Menu JTA Search

Presbyterian proselytizing upsets Jews

NEW YORK, Oct. 22 (JTA) — A new congregation started last month in the Philadelphia area just in time for the High Holidays. The service featured a menorah, a Torah and references to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. It also featured a cross, communion, and references to Jesus and salvation. While there have been no shortage of attempts by Christian groups like Jews for Jesus and Hebrew Christians to sponsor religious events that infuse Jesus into Jewish services in an attempt to proselytize Jews, this congregation, called Avodat Yisrael, is unique. It is believed to be the first “messianic” church ever endorsed and funded by leaders of the Presbyterian Church, the stately but struggling mainline Protestant denomination with about 2.5 million members in the United States. So-called mainline Protestant groups largely have resisted from targeting Jews for conversion, in contrast to the larger evangelical Southern Baptist Church. The launching of Congregation Avodat Yisrael in the Philadelphia suburb of Plymouth Meeting has provoked outrage among Jewish leaders and some Presbyterian ministers, who are criticizing the congregation’s founders for using deceptive tactics to lure Jews for conversion. But its creation may be a sign of the beginning of a national effort by some Presbyterians to convert Jews.The swelling controversy over Avodat Yisrael is shedding light on a largely unexamined but deep rift within the Presbyterian Church over proselytizing Jews. A group called the Outreach Foundation, which is affiliated with Presbyterian Church USA and financially supports the minister who started Avodat Yisrael, says it is seeking to expand its evangelism to Jews in the United States and around the world. “Many Presbyterians are interested in Jewish evangelism, and the aim of this project is not only to support this Philadelphia-based ministry, but to assist in the development of an emerging network of Presbyterians interested in, praying for, supporting, and participating in evangelistic ministry among Jewish people in the USA and around the world,” says a statement on the Outreach Foundation’s Web site. Jefferson Ritchie, associate director of the Foundation, which is based in Franklin, Tenn., confirmed that the end goal of the outreach effort is to convert Jews. “We believe in a future where Jews and non-Jews are following Jesus as Lord. The question is how do you do that in the present time,” he said in an interview. Burt Siegel, executive director of Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council, who has been fighting the Avodat Yisrael supporters for weeks, said he was not surprised by the foundation’s plans to proselytize Jews. The foundation has obtained $345,000 from Presbyterian Church USA. “I always had the feeling that if they succeeded here in Philadelphia in creating this amalgam of Jewish and Presbyterian worship, and had the support of the church, that we would see others popping up around the country,” Siegel said. The Outreach Foundation has given $5,000 to Messiah Now Ministries, the Philadelphia-based group that sponsors Avodat Yisrael. The director of Messiah Now Ministries is Andrew Sparks, who was raised as a Conservative Jew but became an ordained Presbyterian minister and is the founder and pastor of Avodat Yisrael. Critics of Avodat Yisrael accuse Sparks of using deceptive tactics by hiding the fact that he is a minister and that his “messianic congregation” is really a disguised Presbyterian church. Sparks, 33, says he is not advocating that Jews leave Judaism, just enabling them to explore Jesus. According to Edward Gehres Jr., Philadelphia’s executive presbyter, Sparks and his congregation “are a part of and accountable to the Presbytery of Philadelphia, the regional governing body of the Presbyterian Church USA.” Avodat Yisrael is also being financed by several levels of official Presbyterian bodies, which is unprecedented according to Christian and Jewish participants. It is the only funded messianic project of 11,142 Presbyterian churches in America. The Presbytery of Philadelphia pledged $145,000 to support the congregation for five years. The regional Pennsylvania Synod pledged $75,000 and the General Assembly of Presbyterian Church USA, the national governing body, pledged $125,000. “It’s a huge cause for concern,” said Rev. Cynthia Jarvis, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, who is leading an ad hoc group of ministers to oppose Sparks and church actions endorsing Jewish evangelizing. Jarvis has spearheaded a petition drive, which has garnered 150 signatures, declaring that Avodat Yisrael’s promotion of “messianic Judaism” is “misleading both to the Jews and to the Christian and to be contrary to our own theological tradition.” An advertisement containing the petition was published in a Philadelphia Jewish newspaper. But several attempts Jarvis made in recent months to overturn official church funding of Avodat Yisrael were defeated. “Is the bottom line to convert? Of course it is,” Jarvis said in an interview. She says the Presbyterian Church, which suffers from dwindling revenue and membership — losing 4.5 percent, or 154,000, members between 1998 and 2001 — should not pour $345,000 into a church in Philadelphia to convert Jews. “Presbyterians would do well to spend their evangelical time and money on all those gentiles having coffee at Starbucks on Sunday morning and leave God’s relationship with the Jews to God,” she said. “Or better yet, we would do well to enter a conversation with our Jewish brothers and sisters whose hearing of the biblical story we share just might open our minds and hearts to an understanding of God’s purposes we could never know without them.” This month, Jarvis met with other like-minded Presbyterian ministers and Rabbi Daniel Brenner, director of the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary, in New York, to mobilize support. Brenner said that as a result of the controversy, the Auburn seminary is planning a spring conference with Jarvis to “discuss the serious theological and social implications of this new development.” “There’s a lot of concern about this,” said Jay Rock, the church’s coordinator for interfaith relations, speaking from her office in Louisville, Ky. Rock said the Avodat Yisrael project “concerns me in terms of the integrity of our mission — taking the good news of Jesus Christ into the world. How that is done and the integrity of it is very important.” There are sharp divisions among Presbyterian officials about how Christians should fulfill their sacred mission to “witness” their faith to the non-Christian world. “There are conflicting opinions about what constitutes good mission practice and what constitutes bad, deceptive mission practice, and that’s what were in the middle of,” Rock said. But Rock sought to distance the national church from the Outreach Foundation. “They are not part of the formal church structure,” he said. “They make their own decisions, they have their own board. They’re totally separate and independent.” According to the Presbyterian Church USA’s Web site, the Outreach Foundation is an “important partner” with the church’s Office of International Evangelism. It is one of three such groups listed as “validated mission support groups which are in covenant relationships with the General Assembly.” Ritchie defended his group’s Jewish evangelical initiative as consistent with church policy, citing a 1991 policy document approved by Presbyterian Church USA’s General Assembly, or governing body, that says, “Christians owe the message of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ to every person and every people.” Ritchie says like-minded Presbyterians make no exception to evangelism for the Jewish people. Veteran interfaith expert Rabbi James Rudin called the church’s funding of Avodat Yisrael “an act of institutional and theological condescension” and “a huge step backwards in its relations with the Jewish people.”