There is no doubt about it: the church of Christ in Israel has grown numerically over the last few years. Evangelism and the immigration of believing families, particularly from the former Soviet Union, have been the major sources of this growth. In addition, the number of Jewish-Christian families in Israel has also grown over the years, naturally leading to a growth in the number of children born to Jewish-Christian parents.
New congregations have been formed in Jerusalem, Haifa and the centre of the country. The national Evangelistic Committee has continued to conduct co-operative evangelistic campaigns in various regions of Israel and on suitable occasions. Efforts to combat wide spread abortion have enlisted the support of some in the congregations. A Theological Education by Extension programme and two efforts to establish theological colleges have commenced, and the National Intercongregational Fellowship continues, although at a much lower profile than in earlier years. Without doubt, there is a flurry of activity.
In some cases, such as in Tiberias, Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Russian-speaking Jewish Christians have established separate Christian communities in which worship and witness are conducted in Russian. These communities are largely isolated from the mainstream of Israeli Jewish-Christian life: their culture of worship has simply been transplanted from foreign soil, and must now be modified in order to meet the needs and opportunities of life in Israel. There is little actual contact between these communities and the Hebrew-speaking congregations around the country – little co-operation and little knowledge of each other. Other congregations, notably in Carmid, Haifa, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Beer Sheba, have absorbed large numbers of Russian-speaking believers and have been themselves affected by the process of absorption. All such congregations have had to provide translation of the service into Russian, in some cases even Russian transliteration of their (Hebrew) hymns. Some now feature one or more songs of worship in Russian in the course of their weekly services. Many public prayers are in Russian, a language wholly unintelligible to a majority in the congregations.
Preaching has had to take note of the kind of problems which immigrants face, and churches must now extend financial and moral support to the many who have come with no resources of their own. Even the food eaten at the frequent congregational picnics has changed. Potato and mayonnaise salads often replace houmus and tehina Verenikes take the place of pitta.
Many of the churches have exhausted their resources, both material and human, in an effort to meet the needs of the immigrants. Others have chosen, on the other hand, to refuse translation into any language: ‘Anyone coming to Israel should learn Hebrew!’
The newcomers from the former Soviet Union have brought to the Israeli churches a sense of dedication and of sacrifice hitherto unknown. Their evangelistic zeal is an example to be followed. Their complete lack of materialism ought to be widely cultivated.
Regrettably, numerical growth has not been accompanied by a concurrent growth in maturity. Too many of the new congregations are the result of schism. One church actually took issue with some of its members because they supported overseas missions instead of restricting their resources to the local scene. The National Intercongregational Fellowship has almost ground to a halt, and may yet prove unable to renew its original strength.
As a result, cooperation between congregations is almost nil. Individuals move from one congregation to another without the least bit of inquiry as to the reason and the manner of their departure, and with no contact between the leaders. Two main conferences are in constant competition, so that many who attend gatherings organized by one body keep their distance from those organized by the other. Instead of cooperating in order to establish, among the small number of Jewish Christians in Israel, a quality institution for biblical and theological training, the three existent institutions are forced to choose between yielding and competing. As a result, each serves narrow sectarian interests in spite of their sincerely-avowed desire to the contrary.
Nor has the church in Israel begun to exercise its diagonal and prophetic role in society. Although a charity has been formed to push back the massive number of abortions in Israel, and in spite of the existence of a drug abusers rehabilitation centre, there is little involvement in the crying needs of society – or even wide grassroots support of the above mentioned efforts. Few congregations even make an effort to cover their own running expenses, let alone pay the salary of their minister. Instead, they are content to be supported by the generosity of Christians overseas. Bibles, books and tracts are given out with great abandon because they have cost the local believers nothing. High standards of workmanship, a Christian family lifestyle (such as a daily time of family prayer and Bible study) and consistent integrity in everyday life are still lacking. There is a tremendous need for expository and doctrinal preaching in the churches, accompanied by appropriate application to everyday life.
The recent moves towards peace have thrilled or disturbed every Israeli heart. The agreement with the Palestinians is opposed by a large majority who fear that it will inexorably lead to the creation of a Palestinian state, and that such will inevitably work against the interests of Israel. Others believe that peace accords open a door for goodwill and co-operation between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Practically none oppose the agreements with Jordan.
The above-described developments have not yet had much of an impact on the relations between Jewish and Arab Christians, but are likely to lead to such in the future. The mere possibility of ongoing fellowship will make that fellowship a reality. Wider co-operation will be welcomed by many who, while finding it difficult to co-operate with their fellow Jewish Christians, will be happy to lay hold of opportunities to work alongside Arab brethren.
Israel desperately needs, a widerung Reformed witness!