Being effective in Jewish outreach is not a strategy; it is a lifestyle. Genuine care and concern for others is the foundation for sharing the good news about Messiah.
Flipping the Paradigm
Nassau County on Long Island is home to about 330,000 Jewish people. The vast majority of those-85 percent or more by some estimates-are not religiously observant. They attend synagogue for High Holy Days and Bar/Bat Mitzvot, but otherwise prefer not to go. Religious observance is not an attraction for this population and yet many of our Messianic models are geared toward the observant Jew.
For example, traditional planting models emphasize the launching of services or starting with a small group and growing. These are not the easiest ways of fostering relationships and both require a level of commitment that many Jewish people are not willing to make. Remember, most Jews do not include regular synagogue attendance in their schedules so it is difficult to expect it of them in a Messianic setting. Additionally, small groups can be confusing and uncomfortable because they are often geared for believers and are laden with Christian jargon.
An alternative model for outreach is to focus on building a sense of belonging and to provide clear “next steps” for spiritual growth. This enables congregations to develop strong relationships with unbelieving Jewish people and then help them explore their relationship with God.
A Place to Belong
Building a sense of belonging with unbelieving Jews takes time but it is not overly difficult if you assume an attitude of love toward them. They are not contacts; they are not a project. They are people. They are created in the image of God and, therefore, are precious and important. If you genuinely love them, you will invest in their lives and their families. Remember their birthdays, anniversaries and yahrzeits; go to the movies together; invite them over for dinner; send them funny e-mail stories; and dote on their kids. It is the little things that do not cost very much and do not take very much time but communicate a heart full of love and concern. Those actions build friendship and trust.
Take the Next Step
As people spend more time with a leader and members of a congregation, they will naturally ask God questions. It is easy for them to take their next spiritual step if there are events and groups into which they may move. That progression also makes growth and development feel natural, expected, and celebrated.
Host Great Events
Hosting great events allows a congregation to network with larger groups of Jewish people in a comfortable setting that does not necessarily emphasize the religious. Here are some examples of things we have done recently at Melech Yisrael:
- Wedding Album Party
Three generations of women attended our party. Long into the night, they shared stories, compared style selections and talked about the challenges of marriage and in-laws.
- DaVinci Code Discussion Group
The DaVinci Code was a great read and generated lively discussion in a home group we ran for four weeks before the movie debuted. We went to the movie as a group and then went for dinner to discuss what we liked and did not like.
- Sabbath on the Shore
Several times now, we have enjoyed an afternoon at the beach and then celebrated the Sabbath together. We sing songs, nosh and listen as stories from people’s childhood memories of Sabbath celebrations begin to flow. These outings are always relaxed and they are excellent catalysts for deep conversations about life issues.
Offer Relevant Small Groups
Small groups typically are not accessible for unbelieving Jews. The materials often assume a fairly high level of knowledge about the Scriptures. The conversation is often heavy with Christian terms and catch-phrases. To make small groups relevant, they must be designed with unbelievers in mind. Pick a topic they are interested in, be ready for off-color comments and be willing to discuss unbiblical viewpoints. The key is to create an atmosphere where questions and discussion are encouraged, where people can try out theories without fearing they will be criticized as being wrong.
During our DaVinci Code discussion group, we read samples from the Gnostic Gospels. Several people then asked if we could read a Gospel from the Bible to see what it had to say. When was the last time a Jewish person asked you to read Matthew with them? The only reason we got the opportunity to read Scripture was because we handled the people and their questions with respect while reading a secular novel.
Marked By Excellence
At Melech, we have up-ended our approach to outreach. However, we still have a keen focus on excellence in our other, more traditional areas of ministry. Having done the work to build relationships and help people move forward in their spiritual journey, we want them to find excellence and meaning in the worship services, holiday events and study groups we offer. For example, we regularly ask ourselves how we can raise the bar to improve our Sabbath service. Does the service flow? Is the d’var Torah/sermon relevant to real life? Is the service accessible to those who are not familiar with the Siddur and might not know Hebrew? Did we edit the bulletin and newsletters? Did we have a good nosh? All of these things contribute to a person’s experience at Melech and, to some degree, determine whether they will continue their spiritual journey with us.
It Is A Process, Not An Event
As we said earlier, outreach in the Jewish community is a lifestyle. It is not a single event or a program. Rather, it is about including Jewish people in your day-to-day life, and planning get-togethers, books clubs and the like so they can rub shoulders with other Messianic believers. That regular, intimate contact earns you the right to talk about Messiah and speak to their life issues.
Kiel Cooper is the synagogue leader at Melech Yisrael Messianic Synagogue in Syosset,N.Y. Kiel has been in Messianic ministry for more than 20 years, both in Chicago and on Long Island.