The nation's largest Protestant denomination has launched a new, aggressive campaign aimed at converting Jews to Christianity, with the publication of a prayer book that Jewish leaders describe as offensive and condescending.
The Southern Baptist International Mission Board timed this week's release of the pocket-sized prayer guide to its 40,000 churches around the country to coincide with the Jewish holidays beginning Friday evening. Dotted with photos of rabbis and Jewish holy sites, the booklet offers tips on how to evangelize Jews during their 10 holy days, when they are sensitized to spiritual matters.
"Pray each day for Jewish individuals you know by name," it suggests. "Build authentic friendships with Jewish people. Love them as you would an unsaved relative."
These terms of endearment were unpersuasive to Jewish leaders, however. "We'd like a little less love and a little more respect," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. "There's a kind of theological arrogance that pervades all of this, a certain willingness on their part to play God, and an absence of awareness that these sorts of statements throughout history are associated with coercion, hatred and violence."
While acknowledging that the prayer book might seem "wrongheaded" or "arrogant" to some, Southern Baptists said the Bible is clear on this point: Christ's followers must share the gospel with Jews and other non-Christians. Two years ago, the Southern Baptists issued a Ramadan prayer guide aimed at converting Muslims, and they plan one for Divali, the Hindu festival, as well as a Buddhist prayer guide. But they view Jews as their most important audience.
"Jesus stated clearly that his followers were to begin their witness to him in Jerusalem, the heartland of the Jews," said Don Kammerdiener, executive vice president of the International Mission Board. "Obedient Christians have no choice except to invite Jews and all other peoples to come to faith in Christ."
Unlike other denominations, Southern Baptists have never called a truce with Jews where conversion is concerned. In 1996, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution asking its 15.6 million members to "direct our energies and resources toward the proclamation of the Gospel to the Jews." But the 12-page prayer guide represents a new phase in this tense relationship because of its specificity and its direct aim at the most sacred Jewish holidays.
The book explains, for example, that on Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the Jewish New Year, Jews blow the shofar, or ram's horn. "As the shofar is sounded," the book continues, "many Jews will be asked to remember Abraham's call to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Ask God to reveal the truth of his own Fatherly sacrifice."
On day five, the book urges Christians to pray that Jews "seek to make their own lives richer through personal relationships with Christ." On day six, "that they may come to terms with their own anti-Christian biases." And on day eight, that "Jewish people would be free of the strong influence of materialism."
The conversion strategy rests on two assumptions many Jews find especially offensive. First, the guide book implies that the great majority of Jews are actually secular or atheist, based on a study by the U.S. Center for World Mission in Pasadena, Calif. The book then breaks down the numbers for each country, for example: "Israel: Jewish population: 4,500,000. Jewish believers: 5,000."
Second, the prayer book attempts to dispel what one Southern Baptist spokesman called the "myth" that one can't be Jewish and accept Jesus as the messiah. "When you become a Christian, you become more of a Jew," said spokesman Mark Kelly, pointing to the growing number of messianic Jews in the evangelical world. "It's not a genocide. It's a fulfillment. You become more Jewish than ever."