Synagogues, churches, and transformation

Changing the Culture of Mainline Worship: Fifth in a Series

Many people in long-established churches yearn for something different in the congregations that have long nourished them throughout their lives. They remember times when they came to church gladly, finding there wisdom for life, friendship for everyone in their families, a sense of forgiveness and hope, and opportunities to share their faith with people whom they met in their many activities in the world outside of church. In more recent times, however, many of these qualities have gradually disappeared. Outwardly, their churches seem to be much as they have always been. Yet the energy, sense of life, spirituality, friendship, and joy have ebbed away.

With church historian Diana Butler Bass, who also serves as consultant to churches searching for new vitality, they want to “imagine a new old church.” Bass proposes that for the imagined new church to become a reality it is necessary to recover Christian practices and to ground these practices in classic Christian faith. For congregational life to be vital, she believes, this classic faith must be stated in language that is rooted in the past but couched in the intellectual patterns of our time.

The most provocative illustrations of Bass’s thesis that I have encountered recently are reported by Sidney Schwarz in his book Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews Can Transform the American Synagogue. The book consists of extended case studies of four synagogues, one from each of the major movements of the American Jewish community.

Schwarz begins by analyzing the challenge facing synagogues, and the final chapters consist of his interpretation of why the synagogues that he highlights have become so effective.

Jewish and Christian congregations are enough alike that much of Schwarz’s analysis seems to be directly applicable to churches. The differences between Jews and Christians in the United States, and between synagogues and churches, however, mean that Christian readers have to do a certain amount of translation in order to benefit from Schwartz’s proposals.

One of the most persuasive aspects of Schwarz’s book is a series of ten short essays in which people recount their spiritual journeys. All are adults who had maintained little or no involvement in synagogues or other organized expressions of Jewish life and culture. Yet, they found themselves interested in some kind of connection with synagogues, sometimes for specific services, such as the adolescent ceremonies of belonging (bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah), and sometimes to resolve more generalized searches for meaning.

These people had dropped out of synagogues, Schwarz concludes, because of what they perceived to be “superficiality, pretense, and obsession with materialism.” The synagogues they remembered from their youth had as a primary goal the task of helping Jews assimilate into American life, which meant that they learned to discount as much as possible those Jewish “status markers” that set them apart from their non-Jewish neighbors in the suburbs.

Now in their middle years, these people are embarrassed by how little they know about their Jewish heritage and are seeking the tools they need to achieve a greater sense of competency as human beings. They are “willing to come back to synagogues that offer an authentic encounter with a heritage rich with custom and filled with wisdom.”

Schwarz declares that “key to the success of synagogues that want to capture this generation of seekers is that they be welcoming of the most uninitiated.” He specifically rejects “catering to the lowest common denominator” and states that these Jews, who are accustomed to excellence in schools, businesses, and cultural activities, will have “little patience for synagogues that strike them as mediocre…As savvy consumers, new American Jews will have high expectations of synagogue programming and will rise to the challenge if the programming demands of them serious engagement with the Jewish tradition.”

The above paragraphs are adapted from a sixteen-page essay based on Schwarz’s book. Although I agree with much of his analysis, I propose a second way of responding that I believe is better suited to many of the progressive churches in which I am interested. To read more, click Rich with Custom

3 Responses to Synagogues, churches, and transformation

  1. Rodney Allen Reeves says:

    Read your entire post Keith, including A Church Rich with Custom, Filled with Wisdom, with substantial interest.

    Outstanding material very relevant to the worshiping community we participate as we move forward.

    • Rod, thanks for reading the attached paper as well as the blog itself. As this series continues, I have to make suggest some specific proposals concerning implementation in churches like ours. Your ideas will be appreciated.

  2. […] The central thesis of adaptive change is that in order to thrive in a new environment churches and other institutions need to change their patterns. Accommodation to the culture therefore seems to be the key to vitality and growth. Three books that I have reviewed in recent columns support this thesis: Leadership Without Easy Answers; God Is Back; Finding a Spiritual Home. […]

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