Exploring the impact of religions and beliefs on how people live their lives;
Understanding and responding critically to beliefs and attitudes.
The number of meetings which Jehovah’s Witnesses are expected to attend has decreased over time. Scholar George Chryssides notes that for much of their history, Jehovah’s Witnesses met for five hour-long meetings a week. In recent years, meetings have been shortened and combined in recognition of the pressures of modern living. In 2018, members attend a weekend meeting and a meeting on one weekday evening. The weekend meeting includes the public service followed by the Watchtower study. The public service includes song (the preferred term over hymn), spontaneous prayer and a Bible talk, whilst the Watchtower study involves the study of a passage outlined in the study edition of The Watchtower magazine. In this standardised format, all Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations around the world study the same passage in the weekend meeting. The weekday meeting is termed the ‘Our Christian Life and Ministry Meeting’ and includes sections titled ‘Treasures from God’s Word’, which considers the entire Bible a few chapters per week; ‘Apply Yourself to the Field Ministry’, which gives instruction in door-to-door evangelising and teaching interested persons; and ‘Living as Christians’. As there is a preference for Bible study in native languages, and for not too large a congregation, the same Kingdom Hall might be used every week night for different congregations. For example, one Kingdom Hall in London has three English congregations, one Spanish, and one Serbian and Croatian congregation meeting on different week nights. Alternatively, different language congregations might meet simultaneously in different rooms of the same Hall. Jehovah’s Witnesses are also proactive in offering services using sign language and have a ‘Jehovah’s Witness Library Sign Language’ app which offers sign language videos of the Bible and other publications in various national sign languages.
Throughout the year, Jehovah’s Witnesses also gather in larger numbers. Circuits meet periodically in Assemblies, held in Assembly Halls or in hired facilities; and regions meet in Conventions, for which stadiums or conference centres are hired. Conventions can attract thousands of members and are often focused on a particular Biblical theme.
In addition, all Jehovah’s Witnesses spend time in voluntary evangelistic activities, as the cornerstone of their faith – being a witness for Jehovah. They are most well-known for their door-to-door ministry with the aim that “each congregation tries to reach all people in its neighbourhood with a brief Bible message at least once a year.” In recent years, Jehovah’s Witnesses have added another evangelism approach, with publishers operating literature stands in public places, such as train stations and shopping centres. They claim that this has a Biblical basis since the Apostle Paul is recorded as having preached in the market place (Acts 17:17). In this approach, publishers take a generally quietist position and wait to be approached for information or discussion rather than engaging the public actively – although of course this varies from individual to individual. If a member of the public expresses interest, Jehovah’s Witnesses will attempt to establish regular home visits for free Bible study courses. The practice of witnessing can be problematic in countries which do not allow proselytising or the distribution of religious literature (see Religious Freedom and Persecution section for more).
Jehovah’s Witnesses practise baptism by immersion of adults and older children (typically aged 13-16). Baptism of adults is preceded by regular attendance at meetings, engaging in public ministry, and then a meeting with elders who evaluate, through asking around 120 questions, whether the person has the knowledge of the Bible and is living the appropriate lifestyle (that is, in line with Biblical standards) that is needed in order to be committed.
Baptisms generally do not take place in Kingdom Halls but in the larger Assembly Halls, which typically have a built-in baptismal pool, or in a hired stadium. A baptism is a public event which marks one as a member of the faith. Through baptism, an individual demonstrates repentance from sin, and is forgiven and cleansed through Christ’s ‘ransom sacrifice’ and is able to start a new life in the Church. Individuals joining Jehovah’s Witnesses from a different Christian denomination are re-baptised in the belief that only Jehovah’s Witnesses are the ‘true’ organisation which can offer salvation (Chryssides 2016: 211-214).
Jehovah’s Witnesses also engage in personal study at home, including reading the Bible. Much emphasis is placed on raising children within the movement and most members observe a weekly family worship evening in the home (see other sections for more on children). Jehovah’s Witnesses usually say grace before meals.
Jehovah’s Witnesses recognise marriage as a sacred union between one man and one woman for the purpose of companionship and procreation. Homosexual partnerships are prohibited and are a cause for disfellowshipping (see Rules and Ethical Guidelines section). In some countries, Kingdom Halls are recognised as legal places of marriage: in other countries, Jehovah’s Witnesses have a civil registration and then may have the marriage blessed in a Kingdom Hall, though this is not regarded as essential. The marriage service includes a talk by an elder, singing, prayer and the exchange of vows. Divorce is only permitted in cases of adultery.
Jehovah’s Witnesses also hold funeral services at Kingdom Halls. “Funerals are kept short and simple, and are used as opportunities for reminding the congregation of life’s purpose and what lies beyond the grave” (Chryssides 2016: 217). Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in Hell or in eternal souls who are distinct from bodies. The 144,000 will have ‘spiritual bodies’ in Heaven, whilst the ‘great crowd’ will have restored physical bodies. Death is compared to being ‘asleep’, free from pain and suffering but not a conscious state. And like sleep, death is a temporary state, for Jesus will resurrect the dead. The Jehovah’s Witness website states “Those whom Jesus resurrects during his thousand-year reign will have the prospect of living forever—as long as they truly put faith in him.” For this reason, funerals tend not to focus on excessive grief but on the prospect of the family being reunited in the future. The deceased may be buried or cremated according to the family’s preference: there is no prescription on this. The service generally includes singing, prayer and a Bible talk by an elder.
Instead, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have one annual festival which is of the utmost importance to them, although it is not considered a sacrament. It is the Memorial of Christ’s Death or the Lord’s Evening Meal, and is the commemoration of Jesus’ death and ransom sacrifice on behalf of humankind. It is comparable to the Eucharist or Holy Communion in other denominations, in which (unleavened) bread and (red) wine are shared in remembrance of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. The bread and wine are called ‘emblems’ by Jehovah’s Witnesses to signify their symbolism. This is different from Roman Catholic belief in transubstantiation (where they are called ‘elements’), in which it is believed that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Nor are they consumed by the vast majority of the congregation but are rather passed around. This is because consumption of them is believed to be reserved for the chosen 144,000 who will reside with Jesus in heaven after the last days. The service also includes singing, prayer and a Bible talk.
The service takes place after sunset on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, which usually corresponds to the Jewish celebration of Passover. Nisan is in March or April on the first full moon after the spring equinox. The service is held in all Kingdom Halls (though, when many congregations share a Kingdom Hall, additional facilities may be hired), and is open to the public. Members who cannot attend often have the opportunity for a live link either through a telephone or computer. Members are encouraged to bring guests and attendance at the service is higher than for other Witness services. In 2017, there were over 20 million attendees worldwide.