The oldest Protestant community in the Middle East is renewing their vision for 2020

The Christ Church campus in the Old City of Jerusalem (Photo courtesy)

The CMJ, “Church’s Ministry among the Jewish people,” is an Anglican missionary society founded in 1809 by Evangelical Anglicans. Originally “The London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews,” their mission was to reach out to Jews with the gospel. They established a Jewish Messianic congregation in London as early as 1813 – the first recorded assembly of Jewish believers in Jesus in modern time.

The founders of the CMJ believed in the physical restoration of the Jewish people to the Holy Land long before Herzl and long before the term “Christian Zionism” even existed. The organization built the first Protestant Church in the Middle East, in Jerusalem in 1849, “Christ Church.”

Besides Christ Church, the CMJ also manages the Christ Church guest house, Shoresh Tours, the Anglican School in Jerusalem, Beit Immanuel guest house in Jaffa, and “Beit Bracha,” a guest house in the Galilee. KNI spoke to their current communications and development officer, Benjamin Pileggi, about their new vision to reconnect with Israeli society and local Messianic congregations.

“Some people see this as a new direction, but for us it’s really about going back to our roots,” he says. “The organization has gone back and forth over the history from being more focused on the Jewish people to having a more general Christian approach. For the past few years we see an opportunity. Instead of selling assets and becoming smaller, we now have a vision of growth. We have more locals than ever who work for us, including decision makers in key positions. I think our biggest sin the past 40-50 years has been that we haven’t really told people about the amazing things we are doing.”

The organization might have shrunk in size, but since 1967, they have helped establish several Hebrew-speaking Messianic congregations in Israel. After establishing them, they have released them to be independent. The same is true about the Messianic school, Makor HaTikvah [The Source of Hope]. “The reason we have shrunk is actually a good one – it shows that the Messianic community in Israel stands on its own legs now, and raise their own funds, which is wonderful. Still, we don’t want to be in a mentality of diminishing. We want to be involved in society and make a positive change,” Pileggi says.

“We provide food for poor Ethiopian families, and we are working on a program to provide the older generation among them with Hebrew lessons and basic computer skills. We are also going to give personal economic advice and guidance. There is a Messianic Ethiopian congregation that helps us with this. They really help us understand the needs of this community. We cooperate both with Messianic congregations and with the welfare departments in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv municipalities to find the families that need our help.”

Pileggi states that they often try to come to the people’s homes to bring them their food bags, because that way they often discover other needs, like lack of kitchen utensils, for example.

“It’s often surprising to them when our team arrives and they see that it can be one Israeli, one Ethiopian and one Christian Arab,” Pileggi says. “It’s a great witness.” The CMJ also partners with Messianic charities and congregations to provide relief and education opportunities for Arabic-speaking gypsies of East Jerusalem who suffer a lot of discrimination in the Palestinian society.

In the 1840s the CMJ was highly controversial, disrupting the religious status quo of Jerusalem for the first time since the crusaders. Today it enjoys a position of being considered one of Jerusalem’s historical churches, which gives it certain privileges that Messianic congregations don’t enjoy.

“We have two hundred years of history in our baggage. Some of it good, some of it regrettably bad. And I mean this both in a spiritual and practical sense,” Pileggi says. Today they are only active in 3 countries – Israel, the UK, and the USA. Once, they were one of the largest mission organizations in the world. Wikipedia quotes a CMJ report from 1914 saying they are active in over 15 countries with 200 employees, of which 82 were Messianic Jews, or “converts from Judaism” as they labeled it. They managed schools, churches, hospitals and charity work in all their territories.

Since 1899, the Anglican Church has a separate direct Palestinian representation in Jerusalem, which is more “high church” than the CMJ. They did not receive jurisdiction over Christ Church. The CMJ is an independent Anglican society established by “low church” Anglicans with a desire to bring the gospel to the Jewish community. A desire that not all Anglicans share. The CMJ’s historic and current view of Zionism has also been controversial for many Anglicans.

This desire to bring the gospel to the Jewish people does not translate into active evangelism on the street, however. At least not anymore. “We follow a philosophy of letting them find us and ask questions,” Pileggi says. He explains that when Israeli tourists come to visit the church, to see Christmas celebrations, and enjoy an “exotic” experience, they will find material and New Testaments available for free in Hebrew. “Up to 5,000 people come to visit every year at Christmas,” he says. They are also preparing material and social media in Hebrew to explain their historic background, and their part in the history of 19th century Jerusalem.

One of the more interesting things that happened recently is a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As many other churches, Christ Church is now broadcasting their services online. Unlike the other historical churches in Jerusalem, Christ Church has Jewish symbols and Hebrew inscriptions. Some accuse the CMJ of having built it to “dupe Jewish people,” but they reply on their website:

“The Church was built by ‘low church’ Evangelicals — Protestant Christians who emphasized simplicity in their worship and buildings. They often mistrusted anything that reminded them of the Roman Catholic Church. Like many other Evangelical Anglican churches, they built a structure that was simple, unadorned and without a cross. Only in 1948 when Jordanian soldiers were destroying synagogues in the Old City, an olive wood cross was placed on the communion table in order to prevent it from being mistaken as a synagogue. Today this cross is used on the communion table during the Sunday service. There was another reason that having a church on ‘Mount Zion’ with Jewish symbols and Hebrew inscriptions appealed to Evangelical Anglicans. Due to the historical circumstances in which Anglicanism emerged there were questions about its legitimacy and identity, especially in relation to the older Christian denominations. Christ Church Jerusalem gave them a sense of ideological satisfaction as they were ‘jumping over the heads’ of Rome and Constantinople and returning to the birthplace and Jewish origins of the Church.”

“We started to livestream our services, and lots of people from all over the Middle East tuned in to our service,” Pileggi says. “People from Afghanistan, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iran. It’s amazing. We first noted it at our Easter service. It’s the Anglican liturgy, so they feel at home, it’s a church. Still, they see the Hebrew inscriptions and they hear teaching about Israel’s importance. We are now working on preparing information in English and Arabic about the Hebraic roots of the Christian faith. Hopefully, we might be able to change attitudes among Middle Eastern Christians. Because all they hear in their churches is replacement theology.”

There are Israeli Messianic congregations, and then there are the historic churches who are not very Israeli, but you seem to be somewhere in the middle.

“That’s a way to put it. Our Anglican liturgy may seem foreign and different to some, but theologically we are on the same page as the Messianic congregations, and we really try now to employ more Israelis and be more involved with the locals. We have so many ideas. Besides the charity, we want more cooperation with local congregations, scholarships for Messianic students, we have thousands of ideas.”

As they look back on 200 years of activism and evangelism in Israel, CMJ is getting ready for the next 200 years. Uniquely positioned as a historic and liturgical church, yet Evangelical, Zionist and connected to Messianic Jews.