For the past few weeks, I’ve been in contact with a few Jehovah’s Witnesses. They, of course, make it quite easy, since they will show up right at my house. So, yesterday (Saturday), I invited them in to sit and chat for a while, and at some point near the end of the discussion, they offered me an invitation to come join them in one of their weekly meetings.1 So today, I decided to take them up on this offer and attend their Sunday meeting. It was fascinating and strange, so I’d like to take some time to describe it for you.
The name of the main person I have been speaking with is Lubert. When he gave me the invitation, he had said he would leave his number and that if I was interested, I could call him and he would pick me up. Well, in the process he forgot to actually give me his number, so I ended up taking the bus. When I got there, I didn’t see him right away, but I managed to find one of the other people with which I had spoken before. He then took me to try and find Lubert, and when we finally did find him, he was ecstatic. He was completely surprised that I had shown up, since I hadn’t called him, and he went around introducing me to five or six people right away (and another six or seven afterwards). This whole process seemed reminiscent of “love bombing” that many cults use, where individuals are sort of “swarmed” and immediately shown love and affection. While I wouldn’t really classify Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “cult” (since they don’t operate around a charismatic leader, for one thing), I certainly felt welcome there. I almost felt famous, getting to shake all these people’s hands. Then again, I likely stood out quite a bit.
The Kingdom Hall itself was quite non-descript. Pastel-coloured walls, ugly chairs, ugly carpet. No different than many other churches. As I mentioned, there was no cross or any other religious imagery on the walls, but they did have a verse on the wall at the front in both English and Chinese (I forget what verse it was now). Although there was space in the hall for maybe about 100 people, I estimated about 50 people were there. Just like people at every other church in existence, these individuals seemed to have an extreme aversion to sitting near the front. The first five rows or so were almost entirely empty, save a few people at the front, near the side wall. While it was mostly older people, there were a few younger people in the crowd. Probably a few around my age, and a few in high school, with a couple children sitting in the row behind me. All the men seemed to have suits on, and I noticed many briefcases around. I guess that’s not unusual considering the fact that they always wear suits and carry briefcases when out witnessing to people.
Anyway, I sat with Lubert during the service and he gave me a copy of the Bible in the translation they use (New World Translation) and the little booklet with their Watchtower study guide for that service. At any rate, the way the services work is that members take turns preaching or performing other tasks; there is no pastor or other “leader”. As far as I understand it, there are “elders” that take care of some of the administrative duties, but other than that, there isn’t really a central leadership for each specific hall. So one of the members opened up the meeting and they sang one “Kingdom song”. The singing was hilarious, really. They had a recording of a piano playing the song, and everyone had little booklets with the songsheets, like hymn books. But honestly, the singing was little more than a mumble. I don’t know whether they were just unfamiliar with the song or the tune, or whether nobody cares about singing, but it was hilarious to hear such pathetic singing. It was good to hear that everyone was mumbling the song as much as I was.
After one song, another member came up and did a talk. They call it a “Bible discourse”, and it really was just like a sermon. It wasn’t a particularly good one, because he was essentially just reading a speech that was fully written out. So it was a bit dry, but that might have just been that particular person. The sermon was about how Jehovah is our stronghold. It was identical to a sermon you’d hear in any other church except for using the name “Jehovah” over and over again. I did notice that he used numerous passages to support his point, which is a little different than what I grew up with in the Pentecostal church. Most pastors I have listened to will pick a specific passage and then pull out some sort of message or topic from that passage. They may use other passages to support it, but one passage will be the “primary” one, so to speak. This individual was pulling out passages from 2 Samuel, Psalms, Nahum, Revelation, etc. Of course, they were pretty pathetic. Most of them just made some mention of Jehovah as a “stronghold”. But his point was essentially that it is important not to rely on the things of the world, such as fame, money, possessions, and so on, and instead rely on Jehovah for protection. All in all, a pretty typical sermon.
This Bible discourse lasted for about half an hour or so. After this, they sang, or rather mumbled, another song, and then moved onto the second portion of the service. This was the “Watchtower Study” portion. And this is where things got interesting. I couldn’t have chosen a better week to come, because they were discussing the end times and the actions that Jesus is going to take during his final judgment. The study article was entitled “Our Active Leader Today”, and the first line said, “Christ was enthroned as King of Jehovah’s Messianic Kingdom in 1914.” My first thought was, “Oh boy, this is gonna be good.”
For those who may not be familiar with the intricacies of Jehovah’s Witnesses, their primary leaders are part of an organization called the “Watchtower Society.” They are continually printing dozens of booklets and tracts and such about all sorts of things, and this material is often given out when Witnesses are out going door-to-door as they often do. Watchtower also prints these study guides for their members as well. Essentially, all doctrine is passed down to congregations through this Society. As I understand it, the actions of the Watchtower Society are controlled by the “Governing Body“, the members of which are essentially the head honchos of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Thus, the literature and doctrines of the JWs are strictly controlled by this group, and when I describe the remainder of the meeting, I’m sure you will be able to see how they are able to maintain such control.
As I said, the first part of the meeting took about half an hour. The rest of the time, about an hour and a half, was spent on this Watchtower study guide. They had assigned a “reader” to read aloud each paragraph of the guide one at a time, and then another person to guide the discussion. The whole thing was about four-and-a-half pages, and it was evident that these people had read it ahead of time. I saw plenty of highlighted pages and scribbled notes in the margins. So the reader would read a paragraph or two, and then the discussion leader would ask the questions that were at the bottom of the page. Then individuals would raise their hands, and two people would walk up and down the aisles and hand a microphone to a person selected to speak. The whole thing was reminiscent of high school—with people reading the book aloud, then questions answered by raising hands.
What I found entertaining was just how basic some of the questions really were. Let me give you one example. One paragraph read, “Before Jesus comes against Satan’s visible organization, the last of the 144,000 members of spiritual Israel will receive the final sealing. The Bible states clearly that the winds of destruction upon Satan’s system will not be released before this sealing of the 144,000 is completed.—Rev. 7:1-4” At the bottom of the page, this was the question: “What work will Christ complete before the winds of destruction are unleashed?” That was how basic most of the questions were. It was entirely clear just what the answer was as soon as you read the paragraph. In at least about 80% of the cases, the first answer that someone gave would be a quotation of a sentence from the paragraph itself—they just read it right off the page. There was very little analysis needed, other than perhaps reading a bit of the context of the Bible verses that were mentioned. I imagine that this has the effect of making people think that they are actually critically engaging in the material, but without actually encouraging them to think for themselves.
As I quoted earlier, the first line of the article mentioned 1914 as the date when Christ was enthroned. This is a very important date in Jehovah’s Witnesses theology. Essentially it is based on a failed prophecy from back in the 1800s, when Charles Taze Russell (essentially the founder of JWs) predicted that in 1914 the political rulership would be overthrown. When this didn’t happen, of course, it was reinterpreted to mean that Christ had restored his kingdom, but that the actual revelation of this fact would only take place later. So during this study time, a number of world events were tossed around as being significant. Both World War I and II were mentioned, and there were several references to an event which is supposed to take place at some point soon: their belief is that the UN is soon going to somehow outlaw Christianity, or something like that. This event will be put into action by Jesus himself, who will (potentially overnight, one person said) “put it into the hearts of political leaders to devastate this spiritual harlot.” They identify the entity known in Revelation as the “harlot” and “Babylon the Great” to be Christendom. Possibly all religion, but I’m not sure; only Christendom is mentioned.
There were a couple passages that I found particularly interested and amusing. Speaking of the letters to the churches provided in Revelation, it says, “Jesus commended Christians in Thyatira ‘who did not get to know the “deep things of Satan.”‘ (Rev. 2:24) Today, he likewise approves of those, young or old, who refrain from delving into the ‘deep things of Satan’ by means of the Internet or violent video games or by indulging in permissive human reasonings.” That last bit about “permissive human reasonings” cracked me up—oh no, make sure not to think too much! I later asked Lubert whether they were entirely against the Internet or were just supposed to stay away from the bad stuff, and he said it was the latter. He told me that they are not against the Internet, or TV, or movies, or dancing, or drinking, just that they needed to stay away from the dangers of immoral behaviour. In one of the pictures in the study guide, there are two elders talking to a teenager in his home, and one elder has the box of a video game in his hand that says “Warfare” on the cover. So while they aren’t against video games, they are against violent video games (and probably especially against games depicting war, considering their aversion to war in any circumstance).
The Governing Body also made a few appearances. The “anointed” Witnesses are known as the “faithful and discreet slave“, and while I don’t think that the Governing Body and the anointed Witnesses are the same thing, I’m sure there must be a significant overlap. So the booklet mentions that “As Head of the Christian congregation, Christ has used this ‘faithful and discreet slave’ to administer His Kingdom interests on earth. He has provided direction for the anointed ‘domestics’ and their ‘other sheep’ companions by means of a Governing Body.” Later it mentions that “Christ is using a small group of anointed Christian men as a Governing Body to lead and direct his disciples on earth.” And while I can’t vouch for the connection between Christ and the Governing Body, it certainly seems that the lives of the disciples on earth are certainly controlled by these people. It was truly amazing to see these people repeating back the material in these booklets, seemingly with no doubt in their minds as to its truth. Of course, perhaps some of these people do doubt, and simply don’t show it. I hope so. But on the outside, at least, there is rigid conformity.
I must say that I enjoyed myself today. It was fascinating to observe this meeting. And while I don’t plan on returning (if you want to attract people like me, you’re going to need a lot more good-looking women than were present there), I am glad that I went. I do want to point out some of the positive aspects that I noticed. First off, the people there were certainly very nice. I felt accepted and welcomed, for sure. Second, it was very multicultural, which I enjoyed. Lubert is from Guyana himself, and he introduced me to someone from Greece. I saw a couple Black people there, and some Asians, and in another room on the other side of the building, they had another meeting going on in Spanish. Because Jehovah’s Witnesses do not consider themselves to be of any worldly nationality, it does lead them to be very accepting of others. That is certainly good to see. Third, these people have a high respect for the Bible. Of course, while they did spend more time reading the Watchtower study guide than they did the Bible, the guide was littered with biblical references throughout. In one service, I received a more coherent end-times theology than I ever learned in hundreds of services in the Pentecostal church. Sure, there are other things to learn than just about the “coming judgment,” but they connected their theology with real events and ascribed the players in Revelation to real entities. While on some level that frightens me, it at least shows that they take themselves seriously. They know their Bible inside and out, and if you bring up any topic, they will have several verses that they can share with you. That is the kind of behaviour I expect from people who claim that the Bible is the inspired word of God. I mean really, if you believe the Bible to be absolutely 100% true and given from the ruler of the universe, shouldn’t you be reading it eagerly every night to see what it says? These people, at the very least, seem to show consistency in that area.
Anyway, like I said, I don’t intend on going back for another service. I did this for interest’s sake, and now that has been satisfied. But I do enjoy talking with these people and coming to a better understanding of what they believe. I found this whole experience a bit bizarre, but fascinating. Hopefully my description can give others a better sense of what it’s like. But if you decide to go and see it with your own eyes…just be prepared for the mumbling. Oh, the mumbling.
- We had previously been talking about the cross and about other Christian imagery, and so I had asked them if they used any religious symbols in their “Kingdom Halls”—which they don’t. So they invited me to come see for myself. [↩]