Changing tactics speed growth of Jehovah's Witnesses

Seattle Post-Intelligencer/August 27, 2003
By Vanessa Ho

Renton -- The next time you feel down about rejection, consider Sheryl Brown and Helen Schwerdtfeger. As longtime Jehovah's Witnesses, they have knocked on hundreds of doors to promote the benefits of studying the Bible. Along the way, they've weathered insults, slammed doors, growling dogs and aching feet, and come away with just a handful of converts.

And yet, here they were on a sunny morning in summer skirts, Bibles in hand, ready for more. But instead of ringing doorbells, they circled bus stops and parking lots, in search of lone commuters -- and anyone else, really, who looked available. No one escaped their eagle eyes -- not drivers, joggers, baristas or construction workers.

Jehovah's Witnesses once conveyed their message almost exclusively door-to-door. But the increase in high-rise apartments -- coupled with a declining chance of finding anyone at home during the day -- has prompted new tactics. People now are as likely to hear about the coming kingdom of God at a gas station or Laundromat as they are at their front door.

The group's aggressive methods have helped propel them into one of the nation's fastest-growing religions. They've also irritated some people.

The city of Stratton, Ohio, fought to keep an ordinance requiring Jehovah's Witnesses and other door-to-door groups to get a permit before knocking -- until the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional last year. In Blainville, Quebec, city lawyers have been trying to reinstate a law restricting when Jehovah's Witnesses can knock on doors.

In Renton, where Brown and Schwerdtfeger preach, the mayor's office has not had complaints about Jehovah's Witnesses. But that doesn't mean the work is easy.

Jehovah's Witnesses follow a literal reading of the Bible that compels them to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and spread the "good news" about God's earthly paradise. But because they can't enter many apartments and condos, they often resort to thick reverse-directories for hours of "telephone witnessing."

Some members, such as Maggie Wood of Issaquah, like to write letters. "Dear Neighbor," Wood writes on flowery stationery. "I try to pay a visit to every person in town with the best message ever."

And at the airport and in downtown Seattle, Jehovah's Witnesses occasionally display "The Watchtower" magazines for passersby.

But face-to-face visits are still preferred.

That is what propelled Brown and Schwerdtfeger to meander through Renton in a gray minivan recently, searching for people who were alone. They spend 70 hours a month preaching, and have become adept at reading human dynamics and body language. People who are alone and aren't too busy are the most receptive. People in groups are the least.

Brown, who is 46 and was raised a Jehovah's Witness, spied a young man waiting for a bus on Sunset Boulevard Northeast. She parked, threaded her way down a cracked, weedy sidewalk in her nice pumps, and yelled over the roar of traffic. He didn't want any pamphlets, but took a Bible tract.

"Oh, good! A thought for the day!" he yelled back, voice slightly off-kilter. "I'm going to kill you! Ha ha ha ha!"

Brown's face froze into a stiff mask. "Well," she said. "That's not a good thought."

Effective methods

To outsiders, the group's methods might seem sure to produce failures, but researchers say they're effective.

"It is extremely difficult. It's not like handing out free samples of some product everyone wants. ... so you're inclined to think this whole system is some dismal failure," said Laurence Iannaccone, an economics professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. He and Rodney Stark, a sociology professor at the University of Washington, published a 1997 study on the growth of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Iannaccone said the Jehovah's Witnesses have grown about 5 percent a year since 1980, making them one of the fastest-growing denominations in the world. Their growth, which slowed in the 1990s, comes at a time when other evangelical denominations are booming, while many mainline churches are declining.

Jehovah's Witnesses now number about 6 million worldwide and 1 million in the United States. There are about 30,000 in Washington, where new Kingdom Halls, as the faith calls its churches, are planned in Issaquah, Vancouver and Sultan, as well as in Rochester in Thurston County. In Puyallup, a new Assembly Hall -- a building for 1,700 people -- is scheduled to open soon.

"It could be there are other more efficient ways, but in the final analysis, (the evangelism methods) have worked very well for a century," Iannacone said.

The methods worked on 28-year-old Derseh Gizaw, who was in jail nine years ago, when a Jehovah's Witness gave him a book of Bible stories, which resonated with Gizaw, who was doing time for assault.

He was baptized in July.

"I changed my life around," said Gizaw, a heavy-equipment operator who lives in Renton. "Knowing all the truth, it straightened me up and brought me closer to (Jehovah). It gave me a conscience, basically."

'Life-saving work'

Back in the van, Brown and Schwerdtfeger met several people who politely took their literature. And on one day, Helen Schwerdtfeger dropped off magazines for a woman she had been visiting for nearly five years.

"They've been life-savers for me," said the woman, Mary Rose, an unemployed mother of three who had gone through a difficult divorce. "Helen ran to the store for me when the kids had the stomach flu."

But many people were more like a young man Schwerdtfeger spotted at Coulon Park. A former hairdresser with an easygoing charm and thick Brooklyn accent, Schwerdtfeger beamed at him.

"Have you ever been bullied?" she asked, referring to a cover story in an Awake! magazine.

Waves of apathy radiated from the man. Schwerdtfeger fanned them away.

"How would you like to be remembered? Have you ever thought about that?" she said. The man stared at his cell phone, as if willing it to ring. Then Schwerdtfeger heard the phrase that terminates so many of her conversations:

"I'm not interested."

But rejection never bothered her or Brown. They figured they caught someone at a bad time, or that the person wasn't ready to hear about everlasting life. It was never personal. Schwerdtfeger converted more than 30 years ago, to join her husband in his faith, and she had met many people who appreciated her.

"It's life-saving work," she said. "The goal is help people make changes for the better. Practical changes. You know, the Bible is very practical, and it's never out of date."

And just the other day, Brown knocked on the glass-encrusted double doors of a new mansion, only to hear a dog bark and a woman curtly cut her off.

But as she retreated down a lushly manicured front path, she remained upbeat and whispered brightly, "We get to see some beautiful landscaping."

Some Beliefs

Established in 1872 in Pittsburgh, Jehovah's Witnesses believe the world, as we know it, will end soon and that God will set up an earthly paradise after the battle of Armageddon.

They believe 144,000 people will go to heaven and serve as co-rulers in God's kingdom and that billions of people will have the opportunity to live forever in perfect health on Earth.

A Christian denomination [sic], they preach door-to-door to follow in the practice of Jesus [sic].

They believe they adhere to the oldest religion on Earth, the worship of Almighty God revealed in the Bible as Jehovah.

Because they pledge allegiance to God's kingdom, they do not vote, salute the flag, run for public office or serve in the military.

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