Havurot: a parallel for Christians?

I have a soft spot, in personal terms, for Jews.

In high school, my brother and I were thought to be Jews. We chalked it up to our olive complexon and the fact — noteworthy in suburban Augusta, Georgia — that we didn’t attend a church. (Or at least a church anyone knew of; I was a member at the Unitarian Church of Augusta from age 16 to 18. This did impress my various English teachers.) I was very bookish. We both had a wry humor. Go figure.

I also have a soft stop, in ecclesiastic terms, for Jews. If that’s not a misplaced notion.

Since the 1970s, the havurah movement (havurot, plural) has created small (and not so small) communities for Jewish living, study, service and prayer. They are more often than not described as “egalitarian and participatory.” This isn’t “your parents’ synagogue.” Egalitarian often means non-sexist, democratic, respectful without regard to experience or education or all of these. The largest number are lay-led. Some are quite experimental in worship. Reading the Jewish blogosphere, I see that they are also the site of living experiments in pluralism. (Which should be required reading for anyone concerned with missiology, and all Unitarian Universalists.)

So, let me ask the obvious question. Given that there are distinct differences in Jewish and Christian ideas of organization, why isn’t there more evidence of havurah-like Christian congregations? I’d join one. I think a lot of us would. I’ve heard of some but they are far more exceptional than havurot are in the “Jewish ecology.” Or is that what Emerging/Emergent churches is supposed to evoke, if about thirty years late?
Please discuss. Havurah members especially welcome. Note, if you will, if you are lay or ordained.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Well, one of the big problems about Christianity has been the emphasis on belief, and not practice. I think that would tend to inhibit things like havurot from happening. Perhaps that is what the emerging churches are trying for, but I’m not sure. I’d join one too.

  2. Perhaps, but Jewish practice is not what I’d call an easy stream of uniformity. Yet they’ve worked on it and found some workable options. Thus the pluralism approaches I mention but didn’t link. Perhaps tomorrow.

  3. I think what you are describing is part of what was attempted in the Unitarian Fellowship Movement. But fellowship began to be viewed as half-baked church, and present UU practice looks down on such small lay-led communities.

  4. “present UU practice looks down on such small lay-led communities”

    I find this interesting. As I understand it, UU doesn’t have a sacramental focus – no eucharist like the Anglicans have (do UU churches baptise?). So where does the resistance to lay-led services come from? The other religious society which rejects outward sacraments which comes to mind is of course the Quakers – and they are entirely lay-led!

  5. The resistance comes from size envy. There is a drive, particularly in the administrative culture of the denomination itself, to view small lay-led fellowships as being less valuable and not as “real churches” in the sense that a large church with paid staff is “real”. Small lay-led churches tend to be more ephemeral than large churches with paid staff, and thus the economic incentive for denominational culture to favor large churches with paid staff.

    Quakers can not technically be said to be lay led, since every adult Quaker is a minister. Among Quakers the laity is abolished. Functions in Quaker meetings are carried out by committees, elders, and specialized ministers (pastors, RE directors, etc.). There is a division among Quaker denominations about whether ministers can ever be paid for their service. Most Quakers in Friends General Conference say no, because this creates a hireling ministry with related corruption. In Friends United Meeting the answer is more often yes, because paid ministry frees persons from some amount of secular labor, allowing for more substantial and specialized service to the congregation.

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