By David Sedaca
Vice President of Chosen People Ministries
Over the past three decades, a new form of congregation has arisen on the scene: the Messianic Jewish congregation. A Messianic Jewish congregation is a New Testament church that is fashioned after traditional Jewish worship styles. Messianic Jewish congregations represent followers of Jesus who wish to worship, make disciples, and witness within a Jewish framework.
The modern-day Messianic movement is the heir to the early Hebrew Christian movement. By the middle of the nineteenth century, there were many Jewish people who came to faith in Jesus and joined traditional evangelical churches. Many Jewish missions in Europe established works throughout Europe, North America, Argentina, and Israel. In those days, Jewish believers in Jesus identified themselves as “Hebrew Christians.”
For centuries, the common view among churches was that when a Jewish people believed in Jesus, they had to forfeit their Jewishness. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, many Jewish believers in Jesus began to question the rationale of that prevailing principle. Some of them formed national associations or alliances and established Hebrew Christian churches. Just prior to World War II, there were Hebrew Christian churches in Poland, Germany, United States, and Argentina.
The tragedy of the Holocaust saw the destruction of most European Hebrew Christians, and after World War II the main center for Hebrew Christianity became the United States. In the decade that followed the war, the traditional Hebrew Christians began to fade away as a younger generation of Jewish believers took the lead. Hebrew Christianity thus evolved into what we know today as Messianic Judaism.
The difference between them was not just the term that they used to identify themselves, but rather the way they expressed their belief in Jesus. Whereas the former Hebrew Christians tended to assimilate into evangelical churches, the new Messianic Jewish believers chose to identify themselves as Jews without losing their Jewish identity. The logical consequence of this change was the formation of Messianic Jewish congregations, as these followers of Jesus felt the need to be able to express their Jewish identity in a way that they could not do in traditional evangelical churches.
In 1972, the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America decided to officially adopt the name Messianic Jewish Alliance of America. It also resolved to encourage the formation of Messianic Jewish congregations as independent from evangelical denominations and Jewish missions. Within a year, there were Messianic congregations in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
Several years later, some of these congregations agreed to form an association, and they founded the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC). In 1982, another similar organization was formed to work within the organizational structure of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America—and the International Alliance of Messianic Jewish Congregations and Synagogues was born (IAMJCS).
Today, most Messianic Jewish congregations are affiliated to one of these associations, and there is close fellowship between them. In the years that followed, two additional organizations were formed: one is the Association of Southern Baptist Messianic Jewish Congregations (sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Home Missions), and the other is the Association of Messianic Jewish Congregations. All these associations now have member congregations around the world, and their annual conventions have become international gatherings for all Messianic Jewish believers.
Messianic Jewish congregations believe first and foremost that Jesus is the Messiah promised to Israel, and the Savior and Redeemer of all humankind. Therefore, membership is not limited to people of Jewish origin, but is open to all believers in Jesus. These congregations have certain characteristics that are part of Jewish tradition, such as holding services on Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) instead of Sunday, using Hebrew liturgy and Israeli music, and observing the Biblical holidays.
Today there are over 200 Messianic Jewish congregations in North America and perhaps 500 worldwide. Chosen People Ministries helps to plant and encourages the formation of Messianic Jewish congregations because they provide a safe environment to bring unsaved Jewish people and are places where Jesus is preached from a Jewish perspective. Messianic Jewish congregations are autonomous, and their spiritual leaders are commonly referred to as “Messianic rabbis.”
Today, much of Chosen People Ministries’ work is carried out within Messianic Jewish congregations that came into existence as the result of our missionary endeavors. One of the main reasons Messianic congregations exist is to share the gospel with the Jewish people. Many individual members of Messianic Jewish congregations identify themselves with the goals and programs of Chosen People Ministries and are faithful supporters of our ministry. Therefore, our partnership with Messianic Jewish congregations is by nature different from the relationship that we seek to establish with traditional churches. Many Chosen People Ministries workers have established Messianic Jewish congregations, have been part of one, or are presently members or leaders of one.
Although Chosen People Ministries does not represent the entire Messianic Jewish movement, most of us identify as Messianic Jews and are actively involved in Messianic Jewish congregations. Chosen People Ministries has started more than thirty Messianic congregations worldwide, including in Tel Aviv, Manhattan, the Washington DC area, Buenos Aires, South Florida and Southern California. In addition, Chosen People Ministries is training a new generation of congregational leaders through our Master of Divinity program, the Charles L. Feinberg Center for Messianic Jewish Studies.
Messianic congregations are not a new “fad” that will soon pass away, nor are they an experiment to be tested; rather, they are evidence of the “Power of God for salvation . . . to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).