New Paradigms in Jewish Ministry

What’s a paradigm anyway? A paradigm isn’t just a pattern or model of something: it is a worldview that underlies the theories and methodology of a particular subject—in our case, Jewish ministry. Tactics can be modeled, but strategy provides the core theory from which tactics are developed. A good strategy can last forever, while tactics must change with the ebbs and flows of culture and technology.

As evangelists we need to constantly innovate. While our message will always stay the same, our tactics for getting that message to its intended recipients must constantly be reevaluated to maximize our effectiveness. This innovation, which brings the message of the gospel to the lost in a manner that they can understand and engage with, is a key component of contextualization. With Paul as our model for contextualizing the gospel throughout various cultures he encountered (see the Mars Hill account in Acts 17), we are left with examples that highlight the need for us to contextualize the gospel as we bring it into new cultures and emerging subcultures too.

That contextualization births new tactics, new methods of bringing the gospel to our Jewish people. This is vital for us to understand as we think about the greater work of Jewish missions. The timeframe for rethinking our methods in order to stay relevant and effective has been shortened due to the speed of technology.

Yet, even when we are willing to question our current methods in light of emerging culture, it is our understanding of that emerging culture which drives our innovation to create effective methods of evangelization.

One of my favorite examples of innovation in this area occurred in 1969. Moishe Rosen had a dilemma. He had just begun sharing the gospel with Jewish hippies in New York’s Washington Square Park, but the sanctioned gospel tracts that he had at his disposal simply didn’t resonate with the hippie counterculture. They were wordy, with one Scripture passage after another, little or no graphics and tiny type. Moishe decided to take a risk. Moishe hand wrote and illustrated his first broadside, “A Message from Squares,” which presented a simple gospel message mixed with some self-deprecating humor in an unconventional way. It engaged the hippie counterculture through a communication channel that was wide open but previously untapped. It spoke to Jewish people where they were at and alleviated their cultural fear about engaging with traditional Christianity. Thus began a revolution in methods in the Jewish missions movement which has brought us to this current day.

Moishe’s example serves to highlight the need for innovation. In fact, his example guaranteed that even four decades later, Jews for Jesus continues to hold “creativity in our staff” as one of our core values. As we continue to innovate new tactics for reaching our people, we face many of the same challenges that Moishe faced back in 1969:

  • Fear and ignorance about the New Testament deeply embedded in Jewish culture
  • Fear of alienation and repugnance from the greater Jewish community for unbelievers who are investigating Jesus’ Messianic claims
  • A constant slough of disinformation and anti-missionary propaganda that muddies the waters for Jewish seekers and new believers

How do we confront these challenges today? That’s where new paradigms come into play. Developing new paradigms of ministry requires honesty, creativity and courage on the part of believers: we must be honest with ourselves about how effective our efforts are. We must be willing to creatively think out of the box about how to engage with our Jewish people and we must have the courage to risk failure in trying new things. As professional evangelists, as well as everyday ambassadors for the Messiah, we must look for open channels of communication and, once we have found them, we ought to do our best to mitigate the challenges we face in sharing with our people.

So what are some of the new paradigms of Jewish missions today? We’ve recognized three areas in particular where we’ve spent a good amount of time thinking, praying and innovating with our methods:

  1. Engaging with Jewish seekers
  2. Meeting the needs of Jewish people
  3. Proclaiming the gospel to Jewish people

While there are a lot more communication channels available to us today than there were forty years ago, it should be noted that our two-fold strategy has remained the same:

To engage Jewish seekers with the gospel, we must be available and, to engage with people, we need to use their preferred method of communication.

And today, the Internet is the choice of many. We provide information for seekers who aren’t ready for conventional conversation. We provide a way for seekers who are ready for personal communication to reach us through social media: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube, Skype, etc. Read an article by Iris Adler about how ministries are using these social networking tools.

This type of innovation, to create new evangelism methods with the development of new technology, requires a time investment and learning curve, but it has allowed us to connect with Jewish seekers around the world outside of our traditional branch areas with minimal financial investment.

Hospitality: Friendship, Community and Shabbat

“Soup, Soap, Salvation,” the slogan of the Salvation Army, isn’t often applicable to the contemporary Jewish community. How do we share the gospel with a community that typically doesn’t need our help in meeting their physical needs? Yet are there other needs that we can meet? In 1943, Abraham Maslow, a Jewish psychologist from Brooklyn, published a paper called “A Theory of Human Motivation” in which he proposed that each of us is driven by a hierarchy of needs: physiological, safety, belonging, esteem and self-actualization. While we may not have the opportunity to meet physiological or safety needs, we often do have the opportunity to address needs of Jewish individuals in the area of belonging

Loneliness is a common emotion for college students and young professionals who leave what was once called home to move into a new city with new possibilities. Those new possibilities, however, usually involve a high degree of uncertainty and a lack of built-in community. Leaving home means making new friends and finding new groups to spend time with. Meeting this need for friendship and community requires an intentional investment in relationship through hospitality.

On any given Friday evening, the smiling faces of college students, traveling Israelis, and New York hopefuls looking to make it big in the Big Apple can be seen meeting together for a Shabbat meal in the home of Melissa Moskowitz in Brooklyn.

This Brooklyn community is just one example of the intentionally evangelistic Messianic communities that have begun to form in cities around the world where young Jewish people go to pursue education, career or adventure.

The relationships are authentic, but this paradigm of Jewish ministry has developed as a response to the need for belonging of young Jewish people, whether believers or not.

Trekking: Witnessing on the Way

How do we share the gospel with people who innately fear it? This question has driven Jewish evangelism strategists throughout the modern missions’ movement. Answering this question has shaped our ministry and given us the fervor for proclamation evangelism that some missions organizations have abandoned. We must preach the gospel! But we must do so through effective communication channels with a goal of mitigating that ingrained cultural fear.

There are several key factors in our witness that can allay the Jewish cultural fear of the gospel. Three key influencers are timing, environment and terminology.

A significant number of Israelis who complete their mandatory military service leave Israel to travel for up to a year. They are in life transition—between army and pursuing an education or a career. Many are asking the existential questions that they couldn’t while they served their country. They are uniquely open to exploring alternative spirituality options because of the timing of their trip. Their top destinations include India, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, Bolivia, Columbia and Peru. Many of these young Israelis set out to travel alone but end up traveling in packs with other Israelis on the same travel schedule to the same destinations. The Israeli traveler community that forms is not particularly wholesome, with rampant drug use and indiscriminate sex, but it does provide great opportunities to witness.

Young Israelis are much more open to considering the gospel when they are outside of Israel. Why? Because the cultural pressures against the gospel are much stronger in Israel than they are outside it. Israeli trekkers can read the New Testament without fear of social stigma or familial consequence. For the past six years, our Massah Israel outreach has engaged with these traveling Israelis to share their faith. For almost all the Israelis, it is the first time they have had an authentic exchange on the subject. We have been able to till soil and plant seed with individuals who acknowledge that their openness is due to the fact that they aren’t in Israel!

I’ve never been so aware of my spiritually descriptive language as when I have spent time sharing the gospel with Israelis in India. Most Israelis have no context for understanding “Christianese”; it can be confusing to them at best, but downright offensive to them at worst. Our Massah teams practice giving their testimonies in a way that other Jewish people can understand and connect with.

Time for newer paradigms?

What happens when our methods are no longer effective? What happens when these new paradigms become old paradigms that are challenged by further technological and cultural development? Hopefully, we change! We must continually innovate to stay relevant, not for our own sake, but for the sake of the effective proclamation of the gospel among our Jewish people. We must continue to ask the hard questions about our tactics and be willing to change our tactics as new paradigms are proven to be effective.

Do you have an insight you would like to share? Let’s continue this conversation on our Facebook page.

This article is based on a message Aaron brought to the attendees at Urbana 2012 in St. Louis and is available on audio here.


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Aaron Trank

Aaron Trank is minister-at-large and director of recruiting at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. He was working as a software engineer in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory before he was called into ministry. He and his wife, Rachelle, have three children, Rina, Rafi and Rocco.

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