What’s a Nice Jewish Boy Like You…?
Stephen Katz is currently chief of station of our Jews for Jesus-D.C. branch, having moved to the Washington area two years ago. But for many years he and his family lived in San Francisco, and from that base Stephen wrote the lead articles for Mishpochah Message” and “Havurah.”
The Katzes’ journey to find a place of worship in their new city for their family of six is not unlike the challenge many Jewish believers face when moving to a new area. Stephen’s frank honesty in this interview reveals that such a search is not a cut-anddry effort; it’s often fraught with many misgivings and hopes that you’re doing the right thing.
But the Katzes have found a home for their faith—a rather large home—at McLean Bible Church in McLean, Virginia, pastored by Lon Solomon, a Jewish believer who was born and raised in Portsmouth, Virginia. Pastor Lon ministers to over 11,000 people every weekend at McLean. The innovative ministries at McLean include: Frontline, a targeted ministry for Gen X’ers; THE HOUSE, a ministry to teens in southeast Washington; and ACCESS, the largest church ministry to children with special needs and their families in the D.C. area.
Pastor Lon and his wife Brenda have four children, one a special-needs child named Jill, age 13. They live in Fairfax, Virginia.
Stephen, what brought you and your family to worship at McLean Bible Church when you live in an area where there are some Messianic congregations?
When our family moved out here a few years ago from San Francisco we didn’t have experience with the churches or the Messianic congregations in our area. However, we knew Lon Solomon, both because he’s on the Board of Directors of Jews for Jesus and because of his good reputation as a pastor. So I felt that we should begin our search for a spiritual home at McLean. Now we also periodically attend one of the Messianic congregations here. The leader is a good friend and will be officiating at my daughter’s bat mitzvah this spring.
What attracted you and your family to McLean in particular?
I had heard that Lon had an extensive ministry and influence in the D.C. area, but it took me a while to realize the scope of the church’s influence. Lon himself is a real force in the community and he has a good reputation here. His church even affects all the neighborhoods around it, including traffic patterns.
Lon was appointed two years ago by President Bush to the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities. He is often in the media, on television and in the newspapers. Perhaps one of the reasons that I’m comfortable there is because the church is not afraid to maintain a high profile for its faith and its actions.
On another level, McLean is a good church for us to be in because of the Jewish connection we share with our pastor and several congregants; it affords so many opportunities for ministry. Lon is Jewish and he makes that very clear in his preaching and in his profile. Many inquisitive Jewish seekers come there or they hear Lon on the radio. After they check out the church and meet Lon or other leaders there, Lon refers them to the D.C. Jews for Jesus branch for us to follow up on in ministry.
Stephen, you have a strong Jewish identity and you want that for your children as well. Does being at McLean help or hinder this?
When our family was in San Francisco, we felt like “dual citizens” because we attended both a Messianic congregation and a local church. Our children got their Jewish input from the congregation. But the congregation was small; all the other type of youth group activities that are important to young children and teens were only available at the church, since it was much larger.
Now that we’re only in a church environment, it’s harder to find that Jewish connection for our children. It’s hard not to have a community around us to support our Jewish understanding, culture and values. It’s always going to be an issue for me and my family to not be in a Jewish environment. I think that being in a church will always make us feel a little bit like fish out of water. So in terms of a cultural experience, it’s not like a Jewish family get-together when we’re there.
However, there’s a huge up-side to fellowshipping at McLean. Because it’s a biblically solid, good-sized church, there are many activities to be plugged into and many opportunities for spiritual growth. My wife Laura is in a weekly women’s book reading prayer group. Both our daughters are very involved with their youth activities. We’re in a couples’ small group where every member is either a Jewish believer or has a Jewish spouse. This group was very intentional in how it was formed.
What kind of an influence are you and your family having in sensitizing the church to Jewish culture, or is having a pastor who is a Jewish believer enough?
Last summer we had the Behold Your God D.C. outreach and Jews for Jesus partnered with McLean in this effort. I was able to train 600 people in the church in Jewish history, culture and how to be an effective witness to the Jewish community. This is an enormous example but it happens on a smaller scale, too. In Laura’s book group the women are always asking her questions and she is able to give them materials and answers on how to reach their Jewish friends.
Lon raises a high image himself about reaching out to unsaved Jewish people. He is always encouraging his people to do that. And in many of his sermons he uses Jewish stories or references—which makes sense, because he’s Jewish!
Do the Jewish believers in the congregation tend to gravitate toward one another?
There are a good number of Jewish believers in the church and I’m meeting new ones all the time. Naturally, we gravitate towards one another. For the two years I’ve been at the church I have been debating about whether to start some special Jewish interest group.
What do your children say about being at the church? 3 Our daughter Mia is having a bat mitzvah soon and it’s very important to her even though she is very involved with the youth at our church. For both our daughters, about 90% of their friends are Jewish because of the area where we live. They have friendships with other Jewish kids and our girls affirm that they’re Jewish and believe in Jesus, and they openly discuss it with their friends. Our daughters maintain their Jewish identity through our family life, calendar events and the traditions we’ve instilled in our home: holidays, Camp Gilgal, Ingatherings, Shabbat dinners. But just as it was in San Francisco, their youth groups and leaders at our church are really important in their lives as well.
How does your pastor draw from his Jewish background in his sermons?
Lon refers to parts of his story often in his sermons and he is open about his Jewish identity. He has used one story several times that had to do with his grandmother’s funeral and the reaction of his grandfather leaping on the coffin at the gravesite and wailing. Unfortunately, he also tells Jewish jokes, especially ones about mothers!
What would you say to other Jewish believers who are struggling with finding balance between their Jewish heritage and spiritual growth?
Wow! That’s a question to be answered in another thousand words. I don’t think there is a sweeping response for every individual or family. I’ve been open about my experience and the issues that have influenced my family’s decisionmaking process, and maybe there are those that can identify with that. I believe that if I’m doing everything that I can do to honor God, then I’m not leaving anything out. I trust that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is faithful to lead each of His followers in the path that draws them the closest into His presence and makes them most effective in the work of His kingdom.
North American Director
Stephen's grandparents immigrated to America from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, ultimately settling in the Chicago area. As a boy, Stephen enjoyed sports and excelled in school. In his high school years he began to question the values he had been raised with, and instead of focusing on academics, began to spend all his time playing guitar and harmonica. Over the next few years he searched for answers to his many questions about life, eventually becoming a follower of Yeshua. Three weeks after receiving his bachelor's degree in social work from the University of Illinois, he got married and began to work with abused and neglected youth in a residential treatment center in Chicago, which he did for 10 years (taking one year out to live on a kibbutz in Israel). He received his master's degree in social work from the University of Illinois in 1984. He and his young family attended a messianic congregation for 13 years, where Stephen served as the worship leader. In 1989, Stephen began missionary training with Jews for Jesus and now serves as North American Director. For 12 years he oversaw our work in Israel and still continues to be involved with our work there. Laura and he have four children, three of whom are married. He received a master's degree in intercultural and Jewish studies from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1997. Stephen is known to be a warm-hearted and engaging teacher and a good listener.