The Recession, Community, and the Culture of Mindless Entertainment

Cinema8_logoIn this recession, as nearly everyone considers the fragile nature of existence in a country where we no longer make anything and even find ways to outsource our service jobs (I’m no economist, but is there a future in any of that?), we find that the atmosphere of gloom and doom drives us to find new ways of coping with life.

Some early reports suggested people will turn more to community, the desire to belong, to congregate, to be part of social networks that add value to life and provide some emotional support in hard times.

Those early reports, apparently, were misinterpreted by some religious communities as a hopeful sign that the recession would drive more people into synagogues and churches.

Now, the truth comes out: the recession is driving more people to Netflix (no wonder I still haven’t been able to get Burn Notice: Season 2 from Netflix).

Yep, Netflix has seen their profits rise 45% since the start of the recession. I read about it in an article in the May archives of Leadership Magazine (here, scroll to the May 10 article).

I am one for movies and entertainment. The new Star Trek movie made me cry — both times I watched it (and not just because we saw Spock again).

I am a Netflix member, an early adopter even. I get six movies at a time (but remember, I have eight kids).

But, as the title of a great book I have on my shelf says, are we Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment?

Honey, I worry about tomorrow. I could become another statistic. My whole world is crumbling. Let’s watch the latest Ashton Kutcher flick!

Hey, will Robert Deniro let your family move into his house when the mortgage company forecloses on you? Will Meryl Streep give you some grocery money or sit on your porch for an hour talking about life?

That leads me to a few question for discussion:
Have you found meaningful community through your faith?

What are the reasons that faith-community has meant so much to you?

What are the failures of community that have made your experience less than wonderful?

Does synagogue/church add real value to your life or is it a duty you bear grudgingly?

What can clergy like myself do to add value to community?

Is the idea of synagogue/church community so hopeless we should all increase our Netflix account?


About Derek Leman

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

16 Responses to The Recession, Community, and the Culture of Mindless Entertainment

  1. More Shabbos dinners together!

  2. Monique:

    I agree about Shabbat dinners. And I want to pick up where we left off last week talking about traditional and experimental communities and uncommitted dabblers.

    My purpose was not to say forget about experimental communities. I am open to leading something in that direction myself in addition to our more traditional community.

    My purpose definitely was to say that many of the experimental solutions are worse than the problem they propose to fix.

    Sorry, Peter, but the house church movement is an example. I do think theology and Biblical studies are too important to just give them up and have lawyers, computer programmers, and retail sales staff leading the communities with no system to raise up teachers, scholars, and equippers who bring the benefit of experience and education to enrich us all.

    My purpose was also definitely to say that Barna’s revolutionaries, the dabblers, are missing the point of community, which is committed relationships with the same people.

    If someone wants to do this in a way that is not hierarchical or stuck in past models, fine. But community and Torah and Messiah are the three values of congregational life that must not be sacrificed on the altar of invention.


  3. Derek,
    These are really great questions. The best qualities of the faith communities from my experience:

    + Empowering the community (structuring things so that a lot of people could share responsibilities)…resulting in lots of people taking ownership!

    + Openness on the part of the leaders. When the “leadership” just sends orders down from on high, or lays down rules, it stunts the growth of the community. The goal should be to raise everyone up into community leadership, but if the message the leadership tells me is “You don’t need to be thinking about these things, just do what I say,” then it kills growth.

    + Helping everyone to keep growing. The implicit goal being that everyone should see him/herself growing in maturity/responsibility/knowledge/faith. College groups have an advantage over more permanent communities here, because in a college group, if you have responsibility you HAVE to raise up someone to replace you…hence a lot of (informal) mentorship goes on.

    + Also, I much prefer informal or “real life” mentorship to formal mentoring (i.e. “discipleship classes”). I have been just as impacted by people who were just a little bit older than me as I have by people from the previous generation. We need both.

    + Lots of events designed to build relationships in the group. Friendship makes the religious aspect (i.e. praying together) so much richer.

    + A sense of community identity, being on a journey together, and shared mission

    + Focus on outreach without pressure or lameness/inauthenticity.

    + Questions being encouraged–an integral part of text studies, and talks too! And just in general…


  4. Yahnatan:

    Great comment.

    Questions are my favorite thing. My biggest temptation is to try and answer them all, though I’m getting better at admitting that I don’t know all the answers. The Bible just doesn’t address or is ambiguous about so many things.

    The friends I call Tikvat David Messianic Synagogue are friends first and congregants second. We do a lot of playing, laughing, and schmoozing together (not only on special occasions, but also we eat together and hand out every Shabbat).

    I sure hope they never all get together and ask me to leave so they can replace me with a younger, good-looking rabbi. If they do, I won’t have any friends, as I am afraid I put my eggs all in one basket.

    I love Netflix. But it is no community substitute. And while Deniro and Streep can be inspiring, I grow through real relationships that endure over a long period of time.


  5. All:

    I will throw in a few answers to my own questions:

    Yes, I have found meaningful community. As a leader, it is good to also be led by a network of committed relationships. They gently challenge me (sometimes not gently) and force me to grow instead of being smug and complacent.

    Failures of community have happened when people came with agendas and not really for community. I’ve had a dozen or so who came looking for employment (many with certain Christian ideas about entitlement to ministry because they had an experience that self-validated them).

    I went for a time, even as a leader, not wanting to go to synagogue (I am not alone as a leader feeling that way). This happened a lot when I was consumed with the need for growth (hint: pastoral concern for growth is 90% about ego and another 9% about job security).

    I don’t believe synagogue is worthless at all. I have relationships far and away bigger than I ever could as a dabbler or homebody. And (sorry if you don’t believe me), something mystical and transcendent happens nearly every week in our coming together, piercing the veil for a short time. I can’t get that in an experimental community built on cool more than transcendence or dabbling here and there with no commitment.


  6. Good to hear your own thoughts on this, Derek. I don’t think that rabbis who are willing to build an empowered community need to worry too much about being replaced by a younger rabbi. In fact, even ineffective rabbis have little to worry about. Institutionalized synagogues tend to cling to their founders out of a sense of either gratitude or a fear of the unknown, sometimes even as the congregation grays and the ship sinks.

    I think the real challenge is to welcome successive generations of younger and younger people into your midst, and to empower them to create events, programming, and relationships that meet their needs … while maintaining and re-energizing your ministry to the “older set.”

    Other than a shortage of funding, there’s no good reason not to have a younger rabbi (as an associate, co-leader, or scholar-in-residence) on staff who’s in charge of engaging the younger generation. The trick is not to treat this co-leader as a glorified secretary, but to give him/her genuine authority.

  7. Derek,
    Some comments on George Barna and Frank Viola:

    I read all of Frank Viola’s stuff 3-5 years ago, and at the time, his books really encouraged me to seek out answers, to ask questions, to do things with conviction and not just because that’s the way I’ve always done things. That said, I went on from those books to find somewhat different answers than the solutions Frank espouses. I have a feeling you and I probably have very similar criticisms.

    I think one of the reasons their books have gathered such a following is because a lot of their criticisms have truth to them. Many of the people who are looking for organic church life are people who have experienced programmatic, hierarchical, boring, and/or lifeless approaches to doing community, and they found it wanting. Thus, they’re very open to try something else.

    Frank’s books deconstruct the traditional church structure (and then some!), and IMO they have a not-too-subtle “tradition = bad” tone, but perhaps for the people who have no real connection to or value of tradition, it’s better for them to spend a while creating their own traditions (an exercise which may change their perspective on traditions). I would never advocate leaving community for pseudo-community, but I’m not convinced that leaving a pseudo-community that meets in a church building on a quest to find/form a true community is a bad idea. I can’t say I wouldn’t consider meeting in a home, if the circumstances were right…my own congregation (Beth Messiah) started as a home meeting in someone’s basement ~35 years ago.

    I’m definitely with you on needing to have leaders who really can teach and take care of a community. But a seminary degree doesn’t guarantee that either. And one poor leader can cause a person to mistrust the very qualifications that are supposed to help men and women be good leaders.

    While it’s certainly worthwhile to give answers to Barna and Viola’s challenges, I think the best thing leaders can do is what you’re doing, Derek: be willing to second-guess themselves, be open with their communities, ask lots of questions, try their hardest to make the community vibrant and filled with life, empower the people to be leaders, and teach the Scriptures well. The easiest response to Viola and Barna’s critique is, “My community isn’t like that; just ask anyone who’s a part of it.”

  8. Oy, I hijacked your blog today! :-D

  9. Yahnatan:

    Hijack, nah. You graced us with good thoughts.

    I agree that seminaries in general are no great success. In some parts of the Christian world I think people go to seminary and learn some good stuff but see it as having no value in the churches. Evangelical Christianity on the local church level tends toward anti-intellectualism. Leaders who insist on a high level of theological teaching and discussion will often find themselves in another field of work.

    That is what I love about the Jewish world. Education and intelligence are generally respected and honored.

    So, sure, higher level theological training does not guarantee good community building and training the people in Biblical and theological matters. But the model of house churches with no leaders and scholars raised up vocationally does guarantee a lower level of theological training — the lowest common denominator gets even lower.


  10. peterygwendyta says:

    Derek you have nothing to be sorry about concerning your comment on House Churches. While I see some good points about them there are also many bad points, some being their lack of leadership and no proper teaching. As with everything we need a balance and it should not be seen as either/or but rather both/and. We need a place with good community whether that be a church or synagogue which glorifies Yeshua/Jesus and also a place with good teaching. Unfortunately in my experience I have found places which have really good teaching to lack real community and then other places that have a good community to lack any really teaching. It does not have to be that way and I know that there are many good places out there which have both.

    You mentioned the lowest common denominator getting lower. This does not have to happen and we shouldn’t settle for this but we should strive for something higher.


  11. It’s interesting that this discussion that’s going on in the Christian world is also going on in Judaism. There is a growing number of independent minyanim that are intentionally rabbi-less (although often organized and loosely led by remarkably well-educated laymen). They often meet in homes (just like house churches) for Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv services, followed by vegetarian potluck dinners. During the week, they join together to practice tikkun olam through volunteering & advocacy.

    The idea is that you don’t actually need a rabbi for anything. Not weddings, not funerals, not b’nai mitzvah … nothing. Classically speaking, a rabbi is useful exclusively as a religious lawyer of sorts – one who debates and attempts to resolve halakhic disputes. And an educated layperson can fulfill most (if not all) of the functions of a 21st century non-Orthodox rabbi.

    Now, I don’t have much exposure to these rabbi-less minyanim, so I can’t comment on the implications. The major criticism that they get is that they’re more like highly exclusive social fraternities than they are welcoming communities … and that they tend to shun prospective members who are needy, broken, or obnoxious in favor of those who are “self-sufficient” and/or “cool.”

    My husband and I are bigger fans of the rabbi-led emergent communities, who have the same external look and feel of the rabbi-less crowd, but benefit from paid full-time staff who are available to tend to those who are needy … and who regularly inspire the community to remember its founding principles and obligations.

    The retort of the rabbi-less minyanim is that you don’t need a rabbi to do those things … you just need mensches.

    And I haven’t really found the best retort to that.

  12. Monique:

    The retort to the rabbi-less minyanim is simple: what is the future of a rabbi-less Judaism?

    Who will study Torah and tradition with the kind of intensity only a paid rabbi can?

    Without rabbis there would not be seminaries either and then there would be no Jewish religious academia.

    The same thing goes for the Christian house church movement — no pastors, no full-time scholars, and even more dumbed-down Christianity on the ground.


    • Meh.

      The average pulpit rabbi doesn’t have nearly enough time to study Torah and tradition intensively. And the average academic rabbi doesn’t have enough time to tend to kehilla. So the elimination of pulpit rabbis wouldn’t necessarily mean the elimination of academic rabbis.

      I think there’s a better argument than “we need rabbis to study and preserve our traditions” (because, to be clear, I think rabbis do/should serve a very real purpose within a spiritual community). I’m just not sure what it is.

  13. On communities and outreach:

    I thought the article in this month’s Christianity Today ( about how Tim Keller built Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan (a city which until then was considered “hard” for church communities) had a great quote:

    “We want to start a church for you, but also for your friends that you want to introduce to Christ.”

    I think this gets at the right way to be attractional. Instead of shaping your religious services based on how you suppose a non-believer would like to spend an hour or two (i.e. “dumbing it down,” trading sanctity for flashiness, being less formal), work on shaping things so that the community really believes in and understands everything that is done. The more enthusiastic people are about what the community is about, the more comfortable they will feel inviting their friends. “Emerging” trends in Christianity and Judaism show that people are actually interested in connecting to authentic traditions, participating in things that are out-of-the-ordinary, etc…they just don’t want to feel like someone’s trying to sell them something.

    And the converse of this community outreach principle is this: the less ownership people take in the community, and the more they feel like they have to apologize for things (i.e. things they think are “weird” or “boring”), the less excited they will be about inviting others.

    A recent article on Synagogue 3000 hits on this distinction some too, I think (in the context of liturgy particularly):

    • Good thoughts, Yahnatan! I visited Redeemer Pres in NYC a few times in 2001, and was very impressed. Tim Keller’s a remarkable intellectual, and I found his sermons deeply stimulating … probably even for a non-believer. (BTW, I saw at least 200 Jews in his pews every week!)

      And ditto on the ownership principle.

  14. no_tv says:

    Interesting post!

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