Tuesday, April 24, 2007

First Century Worship vs. Transformed Rabbinic Worship

What a Messianic Jewish congregation's culture looks like is very important, for two reasons.

It is important practically for individuals, because it provides the answer to the question, "Yeshua has given me victory over sin... now what?" Gentile churches tend to answer this question by providing people with programs. To the Jewish mindset, programs are impersonal and uncaring. It is better to have culture, which is relational and caring.

Culture explains what to do each day and what special things to do on holy days. Culture explains how to do things: ways to pause and focus on God throughout the day, ways to spend time with God alone or with other people, ways to study scripture, ways to pray, ways to use Torah obedience to express love for God, etc.

The only program P'nei Adonai has is our "Introduction to Messianic Judaism" class. I tried getting rid of it, but it turns out I can't. There's no way to have a Messianic Jewish lifestyle answer people's questions quickly enough without some forced help.

What a Messianic Jewish congregation's culture looks like is also important for group identity, because Yeshua came not only to transform the lives of individuals but also to establish a community that continues his work and represents his name and body. Our congregational culture provides the answer to the question, "What part are we in the body of Messiah?"

In one sense the Messianic Jewish answer to this second question is summarizable: we are the part of the body of Messiah that cares about being in relationship with the local and global Jewish community, and that helps Gentile Christians come to fullness in their responsibility (of Romans 11) to stir unbelieving Jews to a jealousy of relationship with Yeshua. But in another sense this question needs a cultural answer, not merely a purpose statement. What does our part of the body of Messiah look like?

For any Messianic Jewish congregation there are two obvious answers to both of these cultural questions.

One answer is to have the congregational culture based on the culture of those who worshipped Yeshua in the first century. After all, an imporant part of Messianic Judaism is understanding what that culture was like, when those following Yeshua were still a sect of Judaism, before the faith had been reworked as a new and distinctly anti-Jewish religion. There are two issues with this answer: much of that first-century culture is simply unknown to historians; of what we do know, how much is appropriate to transfer to our current time and place?

Another answer is to have congregational culture try to look like what the local, modern Jewish community would look like if revived and transformed by faith in Yeshua. This is also an appealing answer, becuase it makes sense that a Messianic Jewish congregation would look like what it hopes its surrounding Jewish culture might become. There are again issues: what would this new culture look like? how much of the diversity of Jewish culture should one congregation try and represent?

During the past three months, we at P'nei Adonai have realized that we were trying to grow in two different directions. Without realizing it, we were trying to be both like a first-century congregation and like a revived and transformed modern Jewish community. Since these to models disagree in many ways this caused problems.

We have also realized that our particular congregation must be the modern version of a first-century congregation. This is more appropriate for us and our calling for a number of reasons.

For the remainder of this essay I'll share four issues that are examples of how where disagreement was happening, and why in each case the first-century model is more appropriate for us.

None of these responses are meant to imply that a modern Jewish community revived and transformed by faith in Yeshua would not eventually do what needs to be done equally well. Rather, the first-century model provides much more guidance about where to start and what to look like.

(1) A Messianic Jewish congregation should provide a family-like community for people. It should also provide a variety of resources to help people who are not regular attenders grow spiritually.

Many American believers are looking to religious groups for resources instead family-like community. (Of these people, many already are part of another religous group with family-like community but that group is not able to offer them all the resources they desire. In days past they would simply have been frustrated, but in modern America people are used to networking and finding the resources they want.)

This dynamic is especially relevant to Messianic Jewish congregations, since part of that calling is to help Gentile Christians understand the Jewish roots of their faith to help them have a more meaningful relationship with Yeshua and also to help them stir unbelieving Jews to jealousy. We need to be offering resources to people who seldom (if ever) set foot inside our doors.

The first-century Jewish synagogue had this balance. It was in part a weekly house of prayer for its regular attenders. But it was just as much a provider of resources: Jewish families would pay dues and in exchange receive emergency aid including family burial costs, temporary food and lodging, and medical assistance. The synagogue also provided these families help resolving interpersonal disputes and tutoring in scripture study. Once followers of Yeshua began forming their own communities these same services were offered to outsiders for free.

The modern American synagogue (or local Jewish community) is not known for this balance. What resources does it provide to outsiders, especially non-Jews? (They do provide generous charitable aid to Israel, which is not local but is still within the greater Jewish community. Other ways they give may be present, but tend to be not well known and of small scale.)

(2) Spiritual growth is the responsibility of the individual.

Scripture is clear that every person is responsible for their own relationship with God.

Community can surely help. People in family-like community can support and encourage each other, and keep each other accountable. A community's leader can provide resouces, guidance, and protection.

But congregations that try to make spiritual growth the responsibility of the entire community or its leaders see most people stagnate. This happens in both Jewish synagogues and Christian churches. The scriptural model of the assembly is not a shepherd caring for passive sheep, but an overseer providing teaching and resolving disputes for a congregation of active people with a priestly and evangelistic identity.

The first-century followers of Yeshua initially participated in the established local synagogue on Shabbat mornings while meeting together at the close of Shabbat. Later, as they encountered increasing resistance from the Jewish authorities, they established their own congregations. Paul writes of only two congregational leadership roles, equivalent to the well-known roles of synagogue leader (teacher and judge) and "shamashim" (custodian and hospitality help). No other roles were invented and the community's primary purpose remained individuals supporting individuals growing increasingly holy and near to God.

The modern American synagogue (or local Jewish community) is not known for helping people with their continued growth in holiness and nearness to God. To the contrary, participating in the synagogue or community is in many placed equated with a healthy religious life, replacing that better goal. Group participation and public displays of virtue often replace an individual's responsibility for actual spiritual growth.

(3) A congregation should model transformed lives and the virtues of faith, selflessness, charity, kindness, and simplicity.

All of these things were what the early followers of Yeshua were known for among non-believers. Even their enemies admitted that believers exemplified these things as individuals and communities.

None of these things are what modern Rabbinic Jews and their communities are known for. The stereotypical American Jewish community is busy dealing with people-problems, humanist and agnostic, inward-focused, works-based, full of gossip, and not at all about a simple faith.

(4) The Messianic Movement should responsibly interact with other current moves of God.

Currently God is doing something among American Gentile Christians, stirring a desire for personal renewal, recommitment to God, and a life full of passion for God. (In contrast, earlier American moves of God were usually about evangelism, not recommitment among believers.) Messianic Judaism should be responsible and try to work with this while preserving its own identity and calling.

This is related to what was mentioned earlier about people being newly willing to move beyond the boundaries of their own "Church home" to find additional resources, and how a Messianic Jewish community should offer resources about the Jewish roots of Christianity.

Our recent congregational Passover seder was a nice example of this dynamic. About 50 people attended, and about half of those were people with a different "Church home" who left thanking myself and P'nei Adonai for hosting a worshipful, meaningful, and educational evening that had helped them better understand God's ways and plans.

Regarding this issue the first-century community model has much to offer. There are too many details to explore in this essay. A summary is simply that even if not all believers are called live in first-century ways, a Christian who is thinking, "I'm saved and now what?" is usually well advised to look for answers by considering how first-century believers lived.

The modern American synagogue (or local Jewish community) also has a lot to offer. There are numerous examples in America of synagogues and churches working together, often using guest sermons to give Jews a better understanding of their Christian neighbors and to give Christians a better understanding of the Jewish roots of their faith. However, Christians asking "I'm saved and now what?" don't look to Rabbinic Jewish groups for answers about how to have more intimacy with Yeshua.