A new congregation started last month in the Philadelphia area, just in time for the High Holy Days. The service featured a menorah, a Torah and references to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not to mention Moses.
It also featured 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 blending two clashing theologies in the attempt to attract unaffiliated and intermarried Jews, this congregation, called Avodat Yisrael (Servant of Israel), is unique.
That’s because it is believed to be the first "messianic" church ever endorsed and funded by leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the stately but struggling mainline Protestant denomination with about 2.5 million members nationwide. So-called mainline Protestant groups have not been known to target Jews for conversion, as opposed to the larger evangelical Southern Baptist Church.
The launching of Congregation Avodat Yisrael in the Philadelphia suburb of Plymouth Meeting has provoked outrage from some Jewish leaders and Presbyterian ministers, who are criticizing the congregation’s founders for using deceptive tactics to lure Jews for conversion.
But its creation may be only the beginning of a national effort by some Presbyterians to convert Jews, The Jewish Week has learned. And the swelling controversy over Avodat Yisrael is shedding light on a heretofore unknown, and 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 America and around the world.
According to the Outreach Foundation’s Web site, "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."
Burt Siegel, executive director of Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council, who has been battling with Avodat Yisrael supporters for weeks, said Tuesday he was not surprised when informed by The Jewish Week of the Outreach Foundation’s national plans to proselytize Jews.
"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," he said.
Dr. Jefferson Ritchie, associate director of the Outreach Foundation, based in Franklin, Tenn., confirmed that the end goal of the Jewish outreach 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 during a telephone interview Tuesday.
His group 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, raised as a Conservative Jew, who became an ordained Presbyterian minister and is the founder and pastor of Avodat Yisrael.
Critics of Avodat Yisrael accuse Rev. Sparks of using deceptive tactics: hiding the fact he is a minister, and that his "messianic congregation" is really a disguised Presbyterian church.
Rev. Sparks, 33, says he is not targeting Jews to leave Judaism, but is providing a positive atmosphere for Christian-Jewish couples and secular Jews to explore Jesus.
According to Edward Gehres Jr., Philadelphia’s executive presbyter, Rev. 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, an unprecedented move, according to both 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, has 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 Rev. Sparks and church actions endorsing Jewish evangelizing.
Rev. 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 ad containing the petition was published in a Philadelphia Jewish newspaper.
But several parliamentary attempts she made in recent months to overturn official church funding of Avodat Yisrael were defeated.
"Is the bottom line to convert? Of course it is," Rev. Jarvis told The Jewish Week.
She contends that 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."
In the past week, Rev. Jarvis has been meeting with other like-minded Presbyterian ministers and Rabbi Daniel Brenner, director of the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, to mobilize support.
Rabbi Brenner, 34, who is critical of Avodat Yisrael, was stunned Tuesday when informed of a plan to proselytize Jews by pro-missionary Presbyterian forces.
"I had no idea how they were attempting to work their way into the mainline Presbyterian Church, and I think that’s what really needs to be questioned," he said.
"It confirms that there is not just one person who is working in Philadelphia but that there are supporters trying to push for more of this type of Jewish messianic congregations within the Presbyterian Church."
Rabbi Brenner said as a result of the controversy, the Auburn seminary is planning a spring conference with Rev. Jarvis to "discuss the serious theological and social implications of this new development."
Also set to discuss the controversy this week in a special phone conference was Susan Andrews, the church’s top lay leader, and other leading clergy and officials. Andrews could not be reached for comment.
"There’s a lot of concern about this," said Jay Rock, the church’s new coordinator for interfaith relations, speaking from Presbyterian headquarters in Louisville, Ky.
Speaking about Avodat Yisrael and its alleged deceptions, Rock said the project "concerns me in terms of the integrity of our mission ó taking the good news of Jesus Christ into the world. How that is done and the integrity of it is very important."
Several Presbyterian officials confirmed there are sharp divisions within the movement 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 Tuesday. "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 a "validated mission support groups which are in covenant relationships with the General Assembly."
The Outreach Foundation’s Ritchie called his organization "a subgroup within the wider Presbyterian USA church family" that raises funds from leadership to support outreach and missions of the Presbyterian Church.
"We try to support those projects which have been requested," by Presbyterian USA, he said. "Occasionally we approve our own projects and inform them."
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.
This is in opposition to other Presbyterians like Rev. William Harter of Chambersburg, Pa. He told The Jewish Week Monday that based on the history of Jews as the original people in covenant with God, and the centuries of brutal religious persecution and forced conversions of Jews by Christian, that Jews should not be proselytized like other ethnic groups that the church is missionizing.
Ritchie calls this "a difference of opinion on how to interpret the discipleship to Jesus that goes back 2,000 years. In principle there is always to call to bear witness. The only question is how. People can disagree about that."
But 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."
- united states
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Jews for Jesus
- Andrew Sparks
- Cynthia Jarvis
- Burt Siegel
- Edward Gehres Jr.
- Jefferson Ritchie
- Hebrew Christians
- The Outreach Foundation
- Daniel Brenner
- Baptist Church
- Staff Writer
- executive director