Twenty years ago, there were just a few dozen Messianic soldiers serving in the IDF. Today, according to our research, some 150 Israeli believers join the army each year as another 150 leave, and at in any given time there are about 450-500 Messianic soldiers in active service. When talking to Israelis in their 20’s or 30’s about Jesus, some have already heard a bit about our faith while they were in the army through the witness of Messianic soldiers serving alongside them.
There was a time when Jewish followers of Jesus wouldn’t be trusted in the Israeli military, but we have never been granted exemption from serving which is offered to Orthodox Jews. However a lot has changed in the last few decades. Over the years, due to ethics inspired by the New Testament such as obeying governing authorities (Romans 13:1-3) and doing our very best for God (Colossians 3:23), Messianic believers in the army have won trust, respect, and high rank. We have been looking into the changes and developments among Messianic soldiers serving in the IDF.
The Spiritual Desert of Military Service
Growing up as believers in Israel, a Jewish country, where professing faith in Jesus as Messiah is seen as possibly one of the worst kinds of “treasons”, the temptation is to restrict interaction with the hostile world. This creates a “Messianic bubble” or the “two kingdoms approach” to life. Because Messianic Israelis are a minority, teens and young adults tend to separate their faith life from their civilian life out of shame and fear of rejection. However, in military service, young believers find, often for the first time, that they cannot hide their faith from those they are serving alongside 24/7. If they want to follow Jesus, they must deal with the repercussions and reactions that they will inevitably face. Military service is difficult mentally, socially, spiritually and practically, so with all these pressures combined with their young age, many end up struggling with their faith.
When asked what they associate with the term “IDF”, the most common response from Messianic soldiers was ‘spiritual desert’.
Many young people hear that a large percent leave the faith during their military service and that those who remain barely survive as believers. This can produce fear which in turn leads to a defeatist mindset. Many opt to bite their tongues and put their faith ‘on hold’, living a life of compromise and sometimes abandoning their faith altogether. Some start with strong discipline but when wearied by half way through their service, they adopt a survival mentality, stop sharing their faith and stagnating in growth.
Believers in the IDF say…
Our soldiers department, Tzofen, carried out an academic survey in 2019 in which about 160 Messianic soldiers took part (about a third of all Messianic soldiers serving in the army). According to the data, we found:
- As many as 80% of the believers in the IDF reported that they struggled during their service
- 30% indicated that they feel they are not a testimony of the Messiah in their unit
- 45% indicated that they do not have the tools and knowledge to demonstrate the Messianic prophecies about Jesus
- 10% indicated that they turn to their pastor or youth leader when they are dealing with doubts and spiritual difficulties
- 42% indicated that they face social loneliness due to being the only believers at their base
- 22% indicated that they are in an romantic relationship with an unbeliever (about 80% of which were girls)
- about 40% indicated that they do not feel part of their home congregation and that the congregation is not interested in their situation
- and perhaps the saddest and most difficult statistic is that 30-40% end up leaving the faith all together by the end of their military service.
The reasons for these statistics are diverse – lack of fellowship, lack of apologetics knowledge to explain their faith, an unstable foundation of faith and theology, romantic relationships, a millennial and postmodernist generation that casts doubt on everything… It is hard living in a religious and traditional society where believers in Jesus are not accepted and comfortable, and many simply lack the skills to live in such close proximity to other beliefs and opinions, due to the “bubble environment” they grew up in.
In the past, many felt that we’ve been fighting on many fronts as the Body of Messiah in Israel, but losing the war with our youth. Our young people were leaving their faith in the army, and very little was being done to stop it. But today we are changing these statistics significantly! In recent years a new generation of young Messianic Jews has risen up in Israel; a generation that wants, with God’s help, to serve and build a stronger, better-equipped and theologically-based ministry to Messianic soldiers in the IDF. By God grace, our Tzofen soldiers ministry is a central platform for such servants!
Serving our soldiers
At Tzofen we believe that ‘survival’ is not the default for the Messianic soldier. We believe that the IDF (beyond being one of the most effective platforms for evangelism among our people) is an opportunity to mature in many ways, especially in faith (Acts 4:15). It is possible to finish military service more mature and more like Jesus rather than simply surviving. We must not adopt a defeatist spirit but a spirit of victory in Jesus (John 16:33; Romans 8:37). This is not an optimistic delusion but an achievable reality with the help of Jesus, dwelling inside us as His disciples!
Our three main areas of work are:
- Preparing Messianic high schoolers for their military service by building them up in their faith, values, identity, and other useful tools they will need in the IDF.
- Strengthening, training and teaching those who are currently in the IDF about spiritual discipline and discipleship to strengthen and stabilize their faith, so that they can be light and testimony to the world during their military service.
- Discipleship for released soldiers as they go back into life as part of the local congregation and also to the civilian life in Israel.
The state of Israel is small and the Body of Messiah is a small minority within that population. This means that when we offer a pre-military preparation program and hold soldiers’ conferences, over 50% or sometimes even 70% of all Messianic soldiers come to our activities. We are able to influence and encourage the majority of believing soldiers in the whole country through our video content, events, studies and discipleship.
In the survey, we also investigated how helpful and effective our ministry has been to soldiers so far. The results showed that:
- 81% of the soldiers indicated that our conferences and biblical studies events are building, strengthening, and meet their spiritual needs for their time in military service.
- 74% indicated that the videos, articles, and devotionals we send them by phone each week are a steady theological ground for studying the Bible at their base.
This data, along with the testimonies and feedback we receive from the soldiers at conferences and through messages they send us are evidence that we are going in the right direction! The soldiers ministry is evidently much needed and appreciated, and is proving effective in helping our soldiers stand strong in their faith.
At the moment are praying earnestly about the post pandemic reality we will find ourselves in. Fellowship was made almost impossible for an entire year, which has been extremely hard for our soldiers. We pray that we can be a tool in God’s hands to serve and help soldiers and young people with the difficulties, habits and questions they face. At the same time, we thank God for the privilege we had of serving Him during the pandemic through media and even some events between lockdowns, where many ministries were unable to work. We are excited about the upcoming conferences, activities and projects we are planning in 2021 for our Messianic soldiers in the IDF!