Jehovah’s Witnesses, known for their door-to-door evangelizing, have had to alter their way of reaching people in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In doing so, Witnesses have moved toward a virtual platform for worship meetings. And Bible messages, once delivered face-to-face, now come in the form of letters and phone calls.
The change has been a major shift for William and Leslie Prentice of Center.
The couple have knocked on many doors for many years as Jehovah’s Witnesses while delivering Bible messages of hope and encouragement.
“When I was about 8 years old I was going door to door, knocking on doors,” William Prentice said. “It’s something that we just enjoy doing.”
Leslie Prentice added, “My parents used to take me when I was just an infant and my earliest memories from a child was going out door to door when I was 3 or 4 years old.”
The Prentices are members of the Spanish Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Carthage. They also have been members of a Spanish congregation in Longview.
“We spend a lot of time driving from one house to another talking to our neighbors and we’ve always just enjoyed that; sharing a message of hope,” William Prentice said. “But the pandemic struck and there was that shift. We had to change from talking to people face to face and now doing it through letter writing and through telephone calls.”
Leslie Prentice said it’s difficult to say just how much time is spent going door to door.
“We used to try to do our ministry two to three days a week and we would spend a whole day. We would try to get started at 9 o’clock in the morning and sometimes we wouldn’t get home until 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon,” she said. “Sometimes we would go out real far. When we were in the Longview area we would drive out to Gilmer and spend the whole day there. But then sometimes we would be in the city and we would get to talk to more people because we didn’t have to go as far to each house.”
William Prentice said although they’ve written letters and made phone calls before the pandemic, there is now a larger focus on it.
“That’s our focus,” he said. “We’re trying to reach people that way.”
Kevin Jenkins, local media representative for Jehovah’s Witnesses, said the transition has been a challenge.
“Jehovah’s witnesses are an extremely public religion and we’re known for being out in the community. Typically you will see Jehovah’s witnesses in an airport, at sporting events, on college campuses,” he said. “And of course, our trademark ministry is going door to door. We’re known for this around the world. With COVID, we had to discontinue our public work.”
Disconcerting is one way Jenkins describes it.
“I’ve been doing this for 30+ years and knowing that I can’t knock on doors and share a Bible message with individuals, it’s been difficult and disconcerting. But we knew we had to do it because it was important to protect the community from any possible spread of disease,” he said. “For us, it was just the Christian thing to do. So, it’s been difficult but we have pivoted to other ways of sharing our Bible message.”
Although Leslie Prentice misses the face-to-face conversations, she enjoys writing the letters.
“Writing a letter is so nice because sometimes we say things and we don’t get to think about our words as much. But when we write, we get to sit down and think carefully about the words,” she said. “And somebody can sit there and reread it if they want to. So, our words carry more weight with letter writing and I really enjoy it.”
Jenkins said the letters they write contain comforting Bible messages.
“What we do in those letters and phone calls, we’ll just share a Bible passage and it’s usually well-received by the individuals,” he said. ”Sometimes they’re isolated and they appreciate something to build up their faith. What we’ve also done is reached out to nursing home residents, who are especially isolated during this time.”
Letters also have been written to first responders, thanking them for their efforts, Jenkins said.
Leslie Prentice said Jehovah’s Witnesses’ identities have always been tied to the door-to-door ministries.
“Now, that identity has grown and it’s not just knocking on doors,” she said. “It’s somebody opening their mailbox and finding a handwritten letter from someone they don’t know.”
Jenkins said Jehovah’s Witnesses have seen an increase in attendance for their virtual meetings.
“Across the board, what I’ve personally seen is that we’ve had a 20 to 30% increase in our meeting attendance across the country during the pandemic,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of new faces of people on our Zoom meetings and we’ve seen some individuals who used to associate with us, coming back to our meetings.”
Jenkins attributes the increase to people seeking a stabilizing force in their lives since the pandemic.
“People are frustrated and isolated, they have questions they can’t find answers to and they want something comforting,” he said. “People want to find hope and our meetings give them that encouragement and comfort. We try to reinvigorate people’s spirituality. That’s the whole purpose and that’s what they’re finding in our meetings.”
It’s difficult, Jenkins said, to say when door-to-door evangelizing will return.
“It’s hard to define a timeline as to when we’re going to return to our public meetings and our public ministry. I wish it were tomorrow. I miss hugging people,” he said. “You go to these church services and you hug people, you kiss people and you’re sharing meals and just talking about what troubles you. But we’re going to continue to wait until we know it’s safe for ourselves and our neighbors to do so.”
In the meantime, Jenkins said the new approach is working.
“We’re reaching people with that Bible message of hope but we’re just doing it in a different way,” he said.
William Prentice agrees.
“It’s kind of shifted our way of reaching people. I think we’re always going to write letters. We’re always going to make telephone calls because it allows us to reach more people,” he said. “We look forward to being able to go back door to door and knocking on doors talking to our neighbors but we’re still going to do letter writing.”