As a child of the 1990s, I remember that everyone around me seemed to spend their Saturday mornings doing one of two things. Some woke, dressed in a uniform, grabbed a quick but balanced breakfast, and hit some sort of sports arena or field. The others woke, didn’t bother getting changed, grabbed some sugar cereal that has since been outlawed because of the increase in juvenile diabetes, and planted themselves in front of the television for cartoons. I was in the third, unspoken category: religious activities. I woke, dressed in my nicest (or at least cleanest) dress, and ate Cheerios from a plastic baggie in the car on the way to the Messianic congregation that my family attended faithfully each week.
Worshipping in different worlds
For those of you who have never attended a Messianic congregation, it is a unique phenomenon that I didn’t realize was different from other people’s religious experiences because I was born into it. Its main purpose is to reach out to Jewish believers in Jesus and Christians who would like to understand the Jewish traditions a little better. People come together, usually on Friday night or Saturday morning (the Jewish Sabbath) and worship God. The name “Messianic congregation” is very fitting because though most have elements of both church and temple services, neither word completely captures the experience.
Sometime in my early teenage years, I started to go to church with my friends from school, and I realized that we were praising in different worlds. In a Messianic congregation, the word Christian is replaced with Messianic believer, indicating that while the congregant believes that the prophecies of the Son of God, or the Messiah, have been fulfilled, Jewish people don’t lose their identity or convert to another religion. The leader of the congregation is called rabbi or teacher, not pastor. The Messiah is known as Yeshua most of the time. On the occasion that the rabbi is trying to make a dramatic point, he may be called Jesus, but it’s rare. And he is never called Christ, because Jewish people have been persecuted under this name for a long time. For the same reason, the sacrificial death of Yeshua is described as having taken place on a tree, not a cross. Praise and worship songs are often sung in Hebrew.
Different from the other kids
Another thing that separates the Messianic community is the weekly prayers. Often they are said in both Hebrew and English. Like at a synagogue, my congregation held a Torah service in which a scroll that contains the first five books of the Bible is pulled with great care from a special closet or cabinet called the ark. This adds 30–45 minutes to the service, because the Torah is prayed over, carried around the room, read in small portions with blessings before and after, and carefully dressed and put away. So, while many church services are only an hour or so in length, our regular service often went for closer to two.
One of the weirdest things about my congregation was how people came from all over to attend. Most of the churches I had seen were local to the community. Where I lived in the middle of New Jersey, most people had a church ten minutes from their house. Their kids saw each other at school and were involved in the same social clubs. I envied those kids. We drove twenty minutes each way to get to the congregation (an eternity as a child). My best friends were from the congregation, but they lived in other towns. Our parents had to plan playdates, and someone had to drive us back home. It made it hard to socialize on a regular basis. So, we’d cling to those Saturday mornings; they were often the only time we got to be together each week. We were different from the other kids we went to school with, but we had a sense of unity.
Ready to “rebel”
I tell you about these differences to explain what happened next. I turned from a child to a teen who visited churches with friends to a (young) adult who had to decide where I was going to worship on my weekends. And while I spent a good portion of my time still attending the congregation, I was young, angsty, and ready to rebel. I was ready to go to church.
The first few times I attended different churches, I was brutally out of place. The services took place on Sunday. People talked comfortably about being Christians. There were crosses all over the place. I wondered if they could tell that I was Jewish and if they knew that it was important to me. I wondered if I should tell them. And their messages centered around the Christian walk, not around God’s promises to the Jewish people. What if they didn’t understand?
Unfortunately, some of my fears were well founded. In my early church years, I found some communities that had replacement theology, a belief that the church has replaced the Jewish people as God’s chosen people. This becomes very complicated, and it’s a great thing to look up if it interests you, because it has huge theological implications. I’m not going to go too far into it. I’m just going to say that the first time that someone starts talking about how God has abandoned the Jewish people, and you are stuck in the middle of a pew of people affirming that by saying things like “Hallelujah” and “Amen,” it’s a tad like being in a horror movie. Also, it’s a good indication that you should probably not come back.
Anti-Semitism in the church
Another issue I was not ready for was a jealous kind of anti-Semitism in which people would tear me down because they were uncomfortable that I was Jewish and they were not. There was the worship pastor who refused to sing anything that had Messianic verbiage because he believed music belonged to the church. There were people who would tell me that I shouldn’t identify as Jewish because it caused dissension in the church, or that God didn’t love me any more than them just because I was born with Jewish blood. (For the record, if anyone ever starts to talk about what kind of blood you were born with, this is also a good time to run.)
Some of the churches I visited weren’t mean or scary. They were just depressing. They talked about the things that we needed to do to attain God’s love. I knew in my heart that this was wrong. I had never felt the need to earn God. I had always been grateful for His sacrifice because I knew that I wasn’t going to ever live up to perfection. God had always been the only one in my life who I didn’t feel had severe and high expectations of me. These churches were miserable places. The people never felt that they were good enough.
Belief without boundaries
So, as you can imagine, my church search was... rough. I thought I was looking for the community that I had lacked in the congregation, but I really wanted a faith that didn’t know boundaries. I didn’t want to limit my faith; I wanted to be able to say Jesus without fear. But I also wanted to be where the Bible was the center of the teaching and the people believed in a God who loved them and cared for them. And I did not want to lose my Jewish identity.
I needed some encouragement. I looked to my Bible. I took comfort in verses like Deuteronomy 31:6 – God would not forsake or abandon me. He would help me find other believers – Bible believers – people who I could worship with as the person He made me to be, without fear or trepidation. God heard my heart.
Is this heaven?
At a little church (which is no longer so little), I walked into a chorus of voices singing worship music that went right to heaven. The people’s hearts were geared toward God, and not toward each other, nor the pastor, nor the world. I closed my eyes and saw eternity. And suddenly, I understood. I had been looking for a home on earth, when my home had been in God the entire time. It was time to stop looking for a service and start looking for God. The church search was over.
These days, my husband and I still visit the Messianic congregation where I grew up, especially on the Jewish holidays or for special events. We attend a local community church that meets on Sunday mornings; it is small, God-fearing, Bible-believing, and loving. And on some Saturday nights, we drive half an hour to a large church where we can worship with the souls of others who love God for who He is and what He has done. Both the churches we attend get excited about things like adding Hebrew into their worship or talking about the Jewish culture. They also both have people who have a heart for witnessing to the Jewish community. They don’t discourage me for my identity as a Jewish believer, but help me grow and challenge me.
So, the story has a happy ending. For you, a Messianic congregation could be the best place to experience what I happened to find in a church. I think it is only natural for people who have grown up in a particular religious venue to want to break out and explore and see what else is out there. Some may have had the opposite experience – growing up in a church and then “breaking away” to a Messianic congregation.
I look forward to a day when there are no more titles or distinctions, when anti-Semitism and theological disagreements are put aside. The day when we will live as one body with one teacher, our heavenly Father, and our identity will be entirely Him. Until then, I will worship on earth in practice for that day. What the gathering is called no longer matters.
The author alone is responsible for the views expressed, which do not necessarily represent those of Jews for Jesus.