Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Lessons from Church

I've occasionally wondered how some churches can be so incredibly popular, attracting thousands of worshippers on a regular basis. What do they do that we Jews don't? Now, of course I understand that not all churches are that popular. There are many that struggle. However, isn't there something we can learn from popular churches to use in synagogues in order to attract large, enthusiastic crowds?

My curiosity has never gotten the best of me so I still have no idea how a preacher can pack a sports stadium full of worshippers. However, someone -- an Orthodox Jew -- has done the job for me and written a book about it. In his fascinating and enjoyable book, My Jesus Year, Benyamin Cohen writes about the year he spent attending church. He had multiple reasons for doing it and the Orthodox rabbi who gave him permission attached a number of conditions to the allowance (including always wearing a press pass and being paid for the book that resulted from the research). But that, and all of the extensive personal information and pop culture references in the book, is beside the point. While they make the book more interesting, that is not what I was looking for. What I wanted to see is what draws people into church and whether these practices can be transferred to synagogues.

Click here to read moreThere are religious reasons why synagogues would not want to imitate church practices -- specifically, we are prohibited to imitate other religions, an issue that I discuss at length elsewhere (link). But not everything falls under that category. Is there some psychological insight that ministers have into churchgoers that we can also utilize, or is there some logistical or marketing technique that we can exploit?

Also, perhaps most crucial, what kind of impact do popular church services have on the attendees? Do people go there to be entertained or to worship? Is it a superficial, feel-good experience or something profound that attendees take with them when they leave?

I didn't find all the answers in this book but I did see many interesting practices. Here are a few of them:

  • Welcoming newcomers: Many churches enthusiatically welcome newcomers, including many individuals who were truly welcoming and were happy to give tours and help newcomers follow the services. Many synagogues already do this but there is much room for improvement. However, I've never heard of synagogues giving free multimedia welcome packages (brochures, CDs). Some of that is Shabbos restrictions but maybe we can find a way to get a newcomer's name and then find his address and after Shabbos send him a welcome package (or, even better, personally deliver it).

  • Slick packaging: Videos, DVDs, brochures, gift shops full of religious trinkets. Do we not do this because we lack the scale to produce material economically? Is it Shabbos restrictions? Or are Jews just too cheap to buy things at a synagogue gift shop?

  • Lively singing: This exists in some synagogues, but not many. It's not like we don't have contemporary Jewish music that we can use (although the book doesn't mention it). You don't even need a microphone or band for good singing. But most synagogues have very little music and what there is, is always the same tune from 50-75 years ago (think "Etz chaim hi"). (See this related post: link)

  • Alternative lifestyles: There are church services for bikers, for wrestling fans and for many other types of people. Jewish services are all the same and do not utilize hobbies or other interests to bring people in. The author describes a Christian wrestling service he attended at which, in between matches, prayers were said and preachers spoke to the crowd. Jews don't do that.
These are only a few of the lessons the author learned from his year of attending church (and visiting a monastery, and interviewing the head of the Black Hebrew movement, and much more). Can and should we incorporate them into the synagogue? Before we answer that we need to ask whether the experience of religious entertainment is real. Does it draw crowds because it is entertaining or because it is religion in a more appealing form? Is it watered down religion or a contemporary translation of old school religion?

I don't have all the answers. My gut is to dismiss it as watered-down religiotainment but that could be because I am a thinly disguised curmudgeon. Maybe someone wiser than I will find this to be a profound way of knowing God in all of our paths, and will decide that imitating it is not forbidden by Jewish law. However, some of these ideas seem so elementary (like a welcome package) that I think it would be foolish to ignore them once they are brought to our attention.

How does the book end? After a year of Sunday church attendance, Benyamin Cohen has gained a greater appreciation for Jewish ritual and prayer. According to the book, he has found more meaning in the Orthodox Judaism in which he was raised. While I don't recommend the experience for everyone (or, really, anyone), it seems to have done him well.

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