Editor’s Note:This special report was prepared by a young, former Jehovah’s Witness who was raised in the religion and lives in the midwest United States. He states that his primary interests are science and philosophy. “Eric,” a pseudonym, is frequent contributor to JW discussion forums, sharing his insight and excellent understanding of the inner workings of the Watchtower Society and its leaders.
Introduction and Background
Throughout human history, religious traditions have arisen, thrived, and eventually faded into obscurity. Those that remain active today must continually evolve and reinvent themselves to appeal to new tastes, while satisfying the same ancient need for meaning and social ritual.
The patterns of growth and decline of a particular religion can be analogized to the biological change that a creature or species undergoes during its “life cycle.” Various religions can be imagined as different species that compete for a specific resource: new believers. Just as in nature, both the environment and the individual qualities of a religion affects how successful it will be. Different religions may grow by exploiting different niches or by simply being more effective at conversion. If a niche disappears, or the religion is out-competed by a newcomer, the religion may eventually die out.
In this article the religion of particular interest is that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This Christian sect is characterized by aggressive proselytization techniques, a high level of control over members, and a strict hierarchical power structure. Jehovah’s Witnesses (“JWs”) are controlled by a network of corporations led by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. Various Watchtower (“WT”) corporations administer the publishing of literature, real estate ownership, and legal issues. Doctrine is controlled by the “Governing Body,” a group of older men elected to the Body by current sitting members. National, regional, and local leadership positions are approved in a top-down fashion from headquarters.
The WT religion has grown rapidly from its relatively humble start in the “end times prophecy” milieu of 19th century America into an international organization with about seven million members. Even with several failed apocalyptic predictions and conservative moral restrictions, growth continues. This success has been attributed to particular qualities of the religion. [Stark and Iannaccone]
By requiring conformity and a high level of effort from members, so-called “freeloaders” are removed or marginalized. Freeloaders can weaken a congregation by not reinforcing the beliefs of other members and by not contributing adequately to proselytization efforts or other religious activities.
While a faith this demanding will not attract a majority of potential converts, it will appeal strongly to a certain minority. The size of this minority will vary depending on the society and its social dynamics. Some have pointed to modernization as the source of angst that leads people to embrace conservative, demanding religions. [Cragun and Lawson] Modernization disrupts or replaces earlier economic patterns, lifestyles, gender roles, and other key social constructs. This change causes some people to react by attempting to preserve the old ways and decrying the decay and doomed future of modern society. Therefore, in countries that are currently developing, the growth of JWs should be considerable, while countries that are very primitive or very developed will see little growth. Existing data seems to support this prediction.
Public Witnessing: Obsolete or Repurposed?
JWs spend a large amount of time in a door-to-door marketing effort, distributing literature and attempting to start “studies” with members of the public. This effort serves two purposes: the first and most obvious goal is to recruit new members; the second is to improve group cohesion. I believe that the latter purpose has become primary.
At one time, door-to-door marketing was a popular method of selling products, but has faded with changing times and the rise of televised and Internet marketing. Trying to convert people in this way has always been fairly inefficient, but has grown even more so over recent decades. In the USA in 1982, 3.6 baptisms (new members) were achieved per 10,000 hours of preaching. This has dropped over the years to only 1.5 per 10,000 hours. [Voas] Very similar numbers are seen in other Anglophone nations.
The greatly decreasing effectiveness of “the preaching work” has caused it to become more important as a cohesion-building ritual than an actual conversion mechanism. The hours spent in public ministry allow members to bond in a stressful environment and generate shared experiences that can link believers not only to their local congregation, but to congregations all over the world. Preaching may also expose members to ridicule or persecution, which strengthens the embattled mindset or a “martyr complex.” This is common among minority groups, especially those that anticipate the end of world. Additionally, by recording hours and having specific values that must be reached to be considered an “average publisher” or a “pioneer,” the WT has institutionalized and quantified the peer pressure that keeps members all expending similar amounts of effort.
The problem with this shift in emphasis from converting to reinforcing current members is that the time spent preaching (with little effect) takes time away from other features that could appeal to new members. Other religions spend time on church activities like worship music, charitable events, community outreach, or organized recreation. These features make a religion more palatable to the general public, but do not strengthen current members who view preaching as the most important task and enjoy the “hardcore” nature of their time commitment. I think it likely that public preaching will continue to decline in effectiveness, but will continue due to its central importance to the JW “brand” and self-image. This may even end up hurting efforts to recruit new members through alternative means.
Publishing: Dead as a Tree?
The door-to-door preaching activity of JWs is intimately related to the printing and distribution of paper literature. In a large way, the WT Society is less a religious organization than a publishing house. A large part of time and money spent by the WT is devoted to authoring, printing, and distributing printed documents. The capital investments and logistical systems that are prerequisite to efficient dissemination of physical literature have become nearly identical to the management structure of the WT and a JW’s personal idea of the WT as an entity.
However, tectonic shifts are happening in the publishing industry. Bookstores, newspapers, publishing companies, and authors themselves are having to come to terms with the radically different nature of digital content creation and distribution. Not a few companies have disappeared or faded to irrelevance with the rise of the Internet. There is no reason to expect that the WT will avoid this upheaval. As printed periodicals and books become rare or niche products, the equipment and expertise involved in their creation will become rarer. Furthermore, the general public will become less accustomed to consuming information in the form of a physical medium. Young people are especially prone to ignoring older media. If the WT continues to only produce printed literature, it will look ever more “old fashioned” and a fringe operation.
The Watchtower has made some effort to step into the digital realm. It makes the Watchtower and Awake! magazines and some books available as digital audiobooks or electronic downloads. This makes sense for current members, as it helps reduce costs for the Society. The WT has aggressively cut costs over the past decade by eliminating individual magazine subscriptions, greatly reducing the number of hardcover books, and recommending the Watchtower Library CD-ROM program over bound reference volumes.
Encouraging members to use these digital resources is the next logical step in reducing costs. In the future, it seems likely that the WT will grow its online presence to allow members to access most publications in a convenient digital form. As electronic readers like the Kindle and iPad become cheaper and more capable, the internal “study” version of the Watchtower and the Kingdom Ministry could be shifted almost exclusively to a digital format. Those without electronic readers may have a paper version made available, or forced to print the documents at personal cost.
While this will greatly reduce the amount of money spent maintaining the faith of current members, it is a poor strategy for getting exposure to possible new members. The WT does not allow its materials in to be marketed commercially, and it is hard to see this changing in the future. People will find digital content in centralized commercial stores or repositories, and will not often search randomly on the Internet to find reading material. This presents an exposure problem. How will the WT bring digital documents to the masses? It doesn’t seem effective to send people door to door and then offer to send them an electronic document or just point them to a web address.
For this reason, the WT is likely to continue offering printed literature for public consumption, but continued cost cutting will also affect this area. Recently, JW preaching campaigns have focused on handing out single page informational leaflets instead of full magazines or books. I predict that this trend will continue. Leaflets are cheap and their unimposing nature makes them ideal for cold calling. These flyers could then direct an interested person to a website to find more extensive content. I also expect that the “public version” of the Watchtower and the Awake! magazines will be combined into one periodical. Eventually, even this material will move to a digital format.
The move to Internet-based distribution is not without its awkwardness. While the WT has repeatedly criticized the Internet for the presence of pornography and apostate material, it has also characterized the Internet as “a useful tool” that must be “used wisely.” This view is naive and betrays a certain blinkered, 20th century view of the Web as “just another” source of information. The WT has apparently not yet fully realized the revolutionary and all-encompassing nature of electronic networks. Along with increasing its own online profile, it will inevitably draw attention to apostate and other critical views. As the Internet becomes an essential part of living in a technologically advanced society, the WT will be forced to accept it and the inherent freedom of information transfer that it allows.
Assuming this shift happens, there are considerable consequences for individual JWs and how they view and conduct their preaching efforts. Many members have a romantic and nearly fetishized concept of the printing work that takes place at Branch Offices. Entire articles and videos are devoted to explaining new printing presses or highlighting how efficient or capable the printing facilities are. As digital documents take over, how will the prestige once afforded to the publishing effort change? The main purpose of the “Bethel family” is to produce literature. A large portion of these people will become redundant in the face of greatly reduced printing and shipping requirements. It appears that Bethel will become mostly a symbolic facility that houses some top leadership and provides other miscellaneous services. How will this affect how JWs view the Watchtower organization? This remains to be seen.
The global growth rate of JW membership has declined measurably over the past few decades from around 7% in 1983 to about 1.5% in 2006. In North America, Western Europe, and the Far East, growth stagnated in approximately the same manner. There were spikes of growth around the September 11 terrorist attacks in the USA and the 2008 economic crisis, but the numbers quickly return to normal. In Latin America and former Eastern-bloc countries where growth has been strong, a similar pattern of growth stagnation is emerging. African nations still expect strong growth into the future, but in South Africa, the most developed country on the continent, growth only matches population growth. [see Voas]
These patterns suggest that countries have a certain “carrying capacity” for JWs. Once this percentage is reached, growth essentially stops. Different countries, depending on their individual populations and culture, will have different carrying capacities. Developing countries have yet to reach this limit, so it would be rational for the WT to focus its efforts in these areas.
A downside to this bias towards developing countries is that these new members do not have the same amount of disposable income to donate to the Society. This will reinforce the cost-cutting tendencies of the WT. It may also lead to a bifurcation in the content of their publications. The Organization may cater some of its materials even more to relatively uneducated, economically desperate, and superstitious populations. Some evidence to support this includes recent Watchtower articles about spiritistic or local customary practices that are not common in developed countries, and a more conspicuous emphasis on pre- or non-scientific doctrines.
Talking more candidly about the danger of demons, the risks of spiritism, and extreme Biblical literalism are not great marketing themes in the developed world, but are very popular in developing nations. The WT appears to be comfortable with adjusting its methods to suit these exotic new markets and is willing to sacrifice relevance to people living in technologically advanced countries. Over the years, these changes may make the WT hardly recognizable and less palatable to members in advanced Western lands. This may be the required trade-off to maintain growth in the fastest growing markets.
In Western countries, there is a further challenge to the WT. Shifts in public opinion have shown growing support or acceptance of issues like gay rights, less restrictive definitions of “family”, and religious pluralism. All of these changes are anathema to the conservative WT mores centered around certain traditional conceptions of how life should be lived. New scientific discoveries, especially in the areas of biology and bioengineering, will likely affect how people view life and living things and their relation to any possible creator god.
This trend is most starkly illustrated in the so-called “Millennial” generation in the USA. This group is less religious than other generations were at the same age. They are also much more religiously pluralistic, and their idea of God is not as orthodox or certain as it is for their elders. They are more accepting of homosexuality, less threatened by “Hollywood immorality”, more accepting of pornography, more likely to accept evolution, more technologically savvy, and view a college education as basically a given. [Pew Millennial Survey]
All of this is contrary to JW beliefs. JWs are the most certain that God exists, the most creationist, and the most opposed to homosexuality of all religious groups surveyed. Even among those born into the religion, JWs also have one of the worst youth retention rates of all religious traditions. 67% of the people raised as Witnesses no longer identify as such. This means that the WT will need to continue to turn to converts to make up for those that leave. [Pew Religious Landscape]
It seems clear that the Watchtower organization is suffering from a self-inflicted brain drain among its local and international leadership. By limiting exposure to outside opinions, the Society severely inhibits JWs from developing the critical thinking skills required to run a successful organization. The constant discouraging of higher education and the growing popularity of home schooling for the children of JWs further erodes educational standards.
Earlier generations of JWs included larger numbers of adult converts of various socioeconomic statuses, and the governing elders were more likely to have developed secular skills that helped them effectively manage and grow the organization. With generations of Witnesses being born into the religion and knowing nothing else, the diversity of knowledge and experience is greatly reduced. Those who become future elders or climb the ladder at Bethel have been taught from birth to avoid secular education and focus exclusively on theocratic training. Without these secular skills, the WT will likely suffer from incompetent management and poor strategic decision-making.
The peculiar theology of the WT also faces some sticking points in the future. An example is the rising number of “partakers” or “spirit-anointed Christians” among the membership at the annual Memorial Celebration. Because the Biblical number of 144,000 is interpreted as a literal group of chosen individuals, significant growth in this area should be unsettling to the leadership and rank-and-file believers. While the WT continues to press the urgency and imminent nature of Armageddon, a rise in the number of anointed members runs exactly contrary to this posture. It seems that the WT may be forced to reinterpret this doctrine or make some other change to its theology.
Another factor is that the prophetic date of 1914 is nearly a century in the past. While Christianity itself has survived, even though the “parousia” was indefinitely postponed, it is not clear if the WT can do the same. Many teachings are linked tightly with 20th century geopolitics that will seem increasingly out of place as the decades pass. The WT has refrained from setting any particular new date for “The End” – no doubt gun-shy after the 1975 disappointment. It is hard to see how Armageddon can be perpetually “right around the corner” when the second post-1914 century has almost arrived. The WT has been forced to reinterpret the “generation” that will survive to the “The End” in order to buy time, and it may even have to alter its core chronology as the years pass. Fortunately for the Organization, it exerts such total control over members beliefs that this task may be possible without considerable losses.
Many like to speculate about the future of the WT and its members. There are two categories of scenarios that may occur. One is a catastrophic dislocation that totally disrupts the Organization and scatters the membership. This may involve a popular revolt against a significant doctrinal change, the apostasy of a major leader, the national Branch leadership of a particular country breaking away from Headquarters, or a major scandal. If the leadership gets anxious about the prospect of negative growth, they may be tempted to make up another Armageddon date to goose the statistics. In the modern media age, the disappointment and embarrassment would likely severely damage the WT’s image. All of these possibilities have low probability, and trying to predict them and their consequences is an impossible task.
The other broad category is that of continual evolution. I believe it most likely that the WT will adapt in certain ways to digital distribution, continue to extend the ever-retreating mirage of “The End,” maintain its conservative moral requirements, and retain significant control over the lives of its members. The WT religion exploits a particular environmental niche, and roving too far from the successful recipe will likely result in quick decline. The WT cannot compete with mainstream religions. If the leadership tries to relax its standards too much, freeloaders will flow in and the high level of social cohesion will evaporate. Removing distinctive features of JW belief, like the imminent end of the world and a focus on preaching, will dilute the brand – leaving the religion with little to differentiate it from its competitors.
The method of slow adaptation may not be successful. It could be that the general culture is losing its taste for the JW religion. The leaders may be forced to pick between retaining an important feature of the religion and making the faith acceptable to new converts.
Most likely, the WT will plateau at a sustainable membership number and continue long into the future. Various religious minorities have survived for an extended period of time, and there is little reason to think that the Watchtower cannot do the same.