July 11th: What Mega Churches Have to Teach

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.

  • Music

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.

  • Indoctrination

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.


October 14th: What Jews Do

The following is a transcript of the sermon given by Austin Zoot on Yom Kippur morning at Temple B’nai Israel in Kokomo, IN.

“You stand this day, all of you, before your God.” All of you. In our Torah portion this morning, we are told that all people, men, women, children, young, old, leaders and strangers are all present at the rededication of the covenant with God. We are in the book of Deuteronomy, toward the end of the book. The Israelites have wandered in the desert and are now finally almost ready to enter the promised land. But before they can enter, they are each brought before God, in order that they may be called back to the covenant.

This makes a lot of sense. The people are about to enter the promised land, and are about to begin the arduous work of creating their society. There will be many distractions, many tasks to busy the people. God wants to ensure that their bond is fresh in their minds when they enter, to ensure that they know that all that they have, all that they will have, is because of God’s deliverance and mercy.

God, in essence, is reminding the people of their identity. Many tribes and peoples were conquering and shifting during this time in history. Conquest was a popular notion in the geopolitics of this age. What made the Israelites distinct, what made them special, was that they were doing so for a purpose. They were in this place at this time because they were God’s chosen people.

Every member of the community was present on that day. There were no exceptions. Nobody was excluded because of their standing in life, nobody left out because of their lineage or wealth. Every single person had a stake in the future, and every single individual was part of that community, about to begin their journey together.

One of the parts about Yom Kippur that I have always found so moving is that Jewish people are in services this morning. All across the country and across the world, Jewish people are gathering together in their houses of worship to pray, to repent, and to gather together. Growing up at a very large congregation in suburban Chicago, this was the day where I would see classmates that I didn’t know were even congregants. Those once-a-year Jews, the ones who never made the time for Judaism in their day-to-day lives, and yet felt some notion of commandedness to attend Yom Kippur services. It felt, somehow, more powerful, more holy, because everyone was brought together.

Yet, this year, I read an article that discussed the notion of skipping High Holiday services. The central thesis of the piece was that for those Jews who attended services once a year, Yom Kippur was not Judaism’s best foot forward. The writer argued that, if you are only going to have a taste of one moment on the Jewish calendar, it should be Simchat Torah, a time for celebration and joy, or Hannukah, full of motifs of miracles and light, or even Pesach, where freedom and redemption are our focus. There was something too sad and depressing about Yom Kippur, something that, for those Jews struggling to attend services, wasn’t worth subjecting themselves to.

This got me thinking. For me, from my childhood, Yom Kippur attendance was one of the few ways that I could identify exactly what Jews do. “It’s what Jews do.” It is that easy reminder, both to one’s self and one’s community, that I am different, that I am somehow special, unique in the ways I go about my day. It was, to me, the same feeling as during Passover, when I would be one of the children at school eating matzah and turning down the pizza that my non-Jewish friends were eating. It was, simply, what Jews do.

But what, exactly, do Jews do? What are the unifying things that all Jews do that makes them unique and expresses their identity? It certainly isn’t weekly service attendance. Congregations all across America are experiencing drop-offs in not only attendance, but also dues. A physical space and regular attendance there clearly is not a singular priority for all Jews, or even for a majority of Jews.

How about a belief in God? Well, not all Jews believe in God. At the very least, we know that the word Israel comes from the Hebrew phrase meaning “one who wrestles with God,” and thus there is a built-in understanding that God may not be a unifying identity for all Jews, as different people may be on different steps of their journey of divine spirituality. In that regard, it may be that a STRUGGLE with God is “what Jews do,” but even then, we know so many who don’t even think about it, don’t even begin to tackle the major ideological issue about what God means to them.

The Pew Research Center released a study in 2013, analyzing the Jewish community in America. One of their questions was “What does it mean to be Jewish?” Of the answers given by Jewish Americans, only three answers received more than 50% of the vote: remembering the Holocaust, leading ethical, moral lives, and working for justice and equality in society. In that regard, none of those things are uniquely Jewish. Anyone, a member of another faith or a secular individual, can remember a historical moment like the Holocaust. All humans, in some way or another, strive for morality and ethical behavior, and most would argue that they, too, work for justice and equality. The results with the lowest response rate were the ones that were most specific to living JEWISH lives: only 19% said observing Jewish law was imperative, 28% acknowledging the significance of being a member of a Jewish community.

We, as a Jewish people, are less sure than ever what it means to be Jewish. We have so many options, so many distractions in our lives. We have jobs, we have families to support, we have social groups and organizations clamoring for our attention. Yet, once again, our Torah portion helps to center us once again. God knew that our lives would be busy. God knew that we would get distracted, that we would get wrapped up in the day-to-day operations. So God brought the entire community together, a reminder that we, as a single community, are meant for something special, meant for something powerful, meant to be chosen.

On this Yom Kippur, my hope is that Jews come together and remember what it is that makes us Jewish. We do things that help us relate to our people, to remember our connection and our culture. It is eating Jewish foods, those things that we know from our heritage and from our childhood. It is going to Jewish places, both for prayer and for social life. It is talking about Jewish issues, keeping in mind that morality and ethical behavior that is so central to Judaism’s message.

What I have come to find is that “what Jews do” are Jewish things. When we approach our lives through a Jewish lens, remembering our faith and our heritage, we bring not only the best of ourselves, but we are truly present within the covenant with God. We cannot turn our backs from what it means to be Jewish, because, at it’s core, what Jews do is Jews do Jewish things. And the more we can do to keep our faith and our people and our culture and our heritage in mind, the closer we get to our own notions of the promised land.

Gamar Chatimah Tova.