“What’s your religious background?”
We’ve all been there – the awkward dinner party you are obliged to attend where you get drilled by a friendly guest. Or perhaps it’s in the middle seat, stuck on the tarmac for hours with a chatty passenger who just happens to be seated right next to you. Actually, the question can come at any moment, and you never know just quite what to say because, after all, how do you really explain being Jewish while believing in Jesus? Entire books have been written on this topic. Some might even say the greatest of books was. You’re wishing you could just cheerfully hand the person a New Testament and be done with it, but instead you smile, and launch in.
In my experience, the conversation usually begins with a stale question, phrased something like, “What’s your religious background?” In most contexts, this is an easy question to “get wrong,” even if you happen to give the right answer. Like many other words, “religion” connotes: a) socio-political baggage, and b) a list of options. Simply responding at the same level often only proves that Messianic Jewish faith is merely the option we happened to draw from the grab bag of religious possibilities. We can do better.
As Messianic Jews, we know our faith was not dictated by our birth family, by the neighborhood we grew up in, or even through a bris or a bar/bat mitzvah. It is about a relationship we found with the God of the universe, in whose Word we believe and follow. Especially if we have the blessing of being raised by Messianic parents, it can take even more effort to explain that we were not born into a belief system. For those of us who have seen childhood friends exit the faith in droves, we know firsthand that loving Yeshua is a choice – not something that one can be forced to embrace.
In the Messianic movement, we have often been taught to explain being a follower of Yeshua as slightly different from Judaism, and sometimes even as different from Christianity. If our self-definition relies on disclaiming two other religions in one sentence, or put more bluntly, explaining what we are not, the question arises: are we doing a good job? Should we reconsider how we explain the eternal truths and hope which brought us to faith?
So… how should we explain our faith?
“I believe that Jesus is the Messiah” used to work well in Jewish conversations – a silver bullet straight to the heart of the matter. It would shock a steady spiritual pulse into the exchange. This was back when the Jewish community was less fragmented and had a more unified bedrock of Orthodox practice. It certainly worked better for my parents’ generation, the boomers, who would explain to their friends and family about the radical hope they had found in Yeshua. They have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote (John 1:45). It was Jesus – modern Judaism’s antithesis. When proclaimed, this discovery –while eliciting a knee-jerk reaction almost instantly – almost always, allowed for weaving in an understood narrative about tolerance and anti-establishment thinking. At least during that era, it would open doors to a spiritual conversation.
Today, especially outside of typically Orthodox communities, using “Jesus is the Messiah” as an explanation of faith almost never provokes further dialogue. A lot of this has to do with a departure from a monolithic Jewish experience, especially in the United States. “The number of Jews who identify themselves as only culturally Jewish has risen from 20% in 1990 to 37% [in 2007]. In the same period, the number of all U.S. adults who said they had no religion rose from 8% to 15%”.1> The Barna study of Jewish millennials showed that in comparison to 6% of the boomer generation, 23% of Jewish millennials attend synagogue weekly. However, 49% of Jewish millennials attend synagogue to continue Jewish traditions, and only 18% go to find out more about God.2 This means that in many cases we are connecting with people, Jewish or not, who have little-to-no connection with God. There may only be a slight, delicate bit of curiosity to start with. We can easily come in at a level for which that person does not even have a foundation for understanding us. There is wisdom in trying to understand the background of each individual you talk to before launching into a spiel.
Opportunities to talk about your faith
Though it can be rare in today’s post-religious world, chances to talk with non-believers in a natural, non-pushy way do arise. And, of course, on a regular basis, there are many clever ways to begin conversations with people about faith. A wise Messianic man that I knew used to answer every “How are you?” with, “I’m not good, but I’m saved.” Whether on a subway train, at a street corner, or at a Shabbat table, that little line of his consistently opened doors for conversation about the Lord and how he had transformed and fulfilled that man’s life.
Not surprisingly, just existing as a Jewish believer can naturally open these doors – from explaining who you work for or volunteer to revealing why you’ve been banned from a Birthright trip to Israel. Getting involved with Jewish ministries can be one of the of the easiest ways to share your faith, usually because when you meet someone new, introductions include questions like, “Oh, so what do you do?” or “What are you doing here?” Of course, “here” could be “the Hummus Trail” in India, a Jewish community in Ethiopia or a hotel restaurant at a Messianic conference. Within the realm of ministry, there are almost always follow-up questions about the work you are doing and what it means – both practically and personally.
Whether someone is recounting their spiritual journey from agnosticism to Buddhism to Messiah Yeshua, or reviewing their latest experience at a nail salon in livid, living color on Yelp-- for better or for worse, first-person stories are not easily disputed. Personal experience as expressed in your story is a persuasive, underestimated and underutilized power.
My sister-in-law works in a Jewish community center (JCC) and was recently given the opportunity to speak at a major Messianic conference. During her message to the assembly of believers at the the conference, she included the story of her Orthodox Jewish grandmother coming to faith in Yeshua at a critical point in her life. Her grandmother’s decision transformed a dangerously anxious housewife into a spiritual matriarch. God used her to lead four other generations of her family to the Lord. The message was recorded, and my sister-in-law was able to naturally and enthusiastically share it with some of her Jewish colleagues at the JCC. Though they already knew she was a Messianic Jew, perhaps, because of that story, they understood for the first time the power and viability of being a Jew for Jesus.
The opportunity to share more about faith could easily work in more casual contexts, such as when a new acquaintance asks, “Are you free to go to brunch this weekend?” If you attended services right before digging into challah french toast, it could serve as a natural talking point towards a spiritual discussion.
But an important question to ask yourself is whether or not you are you looking for these opportunities to share. Are you preparing yourself to answer clearly and thoughtfully? When they arise, are you maximizing your opportunity for the Lord?
Prepared to give an answer
Paul declares us as believers to be part of a Jewish missional movement (Romans 1:16), so we are encouraged to speak up about our faith (Philemon 1:6; 1 Peter 3:15–16). Peter in particular exhorts us, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). Preparation can come in many different flavors: apologetics, Messianic prophecy, personal transformation or answered prayer. The core idea is readiness.
What is the hope that we have? As Jews, we are taught to be proud of our heritage. However, our heritage alone does not spring forth hope unless we count the fact that our people have never been wiped out, despite countless genocidal plots against us. Many Jewish people are Jews by ethnicity or nationality, but not necessarily by religious practice. They, like many others, can feel disconnected from God – most unintentionally, others by choice. As a remnant within the greater Jewish community, we are chosen only because of God’s mercy, and are called to make a difference to our people in this way.
You cannot be born as a follower of someone or something. You have to learn it and accept it for yourself – whether it’s Paul the apostle, Plato or Paul McCartney. So, the question is: how would you give a reason for the hope that inspired you to follow Yeshua? When someone asks what religion you follow, they are really asking why you have hope. How do you answer that? Instead of merely saying that you are a Messianic Jew, how about answering in a very Jewish way – with another question! Another question helps ensure your “answer” will lead to a meaningful discussion, for instance by saying something like, “Are you asking me what I believe?” you swing the door wide open for conversation. What person in this day and age is going to say no?
What if we instead answered, “What is Messianic Jewish faith?” with something like: “It’s the belief that all people are flawed, broken and in need of a forgiveness and healing that can only come from God. As a Messianic Jew, I live out this truth in harmony with my Jewish identity, not seeing this message as contradictory with Hebrew Scripture or practices at all.” The core is the good news, however contextualized to that conversation. We each have the freedom to do this.
Because we believe in Scripture as the Word of God, and as the one way to true life and freedom in Messiah, Messianic Jewish faith is not just the first oddly wrapped item we drew out of the universal grab bag of religions. Instead, the hope we have found in Messiah is what each of us needs in order to be right with God and know Him. Our society’s presupposed ideas about religion do not get at the core of what we believe. Our challenge is to follow our rabbi Yeshua’s example, and answer the heart of each individual, not their literal questions.
There are opportunities to share what God has done – both through our people and through us personally every day. I hope that now, in this season of American Messianic life, we will use daily life’s opportunities to share the hope we have – a very Jewish and very real hope for all nations – in our Messiah Yeshua.
1 Associated Press, “US survey: Number of religious Jews drops sharply,” (August 9, 2009), https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3759000,00.html.
2 Barna Group, Jewish Millennials: The Beliefs and Behaviors Shaping Young Jews in America, (Ventura, Barna Group, 2017), 66, 94.