Audience spirituality isn’t working and it won’t work. Don’t get me wrong: there IS a place for celebration services, for large gatherings. But if this is the bread and butter of our spiritual communities, and if having bigger, and better, and glitzier events is our game plan for spiritual renewal, we should save ourselves time and money. We should avoid being seduced by great noises and bright lights. We should put a halt to self-congratulation and hush the hype.
It’s not going to work. And it never has. And despite the hype and hullabaloo about “God’s end-time Jewish revival” and some naive people imagining the Messianic Judaism is God’s elite religion for everyone, we are not seeing in our day what happened once upon a time in a biblical universe far far away. But we can. So let’s turn off our amplifiers for a while and listen carefully to what the still small voice of the Spirit is saying, or, to change the metaphor, let’s pause to just open our eyes and see the way God did it before, and the way he is doing it now in some corners of the world, even if not yet in ours.
Let’s look at the way it used to be.
Spiritual Renewal Among First Century Jewish Believers in Yeshua
When Paul and his entourage came to Thessalonica, they created quite a stir. Here is what we read in Acts 17.
1 After passing through Amphipolis and Apollonia, Sha’ul and Sila came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue. 2 According to his usual practice, Sha’ul went in; and on three Shabbatot (Sabbaths) he gave them drashes from the Tanakh, 3 explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and that “this Yeshua whom I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah.” 4 Some of the Jews were persuaded and threw in their lot with Sha’ul and Sila, as did a great many of the Greek men who were “God-fearers,” and not a few of the leading women. 5 But the Jews who did not believe in Ysshua grew jealous; so they got together some vicious men from the riffraff hanging around in the market square, collected a crowd and started a riot in the city. They attacked Jason’s house, hoping to bring Sha’ul and Sila out to the mob.6 But when they didn’t find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city authorities and shouted, “These men who have turned the whole world upside down have come here too! 7 And Jason has let them stay in his home!
“These men who have turned the whole world upside down.” What a metaphor–a metaphor for societal upheaval, and as we know, for spiritual renewal. Looking at our own time, and back to theirs, a question comes to mind: “Can we get there from here?” To quote recent political rhetoric, “Yes we can!” And yes, we must!
The text also touches on the modality whereby this spiritual revolution takes place where we read “They attacked Jason’s house, hoping to bring Sha’ul and Sila out to the mob. . . .These men who have turned the whole world upside down have come here too! 7 And Jason has let them stay in his home!”
It is from home base, from the houses of people, that spiritual renewal flows because it is in the people’s households that the water of spiritual renewal is meant to well up. And that is why we at Interfaithfulness are beginning a pilot program of household spiritual renewal termed HaB’er (the Well), as part of what will become the HaB’er Havurah Network.
Whether one begins from the vantage point of what happened among Jewish Yeshua believers in the first century, or one begins from the vantage point of looking at what has sustained Jewish life and community throughout the ages, the answer is the same: spiritual renewal flows from the home, the well, and out to the world.
The spiritual renewal we read of in the New Covenant scriptures all started in a house. “And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:2).
This renewal spread from house to house, “And every day, in the temple (where they connected as members of the wider Jewish world) and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Messiah is Yeshua” (Acts 5:46).
When Saul of Tarsus tried to put a stop to the movement, he went to its centers of operation, the homes! “But Sha’ul set out to destroy the Messianic Community – entering house after house, he dragged off both men and women and handed them over to be put in prison” (Acts 8:3).
Saul/Paul met his own spiritual renewal in a house . . . “And the Lord said to him (Chananyah -Ananais), “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:11-17).
Cornelius and his family, the first fruits of the Spirit among the Gentiles, were renewed in his home. “Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood at the gate. And they said, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say” (Acts 10:21-22).
When Peter is released from prison by an angel, he goes to find the other believers. who were meeting for prayer in the spiritual center of their Yeshua-believing world, the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12).
Jewish business woman Lydia came to faith in Yeshua, together with her entire household (Acts 16:15). The Philippian jailer and his entire household came to believe at the same time (Acts 16:34). When he came to Corinth and the Jewish community got upset with his message, we read that Paul “left them and went into the home of a ‘God-fearer’ named Titius Justus, whose house was right next door to the synagogue. Crispus, the president of the synagogue, came to trust in the Lord, along with his whole household; also many of the Corinthians who heard trusted and were immersed” (Acts 18:7-8).
Instructing the elders in Ephesus, Paul characterizes his work in this way: “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house” (Acts 20:20). We too need this kind of Acts 20.20 vision!
Small Context, Big Difference, Jewish Space
The first century Jerusalem congregation had tens of thousands of believers-members. What was done to deepen their faith, to raise them up in the teaching Yeshua and his emissaries? Are we to imagine that they went to some huge Colosseum where Peter and James lectured them from the platform? Of course not!! They grew in numbers through household renewal! “And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Messiah is Yeshua” (Acts 5:42). They were plugged into the wider Jewish community (at the Temple, where they continue worshipping as Jews among Jews), but they grew and best communicated their Yeshua faith to others through what went on in their homes–“house to house.”
But none of this was entirely new. And all of this is entirely Jewish.
The Jewish community has known for millennia that religious identity and spirituality are foundationally shaped in the home through the pattern of practices one experiences in the home day-by-day, week by week, month by month, from year to year. These practices are embedded in the warp and woof of day-to-day life. Sociologist of Religion Robert Wuthnow defines his terms and speaks to the issue:
Both the practical and the embedded aspects of [spiritual] practices are significant. A practice is a cluster of activities that is pursued deliberately. It takes time and energy and it requires one’s attention, meaning that the pursuing of any particular practice is accomplished only at the sacrifice of other possible activities. Growing up religions was a memorable part of people’s childhood because it included such activities as praying, memorizing Bible verses, polishing one’s shoes in preparation for Sunday services, sitting on hard benches, opening presents, and going to picnics. These were discrete, separable activities that took time away from other interests, and they were also embedded in social relationships. People did them with their mothers and fathers, their grandparents, their siblings, and their friends and fellow congregants.
Wuthnow further indicates that it is a mistake to imagine that spiritual identity and substance is established through catechetical instruction and explanations, even in the case of children. He says this of the Protestants, Catholics, and Jews he interviewed who had grown up in religious households:
Few of them remembered being especially curious about metaphysical questions as children and few of them recalled significant teachings that provided answers to these questions. They assimilated religion more by osmosis than instruction. The act of praying was more important than the content of their petitions. Being in Sunday school was more memorable than anything they may have been taught. Fried chicken or seders or statues of Mary provided the texture of their spiritual understanding.
The tradition-honoring Jewish religious world did not need to read Wuthnow to know this, as such home-based shaping has been central to Jewish religious/spiritual identity formation development for millennia stretching back to the Exodus and the sojourn in the desert. Rightly understood, Judaism is a religion of the home. Michael Fishbane reminds us, “Traditionally, the home is the nuclear holy space and the family the nuclear ritual unit of Judaism.” And Erika Meitner is surely right when she comments, “There is no more important space in Judaism than the home; the vast majority of Jewish ritual practices and observances are carried out here.” Underline that. Mark it with a highlighter. Note it well.
If the world of Messianic Jewish believers is to be established, sustained, renewed and passed on from generation to generation, the efforts of religious school, seminary and congregation will fail unless we begin at the center: the home. It is for this reason that Jewish religious discourse terms the home a Mikdash M’at, a little holy sanctuary. This is the center. This is the microcosm from which blessing proceeds to the macrocosm of life. Similarly, we find in Scripture that it is at the center, the Holy of Holies, where holiness is most concentrated and from which it radiates out into the community of the people of God and to the wider world. Think of the design of the tabernacle in the wilderness and each of the First and Second Temples, each termed a “Beit Mikdash.” In Jewish life the home, the mikdash m’at, is the Holy of Holies from which spiritual identity and vitality radiates out into the world and daily life. Apart from this center, all is empty religious noise and clamor, and instead of being sanctified, life remains profane.
An Alternative to Trickle Down Spirituality
If you’ll look carefully, you will notice that many agencies practice what I term “trickle down spirituality.” Raise a big budget, start a big program, make a big splash, and down at the grassroots things are sure to happen. Maybe so. But maybe also trickle down spirituality is too often an expensive way to raise yet more money and make more splashes.
The kind of approach I am experimenting with is very low cost. And rather than making a big splash, it involves teaching people where to find the well and to drink from it. The splashes are small, but the water is deep.
Please pray for us out here in California. Right now we are involved in planting three HaB’er Havurot with more to follow. In future blog posts, if interest is high, I will tell you more about what exactly we are doing, and why it is working not only here, but has worked amazingly elsewhere in the world.