How to be a Messianic Congregation, #1

Some of you will remember Benjamin from “Metropolis.” That’s not his real name, of course, nor the real name of his city. I wrote about Benjamin back in early August (see “What a Jew Needs from MJ”).

Well, Bennie spent Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Shuvah with our congregation (since Metropolis has no meaningfully Jewish and yet Yeshua-believing congregations). And what an experience it was having Bennie with us. It was a delightful experience for me to be able to converse with someone having a broader view of Jewish life, someone with an eclectic Jewish background who keeps up with goings-on in American Jewry.

And in our conversations, which included much about Bennie’s experiences in various Reform, Renewal, Conservative, and Messianic synagogues, I thought about the things that make a Messianic congregation valuable for the people who form its family. I also thought about how Judeo-Christian congregations could do (in my opinion) a better job. In case you don’t know, Judeo-Christian congregation is my preferred term for 90% of what is out there called “Messianic Jewish.” So little of what is out there is Jewish either in practice or membership. I already think we would see a 75% improvement in the genuineness and quality of vision for many congregations if they thought of themselves as Judeo-Christian and quit pretending they were Messianic Jewish.

But all that aside, in this post, I’d like to share my #1 observation via conversation with Bennie — the #1 thing MJ and Judeo-Christian groups are largely not doing (at least in Metropolis) and I think the reason is they tend to base their practice on that of Evangelical and Pentecostal Christian churches. This one missing element is considered vital from Genesis to Revelation in the Bible. It is a hallmark of godliness and community and it is so easy to implement, I can’t believe any church or synagogue tries to go on without it.

The thing I am talking about is, of course, hospitality, and most specifically the Oneg Shabbat as well as a healthy community practice of inviting guests over for Shabbat dinner and for Havdalah.

Hospitality is so important at Tikvat David, I never want a guest to come to our building and not have an optional offering of some kind of sustenance for them. Even those who come to our Hebrew classes and other seminars on Tuesday nights will find at least some tea, water, soda, and granola bars or fruit or some kind of offering. The importance of this little offering of sustenance has been confirmed for me in this semester’s classes as one couple comes straight from their son’s Tuesday night football practice. They have not had dinner by the time they arrive. The little food and beverage we put out is a blessing to them as they settle into Hebrew class every week.

What do I mean about hospitality being important from Genesis to Revelation?

No, I am not going to draw a cheesy lesson from the fact that God placed juicy fruit trees in the Garden of Eden. I was thinking rather of the seminal passage concerning the Jewish mitzvah of hospitality: Genesis 18. If you have not read any good Jewish commentary on the story of Abraham’s three visitors, I encourage you to do so (if nothing else, you can always go to Aish Torah’s website).

I love Abraham’s approach to offering hospitality, which I will paraphrase here:

Abraham saw three strangers walking in the desert and he sprinted toward them thinking, “At last, three wanderers who may not know El Shaddai!”

“My visitors, can I offer you the merest thimble-full of water and morsel of stale bread?”

They agreed to stay whereupon Abraham hurriedly found Sarah, “Kill the fatted calf! Get the servants grinding three seah’s of flour and preparing all of today’s yogurt and curds for our guests!”
–Genesis 18:1-8 (Leman’s Unofficial Version)

Sharing food and rejoicing with friends, strangers, and the needy continues to be a mitzvah throughout the Torah and prophets. Dozens of stories, if not more, confirm this. Think at least of the tithes which were brought to the Temple to share in a great feast, carefully including those who could not bring enough (see Deut 14:22-27).

What about Revelation? Well, we have there the theme of Messiah sharing a great meal with all of the saints and the great banquet table (see Rev 19:9). It is a Jewish theme, the Messianic Banquet. It has sources in places like Isaiah 25:6. The Messianic Banquet finds its way into the Dead Sea Scrolls and other places where speculation about Messiah occurs.

How then can “Messianic Jewish” congregations not have hospitality as one of their main practices. Says Benjamin from Metropolis, “You can’t get a cup of water at any of the places I have visited.” He tells me that rather than an Oneg Shabbat (a luncheon, usually covered dish, for after Saturday morning services), many people at “Messianic Jewish” synagogues in Metropolis go out to restaurants — on Shabbat! He later told me that he figured none of these people were Jewish or Sabbath-observant. But still: where are the Jews (I assume there are some Jews in these congregations, though I may be wrong) eating on Shabbat?

One Messianic leader in Metropolis explained why they don’t have an Oneg Shabbat: “It’s too hard.”

I’m sorry. I don’t understand it. Getting people to bring a dish to share is not only easy, but it is the time around the table where we keep our friendships alive, where we really get to know one another, where people in our congregation become lifetime friends. I can’t imagine thinking of our Shabbat as merely a service we attend and then leave, rather like a movie (but far less entertaining).

The same thing goes for Judeo-Christian congregations. If you want to immediately show an improvement over the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches your people came from, have a covered dish meal after Sabbath services. Practice the Messianic banquet now.

If your meeting place is not conducive to meals, have fellowship meals in as many homes as are required to host everyone.

What I am saying is this, as a leader with some (but not nearly as much as others) experience in leading a congregation, I have found that the greatest blessing every Sabbath is the time we spend together over food and drink. I can only imagine that the impetus for people to hold a service and have people leave is the wrong idea about what a church or synagogue is: a movie theater where we “broadcast” some music and teaching for an “audience.”

A church or synagogue is a people. Pure and simple. We are a people gathering together under Hashem for mutual encouragement, cooperating in doing the mitzvot of God, and sharing resources so that rich and poor alike can rejoice on the Sabbath with joy.

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15 Responses to How to be a Messianic Congregation, #1

  1. Agreed about the Oneg. My congregation, which is Judeo-Christian, meets Friday nights, and we have a cheese, juice, crackers, wine, brownies, cookies, sweets afterwards. The time spent in fellowship while eating and drinking is beneficial.

    Also, when folks bring foods to share, I think it elevates the sanctity of shabbat. Dr. Schiffman wrote something to this effect over at his blog a few months ago. You are going out of your way, spending your own resources, to share a meal with Messiah’s body on the sabbath. I think that elevates the holiday. My fridays go like this: leave work at 4:30, pick up some food and wine to share with the group before sundown, skip dinner, head to service, worship and study, take part in the oneg afterwards. It’s all part of the holiness of shabbat, really. For me, skipping dinner and bringing food and drinks for oneg elevates the sanctity of shabbat.

  2. Derek Leman says:

    Judah:

    We used to meet Friday night and Saturday. I wish we all lived in the same part of town and could even walk to synagogue. The Orthodox communities who have made this commitment a part of their lives enjoy true blessing (and some people drive in for Orthodox synagogues in spite of the ban on driving).

    But, alas, we live all over the larger Atlanta area, and now we find it a blessing for everyone to have Sabbath dinner at home (and on any given week, various families have dinners together on Friday in different parts of town).

    So, it is Saturday that brings us together. And the larger part of the congregation arrives by 10:30 and stays until 2:30. Some of us each week stay regularly until 5 and even as late as 7.

    I remember when we had late Friday nights. Nobody wanted to leave on Friday. We often got home at midnight.

    Thanks for sharing, Judah. May your Days of Awe be awe-inspiring.

  3. Donna Levin says:

    We have had ups and downs with Oneg over the years. Right now things are going well because the teens are involved and it helps unite them. In the past Oneg was a source of trouble (strange, but true). We now have what we call a special Oneg once per month in which people are supposed to bring a dish to share (most don’t) and then we have something more simple the other weeks (we get donations of bread and desserts from a local Panera bread). It is a nice time of sharing and getting to know one another. Sadly for some people, it might be there best meal of the day. Usually there is leftover bread for people to take home, too ( we get a ton of donations from Panera). In this economy that can make a difference in some people’s lives.

    My husband and I used to invite single people over for Shabbat, but his hours changed and he just gets home too late for us to do that anymore. We were really blessed when we could offer a lonely person a meal and fellowship. We are struggling to establish our Saturday evening Chavurah group but we always have food to share and it just adds to the experience.

    You could keep it simple and have people bring their own lunch for Oneg. Many people are willing to share with the person sitting next to them and you might even make a new friend. I absolutely agree that it is important for the life of the congregation. We, too, have people who live all over the place, so Saturday Oneg is a great way to connect.

  4. Derek Leman says:

    Donna:

    I’d love to hear more about how the Oneg became a source of conflict (but maybe not online if this could embarrass people). Also, I’m sad if fancy bread and cake is the best meal some people get on the Sabbath! Oy, where’s the cholent? Or at least a good Sabbath chili in a crockpot. Thank God for crockpots. I am glad you have food at your Saturday evening havurah and I hope the spirit of sharing spreads and grows.

    BTW, if the Oneg problem was some people bring food and others not bringing, there are solutions.

  5. Joshua says:

    This is so true. The time I spend at my shul (and it is a lot) is most greatly enriched by shared meals. The food is good, we sing, we discuss life and faith and study Torah. At our shul in Seattle there is usually at kleast 5 or so people who stay until Havdalah. We have oneg and a third meal (Seudah Shlishit).

    I would encourage everyone to adopt a shared meal practice on Shabbat, whether it is inviting people into your homes on Friday nights or Saturdays, inviting guests, or setting this up at the congregation. This is a defining practice in the Jewish world!

  6. On the subject of onegs causing conflicts, I know one MJAA-affiliated Messianic synagogue here in the Twin Cities hit that as well. Apparently, all kinds of people would show up not for the service, but just for the food. It caused a financial strain, such that they had to limit the oneg to members and service guests. (Not a great option, really, but that’s what they did.)

    Also, I know Beth Immanuel sabbath felloship, which is kind of the fore First Fruits of Zion congregation, probably also Judeo-Christian, has also had some oneg issues. Beth Immanuel is stringent in its kosher standards; they previously required all foods and drinks brought to oneg to have one of the various Orthodox Jewish kosher seals; but recently, I’m told, they stopped taking community contributions to the oneg, and just footed the whole Orthodox-approved meal themselves. (Second hand information here, Daniel or Aaron might correct me on this. I spoke to them both earlier last week, I should have asked them about it.)

  7. Derek Leman says:

    Wow, imagine the chutzpah of people showing up for the meal and not prayer or learning! And if people need some tzedakah, they could ask. If they are needy, I would encourage them to bring a little something and join in for the service and eat. If you’re in an urban area and have some seriously needy folk, this might require a tzedakah plan. Maybe a sandwich fund for local people in need. Even a poor congregation could do something small and affordable for a few folks. But I’m wondering if these people weren’t more of the moocher variety than the needy variety. That would definitely irritate me. (Gee, I hope no local moocher types read this and decide to give us a hard time on Shabbat!).

  8. wendeth says:

    I really wish more congregations had “oneg”…even those who are “evangelical” should have some sort of regular traditional gathering (in my opinion). The occasional pot lucks just don’t cut it, and I believe the true understanding of what is meant by these (even if only the occasional potluck) is missed because it’s just not understood there is a deeper value and calling to it. Anyway, I make no sense, but fact is, I’d love to get something like this in my current church together. Like your congregation, Derek, ours is made up of people from so many directions and quite distances…which does say something about the teaching, but also causes people to miss out on these “extras” when they are viewed as just that.

  9. Derek Leman says:

    And, Wendeth, we miss you here at Tikvat David. But we’re glad some church in Arkansas gets to be blessed by your commitment to learning and service.

    Yes, I have told pastors that I have no idea why they don’t eat together every week. The answer: “That’s not the way we’ve done things before.”

    And they say Jews have a problem with “tradition”!

  10. J. Stahl says:

    At my home congregation in the US, we never had issues with Oneg other than enforcing the “only biblical food per Leviticus” rule. Most brought things for snack after our Erev Shabbat services, and we had a Shabbat midrash that saw more things brought in on Shabbat afternoons. AFTER Shabbat, most went out to eat.

    The only other issue to come up was whether or not our onegs should have dairy and meat separate, or offered separately with everyone allowing their halachic standard to prevail for them and their family. It wasn’t a big discussion really, just more a question from our more observant folks who were strict at home about these things.

    One nice thing is that there were folks that took in people who were single, or young couples on Shabbat or during the week for meals and fellowship. I didn’t get to partake much due to work scheduling, and later a major dietary change in my life – but it was enjoyable when I could do it.

  11. Brian says:

    Derek. Can site the discuss the differences between a Judeo-Christian congregation and a Messianic Jewish one?

  12. Derek Leman says:

    Brian:

    I have a series called “Not Jewish Yet Drawn to Torah” with parts 1-8 here. You can type that title into the search window on the right sidebar of the blog and find all 8 parts. I recommend reading them in order.

    I also did one post called: Judeo-Christians, Part 1. I can’t remember if I did Part 2. You can get it here:
    http://www.messianicjudaism.me/musings/2011/05/02/judeo-christians-part-1/

  13. During my synagogue attending days in Bangkok, I was invited more than once to Oneg Shabbat by the Lubbavitcher rabbi of the community, who knew, full well, that I was a renegade goy. That, of course, was on those Friday nights that the meal sponsored by the shul wasn’t on for some reason or other. I also joined in with that on many occasions.

    Another aside, many Christian churches in Thailand have a regular meal right after the church service every Sunday. Probably not all, but I’d say a large percentage based on my experience. It makes being a part of a church an enjoyable experience. After all, what is “church” — apart from the standing up, sitting down, standing up again, sitting down again, and shaking hands with the reverend on the way out?

    Then, there’s the passage that you cited about Abraham and the three visitors: Rashi’s comments on that in the commentary section of my Sonchino Chumash made quite an impression on me when I first began studying the Torah from that source.

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  15. Eric Harris says:

    I think this is so true. many christian churches here in California have lost the tradition of having gatherings or meals after church service on Sunday. I also wanted to say the part where you were telling the story of Abraham and the three strangers. It is true we should be more giving and friendlier. God not only wants us to give to people less fortunate but to give to others, that you may not even know.

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