On Wednesday morning the bell rang. Since we are living in an apartment building, visitors and parcel deliverers must first announce themselves before they can enter. From our apartment we can see and hear the person and can decide whether we allow the individual to proceed to the front door of our apartment on the second floor. There were two ladies with a simple request. Would it be OK if they put a leaflet in our mailbox? The leaflet was about a congress (about love) that was soon to be held. I appreciated their approach, for there is a sticker besides our mailbox to indicate that we do want to have the local newspapers but do not want any advertising materials.
My thoughts were confirmed when a few hours later I checked our mailbox. The ladies were Jehovah Witnesses. The leaflet was an invitation for a congress of the Watchtower Society to be held on August 2, 3 and 4 in the huge exhibition halls in Utrecht.
I am not an expert on the strategies that the ‘witnesses’ nowadays employ in their recruiting activities. Their former, rather aggressive, tactics are definitely a thing of the past. And their witnessing on the streets has also taken on a new form. I saw in several countries how they employ a handy, foldable standard that allows them to show their products. It seemed to me that the public is only approached when they show some interest. And when, occasionally, I get a copy of the ‘Watchtower’ or ‘Awake’, I notice that the headlines of the articles are much more moderate than in the past and have lost much of their former alarmism. Likewise, the leaflet that I found in my mailbox had no reference to Armageddon or other terrible events that are about to happen!
The question is, of course, how successful the Jehovah Witnesses are nowadays in their recruiting of new members. It is difficult to find exact statistics. According to a site that seems to be reasonably objective (https://wachttorenkijker.wimdegoeij.nl/jehovahs-getuigen-statistieken/) the society had some 29,500 Dutch members in 2015, which was about 1,500 members less than twenty years earlier. The growth in 2015 amounted to just 15 members, while there was a loss of 18 members in 2016.
It always bothers me when Jehovah Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists are mentioned in one and the same breath. Fortunately, that happens less and less. Most people who know anything about Adventists regard them as a bona fideProtestant faith community rather than a sect. Many Jehovah Witnesses are, no doubt, sincere in their faith. Their zeal for the spreading of their convictions may have decreased, but continues to be an example for most ‘main-line’ Christians. Their search for new strategies is certainly laudable. Any religious movement that fails to do so must accept the negative consequences.
As a Seventh-day Adventist I want to see my church grow. I doubt, however, that we should go back to our former strategies of going from door to door, or that we should mobilize the church in distributing hundreds of thousands of leaflets. (If we feel that distributing leaflets can still be effective, it is a job we can with full confidence leave to one of the postal services.) Likewise, I also doubt that organizing large congresses will result in many new contacts. We will probably never find out how many non-Jehovah Witnesses will attend the Utrecht congress. The congress may inspire many members of the Watchtower Society, but I suspect it will not result in many new members. And I wonder whether their new way of presenting their publications is really effective.
Adventists must also continue to search for new ways in which to communicate with the world around them. I repeat, however, what I said in last week’s blog: The greatest priority is to be (or to become) an open and warm faith community where people truly ‘belong’—a community that binds people together and radiates that this community has something important to share, that enriches life. The reactions on my blog of last week, which I received through various channels, underline the sad reality that in this respect, in many places, our local churches still have a long way to go.