What to do when the JWs come a-knockin’

Pittsburgh is known for many things: steel, rivers, football. Great linebackers like Jack Hamm, Jack Lambert, and Joey Porter. There is currently a crisis for the Pittsburgh Steelers at outside linebacker – James Harrison is very old (though still intimidating to look at); Jarvis Jones is still unproven; Arthur “Don’t-Cross-the” Moats may chip in.  But then there is the unexpected retirement of free agent and former first round draft pick Jason Worilds. Worilds had really underachieved given his draft status, but he was nevertheless expected to cash in on a bigtime payday in this, a contract year. It’s always shocking when an athlete walks away from tens of millions of dollars of guaranteed money. Even more shocking is the reason why Worilds walked away – not so much concussion fears or chronic injuries, but to pursue his devotion to his religion, the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Which brings the conversation back to where it began – things for which Pittsburgh is famous. There has been little awareness of one of Pittsburgh’s more dubious contributions to the world: the legacy of Charles Russell. Russell was born near the city in 1852 and (abandoning his Presbyterian upbringing) he began what became the Watchtower Society, now better known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, an aggressively proselytizing sect of around 8 million people. Perhaps these folks have come knocking at your door.

The JWs frequent my street, a typical dead-end suburbanish place. Many knocks come at my door, usually assorted children asking if so-and-so can come out and play. But probably twice a year it’s the JWs. They came to my house just last week. Usually they come in pairs. The pair on this occasion surprised me. A pretty lady, thirty-fiveish, with a cute little toddler in tow, holding her by the hand. There was a similar pair knocking simultaneously at the house next door, another across the street. The use of the kids is a brilliant “in,” a great way to open doors and start conversations.

I must confess, however, that I’m anything but jubilant when a JW comes knocking. Despite being a theologically oriented person who greatly enjoys discourse on such matters, I’m often at a loss as to how to deal with the JWs. Perhaps you’ve felt the same. They always come at the worst possible moment. On this occasion I was just walking out the door somewhat on the late side to cover a class for a colleague. I had my laptop, a massive bag of books, a thermos of coffee, and a couple of loose grapefruits in hand; I wasn’t feeling particularly chatty. Beyond this, I had a nagging conviction that I hadn’t always handled my JW conversations particularly well, and that a kid or two was looking out the window to see how I would handle this situation.

Dealing with the JWs is problematic at two levels: the doctrinal and the relational. Let’s deal first with doctrine. The first thing the polite pretty JW assured me when I informed her that we were Christians was that she is a Christian too. But this isn’t so. JWs teach (among other things) that:

  • Jesus is not the Son of God. He is less than fully divine.
  • Jesus was not raised from the dead.  There is no bodily resurrection.
  • Salvation is not by grace through faith, but is related to human effort (especially witnessing for Jehovah).
  • Jesus’ return is not an anticipated future event; he came in 1914.
  • Only 144,000 people will make it all the way in to heaven. And those folks will be JWs.
  • There is no conscious existence after death (soul sleep) and there is no hell (they teach annihilationism).

These are not small errors regarding minor matters theologically, particularly the first three. They strike at the heart of the Christian faith. You simply can’t be a Christian if you don’t believe in Christ’s divinity and his bodily resurrection from the dead. Where does this doctrine come from? Charles Russell’s unique and troubled method of biblical interpretation. But that way of saying it is not fair to the bible. The JWs made their own translation of the bible because the real one didn’t conform adequately to their theology. Some folks say you can make the bible say whatever you want it to say. That’s literally what was accomplished with the New World Translation (there are many good and responsible bible translations – the NWT is not one of them!). For instance, the NWT “translates” John 1:1, which traditionally reads “And the Word was God,” as “And the Word was a god.” This is an impossible translation, violating Greek grammatical usage, namely Colwell’s Rule. It’s not a translation; it’s an (impossible and irresponsible) interpretation.

Knocking at the doorSo, there’s the doctrine problem. But engaging JWs around doctrine is something I’ve found to be particularly fruitless. You need to know they’ve got big problems, but trying to persuade them they have big problems will get you almost nowhere. I’ve learned this the hard way. I’ve spent time discussing Colwell’s Rule with some JW “teachers” – futile! Here’s what I recommend instead. And this is a rule for general engagement, of application for folks well beyond JWs.

Instead of engaging them doctrinally, engage them relationally. Frankly, this is way harder. But in the end it will also prove to be far more effective. Here are some tips (more really helpful stuff here):

  • Be polite and kind. You care about these people. They are walking in darkness. They need you to shine some light, which you will do poorly by pretending not to be home or slamming a door on their nose.
  • Talk to them about what God has done in your life. That’s right – witness to them about Jesus! What difference does he (the real Jesus from the bible) make? This should have none of the awkwardness these conversations sometimes entail. They knocked on your door to talk to you about God – so you talk to them.  And you can do this even if you haven’t mastered all the ins and outs of JW (or orthodox) theology.
  • Take their literature (one less that someone else will get!)
  • Ask questions, push them concerning the practical implications of their faith – Ask them – “What do you do with your guilt?” “It must be hard to not have real assurance of your salvation?” Etc.
  • Be prepared for them to come back (and to bring a friend).

In short, be prepared to engage in relational ministry. This takes time, effort, prayer, concern, compassion. Pretty much the stuff Jesus calls us to with regard to all people. Get ready for the next time the JWs come a-knockin’.  Who knows?  It might even be a former Steeler linebacker.