By Bradley Martin/JNS.org
Bishop John E. Putnam stood at the podium and exclaimed to the crowd, “Who here loves Israel and the Jewish people?” The thunderous applause indicated the ecstatic approval by more than 500 pastors, ministers, and their families attending a recent conference of United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI). Putnam, superintendent of UPCI’s Wisconsin District, had fired up the crowd, exhorting them to incorporate biblical principles in their everyday lives.
A major aspect of the conference—held from April 5-7 in Elkhart Lake, Wis.—was reaffirming Pentecostal support for the State of Israel. Just outside the main hall was a large booth containing informational brochures published by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism. Bilingual Spanish and English tours to the Holy Land were marketed towards pastors in order to encourage more churches to bring their congregations to Israel.
According to the American Political Science Association, Pentecostalism is the world’s fastest-growing religious movement. A Pew Forum analysis estimates that there are about 279 million Pentecostal Christians internationally. UPCI has 4,602 member churches in North America and 9,085 ministers. Worldwide, UPCI counts a total membership of about 3 million adherents.
Jewish ritual items such as mezuzah cases and tallitot (prayer shawls) were on sale at the conference. Olivewood statues made in Bethlehem were on display, depicting biblical scenes such as a priestly procession of the Ark of the Covenant and baby Jesus in the arms of Mary.
“I’ve never been to Israel, although I’ve always wanted to go,” said one woman seeking more information on the tours. Though support for Israel is strong among the participants of the conference, many have yet to visit the country.
“Over the years, we have organized hundreds of trips. Many more are on the way,” said Putnam. “An average trip takes about 10 days. We usually make it a point to go to Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee, Caesarea, Tiberius, Beit She’an, Mount Carmel, and the Dead Sea.” The bishop had particularly fond memories of the Dead Sea, sharing pictures of his family during their last visit to Israel. After having visited Israel earlier this year, Putnam feels an even greater attachment to the Jewish state.
“But if I had to choose, my favorite place would be the Sea of Galilee,” Putnam said. “Our group had a wonderful boat ride on the water and it just had a special meaning for me.” After the experience he had while visiting the Holy Land, the bishop firmly believes that it is incumbent on every Christian to visit and support Israel.
Pentecostal support for Israel is rooted in a strong belief that Christianity must return to its roots, as outlined in the Hebrew Bible. According to Pastor Stan Gleason of The Life Church in Kansas City, Mo., it is a conscious effort to return to the faith of 1st-century Judea and encourage Christians to return to their Hebraic roots.
“I was amazed how safe I always felt,” Gleason said when describing his recent visit to Israel. “You can feel the presence of God in that land and it is quite an amazing feeling to walk through the places mentioned in the Bible and see it through your own eyes.”
“I believe we have a God-mandated call to support Israel,” said Senior Pastor Ed Herman of TurnPoint Pentecostal Church. Citing Genesis 12:3, he said it is “rooted in the Abrahamic Covenant, those who bless Israel will be blessed and those who curse Israel will be cursed.” His wife Paula added, “Our people pray for Israel all the time.” Herman also conveyed his strong interest in and knowledge of Israeli history, citing the late Israeli political adviser Yehuda Avner’s “The Prime Ministers” as one of his favorite books.
“We are so grateful for the Jewish community,” Putnam said, recalling to the audience his experience at the Western Wall. “We are grafted from the same tree; our roots come from the Bible. We owe a great debt to Israel and the Jewish people.”