OPINION: What happens when COVID prevents the Witnesses from witnessing?

For the past several years, Jehovah's Witnesses in metro Atlanta have engaged in public preaching. The pandemic forced them to stop public witnessing and door-to-door visits. Members have instead connected with the public via mail and phone. (Image provided by Jehovah's Witnesses)
For the past several years, Jehovah's Witnesses in metro Atlanta have engaged in public preaching. The pandemic forced them to stop public witnessing and door-to-door visits. Members have instead connected with the public via mail and phone. (Image provided by Jehovah's Witnesses)

Where have the Jehovah’s Witnesses gone?

The question, posed in the subject line of an email, was the sort of question I didn’t know to ask until it was addressed to me.

At the start of the pandemic, most religious groups across the country were forced to stop holding services and prayer groups during stay-at-home orders. Followers of all faiths began tuning in online or attending drive-up services as religious leaders sought ways to keep worshippers connected.

For the 1.3 million Jehovah’s Witnesses in the U.S. who can typically be seen handing out brochures at airports or subway stations and ringing doorbells to share scriptures, the pandemic was particularly challenging. The past year marked the first time in its near 150-year history that the group paused the very practice that is the hallmark of their faith.

The Witnesses had to stop witnessing.

“If you are a Jehovah’s Witness and you don’t go witnessing … you are considered inactive. That is how serious it is to our faith,” said Robert Hendricks, the group’s U.S. spokesman. “Stopping would mean we are stopping what really is most important to us … that was not an option.”

Now more than a year later, as many religious groups have resumed in-person services, Jehovah’s Witnesses have continued to avoid door-to-door and public preaching, instead re-imagining its ministries in a way that falls somewhere between tried-and-true and brand new.

They reached back in time to a practice that first launched in 1939 when the organization began training members how to reach people by writing letters and making phone calls. They have also incorporated technology to enhance those connections — using online data searches to add a personal touch to letters and using Zoom to connect face-to-face with anyone who accepts their invitation.

“We have embraced different and better ways and we know how to do that now because we were forced to figure that out,” Hendricks said.

The pandemic offered a jolt, but a transition was already underway.

Decades ago, strangers with Bibles and pamphlets would ring the doorbell of my childhood home on Saturdays. Depending on the time of day and likely her mood, my mother would instruct us to keep quiet and stay away from the door or she would invite them to come inside.

On the occasions when they sat chatting with mom in the living room, my sister and I would lurk in the kitchen, peeking around the door to eavesdrop. We were raised Lutheran and church was something that happened every Sunday in a building with people we knew. Why did these strangers show up unannounced offering to study the Bible?

Evangelism is an important part of Christianity and it is a large part of what has given Witnesses their high visibility, but door-to-door witnessing was never easy. And the failure rate — as measured by actual doors answered – was growing higher as Americans began filling weekends with more work or more activities. After a pilot test in New York City that began in 2010, public witnessing — standing with carts on street corners or in parks, train stations or airports — became yet another way the organization reaches people, Hendricks said.

Public witnessing is more passive than door knocking, but it proved to be very effective. Members have been present in every MARTA station in Atlanta over the past few years, Hendricks said, and over the past few decades, membership in metro Atlanta has grown by 25%.

Witnessing in the form of phone calls and letter writing was an adjustment, but it has paid off, said Herb Joseph, of Summerhill, a Witness who participated in a recent effort to contact businesses by phone.

When he reached a sandwich shop on a recent call, he was transferred to the owner. Though it was nearing noon and the crowd was building, the owner paused and listened because he felt the message resonated with him. “We get a number of people that will not listen, but when you get one, you remember,” Joseph said.

The state of the world has seemed the perfect time to share messages of hope, a connection and guidance for those who need it and with an audience that was more captive than it had been in a long time.

The group took extra steps to update the website to be more responsive to what was happening in the world so that when someone took an interest in learning more about Jehovah’s Witnesses, they would land in a place that spoke specifically to pandemic anxiety, racism and domestic abuse.

Tamera Taylor, 67 of Lithonia attended a virtual Jehovah's Witnesses conference during the pandemic. After receiving a letter from the group, she requested more information and began bible study via Zoom. During the pandemic, the group, known for door-to-door visits and public preaching shifted to letter writing and phone calls to spread scriptures and messages of hope.
Tamera Taylor, 67 of Lithonia attended a virtual Jehovah's Witnesses conference during the pandemic. After receiving a letter from the group, she requested more information and began bible study via Zoom. During the pandemic, the group, known for door-to-door visits and public preaching shifted to letter writing and phone calls to spread scriptures and messages of hope.

Credit: Jehovah's Witnesses

Credit: Jehovah's Witnesses

Right before the pandemic, Tamera Taylor, 67, of Lithonia, had been invited by a friend in Connecticut to attend one of the group’s conventions. When the in-person event was cancelled and moved online, Taylor, who was working from home, said she had plenty of downtime to attend.

She learned how to log on through Zoom and when the meeting was over, she decided to do more research.

Then she got a letter in the mail.

“With the pandemic, I took the time to read it. I could just really focus. I sat down and read the letter, then I read it again,” Taylor said.

Though she has lived in Atlanta for about 12 years, she could only remember Witnesses coming to her door once.

Years ago, she had studied the Bible with her mom and her three siblings but as they grew up, marriage, children and life took her away from it, she said. Last year, she was ready to re-engage.

The organization connected her with a teacher, then the teacher, via Zoom, invited individual members to study with them. Taylor started attending virtual mid-week and weekend meetings.

“The downside of what I was feeling about the pandemic was about the deaths increasing. Having the ability to go on (the Jehovah’s Witnesses website) and look at something that was more wholesome and uplifting made sense to me. This is what I need right now,” Taylor said.

Hendricks said the pandemic provided an opportunity to reach people they may never have reached before and allowed them to bring messages of hope to people who really need it — a lesson that we all might find instructive.

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