A few years ago I met with the leader of a prominent Messianic congregation. In his opinion, Jews for Jesus’ approach to evangelism was outmoded. There were certain models, he explained, that may have been effective in reaching Jewish people in the ’70s but are no longer workable today. He clearly meant the high-profile, activist approach to Jewish evangelism that has characterized Jews for Jesus since our beginning. I pointed out that we continue using those methods because they give us opportunities to share the good news of Messiah with our people. But I realized that his statements reflected a popular opinion.
For many believers a direct, activist mindset smacks of 1968, with little relevance to contemporary culture. But has activism disappeared from today’s culture? How do people represent their beliefs in the public square in 2008?
When Christians speak about evangelism today, they often use words like “relational,” “incarnational” and “friendship.” Fewer and fewer describe their approach as “direct” or use words like “proclaim.” I have seen almost visceral reactions to the mention of “direct evangelism” from pastors, Bible college professors and even missionaries. People run in the other direction to avoid labels like “Bible-thumper” or “fundamentalist.” This mindset has affected our Messianic community, too.
Last summer I brought a dozen or so young Jewish believers to Israel for outreach and discipleship. After a busy afternoon of evangelism one team member remarked, “I can’t wait to return to my Bible college to confront the pervasive attitude that a ‘direct’ approach to evangelism doesn’t work. We’ve abandoned a ‘direct’ model in favor of hanging out in Starbucks, drinking four-dollar lattes, waiting to ‘relate’ to people before discussing Messiah. Well, I was able to ‘relate’ to several different people and talk about Messiah today!”
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that only through a multiplicity of creative evangelistic methods will we make Y’shua an issue in our culturally diverse world. But like that Bible student, I want to grapple with the perception that there is no place for “direct evangelism” in today’s culture—or question why it has become popular to abandon that approach altogether.
Activism Then and Now
Jews for Jesus’ paradigm for Jewish evangelism has often been identified with the activist movements of the ’60s and ’70s. Anti-war protests and the burgeoning civil rights movement formed a significant part of the social landscape in which Jews for Jesus began. When Moishe Rosen relocated with his family to San Francisco in 1970, it was in order to make a difference among the counter-culture youth movement, 20-30% of whom were estimated to be Jewish.1 Many of these Jewish men and women were idealists, “radicals,” risk-takers—and they were discovering Jesus. To reach others for Y’shua, they implemented the strategies familiar to them: slogan T-shirts, leafleting, placarding, marching, music, street theater. This was how any number of causes were brought before the public, and as a result Jews for Jesus gained visibility on campuses, city streets and throughout the Jewish community. (For reflections from two of Jews for Jesus’ founders, see this accompanying article.)
Forty years later, the cultural landscape has dramatically changed. But has our society moved away from activism? I would argue not. In 2006 I brought a team to the triennial Urbana Missions Conference to represent Jews for Jesus. The buzz was that Bono, leather-clad rock star from the band U2, would be addressing our group of 22,000. Over the massive video projectors, he said, “The biggest mistake is to think that we can’t do anything.” Bono continued to describe how each of us could make a difference among those suffering from AIDS and poverty in Africa. It’s no wonder that “change” has been the byword of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and he has galvanized a solid base of support, especially among the younger generation.
I would argue that activism is alive and well in 2008. Raising awareness is easier than ever thanks to the Internet, with its websites, blogs, ads, videos and e-mails. The channels of information have been decentralized so that there is a world of resources available to anyone with an Internet connection. The Hillel campus website even has a social justice page with the blurb, “One Click Campaigns—Quick ways to be socially conscious while surfing the web.”2
Then there are message films like Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine or Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth that have raised mass-awareness on issues like gun control and environmentalism. Music has made powerful public impressions with events like “Live Aid” or the activism of groups like the Jewish-membered Beastie Boys, who organized the Tibetan Freedom Concerts. Even mainstream advertising has jumped on the social justice bandwagon. Gap’s “(Product) Red” campaign has been raising funds for Africa with a host of A-list celebrities. And some of the activist tactics from the “hippie” era are still being used. When the Beijing Olympics brought the torch relay to San Francisco earlier this year, three protestors scaled the Golden Gate Bridge with huge banners sporting the slogan, “Free Tibet.” Students gathered at colleges throughout the country to stage a silent “lie-in” on the ground commemorating the 32 people killed a year ago at Virginia Tech and calling for stricter gun regulations.
Such activism has a long pedigree, and not least among Christians. The missionary movement of the past few centuries has had an immeasurable impact both in evangelism and in social action. You may have heard about William Carey, who around 1790 essentially launched the modern missionary movement. You may recognize names like Amy Carmichael or William Wilberforce, 19th-century Christians active in social causes. These are the predecessors of the much more recent “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign that spotlighted issues of consumerism, or of the Christian music group Jars of Clay’s work in providing clean water to African countries.(For a timeline of activism, see the accompanying article).
Despite the differences between 1798, 1968 and 2008, activism is still very much alive among people with a passion for change. So now for the big question: where do believers in Y’shua fit into this picture?
Are You An Activist?
As in generations past, believers in 2008 are still vocal and active about many important causes—but is Jesus one of them? Unfortunately, not always. But why not? Think about it: people today are proudly vocal about being gay. They wear their political preferences on their bumper stickers. Their T-shirts proclaim their tastes in music, football teams and even drug of choice. Yet when it comes to Jesus, many believers don’t speak out in the same way. I think it’s important to understand why, and I have a few observations for your consideration.
First, the post-Christian temperament in the West has cooled many Christians’ attitudes toward a vocal form of evangelism. In many emergent or seeker circles, the tide has turned from taking an outspoken stance on Y’shua toward building relationships and dialoguing with others. A case in point is Brian McLaren’s recent book, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope.3 McClaren calls on Christians to take a vocal stand for social justice issues. And yet his missional paradigm is built upon a “relational,” indirect approach to evangelism and moral issues. This doesn’t seem consistent to me. Is there somehow more of a need to “build relationships” when sharing Jesus than when standing for justice and environmental issues? It would seem that people don’t feel the need to build relationships when promoting causes that are likely to be well received.
That brings me to a second observation. We face serious social taboos when we speak as directly about the gospel as we do about other causes. Who can complain about taking a stand against child slavery in Southeast Asia? Or what could be more popular than getting on a bandwagon headed up by rock stars? But standing for Jesus polarizes people, including those within our own Jewish community. When people respond negatively to our faith, we can feel like Public Enemy No. 1. I sometimes find it uncomfortable when a Jewish person asks what I do for a living. In all likelihood, they will not be happy to learn that I am a Jew for Jesus. And after all, no one likes being rejected. And yet, that moment can also be an opportunity to share my faith and perhaps impact their life. Any time you advocate a cause that requires people to change, rejection is part of the process. But if we can’t get past the fear of rejection, we’re not likely to get far.
Recall that Wilberforce’s campaign against slavery was not popular in his time, yet he persevered because he believed it was the right thing to do. And as Jewish believers, we should remember the long heritage of our people’s involvement in causes even when they were taboo: Jews took an active part in the civil rights movement at a time when the consequences of involvement could be fatal.
“Post-Christian” attitudes have caused some believers to distance themselves from Christianity and the church. In the U.S. there is a widespread perception in the secular world that Christians are judgmental, unforgiving and hypocritical, epitomized by the public failings of Christian leaders.4 Sometimes this mindset affects believers, who become reluctant to step forward and identify as followers of Y’shua.
Even among fully committed Christians, many live as though we have lost our right to speak out, as though we must carry around with us the guilt of every misdeed done by a Christian. We may even find ourselves apologizing for the shortcomings of the Catholic Church or for Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic writings. Not long ago, I was asked by a Chinese pastor to receive a collective apology from his church for 2,000 years of anti-Semitism. I do not doubt the sincere intentions of these brothers and sisters, but they were apologizing for pogroms and concentration camps with which they had nothing to do, and for which they cannot be held accountable. Yes, Y’shua’s followers have made big mistakes over the centuries. But that is not the whole story. Many have stood for what is right at the expense of their own lives, serving God whole-heartedly as living examples of God’s kingdom on this earth. In distancing ourselves from the sins of the church, we may inadvertently distance ourselves from what the church has done right—including a bold and vocal heritage of evangelism.
The “offending” gospel offends because it involves the “S-word.” As Paul wrote, “. . . what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Messiah died for our sins according to the Scriptures . . . (1 Corinthians 15:3). The gospel, like the Hebrew prophets, calls us to something radical, confrontational and reorienting—t’shuva, turning back to God. No wonder Paul called the gospel “a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).
A.W. Tozer put it in perspective with his succinct comment, “To be right with God has often meant to be in trouble with men.”
If we fail to take a stand for fear we will offend, we will kill the impact of our message as Y’shua’s followers. We will become like salt that has lost its saltiness. What message does it send the world when Jesus’ followers are afraid to stand for Jesus? I would find the gospel to be pointless if it did not challenge our reality. And if Jesus and his disciples couldn’t avoid offending people, how will we?
It is good that Christians and others are addressing the evils of this world. It is right to stand against poverty, AIDS, sexual exploitation and genocide. And certainly, sensitivity, love and holy living must accompany all we do.
But Y’shua must at all costs be given his rightful place in our activism, popular or not. After all, he is at the core of the solution. You might even say, he is the ultimate activist.
- Ruth Tucker, Not Ashamed: The Story of Jews for Jesus
(Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 1999), p. 78.
- Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises,
and a Revolution of Hope (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007).
- For six common perceptions people have about the church, see Dan Kimball,
They Like Jesus But Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), p. 69.