Jehovah’s Witnesses

For years I was being chased by Jehovah’s Witnesses (referred to hereafter as JWs). One day I finally went to see them. Freely, willingly, on my own terms. 

There isn’t a corner of the world which hasn’t been covered by missionaries from this religious group, known for their door-to-door evangelism. They are also popularly known for conscientious objection to military service, refusal of blood transfusions and to salute the flag. Most people come in contact with them in (at least here in Europe) in public transport where they stand around in groups at stations distributing their Watchtower magazine and other religious literature. 

There were the times when the JWs came knocking at my sister’s house in Pennsylvania and my then 8-year old niece was pretty confused as to why we told her not to answer the door, as if it were the boogeyman! Teach the child to be welcoming to strangers and be friendly, but then only selectively? What moral quandaries we experienced. They had a way of persisting and making things difficult and uncomfortable. The social fear of having to ask someone to leave, of rejecting someone in general on whatever level became unavoidable. How many times have I heard people joke about how they would or should just answer the door naked, and/or invite them in to participate in an orgy, as a way of dealing with their persistence? I even read an entire Reddit sub-thread about it! Many people are really genuinely perturbed, disturbed, and put-off by conversion efforts, myself included until recent years. 

I wanted to know what I had been trained so well to avoid, so I looked up the nearest Jehovah’s Witness church and discovered how I was already very uninformed. They don’t have churches, but Kingdom Halls. They don’t have mass or liturgies, or services the way I was used to in the Protestant/Catholic tradition. I really knew nothing about them, so again went to the interwebs for info:

I will spare you my attempt at a summary and just post the recap from Wikipedia for some general categories that you can read about if you are interested:

“Jehovah’s Witnesses is a millenarian restorationist Christian denomination with nontrinitarian beliefs distinct from mainstream Christianity 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jehovah%27s_Witnesses

The “distinct from mainstream Christianity” is where things get problematic with religious authorities, local and state governments, and has resulted in the denial of freedom to practice their religion already from the early days of the movement’s founding in Pittsburgh, PA in the late 1800s. In fact, although the JW now have over 8 million members worldwide, and a very professionally developed and international presence through their publications and evangelism, they are still persecuted all over the world, most recently in Russia, where it was added to Russia’s registry of extremist organizations in 2017 and had its assets seized and members jailed. In Germany however, JWs were granted official legal status as a recognized religious denomination in 2005.

So on a Sunday last spring, I found my way to the Kingdom Hall in north Berlin, past graffiti-adorned buildings, walls, subway, and trash-strewn streets and parks. Sunday mornings in Berlin often leave clues to the late-night festivities that are usually cleaned up by the sanitation workers midweek. But on Sunday mornings the broken glass and Döner kebab wrappers are still fresh. 

When I enter the building I am immediately assessed by a kind, elderly greeter-lady at the door as a visitor, and assigned a young woman to be my guide for my stay. We’ll call her Rachel, the woman who became my Jehovahs Witness pal. Rachel is beautiful, in her mid-30s and wearing a skirt and conservative, tasteful outfit. I look around and realize that I am probably the only woman not wearing a skirt. Oops. The building is large and has several conference rooms, one of which is hosting a talk with discussion this morning. That is where Rachel takes me. 

We sit in some very comfy chairs and listen to the lecture with 30 or so other people. I observe that everyone is reading along in their Bibles, or on their phones, iPads or other device, as the speaker quotes from the Bible. I am seriously impressed by the enthusiasm and scholarly commitment every single member displays in following along the argument and checking all the Bible quotes that are referenced. It is like a combination of Bible-study and lecture, with full audience participation. I know some other churches that would be overjoyed with even half that level of interest in scripture. Rachel does all she can to let me know what to expect, what is happening, and generally puts me at ease. After the 20-minute presentation, there is a sort of sharing, discussion period, where again, everyone chimes in with their own thoughts and points relevant to the Bible selection at hand. I also realize that the whole thing is being broadcast in some way (not sure if it was by phone or some other technology) to elderly members who were at home, who were also then able to contribute by speakerphone to the discussion afterward. No-one needed to be left out!

After the talk, I go downstairs with Rachel and chat for a few minutes about how I am interested in visiting churches, have studied theology in general but am not seeking membership in a new church. She is very sweet, kind and genuine, and I did have some more questions about whether the JW’s have communion or priests, or whether women can be in positions of leadership (my standard research questions) but there wasn’t enough time to really delve into it. I read later that in JW women are a big part of public ministry, but do not hold congregational leadership roles. This is in part based upon the ‘restorationist’ nature of the movement, which strives to restore the church along the lines of how it was in the first century after Christ, the so-called apostolic era when women and men were spreading the new faith (described in the Acts of the Apostles). I left Rachel with a grateful heart and thought to myself, “Well, that was nice, but I doubt I’ll see her again.” Berlin has over 4 million inhabitants after all. But…

Two weeks later, while shopping in Karstadt Rachel walks by and we greet one another warmly. A week after that, I saw her standing outside the S-Bahn! She was handing out flyers with two others, all well-dressed, young and equally sincere. This time I greeted her like an old friend. I only had two minutes to talk before hopping on the train, and she said upon parting, “You know, it is all based upon the Bible, the Bible is the only true word of God, the Bible is the basis for everything!”

I know she really believes what she says; with a tone of certainty and slight urgency. It became more clear to me then why I have been asked, when describing the church I attended, whether it was Bible-based. The question initially surprised me because I hadn’t found myself in many discussions about biblical accuracy yet. There are many people claiming to have revelations, insights, further wisdom to impart from the spiritual world. People who believe that the Bible is the only necessary and true revelation will, of course, care about this. 

I haven’t seen Rachel again, but I now smile at the JWs I see in the metro, as they hand out their literature. 

This Vice article about this same congregation in Berlin is interesting and has photos of the interior of the Kingdom Hall.

Entry to Kingdom Hall Hochstraße 3, 13357 Berlin

Kingdom Hall

Program – Multi-Kulti
Follow the demure skirts to the inner courtyard
Really? The Kingdom of God is under that building?
Very multi-lingual

Stami Leben Glauben Evangelical Church Lörrach, Germany

Stami: Glauben Leben Church in Lörrach, Germany

Not all my church visits begin with touristy curiosity.

I drove past this building on the way to the grocery store many times (my favorite discount chain Aldi is around the corner), and though I wondered what the deal was with the slick blue and green logo high on the side of a squarish new modern-looking building, it didn’t occur to me to just Google it. How many buildings, stores, houses—churches—do we pass by every day, most we don’t even notice, some stand out. Why is that?

Then one Sunday morning I awoke with a heavy heart, emotionally and physically exhausted and feeling hopeless from a break-up that was still unfolding, I looked online for “churches near me” (yes, turns out a lot of people type that in to Google) to find something that I could get to in time. Sunday-service for all generations every Sunday at 10:30! Stami Leben Glauben it was.

Stami meant nothing to me initially, but sounded vaguely German, the motto “Glauben Leben” is a play on words. Glauben means “faith” or “belief”, and Leben means both “life” and “to live”, so Living Faith, or Live (your) Faith is pretty good for an evangelical protestant church motto.

I was curious to find out what kind of non-traditional church could be located in what looked like a big toaster, and though Stami is part of the larger Chrischona International, an evangelical Protestant association of mostly German-speaking independent congregations, this particular building is their newest addition and not one of the quaint older ones.

Entering the church, I passed through the community rooms to the main hall, where already at least 300 people, 40 of which were children were gathered in plastic and metal chairs facing a stage. I was encouraged to find a free seat up front by an elderly greeter, but when I told him I was there for the first time and preferred to sit I the back and watch, he welcomed me and said something about picking up a welcome packet somewhere, and that sweets were involved. I sat down and was immediately awed by the technological set-up. Other than the large wooden cross on the back front wall, technology was the priority: a well-lit band on the stage fully outfitted with all the latest electronic gear, the drummer in a glass-walled booth, the projector overhead leading the congregation in song with the lyrics, multiple video screens hung overhead, no-one was on the stage without a microphone, and the whole show was orchestrated from the technician booth in the back.

I kept waiting for the service to start, but it appeared that there was some kind of youth action happening. There were huge wrapped presents on the stage, and then several young people proceeded to put on a full 20 minute skit and action on behalf of the Christmas Shoebox Charity for (poor, developing-world-type) Children, complete with audience participation Oprah-style (everyone look under your chairs for a gift!) and a boy/girl competition to gather said gifts and put them into a shoebox, all to demonstrate how it works. Then we got to watch a video about the Christmas shoebox program, and how they bring the Good Message of Christ’s love to poor children everywhere, by giving them shoeboxes full of toys and toothpaste. Well, that sounds a tad cynical, they also do other missionary work, but in this case, it was about getting the congregation on board to bring in their shoeboxes full of goodies.

Then they sang a song led by the big band up front, it was so simple that in a minute I was singing right along.

Darum danke ich dir so sehr

Ich gebe dich nie wieder her

 

Es ist so toll dich zu kennen Herr

Jeden Tag ein bisschen mehr

(English: That’s why I thank you so much/I’ll never give you up

It’s so great to meet you Lord/Every day a little more)

If I didn’t know any better, I say it sounded like a love song! I did feel a bit awkward when everyone started waving their hands in the air, although I’ve been to other evangelical churches or worship situations, it doesn’t cease to make me uncomfortable. I stand there with my hands behind my back, or in my pockets, maybe sway a little to the music, but even at a full-on rock concert, I’m not the type to lose myself and go berserk with enthusiasm. I gotta say too, the guy next to me looked similarly pained, but perhaps like me, he was waiting to hear The Word.

The main pastor was away, so the youth pastor took the reigns this Sunday, and his sermon was a bit like a Ted Talk with Clip-art pictures in a Powerpoint presentation. It went something like this in summary:

Life is like a labyrinth (picture of a labyrinth). We don’t know the way out, we need help, and God is there to help us. (Picture of a guy with his head in his hands). Nicodemus also asked Jesus at night for clarification (picture of nighttime). Doubting Thomas also asked God, “When will you show yourself to me?” (picture of doubtful looking person). Peter wanted to do everything with Jesus but then denies Him at the crucial hour. We also want to do right by God, but fail and have weaknesses, (relevant image, at this point I forget which one). The young rich man asked how to get into heaven but went away sad because Jesus said to give up everything, (picture of a sad guy). We also experience in our lives how we have to let go in order to find true divine happiness. The last stock image is of two obviously happy women. The pastor describes the woman who kisses Jesus’ feet, saying “You made everything possible”. He then quotes Romans 6:36, the wages of sin are death and reiterates that Jesus Christ is eternal life. He is the greatest gift of all time. May you recognize Him. Amen.

We’ll call it the shotgun approach to preaching. Say it all! Reference every major story and personality from the New Testament in fifteen minutes! See what sticks. When you only have people’s attention for a few minutes once a week, you gotta make the most of it.

Despite the style, culture, and presentation of this sermon being nothing like what I am used to, I indeed felt relieved, comforted, and understood hearing these words! It was precisely what I needed to hear. Being filled with adolescent-grade feelings of rejection and soul pain enabled me to be open to a sermon of similar quality. I needed to be reminded that even though my relationship was ending, it didn’t mean that I was unlovable, God loves me. And the main point of the sermon that jumped out for me was that, like the young rich man, we must let go in order to find the divine. Time for me to let go of the things I thought I wanted, the things I do even have, and follow Him. I had my pick of stories and teachable moments, and I found the ones that spoke to me at the time I needed to hear it. This experience is the mark of The Good Message; this is the meaning of being a follower of Christ.

I guess if you’re not hurting, or in emotional or psychic distress, if everything in your life is going fine the way you want it to, hunky-dory is your keyword, and you are content and satisfied with your lot, then you might not find yourself in a church very often. But if you are looking for the divine, and your fellow man and yourself for that matter disappoints yet again, then Jesus is still there, getting the message across through His most-varied of followers.

I wandered out of the hall before it was officially over, an hour is all I was mentally prepared for and it wasn’t clear when it would be finished. (There was more singing and then it was done). I started looking around, reading their literature by the entrance (Bring Christ to the Arab refugees of Europe!—a missionary flier), and then began chatting with an elderly lady in the front room near the coffee who quickly took me under her wing. Turns out I was standing in the “seniors corner.” She was lovely and showed me how to first reserve a chair, because the place fills up quickly once the service ends, and then get coffee and fresh pretzels. Who needs wine and bread when there’s southern German coffee and pretzels? Wink. She explained to me how almost as soon as they moved into their new building they outgrew it, now that they have over 100 children. In addition to the thriving youth and children’s work, they also do refugee and social work, and many kinds of missionary work too.

The greeter from the beginning found me and brought me my welcome packet, complete with gummy bears as promised, a program and a nice pen. My collection is growing. Another elderly couple sat down and the conversation continued, covering church-life, the beauty and quality of life of the region near Basel, and the growing wealth-gap in the world. The gentleman says that he read that ten men control 50% of the world’s resources! I reach for another pretzel. Gotta even things out somehow. I ask whether they have always come to this church. No, they used to be mainline Protestant. His wife sheepishly admits that she prefers Catholic mass to other Protestant sects, “If you’re going to go for ritual, might as well do it the right way,” she says. To say that this place lacks ritual would be, well, besides the point. According to their website, Stami Leben lists a summary of the points that keep their community healthy as an acrostic of the German word for grace: GNADE. In English however, it would be Community, Discipleship, Prayer, Service to others, and the Gospel for everyone. Not much mention of sacraments or rituals, but common experiences defined through service, prayer and missionary work. They do have the bread and wine once a month, as many Protestant churches do, but it is symbolic.

The experience of community, prayer in song, and the Gospel was very real for me that Sunday, despite the cultural unfamiliarity. Meeting people who welcome with open arms anyone who comes in their door, is the sign for me that the divine is indeed at work.