November 6th, 2010
The following YouTube video, while presented with a huge dose of satire, nails the basic concepts of attending a local Kingdom Hall’s “public talk.” Written and produced by an Australian observer of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their unique religious practices, this little bit of expanded reality should bring a chuckle or two to anyone who has actually attended a JW meeting.
If you think this depiction is too far over the top, I suggest that you go to a Kingdom Hall and experience a public talk for yourself. Then decide how accurately this video portrays a Sunday meeting. My guess is that if you do go, you’ll never want to go again.
Every Sunday, Jehovah’s Witnesses go to their local Kingdom Hall to hear the “public talk” and then later attend the weekly Watchtower Study, a rather boring question and answer session using an article from a recent Watchtower magazine.
Public talks are the Witnesses’ version of a sermon. They began as one hour speeches, but shortened to 45 minutes a few years ago. Although they still seem like an hour, they now last only 30 minutes.
Public talks date back to the 1920s and 1930s. In those days, there was an “elder” who led the Witnesses in Bible study, but would begin the meeting with a sermon covering one of the subjects that was of interest to that particular group. In the 1930s, the Watchtower Society, under the heavy-handed leadership of J. F. Rutherford, did away with the Bible study groups and the local system of elders. Bible Students became “publishers” and their leaders were known as “servants.” The Kingdom Hall congregation was called a “company.” The leader of each “Company” was not called “pastor,” or “deacon,” or even an “elder” anymore. Following the Watchtower’s trend toward modern corporate structure, the local leader became known as the “Company Servant” (changed in the 1950s to “Congregation Servant.”)
Mature brothers in each congregation were given “servant” and “assistant servant” positions. The privilege of giving the one-hour public talks on Sundays was assigned first to the pool of brothers who were servants, and then to other mature active males in the local congregation who were decent public speakers.
At first, many brothers aspiring for assignments as public speakers would take classes at local colleges or join “Toastmasters” groups to hone their skills. Eventually, most got their training by participating in the Theocratic Ministry Schools held one night each week at the local Kingdom Hall.
Speakers were given an outline to work from, but expected to do more study and scripture search to fill out the text and the allotted time. Although there were only 8 to 12 different public talks given during each yearly schedule, each time one was given it seemed different. This was due to the unique styles of the various speakers along with the added text and references they prepared.
Outlines were just that – guides for the organization and flow of each talk. In the 1970s, when the Watchtower Society implemented their new version of the appointed “system of elders” they also began to demand absolute adherence to their public talk outlines. Brothers who veered too far off the outline soon found themselves off the speakers’ lists and subject to admonishment by other elders. That was when “public talks” really turned boring.
“Public Talk” is a bit of a misnomer. They were designed to draw visitors into the Kingdom Halls and introduce them to the basic beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This gave the local Witnesses a chance to “love bomb” a stranger or someone new to the area. They would be invited to stay for the Watchtower Study for further indoctrination. Now, however, except for very special events (such as the Memorial), handbills are rarely passed out on the street or in neighborhoods inviting strangers to the Hall. In fact, if you are a non-Witness and you show up at a Kingdom Hall, you’ll most likely be met with suspicion and a cold shoulder by most of the local Witnesses. They’re afraid that you are either a “spy from the outside” – or worse, an “apostate ex JW.”
Now public talks are very structured, delivered verbatim from the Watchtower Society’s outline. Each talk is usually first presented by an elder from the local congregation. After all of the talks have gone through the first round, brothers from other congregations are swapped with local speakers – but they give exactly the same talks, nearly word for word.
The good news is that this gives the locals fresh faces to look at. The bad news is that the talks are still painfully boring for both the audience and the speakers. Going to public talks do prepare Jehovah’s Witnesses for the opportunity, three or four times a year, to go to their local and district assemblies where they get to hear several days’ worth of “public talks.”