Appreciating that individuals and cultures express their beliefs and values through many different forms.
Stories of Faith
The Bible is the basis of Jehovah’s Witness life and as such all narratives within it are of the utmost importance. Emphasis is placed on teaching Bible stories to children, with numerous online services geared towards this, including illustrated stories, associated activities and cartoons. The stories are taught as important lessons in cultivating the appropriate morals, values and ethics to live a good Christian life. Unlike in some other religious movements, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not tell stories about their founders or leaders. The Bible is always the focus.
Symbols of Faith
Since the 1930s, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not venerate the cross or any other religious symbols as this is considered to be pagan idolatrous practice (prior to this, they did use the symbol of a cross in a crown, until it was judged to be a pagan symbol). Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus did not die on a cross but rather on a single stake or tree. They suggest that Roman Emperor Constantine introduced the cross as a Christian symbol in the fourth century, and that the cross has its origins as a symbol of “nature worship and pagan sex rites.”The Watchtower symbol (which appears on the magazine of the same name), as well as an image of an open Bible, are popular imagery within the religion, but they are not accorded any sacred significance and are not venerated. The same could be said of the jw.org website which is now advertised on a plaque in every Kingdom Hall and on the organisation’s vehicles.
Places of Worship and Architecture
Whilst the Jehovah’s Witnesses have purchased a few former churches in the UK, the huge majority of Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world worship in distinctive, purpose-built, buildings called Kingdom Halls. Chryssides notes that the term ‘Kingdom Hall’ came into use in the mid-1930s and refers to “the Society’s central message, which is the coming kingdom of God.” He writes, “the redesigning of the buildings was to encourage simplicity in worship, distancing Jehovah’s Witnesses from what they regarded as the over-elaborate buildings that are often found in Christendom.” (2016: 204).These rather bland and functional-looking buildings have been designed as the most cost-effective means of establishing buildings quickly and easily as needed. A number of different designs of Kingdom Halls exist and these can be selected ‘off the shelf’ from the local design and construction department, adapted slightly for any necessary planning regulations, and then may be constructed by the congregation over the course of a week or two, in a practice known as ‘quickly built’. In 2018, this means of building is less common than it has been in the past. As the majority of Jehovah’s Witnesses enter trade jobs, rather than professions, most aspects of construction can be covered by the congregation and other local or regional volunteers. The finances necessary for the construction of UK Kingdom Halls is distributed as a grant from the umbrella body in the UK, to which all surplus funds are donated. The Hall is not considered a sacred building, though it is only used for worship and related activities, and it is not consecrated although there may be a dedication service.
Inside the Kingdom Hall, the emphasis is also on functionality and comfort. There are no religious symbols (see Symbols of Faith above) and no pulpit or pews. Instead, rows of chairs face a raised platform, much as in a classroom. There is often a computer and projector or other means of screening videos during the teaching sessions, as much emphasis is placed on online and audio-visual learning materials.
In addition, Jehovah’s Witnesses have Assembly Halls, which are larger buildings for the purpose of the meetings of ‘circuits’ (which are themselves around 20 local congregations). These may be purpose-built but are often bought for the purpose and Chryssides notes that former cinemas are favoured as they already have the necessary tiered seats facing centre (2016: 207). Baptisms usually take place in the Assembly Hall.
Prayer is a key practice within Jehovah’s Witnesses’ worship; however, it differs from the recitation of prayer in some other Christian traditions. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that prayer should be directed towards Jehovah (not Jesus), should take the form of a respectful conversation to a revered friend and should be spontaneous. In this way, the repetition of standard prayers, such as The Lord’s Prayer, or any prepared prayers or prayers written by others, is not encouraged. Jehovah’s Witnesses also meditate, or think upon, the Bible passages which they read in public services and private worship.
There is no practice of pilgrimage by Jehovah’s Witnesses; no sacred site which members visit. However, there are a number of tour companies owned by individual Jehovah’s Witnesses, through which travel can be booked for whole congregations to visit the headquarters in either the USA or Britain. Tours of the Holy Land can also be booked, although these are not considered pilgrimages. Tours can also be booked for national museums, such as the British Museum in London, where a Jehovah’s Witness guide explains the significance of archaeological discoveries, in accordance with Watch Tower teachings. Members also attend the annual conventions in various different locations.
Expression and Worship
Meeting together for worship is central to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religious practice. Much worship is focused on Bible study and weekend services include a Bible talk and Watchtower study. Worship does include songs (the preferred term over hymns). In the UK, the musical accompaniment is usually pre-recorded and played on a CD player or computer, rather than live music. This differs by country however, and in Germany, for instance, live music is more common in Kingdom Halls (Chryssides 2016: 206).The Jehovah’s Witnesses website lists the following activities as worship:
- • Praying to God
- • Reading and studying the Bible
- • Meditating on what we learn from the Bible
- • Meeting together to pray, study the Bible and sing
- • Preaching the “good news of the Kingdom”
- • Helping those in need
- • Constructing and maintaining Kingdom Halls
- • Sharing in disaster relief
Art, Music, Drama and Creativity
Whilst song is an integral aspect of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ worship, in general, art, music and drama activities are not organised by the congregation but rather take place in individual homes. Most members’ observation of their weekly family worship evening includes fun activities related to faith, such as performing plays or making pictures or crafts based on Biblical passages. There are a great number of suggested activities on the Jehovah’s Witnesses website in the Bible Teachings for Children section. These encourage parents to engage their children in fun activities which will teach them important moral and ethical lessons from Biblical stories.Having said this, there is a distinctive style of art work and photography in the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ magazines, often depicting aspects of family life or missionary work. Illustrated Bible stories can be found on the Bible Teachings for Children section of the website, as can an animated cartoon series for children, ‘Become Jehovah’s Friend’.