Growing up, I was fascinated with Joel Osteen. The televangelist was able to reach an audience on a weekly basis that blew me away, and his words were able to have an impact that was so incredibly powerful and moving. I had always wondered: what could we, as the Jewish community, learn from seeing his success and the way he has run his community?
I finally went to find out. My father and I traveled to Houston last week to experience a service at Lakewood Church, the largest church in America. Built out of the remains of the Compaq Center, where the Houston Rockets had once played, the church was a cathedral of modern religion. Throughout the service, there were some powerful lessons in things that the Megachurch is able to do that Jewish communities need to emulate, and others that we need to be very careful to avoid.
Things the Jewish community needs to learn from the Megachurch:
- Lifestyle of church attendance
From the very start, the church was clearly selling a lifestyle. Church isn’t viewed as a luxury of time, something to do only when it’s convenient. No, the church is a place to go on a regular basis, as many as three or four times a day. The programming they offer matches everyday needs of modern people, from seminars on maintaining a healthy marriage to discussion groups on meaningful and pertinent topics. The church is selling the idea that participation in programs is a route to a more meaningful and fulfilling life, something that anyone with a passion for religious community can understand. Jewish communities have been offering worship services and religious school for generations, but we have a long way to go as a collection of congregations in terms of making participation on the temple an essential part of the experience of life. Going to church isn’t a question, just like going to the grocery store isn’t a matter of “if I have time.” We, as Jewish communities, need to figure out how to sell people on the idea that participation isn’t a luxury but a necessity for meaningful living.
It would have been hard to tell if the prayer service we experienced was church worship or a rock concert. Between the full band, the lighting, and the smoke machines, the vibe was that of a party, of a celebration of the greatness of God and community. This sure beats the droll, traditional music that too many places of worship occupy. Of course, not everyone can afford a full scale band and performance caliber musicians, but the central idea is that worship doesn’t have to feel dogmatic. Innovation and enthusiasm speak volumes about the experience that they are attempting to create. And it was far more spiritually moving. It wasn’t just that it was fun to watch or listen to, it was the sensation that a community coming together to celebrate life at its finest can feel like a real connection to the divine. We need to take a note from this book and figure out how to turn services into celebrations of the greatness of life and of God, rather than an act of repetition of a thousand years of ritual practice.
- Modern message with religious context
The sermon that we heard at Lakewood dealt with the importance of perseverance, overcoming the challenges of daily life in order to strive for your goal. And the anecdotes and lessons the preacher shared were relatable, were powerful, and were able to touch a nerve for everyone listening. There was substantive sourcework for biblical passages to support her ideas, and she was able to make her point about life while using a fascinating mixture of scripture and real-world application. While Jewish communities are doing better than ever before at this, it was a powerful lesson in the way a message can hit home when the lessons of our tradition are applied to the world around us. We have to learn how to offer something fresh, something that feels modern and applicable. By combining our texts with the world around us, we are able to provide guidance and help that our congregants desperately need, while giving them a service that they can’t get anywhere else. Only religious institutions are able to combine the moral backdrop for grappling with modernity in this way. We need to grow more comfortable with grappling with our texts and asking the vital question: how does this make sense in my life right now?
The dangers of the Megachurch:
- The Relationship with Money
A Megachurch is only able to work because of the profound income they create by way of tithes and contributions. They have created a system where church attendance comes with a weekly financial contribution, one that comes with a not-so-subtle subtext: if you contribute to the congregation, God will take care of you. A significant portion of the service was dedicated to this message. By giving your money to the church, they reasoned, God would smile upon you and would make the money you had left to multiply. By giving your money to the church, you were not only facilitating the good work of the church, but you were also creating good-will with God for yourself, with the promise that God will turn around and give you more than you already have. This message, delivered by a woman holding a brand-new iPhone and wearing a multi-thousand dollar watch, is a dangerous one when presented to a great many people who don’t have enough for themselves. Everyone wants to believe that, by giving money to God, God will take care of you. But, for the general public, this results in a large percentage of money going into the church, leaving congregants with even greater financial challenges when they walked in the door. Anyone selling the idea that you need to buy your way into heaven needs to be considered with caution, and can be a dangerous message for people who are desperate for a better life.
This was the place where church got a little bit scary. At one point, the preacher was talking about when obstacles come along and try to get you to stop your pursuit of your dreams. She said that this doubt was the devil whispering in your ear, telling you you can’t do something, and that all thinking is the work of the devil. When that thinking happens, you’re supposed to turn your brain off, open your bible, and drown out the voices in your head. I struggle with any ideology that tells me that independent thinking and asking questions is the work of the devil. The entire experience called for a kind of repetitive rote performance of life, following the instructions of the church leaders and of the bible while preventing the kind of independent thinking that leads to trouble. Of course, this derives from the idea that human beings are inherently sinners and in need of guidance away from our natural inclination for sin. This is a fundamental difference between the work of Judaism and the work of Christianity. Judaism doesn’t believe in this kind of thinking; in fact, questioning and grappling are inherent to understanding one’s faith and understanding of their Judaism.
Throughout the experience at Lakewood, I learned the importance of experiencing a variety of different ways of understanding religion in a modern context. I may have been the first person in that building wearing a kippah in a very long time, but there was so much to learn about the way others communicate message of faith, and so much we can learn about how to get our message out to others. We are all striving for meaning in the world around us, and Lakewood Church is offering a version of that reality that has something to teach as Jewish communities try to express a message of our own.