A Drew University professor who has spent years studying evangelical Christianity says a once mighty men's revival group is back and is intensifying its outreach to the Jewish community.
And while some of this outreach is in the name of interfaith amity, the group is also firming up its ties to messianic Jews - Jews by birth who profess a belief in both Judaism and Jesus as their messiah.
Messianic Judaism is considered anathema to almost all mainstream Jewish organizations.
J. Terry Todd, director of Drew's Center on Religion, Culture & Conflict, recently watched a webcast of a two-day conference and prayer rally sponsored by Promise Keepers.
The group, which hit its peak around 1997, was best known for "spectacular stadium rallies" that drew thousands of Christian men for weekends of praying and religious revival.
The group's membership and revenues have declined since the 1990s, but Todd says PK is back, more modest in scope but repackaged to promote reconciliation among its male target audience and women, the poor, and people who consider themselves Jewish, whether or not they accept Jesus as the messiah.
According to an article Todd wrote for the website ReligionDispatches.org, the July 31-Aug. 1 rally, held at the stadium of the University of Colorado, was replete with Jewish symbolism. Leaders blew the shofar, welcomed 10,000 guests with the words "Shabbat Shalom," apologized for Christian participation in the Holocaust, and even donned yellow stars as an act of solidarity with Jewish victims of the Nazis.
At the same time, Todd wrote, the rally featured a "parade of messianic Jewish speakers and entertainers," including Jonathan Bernis, Joel Chernoff, Dan Juster, and musicians Paul Wilbur and Marty Goetz.
Todd said the outreach to Jews "blindsided me."
In a telephone interview with NJ Jewish News, the Drew educator said he "was stunned at how frankly PK took on the issue of Christian anti-Semitism. There are some interesting currents going on here. While they are confessing Christian anti-Semitism and Christian complicity in the Holocaust, at the same time their final goal is the conversion of all Israel to Yeshua, the Hebrew name for Jesus."
Todd, who was born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., as a Christian fundamentalist, is now a practicing mainline Methodist.
"PK is on a fool's errand," he told NJJN. "Their hope is for the conversion of the Jews to Christianity. That is a prerequisite for their ultimate goal: bringing about the end of days. If they can make a major a push for the conversion of all Israel - that is the way they phrase it - you can keep all of your Jewish cultural stuff. They expect you to keep your mezuza on the door."
'Best friends in the world'
But in a telephone interview from his Denver office, Promise Keepers president Raleigh Washington insisted he is not working to turn Jews into Christians - not exactly.
"I don't believe in conversion," he said. "That means you convert from being Jewish to Christian. I don't believe that at all. I believe that if a Jewish person waiting for his messiah feels Yeshua is his messiah, he is as much Jewish as he ever was. Conversion to me is a faulty doctrine. I am an African-American, and I was as much black before I became a Christian as I was after I became a Christian."
"Basically," Washington told NJJN, "we are honoring the spiritual fathers of our Christian faith. The foundation of the Christian faith is Jewish. Jesus, whom we believe to be the messiah, is Jewish. All of his disciples were Jewish."
At one point during the Colorado rally, according to the PK website, a messianic "rabbi" named Aaron Fruh of the Knollwood Church in Mobile, Ala., asked his audience to "wear the yellow star of David as a declaration of solidarity with my people."
"There might be 50 or 60 or 70 people who did not put them on, but I'm telling you that virtually everybody I saw put one on had tears in their eyes," said Washington, an ordained minister in the Evangelical Free Church of America. "We were saying, 'We will stand with God's chosen people, even if it costs us our lives.'
"Israel and Jewish people - both messianic and those who are not messianic - the best friends in the world they have are Christians," he added.
Todd writes that that friendship might represent another agenda as well: "the preoccupations of many politically conservative evangelicals in the post-9/11 period, in particular, the hope that a new Judeo-Christian alliance might be the bulwark that saves the West against the threat of 'radical Islam.'"