NAZARETH, Israel (BP)–Flat-roofed houses still dot the Nazareth skyline like they did in Jesus’ time, but these days they’re covered with satellite dishes.
A good bit has changed since Jesus grew up in the Galilean city. But one thing rings true across the years: Christ’s hometown still needs His peace, said Charles Tyson*.
“People think of Israel, and they automatically think of biblical Israel instead of the modern-day political state of Israel,” said Tyson, a Southern Baptist worker in Israel. They don’t realize that Israel is a diverse nation of many different ethnic populations, he explained.
The residents of Nazareth — including the members of Israel’s first Baptist church, planted 100 years ago — are Arabs, not Jews, even though Israel is majority Jewish. The Word is preached today in Arabic at Nazareth Baptist Church, just as the church’s first sermon was preached decades before Israel was a nation.
Today in the town of 80,000, roughly 80 percent are Muslim, 20 percent are Christian by background and a tiny sliver of that number are evangelical believers in Jesus.
It’s that way even though Christians have had strong roots in the town since Jesus’ day. Two churches — including the Church of the Annunciation, the largest church in the area — claim to be on the place where Gabriel told Mary she would bear God’s Son.
“Even in Nazareth where we’ve had a Christian presence for a long time, it’s hard for Arab Muslims to see what a Christian is,” said Adam Roberts *, a Southern Baptist worker in Israel. “We want to show them that it’s not just our identification or our background. Our faith … transforms our whole life in Christ.”
It’s slow work to overcome religious barriers, but workers are still tending the mission field where Baptists began planting spiritual seeds in 1911, Roberts said. One way he’s doing this is through his work at Nazareth Baptist School, where he teaches Bible to teens. About 20 percent of the K-12 students are from a Muslim background, he said.
“The parents in the community respect the high academic reputation of the school to the degree that they are willing to accept that their children will be taught about the Bible,” Roberts said. “Because of this, I’m able to talk openly about the Gospel.”
“Openly” is a bit of an understatement — he said he’s shared the Gospel more in one year at the school than he did in several years of youth ministry back in the States, he said.
“I encourage them to speak freely about their questions and their own faith and talk about where our beliefs are different,” Roberts said. “I tell them if we fall to the temptation to say we are the same, we are robbing both of us of important aspects of our faith. It’s good to talk about what we share, but it’s also good to discuss where we are different.”
Roberts asked for believers to pray:
— for the 1,000 students who attend the Baptist school in Nazareth.
— that the school will find qualified teachers who are Christ followers.
— that churches in the United States will partner with the school, leading a week of chapel at the school or partnering in other types of work.
*Names have been changed. Ava Thomas is an International Mission Board writer/editor based in Europe.