To learn more about the Gateway Center for Israel, visit centerforisrael.com.
One evening in 1975, Pastor Olen Griffing of Shady Grove Church (now Gateway’s Grand Prairie Campus) sat down with his wife to watch a television show. It was a documentary, nothing fancy or action-packed. They had no idea the wild journey God was going to jumpstart in their hearts and lives that night.
“The documentary was about Nazis doing medical experiments on Jewish people in the concentration camps during the Holocaust, and I could hardly stand it. I watched the whole thing, but I could hardly breathe,” Pastor Olen says. “Afterward, I told my wife I needed to go pray. I stayed up until 3:30 that morning, and God just broke my heart for the Jewish people.” Pastor Olen began to study the Word, and the verses he read about blessing Abraham’s offspring or praying for Israel took on new meaning. There was something about blessing the Jewish people that God was highlighting for him. He started to realize that the Jewish people were God’s eternal chosen people whom He loved dearly, and although Gentiles had been grafted in to Israel’s covenant promises by the blood of Jesus, God still wanted to see His original chosen children accept their Messiah. That’s why the Bible says to take the gospel to the Jew first. It was a revelatory moment for Pastor Olen.
Pastor Olen told his wife everything the next morning. They cried together and agreed that they needed to learn more, to do something. Pastor Olen opened up a phone book and started looking for something Jewish. He didn’t know what else to look for! But then he saw a listing for Baruch HaShem, a local Messianic synagogue, and it looked just right. “I had no idea there were such a thing as Jews who believed in Jesus, so I called and asked to speak to the pastor,” Pastor Olen says. “They told me there wasn’t a pastor but a rabbi and put Marty Waldman on the phone. I said, ‘We don’t have any money, but we want to help in some way.’” A surprised Rabbi Marty responded by saying that Pastor Olen’s church could help serve the upcoming Passover meal so Rabbi Marty’s whole congregation could celebrate Passover together. Pastor Olen agreed and the people at Shady Grove Church excitedly participated. “That was our first act of blessing the Jews,” Pastor Olen says. Immediately after that, with a newfound desire to learn more about Jewish faith and culture, the small congregation of Shady Grove Church began attending Bible classes with Orthodox Jews, and an unlikely and beautiful friendship also emerged as Pastor Olen and Rabbi Marty continued to talk and learn from one another. “Back in those days, when Pastor Olen first called me, Messianic Jews didn’t have many friends. The question of friend or foe was real,” Rabbi Marty says. “Pastor Olen turned out to be a friend—a really good friend.”
Dr. Wayne Wilks Jr. is not Jewish. But back in the early ’80s, God began stirring a love for the Jewish people in his heart. “I trace it back to when I lived in Amarillo and attended Trinity Fellowship. A pastor did a call for missions at the altar, and I came forward and knelt,” Pastor Wayne says. “I really believe a seed was planted in my heart at that time for Jewish people and Eastern Europe.” After that, Pastor Wayne moved home to Dallas and started serving at Shady Grove Church, where, much to his astonishment and delight, they had been learning about the Jewish faith and God’s call to bless the Jewish people.
One day in 1992, the elders of Shady Grove Church gathered together to discuss church policies, issues, and vision. They soon realized this wouldn’t be an average meeting. The Holy Spirit was up to something big. As Pastor Olen led the meeting, other pastors in the room, including Wayne Wilks and Robert Morris (a pastor at Shady Grove at the time), began to see the Holy Spirit turn the conversation and highlight Scriptures about the Jewish people. After Pastor Olen’s discovery almost 20 years earlier and many other personal God moments, the staff and elders at Shady Grove already had a heart for the Jewish people, but the elders started to see something new on this day. Israel wasn’t just a nation to love and pray for, it was the key to all the nations. “In Ezekiel, it says that as Israel knows the Lord, it affects the nations around her, and although we knew Romans 1:16 says to take the gospel to the Jew first, we began to see God’s love for the nations surrounding Israel too,” Pastor Wayne says. “We really began seeing ‘to the Jew first’ as a priority.” Out of this meeting, Shady Grove began very intentionally giving at least 10 percent of their mission dollars to bless the Messianic Jewish community and see the good news go to the Jewish people. And the heavens opened.
Evangelists started seeing a great wave of Jewish revival across the world. “And God was calling us to be part of it. That’s why the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute (MJBI) was born,” Pastor Wayne says. MJBI was established in 1996 in Odessa, Ukraine, with several ministries and leaders joining together under the banner of one vision: to train leaders to reach the Jewish people with the love of Yeshua (Jesus). Pastor Wayne, with the support of Shady Grove Church behind him, was tapped to pioneer the school.
“When we started, we were totally focused on the former Soviet Union. But at a festival in Budapest, Hungary, I remember kneeling by my bed praying one night and seeing a picture of MJBI going out all over the world,” Pastor Wayne says. So with great enthusiasm and prayer, MJBI expanded to many other countries with high Jewish populations to help their local leaders proclaim Yeshua and disciple new Jewish believers. Then in 2002, MJBI felt called to a second purpose: to bring education to the Church about God’s heart for the Jewish people and Israel. This brought MJBI to the United States in a more significant way, right as Gateway Church was getting on its feet as a new church plant.
Growing up under the leadership of Pastor Olen at Shady Grove, Pastor Robert learned early on about praying for God’s chosen people and the peace of Jerusalem. But he not only learned about it from his pastors and colleagues, he personally experienced the call as well. On the morning before that Shady Grove elders’ meeting in 1992, Pastor Robert was reading through the Psalms in his quiet time and came to the verse that says, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” “The Lord said to me, ‘I want you to do that.’ And I said okay and started praying for the Church,” Pastor Robert says. “I had been taught in school that anytime the Bible talked about Jerusalem, it meant the Church. But God stopped me and said, ‘I didn’t tell you to pray for the Church; I told you to pray for Jerusalem.’” After some back and forth, Pastor Robert truly realized God’s heart for the Jews and for the first time, he really prayed for them. He left his quiet time that morning with a burden, which he shared later at the elders’ meeting. And when he started Gateway, the Shady Grove practice of giving at least 10 percent of the mission dollars to bless the Messianic Jewish community came over to Gateway as well. “I told the person who was doing our finances at the time, ‘I want the first check that you write every month to go to MJBI,’” Pastor Robert says. “So we started Gateway Church by giving the very first check every month to MJBI. I look back now and realize that that was the primary reason God has blessed Gateway Church.” And as Gateway’s influence grew, God began to use Pastor Robert to expand the message about “to the Jew first” all over the world.
[From left to right: Pastor Robert, Pastor Wayne Wilks Jr., and Pastor Olen Griffing.]
In 2003, Nic Lesmeister was a brand-new believer taking notes in the front row of his Bible college classes. One day at school, a guest speaker began sharing how many New Testament Scriptures were a fulfillment of Old Testament promises. Then the speaker asked, “Did you know that your Savior is a Jew?” which turned out to be a question that altered the course of Nic’s life. Later in the class, Pastor Wayne Wilks Jr., who came with the guest speaker, got up on platform and started talking about MJBI. Nic decided he wanted to be part of taking the gospel to the Jew first. He began to send MJBI money each month.
“I’d send in five or ten dollars a month, and I’d get these notes from Pastor Wayne saying, ‘Thank you for your generous donation!’ and I’d think, Did he even read the amount before he signed this card? But it made a mark on me,” Nic says. And when in 2005, by God’s impeccable timing and design, Nic moved to Dallas, he started attending Shady Grove Church, where Pastor Wayne was on staff. They never really connected until 2008, when Nic saw Pastor Wayne at a wedding. “He saw me and said, ‘Hey Nic, so great to see you!’ I just looked around and thought, Is he talking to someone else?” Nic says. But Pastor Wayne remembered Nic, and Nic remembered Pastor Wayne’s kindness.
At the time, Nic and his wife, Tabatha, were in the business world, and with every month they gave to Jewish ministry, they saw blessing. In the fall of 2008, they decided to attend an MJBI banquet where Pastor Robert was the speaker. “If you remember 2008, it was a terrible time to be in the financial markets! But I remember so clearly that Pastor Robert said to us all, ‘The world around us is crumbling down, and there is no better place to be tonight than in this building connecting to an ancient plan of God. There is no better thing you could possibly do with your finances than sow into this thing that is in the very heart of God.’” Nic says. Tabatha and Nic looked at each other. They knew their financial outlook was very shaky, but they knew this moment was from the Lord, and they upped their monthly financial commitment to MJBI. That began a three-year journey where God blessed Nic and Tabatha beyond anything they could have ever imagined, and they knew it was connected to their commitment “to the Jew first.”
A couple years later, in 2011, Pastor Wayne asked Nic to be on the MJBI advisory board. Nic accepted, and a few years later, after selling his business, he moved to Jerusalem with Tabatha and their young daughter to begin a one-year master’s program at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Two weeks after the move, Nic realized he was unemployed for the first time. “But just prior to this I had heard that Pastor Robert was considering Pastor Wayne to come over and be part of Gateway’s Jewish ministry,” Nic says. “Then Pastor Wayne called me and said, ‘As you know, Robert asked me to take over Gateway’s Jewish ministry, and there’s something I’ve never told you before. The Lord showed me that you’re like a Joshua to me, and I want to invite you to come take over MJBI this next year.” Nic and Tabatha just knew this was the next step God was calling them to take, and in 2015 they moved back to Texas to steward MJBI.
In 2016, MJBI celebrated 20 years of ministry as the transition of leadership from Pastor Wayne to Nic became official. This was no small ministry, and it continued to grow under Nic’s purview. At its peak, MJBI had 25 Bible schools across 12 different countries. To date, the Bible schools have graduated 1,200 students who are serving in more than 30 countries. MJBI graduates have also been involved in planting more than 100 Messianic Jewish congregations from Europe to Israel to South America to Africa. MJBI has launched unique accredited degree programs (the likes of which there are only a handful in the world) and created an online school where students from 40 different countries can learn in Russian, Spanish, English, or Hungarian. God has done incredible work through MJBI to educate and train up Messianic Jewish leaders.
Just two years after taking over leadership of MJBI, Nic started to sense a shift. A new program in collaboration with Gateway started seeing real success in Poland, and he thought, something unique is happening here. He went to Pastor Wayne with his thoughts and came back affirmed. “There’s a problem with the Church not knowing how to interact with or support the Jewish people,” Nic says. But in recent years, through Gateway’s influence and Pastor Robert’s dedication “to the Jew first,” other churches were coming to Gateway and asking to learn more about what that means and how to support the Messianic community. Nic saw this as an opportunity to combine efforts to see a more global impact.
“This concept of a center started to develop in my mind, a place where experts would invest themselves in creating a solution,” Nic says. “We need to build something that can be a beacon to the global Church to teach Christians the right and healthy, scriptural way to think about Israel and the Jewish people. And there’s nothing like that out there.” After sharing once more with Pastor Wayne, they both talked to other leaders at Gateway, which led to another historic elders’ meeting in late 2018.
“We went to the elders’ meeting with a plan to bring MJBI into Gateway—to basically merge it with Gateway’s Global Jewish ministry to create a new Center for Israel,” Nic says. “We thought the process would be kind of slow, that we’d just get feedback, but then Pastor Robert, who had been totally silent until then, lifted up a finger and said he had something to say.” Pastor Robert began to weep and share about the Shady Grove elders’ meeting in 1992 and how God put this vision of “to the Jew first” in his heart. He shared about how he felt Gateway had been so blessed because we bless Israel and how he felt God gave him this worldwide platform to shout out the truth of “to the Jew first.” This elders’ meeting was really a full-circle moment. And then Pastor Robert said, “We have to do this!” The elders voted, and Nic left the meeting with a thumbs up to figure out how to do it!
This past year was filled with much discussion on what Gateway’s Center for Israel will do and how to blend the incredible work MJBI has been doing for more than 20 years with the influence and resources of Gateway Church. “We believe God will continue to lead us because ultimately this is bigger than any of us can grasp,” Nic says. “We’re legitimately talking about a biblical event of epic proportion, and I think we’re going to see God glorified in a way we’ve never seen before!” Now in 2020, Gateway is officially launching the Gateway Center for Israel: a hub for pastors and churches to receive resources for how they can effectively stand with the Messianic Jewish community in their region and include “to the Jew first” in their church cultures. It’s slightly different from the vision of MJBI, but the burden remains the same: sincerely love the Jewish community.
What began with a pastor sitting down to watch TV, a cold call to a local rabbi, and a church with 50 people willing to serve and learn has become a worldwide movement to reinforce an ancient truth. With this newly formed center, Gateway Church is stepping into a prophetic fulfillment of decades of the Holy Spirit leading Pastor Olen, Rabbi Marty, Pastor Wayne Wilks Jr., Pastor Robert Morris, Nic Lesmeister, and so many others along a path that ultimately culminates in Romans 11:26, “So then all Israel will be saved.” And as Rabbi Marty says, “I believe Gateway’s new Center for Israel has the potential to change the face of modern Christianity.”