Witnessing to Russian Jews
In recent years this country has had a new influx of Russian Jewish immigrants. They have settled in several of the metropolitan areas of this country. At our encouragement, Revs. Max and Marge Doriani initiated the Dawn of Freedom outreach to Russian-speaking Jews. Max Doriani has been a Jewish believer in Yeshua for many years. Along with his extensive experience as a Jewish missionary and pastor, he is fluent in his native Russian language. The Dorianis, who presently co-pastor the Federated Church of East Smithfield [see correction in “Errata”] in central Pennsylvania, travel periodically to minister in the New York City Area, and we frequently pass on to them our Russian Jewish contacts for witnessing and/or follow-up.
While most Russian Jewish people do not have much “religious orientation,” we can and should be witnessing to them about Yeshua. In order to do this most effectively, it is helpful to know “where they are coming from.” The following pointers are adapted from material written by Max Doriani, president of the Dawn of Freedom Ministry.
1. Remember that most Russian Jews are educated and indoctrinated from childhood to be atheists. The Soviet system has no room for God, and their people are taught that only the old, the foolish and the superstitious are interested in religion or embrace it. Nevertheless, many Russian Jews have a hunger for God and his Word, although they do not recognize it as such.
2. Do not assume that Russian Jews know anything about the Old and/or the New Testaments or have any correct understanding about God. Belief in God has been presented to them as being on the same level with superstitions like belief in ghosts and genies. Nevertheless, something in the souls of these people finds meaning in mysteries.
3. Do not use expressions such as “Christ,” “Savior,” “saved,” “new birth,” or “born from above” (as “born again” would be written in the Russian language Bible). It is easy and natural for Christians to use these terms, but they mean nothing to most Russian Jews because they are concepts that need explanation, and there is no corollary to them in secular thought. Remember that words like “new birth” or “redemption” are metaphoric in their meaning. If a given culture does not use that metaphor to mean what you are trying to convey, you need to explain it.
4. Do not rely on the argument of the authority of the Scriptures. Secular-minded Jews who have not been brought up with the Scriptures do not believe in any doctrine of inspiration. Nevertheless, Russians generally do look to literature as a source of ideas and answers to life’s questions. If you start out on the basis of getting them to read the Bible for literary purposes and for its ideological content, they will probably welcome the opportunity. Then through their reading of the Scriptures the Holy Spirit will be able to show them that indeed this is God’s Word.
5. Do start out a conversation by introducing the concept of a search for the ultimate truth that is set forth in John 14:1-6. Russian and some Asian cultures respect the idea of a quest for the ultimate truth, and there is one distinct word for this kind of truth in the Russian language, Istina, which is different from mere ordinary truth. The themes of many of the great Russian literary figures such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky deal with this search for Istina—Ultimate Truth.
6. Do try to give your personal story. If a Russian Jewish person to whom you are speaking shows interest in the idea of finding the Ultimate Truth, you can then describe how you found Ultimate Truth for yourself in Jesus. Remember to explain clearly what may be obvious to you. (You can also reverse the order, beginning with your personal story and leading into the search for the Ultimate Truth.)
7. As with any witnessing situation, invite the person to ask questions and leave an opening for a longstanding question and answer relationship between you. Perhaps the best way to begin this kind of dialogue is to ask them what they have discovered to be true which has become a basis for their actions. Many will believe it to be axiomatic that a person’s actions are only valid and justified if based on truth. A good question to ask them is “What does it mean to you to be Jewish?”
Many Russian Jews were much more willing to be followers of the Jewish religion upon first leaving Russia than they were after meeting some of the rabbis who sought to bring them into the fold with the rather rigid teaching of law. Now they must reconsider what it means to be Jewish, and many are trying to discover if and where rabbinic legalism enters the picture.
8. Treat every question seriously and exhaustively if need be, even if it seems unimportant. As long as a question is sincere, you never know where it may lead.
9. If the appeal to search for the Ultimate Truth does not provoke interest, try a different approach. Search and probe in any direction that may spark an interest in the existence of God. One good question is: “If there is no God, what, more than loyalty to a nationality, does it mean to be a Jew?”
10. Be sure to be tactful as you present the gospel. Be sensitive to the fact that most immigrants welcome the opportunity to practice their English skills on a real American. This may require you to talk slowly and in Christian kindness be a patient listener. Be sure to let your Russian friend choose what he wants to talk about. Too many Christians who want to witness are only comfortable if they are allowed to set the agenda. Good witnessing involves as much listening as it does telling. You must learn to listen in order to know what and how to tell what you want. This will leave the door open for future opportunities for you and others to witness as God leads. In that way, although you yourself may not be able to take the discussion further, you have sown the seed.
11. Be prayerful and patient. In most cases a person’s coming to the Lord Jesus Christ from a background of “scientific atheism,” Communist style, takes some time.
12. Don’t be surprised if you find your Russian friend continuing to mouth the slogans of anti-religious Communism, e.g. “The purpose of religion is for the leaders to control the people and to hold them in bondage with fearful superstitions.” Most Russian immigrants are slowly replacing the structure of Communist philosophy with what they find to be true, but until they do, they tend to hold on to what they have been taught because they believe that it is historically true. They have been taught to respond to the question “What do you believe?” with “I believe in History!”, an answer that leads to other questions.
If you are faithful to God and patient, sensitive and humble in proclaiming the Savior, you can be used to help make faith in the life-changing Messiah part of the personal histories of many Russian Jews who have come to our shores seeking freedom. Then they will know the Truth, and the Truth will really set them free.