Posted by: nflanders | January 30, 2006

Sympathy for Jehovah’s Witnesses

As I was preparing to leave my house on Saturday, I was approached in my driveway by two Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were both middle-aged women, wearing coats and holding armfuls of Wake Up! magazines. It was an unseasonably warm day for January but there was still a chill in the air, and I immediately felt bad for them. Here they were, wasting half of their weekend, going door to door in a strange neighborhood.

One was older, with white hair and she did all the talking. I tried to be as friendly as possible.

JW: Have you ever seen our magazine before?
Ned: Sure, I’ve seen a lot of them, but I’m not really interested today.
JW: Would you like to have a magazine?

I would have accepted but I suspected that they might come back if I took a magazine, kind of how as a missionary we would always return to visit the people who accepted a Book of Mormon from us.

Ned: No, thanks. But thank you very much.
JW: How about just this pamphlet?
Ned: Sure. Thanks a lot. Have a great day.
JW: You too. Goodbye.

They went across the street to knock on my neighbor’s door and I left, with a JW pamphlet on the floor of my car. It’s still there.

This incident depressed me for several reasons. JWs depress me more than Mormon missionaries. I think both groups are probably equally futile or equally effective, depending on your point of view. Both groups recruit those without social networks and plug them into a ready-made community, which can be a very positive thing, especially for those on the fringes of society. However, in the long run, both groups are having only incremental success in spreading their message.

The reason JWs depress me more is because (and correct me if I’m wrong here) every member has to go out and knock on doors. Mormons squeeze all the proselyting into a two-year rite of passage. You’re young, away from people you know in real life, and you have a definite end in sight. JWs that proselyte are working in their own towns, while holding down their regular jobs, and probably have to do this for as long as they are JWs.

I didn’t want these older ladies to be walking around in the cold. I wanted them to be sipping hot chocolate, enjoying the weekend before they had to go back to work on Monday. As missionaries, we used to rationalize our failures in tracting, saying we were planting seeds. Being on the other side now, I realize that there are no seeds, just crumpled, unread literature.

I wanted to shout, “Stop wasting your life, and start enjoying it!” They wouldn’t have listened. Missionary Ned wouldn’t have listened to this advice either. We all have to find our own path to happiness. For all I know, their path includes being cold on Saturdays.



  1. I remember when I was young and JWs would come to our door. My mom felt so bad at the prospect of turning them away (or talking to them) that she told us to hide (in our house) so they would think no one was home. As soon as my older sister went on a mission, she changed her tune and would talk to the JWs FOREVER (they probably prefered it when we hid) out of solidarity for all missionaries, everywhere.

    Although all the JWs we passed and encountered as missionaries were extraordinarily cold to us, I do admire their devotion; it is infinitly harder to proselyte to your neighbors than to strangers.

    Of course, being on a mission taught me that it is futile to hide in your house: we always know when someone is there.

  2. Good story, Ned.

    It’s tough to watch. I think that most of the problem is with the social stigma of rejection. If missionaries and those they tract into could just see it as a business thing that isn’t personal, it might be better.

    Of course, we’re taught that good missionary work isn’t just business: it’s PEOPLE! Darn it…..

  3. I wanted to shout, “Stop wasting your life, and start enjoying it!”

    I don’t know Ned, I doubt they are wasting their lives or time by serving like that. I mean if the purpose of of life is to leave this planet as more Christ-like individuals than we arrived as then they are in fact doing much to fulfil the purpose of life through such missionary work. Certainly such sacrifice would help change their characters to being more like Christ than lounging around sipping hot chocolate, right?

    You remember that great line from the Lectures on Faith: “a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.” (Lectures on Faith, Lecture Sixth, paragraph 7.)

    They seems to believe the same thing…

  4. Geoff,

    Not to speak for anyone else, but I don’t think Ned is against missionary work so much as the expense of tons of time in a way that’s quite ineffective.

    I’m not sure that I really see much of an alternative, but I think that this is the frustrating thing to him. I’m not sure I fully agree, but it’s tough to argue that the hours and hours of tracting represent the best possible use of missionary time.

  5. There seems to be an informal “calling tree” activated when the Jehovah’s Witnesses hit our street. The same neighbors that are grooming their sons to be missionaries get on the phone and warn everyone that the JW are in the area, so don’t answer the door. It’s dang near surreal.

    I bypass all this by having a very small sign by my doorbell that reads “No Soliciting: no sales, proselytizing etc.” It’s an equal opportunity, nondenominational time saver for everyone involved! ;-D

  6. D-Train,

    I guess I am comparing ineffective tracting to running on a treadmill. If your only goal is to get from point A to point B then running on a treadmill is a waste of time. But if there are multiple goals and one of them is to go for a run and get in better shape, then running on a treadmill is far better than sitting on the couch.

  7. Ned,

    Nice post, but seems overly depressing. I think the success of missionary efforts waxes and wanes and needs to be periodically updated for the times and location (which our church does poorly). But w/o missionary work, there would be no LDS church, no bloggernacle and we wouldn’t be having this electronic discussion. Clearly, somebody’s missionary effort was fruitful and even had direct benefit to you.

  8. I coached a kids basketball team in East Palo Alto while in college. We had to drive around and pick up all the kids for games and practice. One experience that I remember clearly when picking someone up was looking at the sign on their neighbor’s door. I was in Spanish, but the translation was, “This is a Catholic home. We do not accept proselyting.” I always wondered if they put that up just for their LDS neighbors.

    The one other memorable experience has nothing to do with this subject. We were picking this kid up and he invited us in. There on the floor of the apartment were about a dozen very nice Sun workstations. I was very nervous standing there waiting for him to find his shoes. In the car he asked if I liked the computers. I said they were very nice computers. He said that his mom’s boyfriend had brought them home the day before and that the boyfriend was going to give him one.

    After that the phone was disconnected, nobody answered the doorbell, and we never saw the kid again.

  9. I think their path probably does include being cold on Saturdays.

    I would think that they feel blessed by their time knocking on doors. And, I bet that they have success from it – or at least nice experiences that make it worth it for them.

    My parents were converts. The first missionaries who knocked on their door don’t know that they later joined and had six kids (five of whom went on missions) and 24 grandkids.

    I get what you are saying, but there is such a thing as planting seeds.

  10. Geoff,

    I do agree somewhat. And, if there isn’t a viable alternative, it’s tough to contend that doing nothing is the best course of action IF one has a testimony of the gospel. Mostly, I just wanted to emphasize that one can support missionary work and still look on tracting as being pretty inefficient.

    I think it’s stories like this that should actually inspire us as members to make sure that the missionaries spend as little time as possible like this by being good examples to our neighbors (so that they’ll be nice to the missionaries) and seeking chances to share the gospel (so that they can teach instead of get doors slammed).

  11. Ichan,

    Good point. My parents met the missionaries through tracting too.

  12. What do you get when you cross a JW with a Unitarian Universalist? Some one who goes door to door every weekend for no apparent reason. What do you get when you cross a JW with a Mormon; some one who goes door to door for two years for no apparent reason, and then talks about it insensately for the rest of their life!

    My and my friend were approached by Mormon missionarias as we were heading from campus to our friends house. I said we hadn’t the time, trying to be polite. I did not want to have to show them I we were the wrong people to approach with their faith. Me being ex-Mormon and my friend having lived as a non-mormon in a small mormon town. I found their tactics of aggressive politeness, “well can we walk with you.” offensive, forcing us to be rude to them and to “leave us the hell alone, we don’t want your god.”

    Though on a moral basis I find proselytizing apprehensible.

  13. JW’s are weird.

  14. Geoff and D-Train– Good points on both sides. However, I think my position is distinct from both of yours. I just don’t see very much net good coming out of tracting, whether it be JW or Mormon.

    As I said, I think changing religions can be a positive thing for those without a social network and who need an economic safety net. I guess Mormonism can help the occasional alcoholic get sober, but so could a twelve-step program.

    I guess I don’t accept the idea that trying to change someone’s religion makes you “Christ-like.” I think volunteering at hospitals, orphanages, and group homes for the mentally disabled makes you more Christ-like. I don’t think Jesus would try to win people over to his religion (whichever that might be) but rather doing actual service, like building Habitat for Humanity houses (he was a carpenter).

    So while I admire the Jehovah Witness and Mormon determination and deprivation in going door-to-door, in the end I think it is a self-interested activity. Both groups believe they are doing it for Jesus, but I just see organizations trying to bulk up their membership.

    Arthur– Great jokes. Though JWs have the bad reputation for aggressiveness, Mormon missionaries can be just as bad. I had several experiences on my mission (see, I can’t stop talking about it) where I had to call off my companions who were being WAY too aggressive and badgering people. That’s what happens when you send out teenagers.

  15. “[I]t is infinitly harder to proselyte to your neighbors than to strangers.” –a spectator

    Great point. I was very glad that I was sent to a foreign country. Doing it in a different language also helps. By the way, anyone who is a fan of Moz is a friend of mine!

    Wendy– Too funny. I think all prospective missionaries should let in the JWs so they can see what it will be like. I was home sick one day on my mission, and the JWs tracted us out. It’s good to be on the other side so you understand why no one wants to talk to you.

    “I would think that they feel blessed by their time knocking on doors. And, I bet that they have success from it – or at least nice experiences that make it worth it for them.” –lchan

    Great point, Laura. I am very glad that I went on my mission because of the experiences I had there, even though I no longer believe in what I was doing there. I genuinely hope these women are happy. Unfortunately, there are probably a lot of JWs that hate going door-to-door, but do it because they want to serve Jesus. That’s what makes me sad.

    Can’t we find the JW bloggernacle? That would be interesting to read. The Ned Flanders of the JWs would post about how he had a birthday party and a blood transfusion and didn’t feel guilty about it.

    Susan M– Agreed. But so are we!

  16. Your wish is my command Ned. A JW bulletin board:

    I used to have the address for a board for pissed-off former JWs, but I can’t find it right at the moment.

  17. Wow, that is awesome. Thanks, Capt. Jack! It looks like there are some forums for disaffected JWs on that site as well.

    I have to say that the closed forums, just for baptized JWs, are very off-putting. I’ll bet it’s just a matter of time before there is a members-only forum for TR-holding Mormons.

  18. Reading through some of the posts from Capt. Jack’s link, I came across a forum for disaffected JWs, in case anyone besides me is interested:

    The parallels between disaffected JWs and disaffected Mormons are striking.

  19. Ned: As I said, I think changing religions can be a positive thing for those without a social network and who need an economic safety net.

    Oh come on Ned — are you saying that social outcasts are the only ones that can benefit from getting religion or changing religions? Are you really being as condescending as you sound? Further are you saying that God himself never leads anyone to make such choices? I know lots of families and individuals that received powerful personal revelation and joined the church in spite of strong pre-existing social networks. You know the scripture: “My sheep hear my voice.”

    I guess I don’t accept the idea that trying to change someone’s religion makes you “Christ-like.”


    What do you think Christ was doing during his entire ministry if not trying to “change someone’s religion”? If Christ spent all of his time “volunteering at hospitals, orphanages, and group homes for the mentally disabled” nobody would have been pissed off enough to kill him, now would they?

  20. Geoff J.–

    I apologize for being condescending. The problem with condescension is that the person doing it rarely realizes it.

    However, I think the benefits of joining or changing religions are nowhere near as obvious as you appear to believe. I simply brought up the “social outcasts” as the group most likely to experience positive benefits from religion changing. The tricky part is defining what entails a net positive change.

    For a believer like you, and an unbeliever like me, the answer will be significantly different.

    I think the root of our disagreement is that you will focus on the positive aspects of religion while I will brood on the negative aspects. Which of us is correct depends heavily on 1) whether there is a God and 2) whether he cares what religion we are.

    Hopefully, neither of us will find out the correct answer for at least fifty or sixty years.

  21. Just as a follow-up, Geoff, how would you explain a person who has received personal revelation to leave the Mormon Church and join the Pentecostal Church? Do you accept that this comes from God?

    If not, then you will see how I can disbelieve other people’s personal revelation.

    You are correct that Jesus was trying to change people’s religion, but that was always secondary to his service. He healed people of all religions and social castes without regard to their beliefs, only their faith.

  22. Ned: Hopefully, neither of us will find out the correct answer for at least fifty or sixty years.

    Well as you know, my claim is that I already do know because God has undeniably communicated with me. That means you have to decide if I am 1)a liar 2) delusional, or 3) right.

    Geoff, how would you explain a person who has received personal revelation to leave the Mormon Church and join the Pentecostal Church? Do you accept that this comes from God?

    What’s that quote President Monson likes to repeat? “When God speaks and a man obeys, that man is always right”. Discerning revelation isn’t easy but if it really comes from God then obeying it is right (even in your scenario).

    [Jesus] healed people of all religions and social castes without regard to their beliefs, only their faith.

    The primary healing Jesus did was and is the healing of souls. He does that through his Gospel and plan of salvation. The physical healings he performed served only as fringe benefits for believers oroccasionally as attention getters for those on the verge of being believers. Physical bodies are very temporary after all. Souls endure.

  23. Thanks for engaging me on this subject, Geoff. I hope I haven’t offended you any more.

    Frankly, I don’t like options 1, 2, or 3. May I add my own? 4. Sincere, but possibly mistaken.

    There are a lot of sincere religious people out there, and I respect all of them (except for those who advocate violence). One thing is undeniably certain: a lot of sincere religious people are very wrong. They may all be wrong. Does this make them liars? I don’t think so, just overconfident in their beliefs. Atheists and agnostics and whatever the heck I am, we are all overconfident in our beliefs. We have too much invested in the outcome.

    In theory, we should all be open to the possibility that we are completely wrong, but few people can. I know I can’t.

    Regarding your points about Jesus, I would disagree vehemently that his service was simply a fringe benefit to the people of his time. His service was the example to all of us as to how we should live our lives. He started the virus, if you will, of good works that can spread over the entire world and help untold numbers of people.

    Again, you focus on eternity, which is completely valid, but since I have my doubts that eternity exists, I focus on the temporal benefits of Jesus’ teachings. “Love your neighbor as yourself” gets you into heaven from your perspective. From my perspective, it’s all about ameliorating human suffering in this life.

    I think it is good that Jesus can be seen in both ways.

  24. Ned wrote: “Both groups recruit those without social networks and plug them into a ready-made community, which can be a very positive thing, especially for those on the fringes of society.”


    I think you’re on to something with this… As much as we’d like to think otherwise, most people (not including children) don’t get in the mood for searching outside their current faith unless something dramatic has happened.

    This is why missionaries have so much success with children, military personel, new move-ins, death-in-the-families, economically distressed…and such.

    Geoff, I don’t think this can be easily discounted.

    And what cuts one way can easily cut the other…as we see with LDS folk who find their way out of the church. No great sin required…just one serious shaking-up, or another and a relatively low social/emotional attachment. That’ll do it.

    Heh, it did it for my g-g-g-grandfather…it did it for Joseph Smith too.

    Thanks for this post, Ned. You’re okay. 🙂

  25. Thanks, Watt. I think we can make some very interesting observations about people who join and leave the Church.

    Anecdotally, I stopped going to church once I came back from my mission and had no Mormon acquaintances (i.e. zero Mormon social ties). While that wasn’t the reason I stopped going to church, it certainly made my decision painless.

    I think there are all kinds of social costs involved with changing religions. I think we should be careful not to attribute *causation* to these factors, but I think they can show why some people find it easier or harder to leave the church.

  26. You know Ned,

    responding to that part about “recruiting the fringe folks” …

    Is it acceidental that Christ himself had more success among the fringe loonies (publicans, harlots, soldiers, sinners …) in his own society than among the more “adjusted” Pharisees and Sadducees?

    Seth R.

  27. Seth– I am in 100% agreement with you. In fact, I made a very similar comment earlier today at the Snarkernacle’s website.

    I wrote: “I really wasn’t trying to say that these people are less desirable to have in church. Jesus spent all of his time hanging out with the social outcasts of his time…I believe these converts are just as important as a rich family who are pillars in the community. My only point was that rich people who belong to block associations and country clubs rarely change religions. More humble people convert much more frequently. This is neither good nor bad, just a fact of life. I certainly never meant to imply that proselyting was a waste of time because we are only getting low-quality converts. All people are high-quality in the eyes of God.”

  28. Tracting is one of the least effective form of missionary work.

    We did something like 4 or more hours a day on my mission. We also baptized many of the people we tracted into.

    When I first got on my mission, we did the least effective form of missionary work, street contacting. It felt like a waste of time, but it ended up helping my boldness. It made me more willing to speak when I normally would have been quiet.

    I personally have a lot of respect for JW’s. I have known some really good people that were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They are very sincere and dedicated. If only some of us could be the same way.

    I am sure that tracting in your own area, where there is a possiblity of running into acquaintences, is much harder.

  29. “Both groups recruit those without social networks and plug them into a ready-made community, which can be a very positive thing, especially for those on the fringes of society.”

    That’s the old “religion is just a crutch for the weak” argument.


    Re: tracting is planting seeds.

    Most often it is planting seeds for when they will be taught in the spirit world.

    Imagine a person dies and “wakes up” in the spirit world. There is an angel-guide there to welcome them.

    Dead Person: Uh, hey. Where am I?

    Angel Guide: You’re dead. Your physical body is back on earth, and now your soul, or spirit is here. This is the spirit world. You’ll be hanging out here until the resurrection, when your body will come back to life, be perfected, and your soul and body will be permanently reunited never to die again. They’ll be put together with, like, ya know, super glue.

    DP: (Looking at hand.) So I’m dead huh?

    AG: Yup.

    DP: But I can still think and talk. (Stands up, takes a step) And I can move around.

    AG: Yup.

    DP: So this is life after death, right?

    AG: Yup.

    DP: And you’re an angel, right?

    AG: Yup.

    DP: Hmmm. Life after death. Angels. Spirits. That means there is a G…
    OH MY GAW… (hand quickly covers mouth)

    AG: aaaaa-YUP!

    DP: So there really is a… a… God?

    AG: Yup.

    DP: What kind of God is he? I mean what’s his religion, if any? There’s like a zillion religions on earth. Why are there so many religions?

    AG: Well, let me put it this way. Not only is there a God. But there’s a Jesus, too. The Son of God. And the Holy Ghost.

    DP: So God is Christian, huh? He’s a Christian God?

    AG: Yup.

    DP: Okay, but there’s still a zillion churches that preach God and Jesus Christ. Did it, or does it matter what church someone belongs to? They have their differences, but they’re all essentially the same, right?

    AG: Well, not really.

    DP: You mean God’s going to send someone to hell just for belonging to the wrong church?

    AG: No, it’s not like that. But there is just one “official” church.

    DP: Wow! That’s hard to believe. So how was I supposed to know which church was God’s “official” church.

    AG: Do you remember those 2 young guys in white shirts, ties, and black name tags that knocked on your door that one day?

    [sound effect: rimshot]

  30. “That’s the old ‘religion is just a crutch for the weak’ argument.” –Bookslinger

    I disagree vehemently. I’ve said no such thing. I believe no such thing. Religions provide social benefits to their members. Full stop. I think these benefits can help people. Full stop. End of story. Sheesh.

  31. I think JW’s are crazy. My sister in law became one and she was extremely weird for years, until she left them and became normal again. She’s never been a Mormon,either.

    Not to mention the JW girl who chased after my first husband. I will pee on her grave.

  32. “We all have to find our own path to happiness. For all I know, their path includes being cold on Saturdays.” Yeah, I suppose so. Tracting as a moral issue — what a messy question.

  33. Wow, I am not new to the Internet but I am new to blogging, and my goodness, can you get lost!

    I was a former JW. I enjoyed Door-to-Door preaching, even in the cold, but I was a rare breed. Most JW hated doing it, but they learned to love it because it is “what pleased Jehovah God.”

    Thier way of getting converts is outdated. When Jesus went “door-to-door” with his “companions” people where working on the same piece of land that they lived. Now people are gone most days and crabby when they are home.

    Here a code word if you really want them leaving you alone forever. “I am an apostate.” They will avoid you like the black plague! In their eyes an apostate is anyone who opposes their organization/beliefs.

    On the flip side, I have enjoyed engaging both Mormans and JW (when I find one who does not know who I am). I find Mormans are much more open-minded however or at least train their people to be less threatened by “deep” questions.


  34. BA, I’m going to use that. Maybe even on Mormon missionaries, too. Just to see what they do.

    Perhaps I could say I am the second wife of a fundamentalist prophet. The favored second wife who he lets dress and wear her hair how she wants. And I could ask them over to meet the family.

  35. annegb– You always crack me up. Thank you.

    BA– Thanks for stopping by! I was hoping some JWs (former or otherwise) might see this.

  36. As a missionary in Japan, my response when the JWs came offering pamphlets was to offer some of my own.

    They usually beat a hasty retreat.

    Seth R.

  37. Jehovah’s Witness is a high control group. The religion guilts people to do door to door work. They have to earn their salvation by a combination of “undeserved kindness” (Watchtowers word for grace) and good works. They often misquote from the book of James to support thier possition.
    Watchtower followers must attend 5 meetings a week on top of the door to door work. They are in a cult. You don’t really learn till after you are in (baptized as an adult) that if you decide to leave, everyone including your own family who are members MUST SHUN YOU!
    So a lot of members have more to lose leaving than if they stay (even thought they truly don’t believe anymore) because of the loss of family and friends.

    Hope this helps with understanding this terrible organization.

    Person from Canada

  38. I am one of Jehovah’s Witnesses -and have been for over 10 years now. It is my way of life based on my faith in Almighty God to bring about the Kingdom that we all pray for and Jesus taught his followers to pray for. Yes, the door to door ministry is required but truthfully, when I first learned what the bible had to say to me – I couldn’t hold back from telling my family, friends and perfect strangers!

    I likened it to knowing about something good that happened to me and sharing it with others so they can experience the happiness.

    I personally cannot change your mind or anyone else’s for that matter, but to clarify, I am not a member of a cult – we do study the bible all the time, we do pray in Jesus’ name and we do love one another and our neighbor. =)

    I am not perfect, nor do I ever claim to be perfect, I have the same problems as everyone else, but I just try to rely on Jehovah to help me make wise decisions based on thinking things thru to the end.

    If you should have any questions, please ask me – I have devoted myself to spend a set amount of hours each month in the ministry so that I can spread the good news of God’s Kingdom =) but I will not always have the answer – it is all in the intake of knowledge, wouldn’t you agree?


  39. Up close and personal Jehovah’s Witnesses can be wolves in sheep’s clothing.

    Think about this-When the devil comes knocking on your door he may not have the ‘dark goth look’.They could be smartly dressed and wielding the Christian Bible.

    I have Jehovah’s Witnesses family in the usa who practice the Watchtower JW enforced ritual shunning that i have not seen or heard from in 15 years.

    The central CORE dogma of the Watchtower is Jesus second coming (invisibly) in 1914 and is a lie.Jehovah’s Witnesses are a spin-off of the man made Millerite movement of 1840.

    A destructive cult of false teachings, that frequently result in spiritual and psychological abuse, as well as needless deaths (bogus blood transfusion ban).

    Yes,you can ‘check out anytime you want but you can never leave’,because they can and will hold your family hostage.

    The world has the Internet now,and there are tens of thousands of pages up from disgruntled ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses like myself who have been abused by the Watchtower cult.

    Jehovah’s Witnesses are often a mouth that prays a hand that kills.The Watchtower is a truly Orwellian world.
    Danny Haszard former Jehovah’s Witness X 33 years and 3rd generation


    This website summarizes 300 United States court cases and lawsuits affecting children of Jehovah’s Witnesses, including dozens of cases where the Parents refused to consent to life-saving blood transfusions:


    This website summarizes 160 United States court cases and lawsuits filed by Jehovah’s Witnesses against Employers:


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