In September 2008 Synagogue 3000 commissioned a survey to measure Jewish spirituality among American Jews. The fact that they couldn’t define “spirituality” didn’t seem to faze them. What they found was that Jews are less spiritually inclined than the general population. Not surprisingly, the survey also found that Jews don’t talk much about God, and don’t find prayer all that important. Did we actually need a survey to tell us this?
But wait, what about all those Jews rushing to other religions like Buddhism and Sufism? Aren’t they spiritual? Could be, but the survey didn’t count them because they didn’t find their spirituality within Judaism. In other words this was a survey of Jewish spirituality that excluded those Jews (perhaps 20% of the Jewish population according to the survey) that might be the most spiritual.
Given the population studied, the survey came to the following conclusions: (1) Orthodox Jews, who make up only 8% of America Jewry, are the most spiritual Jews; (2) Jews with one Jewish parent or Jews By Choice (converts) with no Jewish parents are the second most spiritual Jews, and (3) Jews with two Jewish parents are the least spiritual and the least religious.
You have to love this! After decades of fighting against intermarriage it turns out that the biggest danger to Jewish survival is Jews marrying Jews!
How are we to understand these results? It isn’t too difficult. Orthodox Jews are more spiritual because they actually believe in Judaism. NonOrthodox Jews with one or less Jewish parent are more spiritual because their non-Jewish parent exposed them to other religions that, unlike Judaism, place a high value on spirituality. NonOrthodox Jews raised in an exclusively Jewish household with two Jewish parents are the least religious and spiritual because no one really believed in the Judaism they were taught in the first place, and they were secular humanists who found spirituality far too woo-woo for their tastes.
I speak in synagogues all over the United States and I can attest, at least anecdotally, to the validity of these findings. The vast majority of Jews I meet are bored to death by the Judaism they are asked to practice. They simply do not believe in God as presented to them in the siddur and Torah (prayer book and Bible), and cannot pretend that this God they do not believe in wants them to engage in religious rituals they cannot relate to. What little involvement they have is due almost exclusively to Zionism, anti-Semitism, and ancestor worship. They love Israel (or at least their idea of Isreal), they fear Gentiles (or at least those Gentiles they don’t know personally), and they honor their mothers and their fathers. If they want God, spirituality, or even a meaningful outlook on life they look elsewhere.
This helps explain two other findings in the survey. First, those nonOrthodox Jews who are spiritually inclined do not talk with their rabbis about their interests. Why would they? I suspect that rabbis are less spiritual then their congregants. Many if not most rabbis I know are atheists when it comes to the image of God promoted by Torah and siddur. They didn’t become rabbis for spiritual reasons, and they have no spiritual foundation from which to help those Jews who are looking for Jewish spirituality.
Second, the survey found that younger Jews are more spiritual than older Jews, and that younger Gentiles are less spiritual that older Gentiles. Which shows, I guess, that younger Jews are becoming older Gentiles.
While this may sound confusing, the survey attributes the rise in spirituality among younger Jews to the fact that younger Jews tend to have one Gentile parent, and that parent brought the spiritual element into their child’s life. Why are younger Gentiles less spiritual than older Gentiles? I don’t know; commission another survey.
The Synagogue 3000 survey was designed to help synagogues plan for the future, so the following numbers seem to matter:
76% of the people surveyed wanted their rabbis to talk about God;
52% of the people surveyed wanted their rabbis to talk about the afterlife;
73% of the people surveyed wanted their rabbis to talk about ultimate meaning; and
78% of the people surveyed wanted their rabbis to talk about spiritual issues.
Houston, we have a problem. First of all most nonOrthodox rabbis don’t believe in God as the Torah and siddur picture God. If they did they would be Orthodox rabbis. If they believe in God at all, most are probably pantheists equating God with nature. If these rabbis tell the truth, what are they going to do with Torah and liturgy? We spend weeks every year reading in the Torah about how God wants us to kill animals as part of a remedy for skin diseases that a bit of antibiotic cream would cure in a day. Can it be that our all-knowing God didn’t know about tetracycline?
Second, most nonOrthodox rabbis don’t believe in a soul that survives death. Since rabbinic Judaism insists on such a soul and the possibility of heaven and hell, what are we to do with rabbinic Judaism?
You see the problem. If rabbis are honest, rabbinic Judaism is dead.
When it comes to “ultimate meaning” and “spiritual issues” I would hope rabbis are on surer ground, especially since no one can define these terms precisely. I suspect people are asking that synagogues become places where they can explore the meaning of life rather than simply get instruction as to how to live as 17th century Polish Jews did.
What difference will this survey make? I doubt it will make any at all. What difference should it make? It should lead to the wholesale re-evaluation of what Judaism is and synagogues are for. If Judaism is simply a matter of ancestor worship then synagogues may be doing the best they can to train people for life in the middle ages. If Judaism is supposed to be an on-going exploration of life and meaning then the synagogue has got to come up with better prayers, better theologies, better language, and a radically different way of engaging people. But since, as Einstein said, you cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it, nothing will change. It can’t.
Sunday, May 10, 2009
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Thanks for this one. Definitely one of your better if not best moments!!! But that's only my opinion (and you know what is said about opinions).
I know this sounds a bit naive, but I'd like to see a synagogue that actually tried to serve the entire Jewish community in an area, rather than just a particular denomination.
I'm thinking gardens with Jewish themes for prayer, meditation and general contemplation, places open discussion, places where small groups might to do their own thing, without the rabbi necessarily having to be involved. Has anything like that ever been tried?
I'm part of a chavurah of about 35 families and we do a majority of our services at a liberal church. Now, this isn't a problem for me, but I think it would be nice if a group like ours felt open to do such a thing a synagogue.
Just a thought.
Dear Brother Rami:
Like Jordan, I found this essay particularly compelling.
Like yourself, I'd be interested in the surveyors definition of "spiritual" and "religious", "younger" and "older", not to mention "Jew" and "Gentile".
I think most people (no matter what tradition they enjoy -- or enjoyed, or came out of) have an innate desire to ponder their relationship with the universe that surrounds them, and a subtle drive to commune with other people and nature.
Most of my unbeliever friends are into progressive politics and humanism. We all call ourselves atheists but there is some sense of the mystical in our indulgences. We have supernatural ideas (a heaven on earth) which inspire us and our own prophets (Ralph Nader, Karl Marx, etc.) Few of us are honest about the role these archetypes play in our psychic well-being, and we don't generally talk about the psychological roles such ideas and ideals play, but secular types do tend to be inventively religious.
I don't think Judaism will ever go away. You guys have been around for what, four thousand years now? If anything, I think Judaism is more relevant to Jews than Christianity is to Christians. The younger gentiles who seem to be trending secular are often kids who grew up going to a megachurch and listening to political sermons, where their Muslim neighbors are demonized and they're taught that going off to war is the highest virtue. Not only are many of these ideas inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus, but they exist elsewhere in the media and culture. Why sit through a church service when you can watch MTV and get the same message mixed with hip rock/rap music? I can see the children of Christians embracing Judaism along with Buddhism in the next generation, just out of a desire for something unique or different.
Just some thoughts for a Sunday morning. Happy Mother's Day to all you cool mothers and mothers-in-law out there in cyberspace.
You wrote: "I'd be interested in the surveyors definition of "spiritual" and "religious", "younger" and "older", not to mention "Jew" and "Gentile".
Here's a link to the survey results wherein you'll find the surveyors definition.
You wrote: "The younger gentiles who seem to be trending secular are often kids who grew up going to a megachurch and listening to political sermons, where their Muslim neighbors are demonized and they're taught that going off to war is the highest virtue."
Re sermon content: Not so in the case of many megachurches with which I'm familiar; eg., Saddleback, in California, Willow Creek, In So/. Barrington IL and North Point Church in Alpheretta, GA. In fact the megachurch has been shown in another recent survey to be one of the very few religious groups to have actually shown growth since last surveyed. See the like below and scroll down for the summary.
I hope this comes through correctly this time.
The link to the Spirituality Survey is:
Dear Brother Jordan:
Thanks very much for that link! Fascinating. A brief glance through it revealed an interesting tidbit: that Jews were a bit more likely to describe an experience as "profound" whereas non-Jews would describe the same experience as "spiritual". I guess here we're stuck with the same quandary (what's the difference in definition between profundity and spirituality? I don't pretend to know.) Perhaps the Jewish upbringing is a bit more normative than the more mystical mean?
The megachurch I've occasionally dropped in on since 1988 (when I was but a little teenager) is called Cornerstone in San Antonio, Texas. Last time I was there was in the summer of 2006. I was actually shocked at the content of the sermon and found it quite offensive.
The trend in megachurches in general seems to be toward secularism and away from spirituality. Many of them have begun looking like theme parks. A good example is one called "Family Centre" in Munster, Indiana. When I visited that one a couple years ago there was a rock concert scheduled, a theatrical production, etc. Rather than trending toward promotion of an authentic spirituality which would offer an alternative to mass culture, churches like these seem to be growing by out-doing MTV.
Re: the aris survey... I've seen that one before. Note way down at the bottom where it talks about the rapid growth of Wicca and neo-Paganism. Reminds me of Irving Kristol's quip about how 'people are so desperate for religion they are inventing new ones every day...'
Anyway, thanks again for posting the link to the S3K report. I'm also interested in your thoughts (as a political conservative) about my pet theory of secular progressive politics as sublimated spirituality, if you have an opinion yea or nay.
Thanks for the comments. Just a note on Aron's idea of gardens-- fantastic. Most people say they find more spirituality in nature than in concrete boxes. My synagogue in Miami had three gardens-- one for walking, one for sitting, and one for growing organic vegetables-- but we still held services indoors. My fault: I hate bugs and love air conditioning.
Re: gardens. I suppose the reason we tend to find nature more "spiritual" than concrete is that we poured the concrete. Nature--though less gardens--is a space beyond human intention, beyond human control. It reminds us that we exist in a system beyond our own machinations. Hence: spiritual.
Re: megachurches. Gregoire, I think, is right to say that megachurches grow by outdoing MTV. They have embraced the relevant spectacle of our time--a multimedia extravaganza and branding franchise. That's fine. That's what religion does. It's theater. It's art.
Re: spirituality v profundity. Are we having a semantic argument, or disagreeing about the nature of the spiritual? I suspect rational thinkers--like university educated secular Jews in the West- discount spirituality because they expect spiritual experience to escape rational explanation. If biology, or physics, or logic, or whatehaveyou can offer an explanation, then that's the explanation which takes precedence. For those who privilege the rational mind, spiritual, as a word, occupies the same linguistic space as supernatural. Thus the rush and giddy joy of a rock concert, say, cannot be spiritual, because it's tied to noise and crowds and adrenaline. What a mistake!
Look at all those erotic metaphors in Song of Songs; look at Genesis, when God breathes life into Adam's mud, mouth to mouth. Look at the Sufi dervishes, at the dance of davening, even at meditation, which is about deranging the senses through radical deprivation. Chanting. Singing. For the romantics, drinking, opium, hallucinagens. etc. The modern mind insists that the spirit be separate from the body, that it live in some rarefied intellectualized zone, some pristine never never land beyond the muck and the mire, the sweat and stink of flesh. Let's put the spirit back where it belongs. Incarnate!
"I'm also interested in your thoughts (as a political conservative) about my pet theory of secular progressive politics as sublimated spirituality, if you have an opinion yea or nay."
If you mean by this that secular progressives are as "fundamentalist" in their beliefs as the so called "religious" right is in theirs, I agree with your theory. And I'll add that I find the Secular Progressives far less tolerant to the extent of mean spirited personal attacks of opinions that differ from theirs. I find it hypocritical that far left outfits like The Huffington Post and Move On. org are out to lynch Miss California for having the same view on same sex marriage as President Obama. Why hasn't the ACLU come out to defend her freedom of speech? If this is not what you mean please help me understand what you do mean.
Though I have no difficulty continuing here, best would probably be to take it off the blog. Email me at: email@example.com
Shalom Aaron Herschel,
You wrote:Re: megachurches. Gregoire, I think, is right to say that megachurches grow by outdoing MTV. They have embraced the relevant spectacle of our time--a multimedia extravaganza and branding franchise. That's fine. That's what religion does. It's theater. It's art."
Have you ever actually attended a magachurch service? My experience with the churches I listed in my response to Gregoire i.e., Saddleback, in California, Willow Creek, in So. Barrington IL and North Point Church in Alpheretta, GA., as well as Mosaic in LA, CA, Lifechurch.tv, and others that I'd be more than happy to name, has little in common
with your caricature. I challenge you to investigate the examples I've given. They use culturally relevant media strategically to meet people where they are in order to ready the folks that enter their doors for the "bimah" teaching. The media are not the message. The Teaching is.
The Reform Movement felt strongly enough about what could be learned from the megachurch that they invited Pastor/Dr. Rick Warren to speak at their Biennial in Dec, 2007. Below is link to an MP3
of Pastor Warren's presentation.
Perhaps the bigger problem comes down to money. It's expensive to join a temple. It's cheap to buy a self help book. It's exotic to think that somewhere else there is a tradition seeped in exploring the unknown..when right in your own back yard there are prayers and connections to that same backyard. It takes real life dangling moments to realize the connections between oneself and others. Surveys are telling..but are they real? Maybe what needs to be offered are moments of connection and reliance on our traditions...but explain them as one goes along. We have services that are built around meditation, but we fill them with music. Maybe our movements need to be filled with how to be quiet and how to pray and how to be joyful without worrying what others think of our voice. In this world it has become custom to be broken down by just acting like oneself. Maybe we need to start teaching each other how to stand in community again. Judaism will not die out, our teachings are scattered throughout too many religions and places. Truth is truth..What we might find disappearing are Jews...but they will be hidden inside UU's, humanists, and anyone else who truly sees the image and being of God in each other and themselves.
Funny you bring up Miss CA. You've met the first liberal/socialist who took Prejean's side. I actually lost a bunch of facebook friends over my comments about kooky Perez Hilton and all the choice (misogynist/racist/religious) epithets hurled in her direction. (I'd be glad to argue with her, but I take exception to the way she's been treated). I'm not the only one, either. Forget the ACLU -- where is NOW and the other feminist groups?
What I guess I was referring to (and I wrote my comments hastily, I'm sorry about that) was the phenomenon where the irreligious use leftism (for lack of a better word) to serve a spiritual need. Conservatives don't need to do this, because Christianity/Islam is generally located on that spectrum.
When my college friends and I left the Mormon church we replaced our service projects with volunteer work, and we went to weekly socialist meetings that mirrored, in many ways, sacrament and priesthood meeting.
Socialism/Communism is not a religion, but I and others used it as a religion; and when I'm honest I'll admit that it served the same psychological function as religion at a subconscious level.
I only woke up to this recently, on this blog... sitting at the feet of the Rabbi... which is appropriate since the job of the Rabbi (and shamans with related titles) is first to awaken their subjects to a higher state of self-awareness.
Interesting post, but I disagree with your analysis. I think you are right about the Orthodox, that they take God seriously and have no or limited problems with the language of the prayer book and Bible.
I think the Jews by Choice and one parent Jews are second because, at some point, they had to choose to be or become Jewish, so they are inclined to be searchers.
Those born with two Jewish parents are Jews be default. They include people who are seekers and actively engaged, but also those who don't give a damn, are not interested but are none the less Jews by the accident of birth.
I didn't intend to present a caricature of megachurches. I believe all churches/synagogues/mosques etc partake in theater. That's their milieux. Megachurches are no more or less theatrical than other churches. All they've done is expanded more traditional modes of religious theater to include contemporary technologies and styles.
As for megachurches' adoption of electronic media as a device to deliver a teaching unaltered by the method of transmission, well, McLuhan and I will have to disagree with you. The medium is always the message--or rather, the "massage."
The basic idea is that media technology determines the "meaning system," the semiotics, of a particular medium. Thus content, while by no means irrelevant, is somewhat beside the point to the media analyst. Information of any kind is (re)structured according to the rules of meaning-production specific to one or another communication-system. Each system has a built in epistomology and, moreover, is received and processed uniquely by the body.
Any one message, spoken, printed, televised, or digitally encoded,thus carries with it a second, physical message distinct to the medium in which it is communicated. As one or another medium becomes dominant, the body itself is altered as the senses extend, atrophy, and mutate, and the mind adapts to different methods of information storage and retrieval. Eventually, so the argument goes, the culture (the social organism) also mutates to reflect its technological bias.
When it comes to religion, we have to ask: how does a particular medium restructure perception, and how does couching a religious message in a particular medium alter the 'readers' experience and understanding of the message? Also, what epistemological conflicts arise out of the choice of media?
Although I'm one who would be more likely to call myself spiritual than religious, I'm not exactly fond of either term. I find myself speaking more of relationships and connections, mindfully, awareness or awe.
Even so I am interested in community, both Jewish and other, now that I'm in my late 30's and have two children, I want a place I can count on, but one I feel comfortable being who I am with.
I would enjoy it if I could find a Jewish setting that I felt I could fully admit to my leanings towards wild nature, even if I clearly admit to living in the city.
My wife and I have a vision of owning some land down the line, having people from various faiths who would want to use the land for humans to connect to nonhuman nature. I prefer something wilder than gardens, but it would be a nice alternative.
Interesting comments as always. Just a note to Jeff: That wasn't my analysis, but the conclusions drawn by the survey people themselves.
Shalom Aaron Herschel,
You still haven't answered my question which was,
"Have you ever actually attended a magachurch service?" Of course you owe me no answer whatsoever. You wrote:
"When it comes to religion, we have to ask: how does a particular medium restructure perception, and how does couching a religious message in a particular medium alter the 'readers' experience and understanding of the message? Also, what epistemological conflicts arise out of the choice of media?"
Why do we "HAVE" to ask those questions? Those questions are like asking how many angstrom units there are in a pastel hue of a Van Gogh painting, and miss the forest for the trees. I see no need to didactically quantify and analyze the use of multi media in a megachurch service in order to know that my experience and that of many others was valuable and life affirming. Media, poetry, music, drama, the arts and the spoken message, all strategically and seemlessly integrated to bring timeless religious truth to a congregation is most certainly marketing (not by any means a "dirty word") for the most noble of purposes. Rabbi Rami wrote in his post:
"If Judaism is supposed to be an on-going exploration of life and meaning then the synagogue has got to come up with better prayers, better theologies, better language, and a radically different way of engaging people."
The megachurch (at the congregations I listed in earlier responses) has succeeded to do exactly what Rabbi Rami just prescribed for the synagogue. Shim'on Ben Zoma in Pirke Avot 4:1 asked and answered, " Who is wise? One who learns from all people." Were we not so arrogantly, "stiff necked," indeed, we could learn a lot from the megachurch.
'I prefer something wilder than gardens...'
You've hit on something very important, I think.
There is an aesthetic to a perfect garden. In microcosm it could be thought of as a long red rose in a perfectly cut vase... a symbol of a perfect communion. Humankind's genius and nature's perfection combined to be more than the sum of its individual elements.
I wish you lots of luck on the project and hope it gets off the ground, someday sprouting in my general area.
In a way, this is relevant to the fascinating exchange between A*a*ron and Jordan. I suspect that people abandon religion because it is no longer a refuge from the fast-paced media blur, which has caused religion to adapt to compete with mass culture. My own (admittedly worthless as someone who is not religious) opinion is that your garden would fill a need which is sorely lacking in modern society.
There are very few places I can go where there are no billboards, cell phones going off, advertising jingles... We have been so thoroughly reified that the human psyche is becoming the consumed, and the products the consumers. To step back into wildness, if only for an hour, would be a novel experience for most, and a brand new experience for many.
You wrote: "I suspect that people abandon religion because it is no longer a refuge from the fast-paced media blur, which has caused religion to adapt to compete with mass culture."
The megachurches about which I've written are indeed seen by there attenders and members as "a refuge from the fast-paced media blur,..." I acknowledge that your experience was different and I hope that someday you'd have the opportunity to experience one of the congregations I've listed. Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago is one with which I have the most personal experience and they are a most remarkable religious community.
I suppose "we" don't have to ask those questions. I have to ask those questions because that's my bent. If that's missing the forest for the trees, then I guess I'll know the trees better than the forest. But I suspect that communications technology reshapes religious messages in important ways that alter what is meant by religion, by spiritual experience.
Also, I don't think that analyzing the medium negates the experience. For example, I love poetry. I love the throb of it; the shock of it. But I also analyze it, believing that one of the things that makes a poem great is its engagement with language as a meaning system. In painting, one could compare this to thinking about the difference between acrylic and oil. The Mona Lisa, in acrylic, would not be the same Mona Lisa we see in oils. Its whole relationship to light would be altered. I think that's significant. Painters, I imagine, ask themselves that kind of media related question when choosing which paint to use. Religious organizations ask it when choosing whether to build gardens or ampitheaters.
in any case, to answer your other question, I haven't been to a megachurch. My experience is completely limited to brief glimpses of televised services. This means that I can't analyze megachurches with much (or any) authority. If that invalidates my comment re: MTV, ok. But I'm afraid you may have misunderstood me. You seem to think that my assertion that churches, synagogues, et al, partake in theater is an attack. I don't think it is. I love theater, and I agree that religion should embrace, as you put it, "media, poetry, music, drama, the arts and the spoken message." Sing for me a joyful noise!
Of course, I tend to feel more spiritually affirmed by poetry, fiction, art, theater et al that eschew a specific religious pedagogy. I have a deep skepticism toward messaging whose conclusion is foregone. The most powerful religious art for me is that which leaves itself open to doubt. Art that wrestles with God. This is a personal thing. My own relationship with God is thorny. I antagonize; I pout; I pray; I celebrate; I satirize; I reject; I embrace. These tantrums, tet a tets, misunderstandings, communions, etc.... in fact, all the contradictions in my experience with God, ARE my experience with God. I'm not looking for a resolution.
Shalom Aaron Herschel,
You wrote: "I have to ask those questions because that's my bent. If that's missing the forest for the trees, then I guess i'll know the trees better than the forest."
It's my bent as well and I've come to understand that just like Rabbi Rami's definition of God, the Whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You continued:
"I haven't been to a megachurch. My experience is completely limited to brief glimpses of televised services. This means that I can't analyze megachurches with much authority. If that invalidates my comment re: MTV, ok."
My hope is that you'll have and take advantage of any opportunity to experience one of the services (live) of any of the churches I've previously listed. To be sure one can analyze, and the overarching experience will not be captured by any reductionist analysis. You continued:
"But I'm afraid you may have misunderstood me. You seem to think that my assertion that churches, synagogues, et al, partake in theater as an attack."
Not an attack so much as your misunderstanding of the distinctive use of media in the megachurches I've listed: ie., and I'll repeat that the media are not the message; the overarching teaching that the media serve is, and you'll need to actually experience this first hand to understand better. You continued: "Sing for me a joyful noise."
Ahhh a paraphrase of words found in a number of the Psalms. Three thousand years ago David understood the power of music as a means of connecting with God. And the experience of his music and his words together was more than just the sum of the two.
This discussion about (or around) the idea of megachurch is interesting. Just a couple of comments. I think Jordan is saying that the megachurch is simply a new kind of delivery system for the core message of Protestant Christianity: John 3:16. While I do agree that contemplatives would find the megachurch too "noisy" with secular-influenced rattled and hum (to borrow from U2), their numbers say that something powerful is going on there.
If I am not mistaken, however, a study done by Willow Creek found that while the community is miles wide, it is less than an inch deep. Megachurch attracts seekers, but after that stage when people want something deeper they tend to move on to smaller venues. Willow Creek was, again if I remember this correctly, reevaluating its programs and trying to address this issue.
Judaism has one "megachurch" that I know of, and that is B'nai Jeshurun in Manhattan. But, as I understand it, this is a seekers shul except that what people are seeking is social contact with other (largely single) Jews and not God or spirituality.
It seems to me that it is easier to market Christianity because its message is so clear. Judaism's core message is either lost in its tribal focus, or the tribe is the message. It may well be that at the heart of Judaism is the concept of Jews as the Chosen People. This is hard to sell, since most Jews are secular, probably nontheists, who have no Chooser to whom they are the Chosen.
While I tend to focus on theology and theater, maybe the real problem is that it is difficult if not impossible to sell tribalism (or rather Jewish tribalism, since the tribes Apple, Coke, RAlph Lauren, and others seem to be doing OK) in a post tribal age. Maybe Judaism has a branding problem (a painful and unintended pun given the Nazis tattooing of Jews). Maybe we need a new line of products beyond teffilin, tallit, kippot, and holy days accessories.
Years ago when I suggested to my congregation that they begin to wear Jewishly branded jewelry, especially Stars of David. I met with lots of resistance--people didn't want to be labeled as Jews, and this was from the regular Shabbos attenders!
I do find it interesting how we are always trying to judge or measure other people's spirituality. Interesting, and kind of annoying.
Anyway, 8 or so years ago we started a new church in our community. Being in the north we knew there was little chance of being a megachurch, but we wanted to base our model on Willowcreek, Saddleback etc.
The next city over had the equivalent of a "northern" mega church. (churches in the north rarely get as big as those in the Bible belt) Over 1000 people regularly attended. They developed elaborate video and theater productions, had full bands at every service, you know what I am talking about.
The senior pastor, who not only lead his church and large staff, lead ours and preached at our church every Sunday night for a year until we found a pastor ourselves.
At the time Bill Hybels, not only running his megasupermodelchurch was mentoring pastors from around the country and this local pastor was one of them. He was trained right at the heels of Bill himself.
He told us - Of course do what you want, put on a great service, use as much technology as you possibly can. But I can tell you, it will fail. The seeker sensitive model is done. Let it die. He went on to elaborate that if he could do things over, build a church around small groups and coffee house atmosphere he would. He found it very humbling that the real growth did not happen in the stadium but around the kitchen table.
Now much of Christianity, the mega churches included are focused on breaking the larger groups into smaller groups. And find it challenging to move the stadium sitters to the table. That is not a surprise to any of us.
Interesting stuff guys. Thanks!
Grégoire: I certainly think this thread is interesting because it's reflecting a continuum of what I think people see as profound, spiritual, etc. I agree that they hold very much in common.
I admit, I can't think of anything more unpleasant than the concept of a megachurch. But I can see the same being said for some people about being out in a forest in the middle of nowhere.
Hopefully, those of us more on the poles here could learn from each other and what works for both, but we shouldn't expect each other to immediately be converted from such a dialogue, either.
I like the cafe model myself. A lot of great stuff comes out of cafes... like DADA. Anyway, I think the appeal of the cafe (or the blog) for me lies in being able to have a conversation with a smaller, more intimate (and yet diverse) community. Here too, I can wrestle with God; I can talk back, be challenged, and ask questions.
Come to think of it, the cafe model also seems like a perfect example of the relationship between medium and message. The intimate conversation I crave would be impossible in a crowded stadium saturated with music, video, and amplified voices.
It also seems to me that the move toward a cafe model for religious study is closely tied to the development of a cultural environment defined by digital communications technologies. The key difference between twentieth century and twenty-first century media lies in decentralization and interactivity. The cafe model enables both, and so it may be that folks are moving slowly away from models that don't allow them to talk back; that is, to take an active role in the construction of theology, the construction of an awareness of God.
I think you just described the motivation behind the emergent church movement!! It is among other things, a reaction to the megachurch.
The church I spoke of grew to over 400 people pretty fast. But within a few years it was seriously troubled. The pastors booted out all but about 20 families, moved to the inner city right next to an art college and are trying to make it. They are even trying to get people to move to the inner city, re-neighborhooding, I guess it is called. I no longer attend, though at times I miss the idealism of that kind of group. But not the theology. ;0)
“This discussion about (or around) the idea of megachurch is interesting. Just a couple of comments. I think Jordan is saying that the megachurch is simply a new kind of delivery system for the core message of Protestant Christianity: John 3:16.”
Exactly. Members of the churches I’m referring to indeed believe that the core message must remain as it’s always been. This is similar to what you said in your post about Orthodox Jews believing in Judaism. Both groups message will remain constant, and in the case of the megachurch, the strategy for delivery of that message will always evolve. You continued:
“While I do agree that contemplatives would find the megachurch too "noisy" with secular-influenced rattled and hum (to borrow from U2), their numbers say that something powerful is going on there.”
Once again, bingo!!! You continued:
“If I am not mistaken, however, a study done by Willow Creek found that while the community is miles wide, it is less than an inch deep. Megachurch attracts seekers, but after that stage when people want something deeper they tend to move on to smaller venues. Willow Creek was, again if I remember this correctly, reevaluating its programs and trying to address this issue.”
Willow commissioned a study about spiritual growth in their church. It was done two years ago and the results made public in the summer of 2007. The study is/was named “Reveal.” Here’s the URL to information about it.
As a result of this study, Willow immediately implemented plans that retooled much of what they were doing so as to be able to measurably improve the spiritual journeys of their membership. They could have swept it all under the carpet but instead chose radical transparency. You continued:
“It seems to me that it is easier to market Christianity because its message is so clear. Judaism's core message is either lost in its tribal focus, or the tribe is the message.”
Other than the theology that surrounds Jesus, they’re little if any substantive difference in the message of Christianity and that of Judaism. Christianity asks, “What would Jesus do;” Judaism asks, “What is Torah’s (in the overarching sense of Jewish wisdom) Godly way,” or more prosaically as you once put it, “what would a mentsch do?” The megachurches I gave as examples are expert at demonstrating that the Bible indeed still speaks relevantly to people’s lives as they live and experience them in the 21rst century. Judaism and the synagogue have no analog but could if they chose to make themselves about “where Torah meets life,” to quote Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman of Synagogue 3K. You continued:
“It may well be that at the heart of Judaism is the concept of Jews as the Chosen People. This is hard to sell, since most Jews are secular, probably nontheists, who have no Chooser to whom they are the Chosen.”
This is a non-starter born of irrelevant theology. Judaism and the synagogue ought to be about making and maintaining Jewish mentsches. You continued:
“While I tend to focus on theology and theater,”
Theology (whether we like it or not) has to earn its way back into the hearts and minds of most Jews, as it is seen as mostly irrelevant. Being about Jewish mentschcraft and its practical application oriented relevance to “real” life is a necessary first step. Theater most assuredly has its place as a means to touch folks with truth in ways that are otherwise inaccessible. The way Willow uses it is with 10-12 minute no holds barred sketches that show real life situations that all of us confront in order to set up the teachers message about how one might better deal with those situations from a Biblical perspective. You continued:
“maybe the real problem is that it is difficult if not impossible to sell tribalism (or rather Jewish tribalism, since the tribes Apple, Coke, RAlph Lauren, and others seem to be doing OK) in a post tribal age.”
The tribes you’ve mentioned most certainly are doing OK. Here’s Seth Godin’s wisdom on why tribes are indeed the way of the future.
“Maybe Judaism has a branding problem (a painful and unintended pun given the Nazis tattooing of Jews). Maybe we need a new line of products beyond teffilin, tallit, kippot, and holy days accessories.”
Indeed! And the product is what I described above.
Thanks for your thoughts on this.
"He found it very humbling that the real growth did not happen in the stadium but around the kitchen table."
Correct and Willow has been a church OF small groups (not to be confused with the idea of a church WITH small groups), for many years. Part of Willow's DNA is the value that life change occurs best in the context of a small group. All that they do other than corporate worship is done in the context of a small group.
Shalom Aaron Herschel,
"Come to think of it, the cafe model also seems like a perfect example of the relationship between medium and message. The intimate conversation I crave would be impossible in a crowded stadium saturated with music, video, and amplified voices."
Check out: http://theaterchurch.com/ and
http://mosaic.org/ as well as
http://www.lifechurch.tv/ for cutting edge ideas
some of which incorporate your insight about
"decentralization and interactivity."
Dear Brother Jordan:
What you describe sounds interesting, and somewhat similar to what I remember Cornerstone Church (San Antonio) resembling a decade ago. As a non-Christian I found it a novel place where I could experience a wide variety of opinions at once and indulge in a bit of exploration very different from the foundation that I grew up with.
'Theater most assuredly has its place as a means to touch folks with truth in ways that are otherwise inaccessible.'
That is *such* a great point, and something I didn't think about.
I think even nonbelievers (like myself) and barely believing skeptics would get a great deal out of what Moreno called psychodrama.
Anyway, thanks to everyone for such interesting comments... this blog, originally created by a rascal to amuse, never fails to enlighten simultaneously.
There was a lovely coffee shop for sale here in town, and I suggested that a local UU church buy it and create the conversational model of community we are talking about. It went no where. Now there are lots of Starbucks for sale. Church anyone?
Reading this dialogue reminded me of a brief conversation I had with another parent years ago in a grocery store parking lot. She asked me which church we attended (a common question in the Bible Belt!), and I told her we did not belong to a church. She was horrified! and asked if I missed having a faith community. I said no, and at that point it was time to part ways. I loved her question, though, and wish I was able to think more clearly and quickly on my feet. Because, after thinking about her question, I realized I DID have a faith community -- it's just not organized in a formal church setting. I regularly get together with like-minded friends with whom I have profound, spiritual discussions. In addition, my spiritual path has been illuminated greatly by reading and occasionally interacting with this blog. Our "church" -- whether it's in a building or not, whether it's media-oriented or not, whether it's mega or not -- is what we make of our spiritual journey and religious exploration and with whom we include on our travels.
Right on, Karen.
The core theology of Judaism was taught to me by my Rabbi when I was seven years old. He told the story of one of the great Rabbis from ages past going from Torah school to Torah school asking each of the Head Rabbis to teach him the Torah while he stood on one foot. After many rejections and being yelled at by scholars who told him that it took a lifetime of study to master Torah, Rabbi Akiva (I think it was) said "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" at which point the young man entered the school and in his own turn became a great Rabbinic scholar. This has been my understanding of Torah, as taught to me by my Rabbi. I think it is a truly easy sell. Be a mensch indeed! Jordan is absolutely right on that.
Thanks for your words of affirmation. If you'll email me at firstname.lastname@example.org I'd like to share something
with you off line.
At Temple Beth 'Or in Miami, we called this One Foot Judaism. A minor correction: the quotation is from Rabbi Hillel, not Akiva. Challenged to teach Judaism while standing on one foot, Hillel said: "What is hateful to you, don't do unto your neighbor. The rest is commentary. Now, go and study."
I think the reminder to study the commentary is key, though. It draws us back to the tradition, to Judaism, even as the simplicity of the teaching suggests universality.
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