By “Jeremy C”
I’ve given a lot of thought to the young people who are leaving the Watchtower organization in recent years. Recently, I was reading a thread posted by “JWFACTS” a while back in which he provided some statistics and graphs showing the rapidly declining growth in the Watchtower. One factor discussed at length was the high number of young people who do not stay in the organization.
I have several observations to add to this subject. Before you start, I’ll warn you that this will be a lengthy article, but I ask that you indulge me for a few minutes and continue reading.
First of all, I think the Watchtower’s problems with their inability to retain young people runs very deep. I believe the issue is far more serious than the leadership would like to admit. I also think the issue for them is broader than what the simple statistics are showing.
I was born and raised in the organization. Besides me, at least 75% of the kids I grew up within the congregation I attended are out – for good. Many of them were “good kids” too.
The Source of the Problem
It’s not hard to figure out why so many JW children are conditioned from an early age to associate drudgery with the meetings and assemblies. There simply isn’t anything designed or built into the programs that work with the attention spans of young children. Many other churches offer separate classes, services, or groups for children that are compatible with their maturity level and that get them acclimated to going to church. However, the Watchtower stubbornly sticks to a “one size fits all” approach for everyone. How many schools group preschoolers, high school students, and graduate students all into the same classroom?
On top of this, many JW adults expect children to silently sit still through long convention talks on Daniel’s prophecies or the nuances of the word parousia. If children get restless and don’t sit still, spankings usually follow – “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”
By the time many young JWs reach their teens, not only have they been conditioned to associate worshipping Jehovah with great displeasure, but they still don’t have any groups or programs tailored to their age group or meet their needs. I believe this is a huge factor in the turnover of young people leaving the organization.
Blame It on Satan
This is one area where I believe the Watchtower leadership shows an astounding lack of insight. I also feel this is where they are also profoundly disconnected from reality. Instead of engaging in some honest soul-searching and introspection about how to help and nurture young people at an organizational level, the Watchtower leadership, writing department, and traveling overseers all attribute the high turnover to their favorite straw man: Satan. If there is a large turn-over in the congregation, it must mean that Satan is working overtime – not that anything could ever be wrong with the organization itself. Whenever the Watchtower does comment on youth leaving the organization, there is a common tactic that its leadership uses: Cynically compare them with the ungrateful Israelites who found “Jehovah’s manna” undesirable.
The Watchtower organization is like a restaurant that keeps serving from the same bland menu in spite of the fact that many of their patrons don’t like the food and aren’t coming back. Rather than adjust the menu, or admitting that the chef isn’t as good as he thinks he is – the owner blames the customers, claiming that their taste buds must not be working properly.
At what point do they begin to ask themselves if there is something that THEY are doing wrong? Ironically, they can’t do that. They’ve made the claim that the organization has been identified and branded as a “spiritual banquet” where “nothing is lacking.” Therefore, if young people are uninspired, bored, or not motivated to engage in the theocratic treadmill, JWs can simply blame it on the influences of MTV, high school, or on their favorite buzzword – the “world.”
Please note that the Soviets used the same methods of argumentation and reasoning by claiming that nothing was lacking in “Mother Russia.” Strangely, their newspapers only had good news to publish about the Soviet government, and bad news to report about Western democracies. If anyone defected, Soviet leaders simply blamed it on “American influences,” the defector’s “lack of gratitude” or some personal defect. Does this sound familiar?
Besides meetings and literature, what is the Watchtower doing (or attempting to do) to truly refresh, uplift, and inspire their young people? Kingdom Hall “quick-builds” only happen occasionally, and Bethel isn’t a possibility for everyone. About the most exciting things that many young JWs will get to do is holding up printed signs at conventions that say “Please Be Seated,” or turn knobs in the Kingdom Hall sound booth. Some who are really lucky and privileged enough to have a father who’s a prominent elder, might land an exciting acting role – waving their arms around in huge pantomime gestures as part of the cast in an assembly drama.
Are you inspired?
Encouraging Youth – How Mega-Churches Do It
When you take a look at many of the mega-churches, it’s impressive how much they put into creating support groups and programs for their young people. I’ve seen a lot of creativity and progressive thinking when it comes to how they design ministries for young people. Many not only help the young people with their unique issues, but also inspire them enough to get active and “pay it forward.” These churches design their approach for where young people are right now – not from where someone thinks they “should” be.
I don’t mean to imply that there are no enthusiastic young people in the Watchtower organization, because there truly are. I know -I was one of them. But the fact is that such a large turnover among the young is a major symptom that indicates something is deeply and fundamentally wrong with the Watchtower’s model. They continue to enforce a “one size fits all” education and worship program for both children and adults. When these programs do try to address children directly, it usually involves an assembly drama about the prophet Samuel or to illustrate the promise that very soon they will be able “to play with tigers and elephants.”
Enter the social media – Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube – all readily available on your average smart phone. Consider this: Any Witness can now sit in an assembly during the morning session, dutifully nodding their head like a bobble head doll. When it’s over, they can walk outside and link up with ex-Witnesses online via their iPhone to express what they really think. (Rutherford must be having a meltdown in his grave.) Given the choice between what electronic media has to offer – versus reading a Kingdom Ministry insert – which do you think a bored and uninspired teenager is going to choose?
Beside simple boredom, what we also see within the Watchtower organization are many emotionally troubled individuals and single parents who join the religion because of the promises of relief that it holds out for them. In these situations, I’ve noticed that the kids still don’t have much in the way of emotional support and guidance. Some other churches give single parents some relief by offering activities and programs for their children to get involved in and bond with other young people.
Inherent Weaknesses within the Organization
I have seen many really good kids in the organization totally get neglected because they didn’t have a father who was a Witness. Many of them also had deep emotional issues that never got resolved. Many of us have noticed that when the father does not hold a responsible position within the congregation, the rest of the family is often left out on the periphery without much social support. I’ve observed that children in families like this often never thrive, and are swiftly on their way out of the organization by the time they reach their teens.
Many teenagers in the organization have issues that require a little more remedy than sitting with a notepad at an assembly making tally marks as they count the times the speaker says “Jehovah.” Sitting through long hours of talks and Watchtower studies won’t help them with many of the emotional and social challenges they’re grappling with.
Is it any wonder that the turnover among young JWs is so high? Is it any wonder that they would seek to fill the void in their life with sex, drugs, and alcohol? This is human nature. And, as is also human nature, Watchtower leaders take the easy way by placing all the blame for this on invisible metaphysical characters like “Satan,” instead of recognizing and dealing with their own “elephant in the room.”
One would think that relatively simple endeavors like those offered by other churches would be worth the effort to the Watchtower when considering its inability to retain its young people. One might think so, but this would involve the Watchtower’s leadership reinventing and rethinking matters that they are convinced have already been settled. More importantly, these endeavors might diminish time and resources used for going door-to-door. For them, nothing can be allowed to take time away from the Watchtower’s sole purpose for existence: proselytizing. An organization that has established itself as the “sole possessor of truth” and the “single place of refuge from the coming apocalypse” cannot divert any time or resources to anything not directly related to its recruitment activities.
Common Sense vs. an Iron Hand
That’s why I believe they will never adopt common sense solutions that could help their members – especially young ones. Ironically, it’s clear that their growth is already suffering due in part to their stubbornness. Lackluster growth will only continue as they find it more difficult to recruit new members. As they grit their teeth, lash out at dissenters, and shake their fists at the Internet, the more motivated their disenchanted young people will become to satisfy their curiosity about what is online. It’s Psychology 101.
With is recent crackdown on college education, the Watchtower is looking less like a “spiritual paradise” and more like North Korea. Regimes like North Korea have a total disregard for many of the societal endeavors that make a nation stronger, such as infrastructure, good universities, economic freedoms, and democratic processes. Instead, human capital is invested in one thing: warfare. Their dictator, Kim Jong Il, is so deluded that his idea of inspiring his people is to walk out on his balcony with his huge Elvis glasses and clap his hands.
The Watchtower organization’s sole purpose is to proselytize by channeling all of its human capital toward that goal. Other programs that could result in a much stronger, robust, and enthusiastic membership are pushed aside and dismissed due their possibly interfering with proselytizing. Much like Kim Jong Il walking out and clapping his hands, the Watchtower’s idea of motivating its people is to deliver assembly talks denouncing college education, Watchtower articles ridiculing those who disagree with them, and repeating the promise that “the end is just around the corner.”
Are you inspired yet?
A Heavy Price to Pay
The Watchtower has nothing new to offer, and no ideas. Just imagine that the Ford Motor Company was still manufacturing and marketing the Ford Pinto. Picture Ford blaming its customers – saying that consumers had “poor judgment” for not wanting to buy the Pinto anymore.
This is precisely what the Watchtower is doing. In some respects, I find it very entertaining. In another ways, it’s quite sad, when you consider that young people in the organization desperately need and yearn for something more than what the Watchtower is willing to offer them.
The turnover in membership will continue to increase, as will the percentage of young JWs who choose to leave. The few born-in JWs who choose to stay will pay an enormous price; they will never know who they really were or what they could have become. For them to stay in the organization and have an “approved standing,” they will have to squash their inner self, and adopt an unnatural, organizationally created identity. Many will cover over passions and talents that could have given their lives greater meaning. Many, including some of us reading this page, have paid that price, only to finally wake up to the reality of our lives years later. Fortunately for some of us, after having been out for a several years, finally getting to know who we really are and what makes our lives meaningful has become a reality.
Those of us who fall in that category are in a great position to be a source of strength and compassion for younger JWs who are wandering out and stumbling onto forums and websites like this one. It’s important that we make it clear to them that there is still a wonderful life to experience and enjoy – after leaving the Watchtower.
Now are you inspired?
A Few Additional Notes . . .
The Watchtower organization regularly describes itself as “an educator,” portrays its preaching work as a “global educational work,” and claims that the information found in its publications is “superior knowledge.” The facts are that what comes out of the Watchtower writing department is not information that “expands one’s thinking capacities,” but actually constricts it and causes it to atrophy.
A case in point is the sheer intellectual gymnastics Jehovah’s Witnesses must engage in just to convince themselves that humans have only been on earth for some 6,000 years. That’s just one example. Another is that the organization still likens its preaching work to that of an Old Testament character named Noah. It also stretches all reason by comparing rigorous and intellectually honest investigations of its teachings and history to character traits described as belonging to God’s enemy, Satan the Devil.
What the Watchtower is selling to its members is not “knowledge,” but “anti-knowledge.” This illogical position, coupled with the fact that they don’t offer activities or programs that would keep their young people motivated and engaged, pretty much ensures increasing turnover of their youth. Since mostly younger, more robust people make up their Pioneer ranks, those recruits will continue to decline.
What About Sports?
Another subject is “after school sports.” This is another area where born-in JWs really miss something that can be very beneficial.
There are qualities that young people can learn from sports. One is building confidence and the ability to engage in healthy competition. While it’s true that competitiveness occasionally gets out of hand, I think for the most part character traits that sports instill are important for healthy social development and an ability to compete in the market place. One valuable trait that you learn in school sports is training to better yourself and to compete fairly – not to mention the team bonding that one develops with peers.
The job market demands these abilities. Many born-in JWs never developed much social confidence or the attributes of healthy competition that are so crucial today. As a result, they feel very foreign to the world around them, and feel incapable of meeting the demands of our 21st century economy. This is not to say that all JWs are totally dysfunctional, or that all non-JWs magically have these important attributes. It’s just that the Watchtower’s model clearly sabotages the social growth of young people in so many ways.
Location, Location, Location
Obviously, my observations about the high turnover among those raised in the organization don’t apply to every congregation, and will vary in different areas. I attended congregations in California, and I knew that the JW culture in the suburbs of Los Angeles was strikingly different from its inner city. This was also true between JW culture within major cities was radically different from Witness life in rural areas. The devotion and activity of young JWs also varied from area to area. I know that the area where I grew up saw a huge turn-over among young Witnesses.
These noticeable regional differences applies to mainline Christian churches as well. I live fairly close to Rick Warren’s mega church [Saddleback Church in Orange County, California], and I can tell you that the growth he has experienced is very impressive. I was amazed when I learned how much he has invested in youth programs and support groups. My area has a very robust Evangelical presence experiencing steady growth. Obviously, this does not apply to the whole country. My point is that there is a stark contrast between what the Watchtower is offering versus mainstream Christianity. When a prospective recruit is looking into the Watchtower organization online, and then matches it against a mega-church like Rick Warren’s, it’s like comparing a Five-Star restaurant with a Stouffer’s TV dinner.
Some Won’t Commit to Baptism – For Good Reason
I’ve noticed many JW youth who never got baptized, then faded away for a while and had their fun, and now hang around the periphery of the organization. They have the freedom to associate with Jehovah’s Witnesses because of not having the DF banner hanging over their heads. I think it’s very odd. On the other hand, I don’t believe most of these people don’t understand or have a real devotion to JW doctrines. It seems more of an emotional attachment for them.
What I saw with many of these that it was not so much of zeal to jump into theocratic activity, as it was a fear of being caught outside of the “ark of salvation” when the end came. Did any of you who were Witnesses then notice how many inactive JWs came running back into the Kingdom Hall right after 9/11? I don’t think these people were coming back thinking, “Gee, I just love sitting through those Watchtower studies!” No – I’m guessing most of them were simply saying: “Oh, shit!”
The Reality of Being an Elder
In my article above, I should have given more credit where it is due. I failed to talk about the fact that there are many elders within local Kingdom Halls who are trying very hard to encourage the youth. When I was still a teenager, there were a couple of elders who took an honest interest in me. For them it was more than just going out in door-to-door work together – it was genuine bonding time.
I think the challenge is that most elders simply are not able to do as much as they would like in terms of encouraging the youth. Elders have their own jobs, home life, personal study, meetings, and “elder” business to handle – and many of these brothers are simply overloaded. I knew several who struggled with depression and it took all the strength they had just to take the morning group out in field service. Added to all of that, many local elders “get the whip” from traveling overseers constantly pushing them to focus more on field service. Personally, I don’t fault the elders. Who encourages them? Who gives the elders support and reassurance?
I think it comes down to the fact that Watchtower promotes a “works” based religion. Everyone must work to earn their salvation. Traveling overseers are continuously pushing elders to help others earn their salvation. It’s like a twisted game from the Middle Ages, where everyone is trying to make it to a finish line, or face execution if they don’t. They reason: “Who has time for a youth group when so many people out there need to be saved from Jehovah’s Day of Judgment?”
Editor’s Notes: Californian “Jeremy C” was raised a Jehovah’s Witness. While an active Witness, he was a “Regular Pioneer,” a Ministerial Servant, and a Bethel volunteer. He’s been out for five years, but still has relatives who are Witnesses. This article and his forum posts are intended to help those who have left the organization to sort out their thoughts and feelings. He wants to see them able to make honest and well-informed decisions about their own lives. Link to original discussion thread.