“A minority, within a minority, within a minority.” This is how Azar Ajaj, President of Nazareth Evangelical Theological Seminary (NETS) describes Arab-Israeli Evangelicals in Israel. He made the comment to a group of ten Logsdon Seminary students from Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, who participated in a travel course in Israel in May.
The experience was unforgettable and life changing. The purpose of the travel course was two-fold: to gain firsthand experience in the land of the Bible, and to interact with the students and faculty of NETS. When we were not exploring various sites in the land, we were in the classroom learning from Ajaj and other faculty members at the Nazareth Seminary. These experiences provided remarkable first-hand insight into the life of Arab-Israeli Christians in Israel.
At the request of the Association of Baptist Churches in Israel, the Nazareth Evangelical Theological Seminary was founded in 2007, with the Scottish missionary Bryson Arthur as its first president. Ajaj has been part of the school from the beginning, first as a financial administrator and teacher, and now serving as president, a role he has held since 2013.
NETS exists to offer theological training for evangelical Arabs in order to equip and prepare them for ministry and to be leaders in their land. Ajaj explained that the mission of the seminary is three-fold: first, to provide good and adequate theological education; second, to raise up strong and capable leaders who can meet the crisis in the Middle East; and third, to be an organization of reconciliation.
Evangelicals – including Baptists and others of the free-church tradition – are a small group in Israel. They comprise about 5,000 of the 150,000 Christians who live in Israel, which has a total population of about 8.1 million people. These demographics suggest the potential for a great harvest of faith in Christ, and the Evangelical community in Nazareth, as well as the rest of Israel, is experiencing steady growth. Because of this growth, Ajaj says there is a great need for trained ministers of the Gospel to reach out to the people of Israel.
The focus of NETS is unique in the fact that it “is the only [Arabic] Evangelical college in Israel,” according to Ajaj. This fact allows NETS to specifically focus on training those individuals who know their cultural context the best: indigenous Christians centered on presenting the Good News of Jesus Christ in a relevant way to their community.
The second mission of the Nazareth seminary is to train strong leaders. “When you want to invest in the future of any church,” Ajaj explains, it is best to “invest in the leaders because they will be the people who will influence the church.” NETS works to prepare ministers who not only gain a strong theological education but also become effective leaders within their local community, local churches, and the Middle East. Anyone who has kept up with current affairs, understands that there is a leadership challenge in the Middle East, and Ajaj believes that this problem contributes to an inadequate understanding about biblical leadership for the church. As a result, students at NETS enroll in leadership courses from the first week of class.
The seminary also provides bi-monthly leadership seminars for local pastors. Currently there are eighteen Baptist churches in Israel, and NETS has three graduates from their program serving as ministers in various churches. Ajaj is hopeful that these seminars, which offer a forum for pastors all over Israel to interact with one another, will lead to a more unified church in Israel.
The third mission of NETS is to be a community of reconciliation. Ajaj explains, “This country suffers a lot from divisions and tensions between different groups – Arabs and Jews, and Muslims and Christians.” Sometimes the divisions create conflicts between Arab believers and Jewish believers. In response, NETS works to build bridges between these different groups, so that the school can be “an example of peacemakers, of people who reconcile,” according to Ajaj.
NETS encourages their students to interact with those who believe differently from themselves. Ajaj says, “We think we understand each other but the truth is we never took the time to study and listen and hear what the other believes.” The effort to listen to one another does not mean that we necessarily agree with the beliefs of a Jewish person or a Muslim person, but in order to move toward reconciliation, there must be a place for open conversation. NETS strives to be such a place.
Finally, Ajaj spoke candidly with me about some misconceptions that we have about Arabs in Israel and the Middle East. Not all Arabs are Muslims. In fact, Arab Christians have lived in the Middle East from before the dawn of Islam in the 7th century. It is important for believers in the United States to understand that we have Christian brothers and sisters in Israel who are Arab-Israelis, in addition to Christians who are Messianic Jews. Ajaj said, “I’m not pro-Jew, I’m not pro-Arab, I’m pro-Christ.” Ajaj and NETS are about the mission of elevating the Good News of Jesus in a part of the world that desperately needs the message of reconciliation and hope.
-- by Bryce Null, Logsdon Seminary student