Evangelistic Ministry to Jewish Gentile Couples
By Tuvya Zaretsky, President of LCJE
The purpose of this paper is to stimulate discussion around theoretical strategies and practical means for reaching Jews and Gentiles as mixed couples.
We will first establish common terminology for the discussion. Next, we will consider why this subject is important for the field of Jewish evangelism. Third, findings will be presented from a qualitative study that suggests some direction for strategic thinking. Some missiological considerations lead into the discussion time.
I use the term Jewish-Gentile couples to indicate a couple composed of two ethnicities, where one partner is a Jew. I purposely avoid the couplet "Christians and Jews" as misleading. All Gentiles are not Christians, and some Jewish people are within the remnant of Jews who are Christians. Therefore, Jewish-Gentile couple is a more accurate term.
Various other terms are subject to nuance. Jewish-Gentile partners can be dating, co-habiting or married. Hence, the term "intermarried" does not apply in all cases. The term "interfaith" applies only when Jewish-Gentile partners identify themselves with two different religions. An "interracial" couple indicates that the Gentile partner is identified within a racial minority.1 “Intercultural” couple is an appropriate name when both partners share the same religious faith. Now that some common terms are suggested we can consider the significance of this subject for Jewish evangelism.
Since 1985, intermarriage has been become the top sociological discussion topic on the agenda among North American Jewish leaders. It has overshadowed a negative net-birthrate (1.8 children per couple), and a religious affiliation rate that has fallen below 33%.
The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey noted that 52% of all Jews marrying in the previous five years had married non-Jews. Over more than 20 years that statistic has continued true and has even shown a slight increase. The result is a changing Jewish demographic in the makeup of North American Jewry. The impact is becoming apparent to many who serve Jewish missions in America.
The burgeoning number of young people we are meeting as Jewish-Gentile couples is evidence of this significant culture change. On a wider perspective, studies show a waning will to be identified as Jewish among American college students. That should be no surprise with the philosophical influence of post-modern thought and the social pervasiveness of religiously indeterminate intermarried couples.
Sociological and psychological studies have shown that Jewish-Gentile couples have a greater difficulty in achieving marital satisfaction than do endogamous couples. They experience a higher rate of martial dissolution. They have a greater complexity of challenges to overcome than do in-married couples.
Researchers like Brandeis sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman have studied the threats of interfaith marriage to Jewish identity and Judaism.2 Previously little had been done to solicit the opinions and feelings of Jewish and Gentile partners. Another anthropological study published in 2004 identified the challenges reported by Jewish-Gentile couples along two intersecting categories.3
Different challenges are presented across four stages of relationship development. Intercultural differences vary from the dating relationship, into the wedding ceremony, through marriage without children and then dramatically increase with the arrival of children in the family. The types of challenges that emerge throughout each of those relational phases were identified within five cultural categories: identity, religion, family, life-cycles/rituals and the enculturation of children.
Attention to those challenges reported by Jewish-Gentile couples will direct our attention to specific avenues into their culture where appropriate evangelistic ministry might be applied. For example, cross-cultural conflicts occurring during the dating stage often happen within the cultural categories of identity and religion where assistance with cross-cultural translation or explanation can be helpful. Challenges that emerge during wedding ceremony planning drive couples to seek assistance from an outside source or potential officiant who can creatively ease religious tensions emerging between the cultural disparity in traditions and rituals. The greatest challenge for couples with or without children is the longing for spiritual harmony. While this challenge might cause a dating couple to end their relationship before matrimony it is devastating to the satisfaction and stability of a married couple and potentially harmful to their children. It is undoubtedly a significant entry point for extending spiritual ministry to Jewish-Gentile partners. The missiological implications are significant.
1. Personal peace and satisfaction that stems from a relationship with God is a starting point for reconciliation within a couple, a family and a society.
2. The only “one faith” option that works is rooted in the Messiah Jesus (Acts 4:12). Jewish-Gentile couples are often told that three options are available for the religious cultural component of their relationship: “one faith,” “both faiths” or “neither/no faith.” A "one faith" option elects one dominant family religion to the exclusion of any other. That can be a healthy solution when the chosen faith is mutually satisfying and each partner mutually embraces the culture of the other’s ethnicity. A few Messianic or Christian congregations have succeeded with an intentional outreach as a one-faith option.
3. Ministry must distinguish between spiritual harmony and cross-cultural appreciation of ethnic identity. Traditional Judaism encourages interfaith couples to make Jewish choices that will lead to increased affiliation. A challenge of the one faith option is to embrace the ethnicity and culture of both partners equally while promoting a mutually satisfying spiritual approach to God. Otherwise, one or the other partner may become marginalized and left feeling like a token member of the community.
4. The Gospel of the Messiah Jesus is revealed within culture while imparting the truth that is supra cultural. Therefore, it is the best answer for the hope in a mutually satisfying spiritual connection with God while preserving the ethnic distinctions present in a Jewish-Gentile couple and their family.
Some suggestions for practical ministry
Some questions for discussion are posed. First, have you found a greater or lesser success at any one of the four relational phases mentioned earlier (dating, wedding event, married without children and family with children)?
Second, have you found or experienced ministry success or failure by focusing on any one of the four relational categories mentioned earlier (identity, religion, family, life-cycles/rituals and enculturation of children)?
Third, do you know of or have you initiated any particular program that is successfully reaching Jewish-Gentile couples?
Four, what helpful thoughts have you entertained about ministry to Jewish-Gentile couples and their families that might be shared in our discussion here?
Fifth, have you considered any of your own biases regarding Jewish-Gentile marriage?
Sixth, who could be trained and/or mobilized to help in the Evangelization of Jewish-Gentile couples?
1. I am taking a North American point of reference here and throughout.
2. Sylvia Barack Fishman, Double of Nothing? Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage. (Lebanon, NH: Brandeis University Press, 2004).
3. Enoch Wan and Tuvya Zaretsky, Jewish-Gentile Couples: Trends, Challenges and Hopes, (Pasadena: William Carey Library Publishers, 2004).