Come all Ye Faithful’ is certainly not a widely sung hymn in Israel. In fact, the faithful are few and far between. Christmas here in the land where Christ spent his life and ministry is easy to miss. A mere two percent of the entire population of Israel observes the holiday. This two percent is comprised of the 130,000 people living mainly in the northern region of the country, and of this number the greatest concentration reside in the town of Nazareth, which draws significant attention as the hometown of Jesus.
Nazareth today is home to over 70,000 residents, two-thirds of which are Muslim. The other third are Christian, making it the largest concentration of Christians in the country and the only major city where Christmas decorations are noticed.
Baptists represent one of the smallest Christian groups in Israel, with a population of 3,000 in 20 churches but this dynamic community of faithful followers celebrates Christmas in a unique way. Baptists work to draw the attention of the entire country to the reason everyone is celebrating Christmas.
At the beginning of December, the windows of the Baptist School are decorated to signify the start of the season. The school is the only evangelical school in the country and combines excellent education with the teachings of Christ. Founded in 1936, more than 1,000 students, both Christian and Muslim, attend the kindergarten through 12th grade school.
During Christmas, the story of Jesus is shared with the children and an offering for the needy families in the community is collected. 2008 will mark the second year that the Evangelical Christian Convention (ECC) will hold a local Christmas gathering. The ECC is an organization joining the four major evangelical groups in Israel: Baptists, Brethren, Assemblies of God and Nazarene. Last year was the first time evangelicals were united in such an undertaking during the Christmas holiday. The event had over 1000 attendants from such places as Nazareth, Cana, Haifa, Toraan, Eilaboun, Rama, Jish, Fasouta, Ramle, Shafamer, Acre and other villages and towns in Galilee. The program, held in a wedding hall, featured several special programs including: The Melody of Peace Choir, which is an evangelical Arab youth choir reaching out to both Arabic and Hebrew speaking audiences through singing, drama, music and personal testimonies; the Hand Bell Choir, which is the only such group of its kind in the country of Israel; King’s Kids, a youth dance team that performs with both singing and dancing; and The Lord is my Banner Team, a singing group that just released their first recording under the title Days of Elijah. This year the Convention looks forward to uniting evangelicals again in this beautiful new tradition during the Christmas season.
In the 1950s a school teacher at the Nazareth Baptist School named George Laty began taking it upon himself to insure the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering was collected every year to the fullest amount possible. This is a Baptist offering given every year in honor of Lottie Moon, who served as a missionary to China for over forty years and established the week before Christmas as a time of giving for world missions. George Laty gave out envelopes to teachers, students, shop owners and many others and followed up with them to make sure they returned them with as much money as possible. He performed this role with such zeal that the offering became known locally as the “Laty moon” offering. Years after his passing, the Local Baptist Church continued the work of George Laty and named a fund after him: the George Laty Christmas Offering. The collection is used to provide needy families with food and provisions at Christmas, with the constant reminder that the greatest gift of all is the gift of God to man: Jesus Christ.
Among other things, Baptists also take part in the local ministry at the First Century Nazareth Village, a living presentation of the life, times, and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth for the entire world. The site draws visitors and locals alike for a walk-through experience to better understand how Christ was born, became flesh and dwelt among us. Locals dressed in the role of villagers act out scenes of first century life, including the well known biblical scenes of the angel appearing to the shepherds, and of course Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus. Visitors can experience full immersion in the first century with the sights, sounds and smells of a real village and interact with its inhabitants.
While the Christian world celebrates Christmas and remembers the birth of Jesus at this time of year, Baptists in Israel desire a special prayer as they represent only two percent of two percent of the population of their country and consistently try to remain a steadfast testimony. Those visiting Israel are encouraged to visit a Baptist church or ministry while in the country so local believers will be strengthened in their call to be salt and light in the land where the Christmas story began over 2000 years ago.
Hannah Byrd, a native of Dallas, Texas, is currently living in Nazareth, Israel and volunteering with the Association of Baptist Churches in Israel.
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