On the Human Need (or Lack Thereof) for Congregation

crowd_jerusalem_wallStarting a few years ago, I began to question everything I had learned about religion. I’m not talking so much about a crisis of faith, although I was willing to reject previous conclusions about God and look on everything with a doubt that I believe is healthy. I’m talking more about a rejection of business as usual in terms of how religious communities are structured.

I am sympathetic to that urge in American life which says, “Why do I need a synagogue/church/group/whatever?”

I read a book by George Barna called Revolution in which he described the massive number of people who go it alone in the faith world, dabbling in activities here and there at different mega-churches without committing or getting involved anywhere.

I attended a few experimental communities which shared a love for God, people, and helping people in need.

I went to see a Christian philosopher speak who has a community in Ireland where people meet in bars and watch performance art.

I attended minyan at an Orthodox synagogue.

For a while I though, “No one needs the kind of work I do or a congregation.” I thought about the synagogues and churches and the money spent on buildings and land. I thought, “It’s all such a waste.”

Is it?

For all the failures of domesticated religion, which we all know and which tend to be trumpeted from every internet rooftop with regularity, it seems to me that the problem is not the idea of congregating with the same community week in and week out.

The fact is, we would do well to value a few things like worship, loyalty, community, learning, and service.

I have heard from the people who increasingly think God is a private matter, a sort of hobby that can be pursued informally at home and moving from group to group with no commitment. Barna calls these people revolutionaries and fairly praises them as if their choice is courageous.

I never felt a perpetual inability to commit and serve others was a virtue.

There is something about congregation that can be powerful. For every stuck in the mud synagogue and church service, I will submit to you there are those that shine. A teaching or speaking brings a tear, inspires, enlightens, motivates. A community prayer and worship removes temporarily the blinders that make this world seem godless and without hope and light. A round of laughter over lunch with people who share values and lives with one another lightens the load of a life that can be monotonous. A community bigger than our family is there to help us when our family is in crisis.

I feel that I have thoroughly questioned the congregational model. I now draw half of my income outside of the congregation. I am not a member of the priestly class simply defending my right to make a living by the congregational model. I’d give it up with no regrets if I thought it was a sham, a religious excuse to have a lazy job (ha! want to do my work for one month?).

Whether its the Temple at the festivals in ancient Israel three times a year or the synagogue in Babylonian exile or the modern synagogue or church, there is power in not only gathering in groups, but with the same people who become an extended family.

And there is power in loyalty to a group of friends, sticking it out through good and bad times, and being there long-term for and with each other.

It can work in a theater or a coffee shop, but it works even better in a building with fewer distractions. So don’t laugh at those stuck-in-the-muds who go to their building week in and week out. Experimental communities have nothing on simple congregations laser-focused on community, learning, worship, and service.

The Psalmist was glad when people said to him, “Let’s go to the house of the Lord” (Psa. 122). Our need to congregate is a human reality and to deny it is only to fool ourselves.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to On the Human Need (or Lack Thereof) for Congregation

  1. rebyosh says:


    Great post. However, I would like to add that an experimental community and a “congregation” do not have to be diametrically opposed opposites. There are a number of vibrant congregations around the globe – Ikar, B’nai Jeshurun, etc. That is why I value groups like Synagogue 3000 and Tools for Shuls who are working to reinvigorate congregational life.

    This is a big issue in Judaism, as community and peoplehood are at the core of our faith. One cannot be a Jew by one’s self. Even the most imprtant prayers in Judaism cannot be said without at least 9 other people. Judaism has always valued and placed great emphasis on our spiritual need for one other.

  2. Eriksson Family says:

    I understand what you are talking about. Even though I don’t pastor a church yet, I have had the pleasure of participating in a few of them. What has made me somewhat anxious about entering the missions field is the lack of reverence for God’s worship community. I mean, we have churches that promote Twittering during the service. We have churches that don’t require their congregants to submit or participate.

    We also have church people saying that the physical building is not important. I know you are talking more in the line of the community of the church or synagogue, but have we lost a sense of physicality during worship. I know a pastor who hates calling the sanctuary a sanctuary; he’d rather call it an auditorium. But hasn’t God always used physical space. Didn’t He tell Moses to take off his sandals? Didn’t he promise Israel land? Wasn’t Eden real? Shouldn’t contemporary church buildings be considered holy? The tabernacle was holy. It was designed by God for His Glory. It traveled with them, and it was protected by the people. The temple was one of the most important buildings in all of history. In fact, it’s destruction radically reshaped Judaism.

    Maybe I am wrong, but dismissing a building because it is inanimate seems to reek of gnosticism. The church, the body of believers, come to a place of worship. They come to a place to meet God; therefore, it should be Holy.

    What are your thoughts? These are a few things that I have been thinking about for the last year or so.

    With much love,
    Christian Eriksson

  3. Great post, Derek … very good thoughts to consider. I’ve felt especially challenged on this issue since enjoying the privilege of responding to Gavriel’s paper at Hashivenu on “Post-Congregational Messianic Judaism.” (Looking back, I feel that my response to his proposal was somewhat artificial.)

    Since moving to LA a year ago, what I’ve witnessed within Judaism is that experimental communities and traditional shuls are not necessarily diametrically opposed to each other in form and function. Plenty of “experimental” communities have grown into firmly planted institutions. And like any traditional congregation, they have their committed “core” of a dozen or so who do 80% of the work, a “community” of about 100 who show up for everything, and a “congregation” of another 200 or so who show up irregularly when they want a spiritual fix, and provide some financial support.

    I think the thing with these post-modern emergent communities is that you’re witnessing them at their birth, rather than following a process of maturity. It’s inevitably going to look flaky when it’s just starting out.

  4. What all this reflects, I think, is a genuine generational shift, that older leaders ignore at their peril. Younger people, who have grown up feeling comfortable with post-modernism, post-denominationalism, and post-partisan”ism” … are not exactly fans of the traditional structure of a synagogue or church, which is organized vertically (top down).

    We’re a horizontal generation, that values collaboration, and seeks a spiritual home where our ideas, talents, and perspectives are valued, put to work, and allowed to transform the community … not just put on display.

    The pre-existing institutions that are really off-putting are the type that see us as valuable for our presence in the pews, but not for our gifts and ideas. I can’t begin to describe how maddening it is to walk into a synagogue full of 40 & 50 somethings and retirees, and have the rabbi point out from the bimah “how wonderful to have young people in our midst!” like we’re animals in a zoo. The implicit message is “we hope you’ll return and fall comfortably into our existing paradigm, but we haven’t gotten around to evaluating just what it is about our community that’s so alienating to people like you.”

    It’s the synagogues that have young people in positions of meaningful leadership that are really attractive to the next generation.

    If existing synagogues are interesting in attracting the “babies and bellies” (which any numbskull who’s studied congregational growth and financial security will tell you is essential to long-term growth) and building a community that’s going to regenerate itself over multiple generations, it’s time to embrace the fact that young people are expressing new needs.

    We’re not flaky. We’re just different.

  5. toma4moshiach says:


    There is a great need for the congregational model for worship as we get more impersonal with the internet, not knowing our neighbors or even leaving our friends and family for opportunities due to the poor economy. Many are afraid to get involved or even to get attached to our congregational family in these times. Who wants to deal with loss and suffering? We need to have that haven from the outside world for us to come together and I cherish that time each week to deal with all the hardships around us.

    So why not experience a little of the World to Come- even if it is just for an hour or two?

    Let it be a Blessing,


  6. peterygwendyta says:

    A very interesting read Derek. I would have to agree with some of the other posters here that experimental does not have to be without community. Community is very important very spiritual growth. George Barna was also involved in writing another book with Frank Viola called “Pagan Christianity”. I know that you don’t like this term, and I don’t either especially the way it is used by some messianic. But the Book is very good none the less.

  7. mchuey says:

    We need to remember what Viola’s book Pagan Christianity was written to oppose. It was primarily written to oppose a contemporary mega-church culture, where today’s churches have gone way beyond simply having a pastor, assistant pastor, a secretary, and about 500 people or so on the rolls. It was written to oppose a church culture where your average church has a multi-million dollar budget, thousands upon thousands on the rolls, and the real work of ministry has left.

    My aunt and uncle attend this kind of church in the Greater Nashville area (sorry, I will not divulge its name or denomination). People, not so affectionately, refer to this church as “Six Flags Over Jesus.” When attending, you really do wonder if you have parked in the Itchy lot or Scratchy lot.

    Yes, we need to oppose this kind of Christianity. But in so doing, Viola and Barna have gone to the exact opposite end of the spectrum. They say that we do not need to have professionally trained clergy, no full time pastor or leader who takes a salary, and no meeting place for that matter! For the independent Messianic who has been improperly taught that the Church “lied” to them–they eat this book up as though there’s no tomorrow. No need to train a next generation of leaders by going to college and post-graduate religious studies. No need to actually know Hebrew and Greek and the issues of Biblical historicity and reliability. No need to join into any kind of wider theological conversation.

    The Messianic world of the future is likely to have a great deal of variety. I will grant everybody on this blog that. But in that variety, simply having any old leader is not enough. What we need are leaders–both men and women–who are sensitive to the needs of people and are able to not only create communities, but where more than anything else people are discipled and empowered for God’s service. That’s what today’s Church has been too often lacking, and the Messianic movement could learn to be something much greater than it presently is, if we can commit ourselves to doing the necessary work. But at the present time, I do not know if such is possible.


  8. peterygwendyta says:

    Hi JKM,

    Sorry if I sounded as if I supported everything in “Pagan Christianity” I don’t but it was an interesting read none the less. You are also right in saying that this book was written “to oppose”. Frank says this himself that is point to the book was to deconstruct but that his second book (which I haven’t read myself) which is call “reimaging the Church” is about building the church again. Again I haven’t read it so I can’t say if I agree with his conclusions or not. You yourself make many good points and I look forward to following this discussion further.

    • mchuey says:

      I knew you would not be too supportive of all of the conclusions. I suppose what I dislike most of all is the need for publications like that to have “hypey” titles. A better approach is to ask targeted questions, and then try to find constructive solutions.

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