My sister announced last week that she and a friend of hers were going to go to a Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall on Sunday. To visit, that is - not to convert. Our basement dweller Rachel and I quickly asked to tag along, too, so the JW that had invited my sister's friend found her guest list swollen from one to four. This particular JW was named Rachel, which despite the spelling is pronounced the standard English way and not the French way of our roomie Rachel. We piled into her car and she carted us to her local Hall.
First impression: This entryway looks incredibly similar to the Mormon entryway! And the paintings on the wall look like they could be Mormon, too... except the people in them have beards.
I really don't have much experience with anything Jehovah's Witness, as I always seem to be gone whenever they knock on our door, so I really didn't know what to expect. We were given a heads-up that we should probably dress in skirts, so we did. As far as JW fashion goes, we fit right in. We even fooled people into thinking we actually were JWs, because we blended in so well. Still, our faces were unfamiliar and so a rather impressive number of people came to introduce themselves and chat with us. The most cynical of critics wouldn't be able to say they felt unwelcome. Unfortunately, I think this is one place in which a lot of evangelical churches (ours included) tend to be pretty weak.
JW!Rachel trooped us to the front of the room and sat us in the very first row. It's not her fault - she was looking for enough consecutive seats further back but apparently her husband hadn't saved them there. I felt guilty whispering comments to roomie!Rachel, especially since I was mostly whispering when I found something odd or amusing and my face tends to make my thoughts quite obvious. At least we weren't front and centre. That would have been a bit intense.
There were two services running simultaneously, and apparently there had already been two other services earlier in the day. Our service was divided into two parts - what I would label the sermon, and then the Watchtower article discussion. There wasn't any worship portion of the meeting, but we did sing three songs over the course of the service, each from the JW hymnbook. Or rather, everyone else sang and we read the lyrics to ourselves. The tunes were nice - more interesting than some I've come across.
Impression two: There's no cross and no baptismal tank.
Actually, my impression of the entire JW experience on the whole is based more on what there wasn't as opposed to what there was. No kitchen in the building, no nursery, no pastor, no worship team, no powerpoint, no major surprises...
Moving on, the sermon portion was mildly interesting. The theme was Noah and whether his story is relevant to us today. The speaker, who wasn't a pastor but someone appointed to speak on that particular day, spent the first while discussing evidence for a global flood, citing National Geographic and using pretty standard arguments. He encouraged the congregation to do their own research on flood apologetics. But then the talk took a turn and the focus became, "Look at what Jehovah did to the ungodly in the past. What do you think Jehovah is going to do to the ungodly in the future?" My favourite quote was his closing statement, which was something along the lines of, "If we do well, at least we'll be ALIVE." Talk about setting lofty goals.
Impression three: Despite the potential this has of turning into a damning terror-fest, the focus is on convincing the intellect, not on playing with the emotions.
Nobody broke down crying, nobody made themselves highly vulnerable or shared personal stories. Nobody tried to make anyone else do those things. It was matter-of-fact and a lot less about feeling the truth than about learning the truth. Granted, I personally don't believe they'd done a good job of learning the truth, but that's what they were trying to do.
For the second part of the service, a new speaker took their Watchtower magazine and read an article to us, one paragraph at a time. Between each paragraph, he would read the appropriate study question, also from the magazine, and then let four or five members from the congregation comment. Or fifteen or sixteen. It was interesting for the first few paragraphs. I tuned in and out from about paragraph three to twenty.
The theme of the article was "Don't look back, like Lot's wife did." It was a harmless enough article - I don't remember anything with which I particularly disagreed. The theme of the comments, however, was this: repeat back verbatim as many words from the paragraph you just read as you possibly can in one sentence.
Sadly, despite the focus on the intellect, there appeared to me to be very little original or critical thought involved in the discussion. The odd time here or there somebody would think of something interesting to add, but mostly they took their comments and answers directly from the article. In the circles where I run, we call these "Sunday School answers". We call them that because, while they're good for kids in Sunday School, that's where they belong. You outgrow them. Non-kids should think more deeply and be able to examine ideas, rather than just accept them. If the ideas are genuinely good ideas, they'll hold up to the examination.
Impression four: These people seem to believe that the illustrations in the Watchtower pamphlet are as divinely inspired as the text itself.
Yes. In discussing Lot's wife, one of the comments had to do with how much jewelry the picture showed her wearing, and how that contributed to her downfall. Neither was that the only illustration that was picked apart for spiritual guidance. In her defense, however, JW!Rachel apparently made a wry comment to my sister about how, "It's incredible the sorts of things people can get out of a picture."
I sat there whiling away the time by perusing the back section of the New World Translation Bible they had given me, wondering what would happen if someone had the guts to play devil's advocate. Roomie!Rachel pointed out a spider descending from the ceiling to my shoulder so I started waving my hand around to protect myself, hoping that nobody thought I was raising my hand to give a comment. Nobody did, but I got some questions about it later.
Anyway, after they wrapped up the article discussion and we met a bunch of friendly people, JW!Rachel took us on a grand tour of the Hall. It was smaller than I expected, but given that it was both funded and built by the members, it was still impressive. Pretty much everything in the JW world seems to hinge on volunteerism and donations. Though I may have been unimpressed by the article study, I was definitely impressed by the work ethic, thoughtfulness, and drive to help of the congregation as a whole. Society in general would do well to learn from them in this area.
JW!Rachel also explained to us how they take collection and showed us their theocratic library. Roomie!Rachel tried to get the names of some prominent JW theologians and discovered that they don't really have any. An older gentleman got excited that we were going on a tour and took it on himself to show us the janitorial and the mechanical room. JW!Rachel and her husband gave amused and somewhat sheepish smiles as he took us deeper and deeper in and explained how well the bathrooms were designed.
As JW!Rachel drove us home, we managed to talk to her some more about basic JW theology. While we definitely got a millenarian vibe in service, and caught on to their traditionalist values (I heard a comment about how Lot's wife was, "Not only disobeying God, but disobeying her husband"), it was tough to tell with no former contact whether the work, work, work to be godly theme of the service was just the theme of the day or the theme of the religion.
From what we can tell, it's the theme of the religion. We asked JW!Rachel what the term grace meant to her. She gave a very different answer from what I'm used to encountering. Her answer was essentially, "Grace is... Jehovah creating us with such wonderful abilities in such a wonderful world, and him giving us the privilege of prayer, and other things like that. Oh, and I guess even the ransom has to do with grace."
The "ransom" refers to Christ's sacrifice for our sins. It was a well-spent afternoon, and I got free JW literature out of it. I'm glad I went. It would be nice to know more about JW ideas to be able to better comment on the 144,000 and the anathema on blood transfusions and such, but neither played a prominent role in the service and that's all I set out to chronicle, so I'll end the analysis here without feeling it's incomplete.
Example of a Sunday School answer from our own church -
Teacher: What's small and brown and has a fuzzy tail?
Kid: Well, it sounds like a squirrel... but this is Sunday School so the answer must be "Jesus"!