Jewish people living in Israel today who have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior have little difficulty in finding a Hebrew-speaking group with which to worship, says author Chandler Lanier. But that has not always been the case.
And Lanier would know. From 1961 to 1989, the Macon, Ga., native served in Israel with the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. During that time, he edited the Hebrew publication, "Hayahad," and the English publication, "Hayahad Digest."
In his book, "Can These Bones Live?" Lanier shares his eyewitness account of spiritual renewal in Israel during the 30 years he lived and worked there.
According to Lanier, his book serves as a record of how God chose to move in many and "often strange" ways to bring about this work of the Holy Spirit in the land of Israel.
He outlines the roots of the revival, the resulting benefits, how the renewal affected Jews, Arabs and expatriates alike, and its affect on both Protestants and Catholics. Lanier also shares the personal accounts of many young people transformed by the renewal.
"The Holy Spirit began to make His presence felt in Israel in the late 1960s against a backdrop of desperate needs, frustrated hopes and pathetic groping for the will of God," Lanier recalls.
The 36 Christian denominations represented in Israel were tightly secured in their denominational fortresses in the '60s. "Timidly, delegates of 18 of these denominations came together once a year at the annual United Christian Council in Israel (UCCI) meeting in Tiberias," Lanier explains. "We had all arrived in the country with our different backgrounds and policies, and while there was a cool politeness among Christians, there was not the warmth and trust that makes for real fellowship."
At first, when the handful of Jewish believers began to attend these annual meetings, the Arab Christians would grumble. But the Jewish and Arab Christians could agree on one thing, says Lanier. They each held a "rather lightly veiled attitude toward expatriates of 'Foreigner, go home.'"
Lanier himself admits to being a "strong denominational man, loving my Southern Baptist heritage." He began to learn, however, that the Body of Christ transcends denominations to include all who walk closely with the Lord Jesus. "I began to realize that one's loyalty to one's own denomination is not compromised by cooperating with other Christians."
A Personal Trial
The Lanier family first arrived in Israel on March 29, 1961. Chandler, his wife Sallie, and their four children spent time studying the language, then moved to a suburb of Tel Aviv. There was a strong anti-American bias in Israel at the time due to the aftermath of the 1956 war with Egypt. Israel had conquered the Sinai, but pressure from the United States forced Israel to give the Sinai back to Egypt.
Thus, the environment wasn't exactly welcoming. According to Lanier, his two youngest children suffered persecution while attending Israeli schools. "The physical ill treatment of our children continued for four years," he adds. "The Lord would eventually give us victory, but the trial took its toll on our lives."
But it was during that time that the roots of the renewal began to emerge. Lanier concedes that a Christian presence existed before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Baptists, both nationals and expatriates, had labored in the land since 1911. "And we were just one denomination ...and a very latecomer at that."
For hundreds of years, the Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Anglicans, Greek Orthodox Coptics and the Church of Scotland - to name just a few - had worked in the land. "All of these had their institutions that had healed, educated and ministered to both Arab and Jew faithfully for centuries," says Lanier.
Prior to 1961, however, the efforts of Evangelical Christians were met with scorn by most Israelis. Lanier explains that centuries of distrust and misinformation about Jesus pervaded Jewish thinking.
"Then came a subtle change in the attitude toward the person of Jesus in Isreal," Lanier continues. "Perhaps the Holy Spirit used Jewish thinkers themselves to bring about the change."
Remarkably, Jewish authors began to pour out books about Jesus, "and none of them was insulting or derogatory. Many of these books expressed a real appreciation for a Jesus who was part of Jewish history," according to Lanier.
Another "root" of the renewal can be attributed to the free-thinking that characterized the '60s. The Jew, for the first time in almost 2000 years, felt free to investigate new ideas, and young people were seeking answers to the meaning of life. "We Christians enjoyed a more relaxed atmosphere in which to present the gospel of Jesus Christ," says Lanier.
Then it came. The "Jesus Cycle," as described by Lanier, was followed by the "Holy Spirit Cycle" - and the renewal was felt across the land like a mighty wind. The Holy Spirit acted as the catalyst that brought all the elements of the renewal together, says Lanier, "shaking the Body of Christ in Israel to its foundations."
Two other cycles followed - the Cycle of Discipling and the Cycle of Persecution. According to Lanier, the Orthodox Jews made an attempt to curtail Evangelical activity through legislation. They took the stance, "Observe Judaism in Orthodox worship or get out of the country." Such an attitude was alienating, not only to Arabs, but also to secular and Reform Jews as well.
Lanier says the Christians endured this attack with patience and increasing commitment. By showing empathy toward the plight of suffering Jews in Russia and other countries, Christians earned the respect of Israelis who were not Orthodox and who were "smarting" under the pressure to conform. Almost 82 percent of Israelis are not Orthodox Jews and resented the strong-arm tactic.
The rest of "Can These Bones Live?" provides an in-depth look at the renewal and paints intimate details of changed lives in Israel.
One point that Lanier emphasizes is that the renewal can't be credited solely to the Charismatic Movement. "While the Charismatic Movement played a leading role in the renewal," he explains, "the renewal had many roots."
Conversely, the contribution of the Charismatic Movement can't be minimized. "It is a matter of record that the great majority of the young people who came to the Lord ... were either in the Movement or were influenced by it," says Lanier. "The renewal had many roots, the Charismatic Movement being one of them, but not the only one."
Lanier retired from his work in Israel in 1989, but has returned four times to update his account of the renewal for "Can These Bones Live?"
There are now 34 small Christians congregations in the country, with the largest being four Roman Catholic churches with more than 1,500 members, In addition, says Lanier, an unknown number of house groups meet several times a week.
According to Lanier, the future of believers in Israel appears bright. He feels there are several reasons for this optimism. First is the great influx of Russians into the country. A surprisingly high percentage of these Russian Jews are already believers, who are "trained in faith survival."
Also, the conduct of the Christians has "given pause to secular Jews," says Lanier. "These believers are Jews too, and Israel is their country."
Ironically, it may be the ongoing tension and fighting with the Palestinians that is nourishing the growth of Christianity in Israel. Lanier quotes Golda Meir: "Israel can only remain united under pressure. If there was not a crisis facing the country, we would have to invent one."
Most personally though, it costs something for a Jews to accept Jesus Christ as savior, Lanier concludes. "There is pressure on the Israeli who has taken that step that most Christians in America have never experienced. The result of this testing is a vital, strong faith that is no stranger to storms."