Perhaps you have experienced this: You’re talking with a Jehovah’s Witness, and it’s going great; the two of you are all smiles, sunshine, and rainbows as you talk about the Bible together. Then, you bring up a scripture verse, or pose a thought-provoking question, and suddenly your JW friend transforms like Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. They might say something like “This conversation is over,” or “I don’t think you’re being sincere;” or they might just shut down and clam up, avoiding eye contact, hoping you will leave or melt into the sidewalk.
“What happened?” you wonder. “I just wanted to get him to think.”
Well, therein lies the problem. Now more than ever, JW’s are being taught not to think. The heightened rhetoric these days warn them against “independent thinking” and any (really, literally any) discussion with “apostates” or “opposers.”
It’s not your JW friend’s fault. I blame the governing body [governing bully; snicker]. Your friend is acting out of fear. They’re afraid of being led astray from “the truth,” afraid of displeasing Jehovah, afraid of getting in trouble with their elders, afraid that you might be right and their whole reality might come crashing down and there’s no truth out there at all and then how could they live with that? Can you imagine your fear if you found out that your whole context of existence is just a matrix-like illusion? You can’t blame them for resisting any threat to their virtual reality, and consequently treating you like a leprous killer bent on attacking them.
So how can you avoid that turning point, where they turn into either a hissing, arch-backed wildcat, or a glassy-eyed zombie?
I’m learning how to keep them alive and engaged with me. It’s been a long, slow learning curve. I’m hoping I can speed up your learning process with the following tips. I’ll use examples from my recent visit to the city (San Francisco), where I talked with four sets of JW’s standing beside their propaganda–oops, I mean literature carts.
First, endear them. Don’t approach them with guns blazing. I guarantee that opening with “Hey! Your organization is protecting pedophiles!” will result in immediate shutdown. Yes, there’s a time and place to talk with them about their child abuse problem. But not yet. For now, engage them in small-talk. Laugh with them. Enjoy being with them. They are nice people. Deluded, but nice. During my recent visit to the city, I chatted with the cart JW’s about our home towns, their commute into the city, their congregations, the weirdness of San Fran, and various other neutral topics.
Second, inoculate them against their allergic reaction to your message. Or put another way, set them up for receptivity to the real truth (as opposed to their artificial “truth”). I did that several ways with my JW acquaintances:
- Be a Berean. Give the example of the Bereans (from Acts 17), who questioned what the apostles (the “governing body” of that time) presented to them, checking it themselves against scripture. Say, “I want to be like the Bereans, so I ask a lot of questions.”
- Be childlike. “Your book, What the Bible Really Teaches, has a picture of a child, and describes how a child will ask a question again and again, annoying the grown-ups, until they get a reasonable answer. I’m like that child, so I might annoy you with my questions.”
- Be a tattle-tale. “I asked an elder about this, and he got mad at me, like I shouldn’t be asking questions, or he thought I was trying to rock the boat or something, but really I just wanted to know the answer to this. What do you think of this verse [or question, or concern, or practice, or doctrine]?”
- Share your genuine concern. If they see your shocked reaction to a JW doctrine, or your grief, or burden, or genuine concern, they are more likely to listen and respond, rather than shutting down. “I love my JW friends, and it grieves me that they’re being denied so many kingdom benefits [aka promises], that Watchtower teaches are only for the anointed 144,000. I’m in deep prayer for you guys. It grieves my heart.”
- Play them against each other. I talked with two women, one a senior adult, the other a young adult. The older lady mentioned “good news,” so I used that springboard to talk about the biblical “good news,” or gospel, as preached by Jesus and Paul. She was patronizing with me, wanting me to only listen and learn from her. When I tried to bring up scriptures that disagreed with what she was saying, she would object that I was “getting ahead of the truth” (that is, the canned lesson she was presenting). She literally WOULD NOT LOOK at First Corinthians 15:1-11 or Mark 1:14-15, which spell out the good news of the Bible (rather than the “good news” of the Watchtower). Suppressing my frustration, I turned to the younger woman and said, “You can understand what I’m trying to say, right?” She smiled and replied, “Yes, I see what you’re saying.” I hope my message was getting through to her, but I’m not sure. But regardless, it lightened the mood and enabled us all to get along better. And I think that younger lady saw how pushy and manipulative older lady was being.
- Appeal to their spiritual longings. Jehovah has “put eternity in their hearts,” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Somewhere in their deepest, primal part of their being, they long to have Jesus as their mediator, and be in the New Covenant, and have the heavenly hope, and live in the freedom that salvation by grace (not works) provides, and have the assurance of eternal life, and be adopted as sons and daughters of Jehovah. I see it in their eyes–they desperately want these things! And yet the governing bully withholds these blessings from them. It’s frustrating and maddening to me, but we can use that to appeal to their hearts. “Have you read about the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31? [I read it aloud to them.] Don’t you want to be in on that? It’s fantastic!” I also love talking about having Jesus as our mediator. (See my previous post about the Mediator here.)
- Appeal to their own literature. “I’ve been reading at jw.org, and found something that I find very disturbing. Did you know that Watchtower teaches that Jesus is mediator for only the anointed 144,000, and not for the rest of the believers? I read it in the Insight book, under M for mediator. Can you bring that up on your tablet?” They can’t argue with their own literature, but they sure do some mental gymnastics trying to explain it away. I like to say very little, and just let them wrestle with it, and try to talk their way through it. I had two JW’s commit to researching it on their own, and I believe they will. They seemed sincere, rather than making empty promises. And I prayed that they will not be able to forget. Which brings me to:
Third, pray for them. Pray before approaching them, during your conversation with them, and after leaving them. This actually does as much or more for my attitude and demeanor than theirs. I’ve mentioned before that sometimes God’s Holy Spirit prompts me to shut up, rather than adding that one last dig that I think will be so great. Ask God to continue working on their hearts and set them free. That’s what it’s all about after all; not my winning of an argument.
Prior to using these strategies, I would usually have only about a minute to talk with a JW before they shut down. Now, during this last visit to the city, I carried on conversations lasting from 10 minutes, up to 30 minutes. That’s more time for God to work on their hearts by his Holy Spirit. My new goal is to engage with JW’s for as long as I can, and depart on good terms. I left each of my four couples without them being antagonistic or emotionally absent. That’s a win!