able to meet with many of our members’ Jewish friends and business acquaintances. I am a bridge person to our local Jewish community and associates.