A Portrait of Messianic Jews
Someone once perceptively said, “Statistics are human beings with the tears wiped off.”1
From June 1, 2013 through December 1, 2013, Jews for Jesus carried out a broad statistical study of Messianic Jews in North America, involving 1,567 respondents. This study updated a similar one we did in 1983, exactly thirty years ago. The results paint a portrait, but really only part of one. Behind each “15%” and “168 respondents” lurk personal stories of searching and finding, pain and loss, struggle and glory.
Yet it was important to survey the people we did, which was really about surveying ourselves, the North American Messianic movement. (A worldwide survey will have to await another day.) We wanted to know more about our lived experience, for God works in the world and calls us to work alongside him. Our study was meant to help us understand our evolving movement and, moving forward from the results, to provide resources and stimulate strategies for outreach, fellowship and edification.
Like the earlier survey, this one covered age, family background, education, religious observance and vocation. We also delved into observance of religious traditions, Jewish beliefs and Jewish identity. A new section, not part of the 1983 survey, covered the participants’ experiences as they heard and responded to the gospel. Along with our earlier study and the recent Pew Study of the general Jewish community,2 we can paint a portrait of Messianic Jews in North America. This article gives only a few highlights.
“Paint By Numbers”
Some readers might remember growing up with a hobby called “painting by numbers.” This involved a kit with a board that featured a scene divided into small numbered areas. Each number corresponded to a color included in the kit. When the entire canvas was filled in with the appropriate paints, voilà—a landscape or a reproduction of the Mona Lisa.
In a similar way, surveys also put numbers together in order to produce a finished picture. Here is a glimpse of the many pictures that our numbers produced. Again, see the full survey for a much more detailed portrait.
• Parentage. Over 75% of those 50 and older reported that both parents were Jewish. But for those born after 1980 (33 years and younger), just under 33% came from households with two Jewish parents. This is probably because of the larger proportion of second-generation Messianic Jews in the younger respondents, reflecting the mixed marriages of their Messianic Jewish parents. This leads us to the next picture.
• We’re intermarried, like other Jews, only more so. About 75% of Messianic Jews are married to non-Jews, not much more than in the 1983 survey. This is higher than in other segments of the Jewish community, such as Reform (50%) or “no denomination” (69%). Intermarriage was markedly higher in the 50+ age bracket, with a small change in the intermarriage trend among second generation Messianic Jews.
• “My son, the college student!” We’re smart . . . or at least educated. Messianic Jews show a commitment to education that trends higher than in the general population and is at a par with or even greater than in the wider Jewish community. For example, 28% of Jews overall have post-graduate degrees, compared to 27% of Jewish believers—and only 10% of the U.S. general population. While 42% of the general population hasn’t gone beyond high school, that is true of only 9% of Jewish believers and 17% of Jews in general.3
• What’s in a name? There has been some significant trending in the last three decades away from Jewish believers self-identifying as “Hebrew Christians” in favor of identification as “Jewish believers” or “Messianic Jews.” The sharpest decline since 1983 was in the use of “Hebrew Christian,” followed by a smaller decline in the self-identification of “Jewish Christian.” Interestingly, 28% are happy to identify simply as “Christian.” (Respondents could pick multiple labels.)
• “Doing Jewish.” Messianic Jews of 2013 participate in Jewish holidays more than we did in 1983, and much more than the overall Jewish community does. For all age groups, our participation increased after coming to faith in Yeshua. In this chart, the Pew Study tracks the overall Jewish community, followed by the two surveys of Jewish believers:
There was also a marked increase in lighting Shabbat candles after becoming a believer. We saw a consistent increase in orientation across age groups towards this practice as well as in the general observance of Shabbat, the study of Hebrew, accessing and reading Jewish media, and observance of kashrut. Notably, after coming to faith, Jewish believers showed a very significant increase in orientation across age groups towards the practice of tikkun olam (social activism, literally “repair of the world”).
• Worship. Also significantly, more Jewish believers attend a church than a messianic congregation. The significantly largest number attend a “community” (our name for community churches, non-denominational churches, and some of the more recent “movements” in which non-denominational churches have emerged as affiliated congregations in multiple cities). More, however, attend a messianic congregation than “traditional” (Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian), “Baptist,” or “Charismatic” congregations. Five percent indicated attendance at both a Messianic congregation and a Christian church. There is also a consistent pattern of Messianic Jews in all age groups participating in and worshipping at local synagogues outside the Messianic Jewish community.
Our Family Portrait, 2013,
Part One—Our Identity
These few snapshots would seem to indicate a Messianic Jewish community that has a high rate of intermarriage, with more of us attending a church than a messianic congregation. And yet, counter to some kinds of conventional wisdom, our community retains a strong sense of Jewish identity in terms of how we label ourselves, what kinds of Jewish activities we participate in, and how we worship (e.g., continued identification to some extent with non-Messianic synagogues). Statistics, of course, are never cut-and-dried, and there is ample food for thought as to how retaining and expressing Jewishness can best be maintained across generations and marriage situations.
On the Journey to Faith
Many Jewish believers will be eager to know how their own experience compares with that of other Messianic Jews when it comes to the journey to faith. Here’s what we found:
• The beginning of the journey. We started young. The median age for first hearing the gospel is 17, and for taking that actual step of faith, it is 22 years of age. Through all age groups, most people had heard the gospel by the time they were 25, though there were still a significant number who didn’t hear until later in life. And while the medians were 17 and 22, the averages were significantly higher, indicating that people do respond to the gospel even when hearing it for the first time at much later ages.
• Who told us? As expected, the most common way that someone heard the gospel in the Jewish community was through personal conversation. However, there has been growth in the numbers who heard it in a church, a Messianic congregation, or in conversation with a relative. Others heard it directly from Scripture, at a public event or from tracts or other literature. The smallest number heard via online sources or social media; we might expect that to change significantly in the future.
• How did we respond to the gospel? Nearly as many had a positive as a negative response, with a significant number being “interested.” Overall, there was a mixture of positive and negative responses across the age groups. “Thus the people were divided because of Jesus” (John 7:43) remains as true today as in the first century. After hearing the gospel, people took a varied number of actions: most commonly, reading the Bible, followed by speaking further with the initial person and then asking God to show them what was true. A distinct minority tried to show that the gospel wasn’t true, while the least common response was to talk to a rabbi.
• Pressure points and related experiences. We received comments indicating that the major pressure point in coming to faith involved what it would mean for relationships in the community (which included the Jewish community plus family members), followed by pressure from friends, school and work peers. Specifically, fear of disloyalty to one’s upbringing and/or to the Jewish community was especially a point of pressure for the 50+ group. Fear of life changes was also prominent, as well as conviction of sin (a more positive kind of pressure point!). While all age groups experienced these factors, it would seem that pressure points, especially regarding the community, factored less significantly among younger generations.
Our Family Portrait, 2013,
Part Two — Our Journey of Faith
This second set of snapshots shows a community that heard the gospel early in life, with personal contact being (as we might expect) the largest single factor in introducing someone to the gospel. Our responses, as with Messianic Jews of past generations, showed a mix of the positive and negative, with the most common one being to investigate or read the Bible—again, not surprising, since the Bible texts are the arena of debate concerning the Messiahship of Jesus. And coming to faith is never easy for Jewish people—community and family pressures continued to loom large, though somewhat less so for the younger generations.
So What? News We Can Use
Statistics are an aid to understanding and an incentive to action. Here are some practical points that come out of our survey:
1. The presentation and response to the gospel has not drastically changed over the years. Personal contact, reading the Bible, and various kinds of pressures from the Jewish community and from family remain steady factors as they have since the first century. This means that we need to build relationships, make the Bible available, and recognize and then address the pressure points. This is nothing new, but bears repeating. When encouraging non-Jewish Christians to share the gospel with Jewish friends, the pressure points should be a special talking point in helping those Christians address the issues with which we are all too familiar as Messianic Jews.
2. More controversially, the survey showed that intermarriage, having only one Jewish parent, and attendance at a church rather than a Messianic congregation did not appear to decrease Jewish identity or even Jewish practices. We note that this is true for our current survey; had we surveyed the Jewish believing community in, say, 1930, we might have correlated intermarriage with a loss of Jewish identity. This is controversial because some believe that marrying a Jewish partner and/or involvement in a messianic congregation are necessary for the maintenance of Jewish identity down through the generations. Statistical results are only as good as their interpretations, and this finding bears further exploration, especially vis-à-vis the larger Jewish community’s experience.
3. In terms of relating to the larger Jewish community, Messianic Jews in North America are more similar to the American/Canadian Jewish community than to the general U.S. population in areas such as Jewish dispositions, education and occupation. Our preferences in labeling ourselves and our religious observance levels indicate a continuing identification with the Jewish people. While there is much diversity in the Messianic Jewish community, this also reflects the diversity of the larger Jewish community. We are, in our temperaments, dispositions, and activities, part of the wider community and moreover, we often actively seek ways to be part of that community, for example, through synagogue attendance. This is true even though the larger community continues to exert pressures away from Jewish consideration of the gospel. This suggests continuing the ongoing conversation as to what extent we need to prophetically challenge, and yet seek to remain a part of, the Jewish community at large.
4. Finally, this is a North American survey. “Mileage may vary” for Messianic Jews in Israel, the former Soviet Union, Western Europe, and elsewhere. In fact, it certainly will vary. It will be important to compare our Messianic community to other settings to see what approaches we have to consider in cultivating our own Jewishness—and in bringing the gospel to our people worldwide.
A Final Word
“Say you were standing with one foot in the oven and one foot in an ice bucket. According to the percentage people, you should be perfectly comfortable.”4 So said Bobby Bragan back in 1963. Statistics are curious things, and once there was even a book published called How to Lie with Statistics. We’ve tried our best to produce reliable statistics and a picture of who we, the Messianic Jewish community of North America, are as of 2013. But (as someone famously once remarked) since “we is us,” various ones may or may not recognize themselves in this picture. Our respondents varied in age group, in experience, in their own self-assessments.
And by the way—don’t try standing in the oven and the ice bucket!
This content was adapted from an earlier Jews for Jesus article.
2 Portrait of Jewish Americans, Pew Research, 2013, http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/
4 Bobby Bragan, http://www.worldofquotes.com/author/Bobby+Bragan/1/index.html.
Scholar in Residence, Missionary
Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.