Greetings, Meleti Vivlon here.
Has the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses reached a tipping point? A recent event in my locale has caused me to think this is the case. I live only a five-minute drive from the Canada branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Georgetown, Ontario, which is just outside of the GTA or Greater Toronto Area which has a population of close to 6 million. A few weeks back, all the elders in the GTA were summoned to a meeting at a local Assembly Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were told that 53 congregations in the GTA would be closed down and their members merged with other local congregations. This is huge. It is so big that at first the mind can miss some of the more significant implications. So, let’s try to break it down.
I’m coming at this with the mindset of the Jehovah’s Witness trained to believe that the blessing of God is manifest by the growth of the organization.
Throughout my lifetime, I have been told that Isaiah 60:22 was a prophecy that applied to Jehovah’s Witnesses. As recently as the August 2016 issue of The Watchtower, we read:
“The last part of that prophecy should affect all Christians personally, for our heavenly Father says: “I myself, Jehovah, will speed it up in its own time.” Like passengers in a vehicle gaining speed, we sense the increased momentum in the disciple-making work. How are we personally reacting to that acceleration?” (w16 August p. 20 par. 1)
“Gaining speed”, “increased momentum”, “acceleration.” How do those words tally with the loss of 53 congregations in just one urban area? What happened? Did the prophecy fail? After all, we are losing speed, decreasing momentum, decelerating.
The prophecy cannot be wrong, so it must be that the Governing Body’s application of those words to Jehovah’s Witnesses is wrong.
The population of the Greater Toronto Area equates to about 18% of the population of the country. Extrapolating, 53 congregations in the GTA equates to around 250 congregations closing down across the Canada. I’ve heard about congregation closures in other regions, but this is the first official confirmation as to numbers. Of course, these are not figures which the organization wishes to make public.
What does all this mean? Why am I suggesting that this may be the start of a tipping point, and what does that imply with regards to JW.org?
I am going to concentrate on Canada because it is kind of a test market for many things that the Organization goes through. The Hospital Liaison Committee arrangement began here as did the old Two-Day Kingdom Hall Builds, later called, Quick Builds. Even the standardized Kingdom Hall plans touted so positively back in 2016 and now all but forgotten began here in the mid-1990s with what the Branch called the Regional Design Office initiative. (They called me in to write software for that – but that’s long, sad story for another day.) Even when persecution broke out during the war, it started here in Canada before going to the States.
So, I believe that what is happening here now with these congregation closures will give us some insight into what is going on worldwide.
Let me give you some background to put this into perspective. In the decade of the 1990s, the kingdom halls in the Toronto area were bursting at the seams. Pretty much every hall had four congregations in it—some even had five. I was part of a group that spent their evenings travelling around industrial areas looking for empty plots of land for sale. Land in Toronto is very expensive. We were trying to find plots not yet listed because we needed new Kingdom halls desperately. The existing halls were filled to capacity every Sunday. The thought of dissolving 53 congregations and moving their members into other congregations was unthinkable in those days. There simply was no room to do that. Then the turn-of-the-century came, and suddenly there was no further need to build kingdom halls. What happened? Perhaps a better question is, what didn’t happen?
If you build much of your theology on the basis of a prediction that the end is coming imminently, what happens when the end doesn’t come within the predicted timeframe? Proverbs 13:12 says “expectation postponed makes the heart sick…”
In my lifetime, I saw their interpretation of the generation of Matthew 24:34 change every decade. Then they came up with the absurd super generation known as the “overlapping generation”. “You cannot fool all of the people, all of the time”, as P.T. Barnum said. Add to that, the advent of the internet which gave us instant access to knowledge that was previously hidden. You can now actually sit in a public talk or Watchtower study and fact check anything being taught on your phone!
So, here is what the dissolving of 53 congregations means.
I attended three different congregations from 1992 until 2004 in the Toronto area. The first one was Rexdale which divided to form the Mount Olive congregation. Within five years we were bursting, and needed to divide again to form the Rowntree Mills congregation. When I left in 2004 for the town of Alliston about an hour’s drive north of Toronto, Rowntree Mills was filled every Sunday, as was my new congregation in Alliston.
I was a public speaker very much in demand in those days and often gave two or three talks outside of my own congregation every month during that decade. Because of that, I got to visit pretty much every Kingdom Hall in the area and became familiar with all of them. Rarely did I go to meeting that wasn’t packed.
Okay, let’s do a little math. Let’s be conservative and say that the average congregation attendance in Toronto at that time was 100. I know many had far more than that, but 100 is a reasonable number to start with.
If the average attendance in the 90s was 100 per congregation, then 53 congregations represents over 5,000 attendees. How is it possible to dissolve 53 congregations and find accommodation for over 5,000 new attendees in halls that are already filled to capacity? The short answer is, it is not possible. Thus, we are led to the inexorable conclusion that attendance has dropped dramatically, possibly by 5,000 across the Greater Toronto Area. I just got an email from a brother in New Zealand telling me that he went back to his old hall after three years absence. He remembered that the attendance formerly was around 120 and so was shocked to find only 44 people in attendance. (If you are finding a similar situation in your area, please use the comment section to share that with all of us.)
A drop in attendance that would allow 53 congregations to be dissolved also implies that anywhere from 12 to 15 Kingdom halls are now free to be sold. (Halls in Toronto were usually used to capacity with four congregations each.) These are all halls that were built with free labour and are fully paid for by local donations. Of course, the funds from the sales will not go back to the local congregation members.
If 5,000 represents the attendance drop in Toronto, and Toronto represents about 1/5 of the population of Canada, then it would appear that attendance nationwide may have dropped by as much is 25,000. But wait a minute, but does not seem to jive with the 2019 Service Year report.
I think it was Mark Twain that said famously, “there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
For decades, we were provided with the “average publishers” number, so that we could compare the growth with previous years. In 2014, the average publisher count for Canada was 113,617. The next year, it was 114,123, for a very modest growth of 506. Then they stopped releasing average publisher figures. Why? No explanation was given. Instead, they used the peak publisher number. Possibly that provided a more appealing figure.
This year, they have again released the average publisher count for Canada which now stands at 114,591. Again, it looks like they’re going with whatever number yields the best results.
So, the growth from 2014 to 2015 was just over 500, but over the next four years the figure didn’t even reach that. It stands at 468. Or perhaps it did reach that and even surpass it, but then there began a diminishment; a negative growth. We can’t know because those figures have been denied us, but for an organization claiming divine endorsement based on growth figures, negative growth is something to be dreaded. It implies a withdrawing of God’s spirit by their own standard. I mean, you can’t have it one way and not the other. You can’t say, “Jehovah is blessing us! Look at our growth.” Then turn around and say, “Our numbers are going down. Jehovah is blessing us!”
Interestingly, you can see the real negative growth or the shrinkage in Canada over the last 10 years by looking at the publisher to population ratios. In 2009, the ratio was 1 in 298, but 10 years later it stands at 1 in 326.That’s a drop of about 10%.
But I think it is worse than that. After all, statistics can be manipulated, but it is hard to deny reality when it hits you in the face. Let me demonstrate how statistics are being used to artificially bolster the numbers.
Back when I was fully committed to the Organization, I used to discount the growth numbers of churches like the Mormons or Seventh-day Adventists because they counted attendees, while we counted only active witnesses, those willing to brave the door-to-door field ministry. I now realize that was not an accurate measure at all. To illustrate, let me give you an experience from my own family.
My sister was not what you’d call a zealous Jehovah’s Witness, but she did believe Witnesses had the truth. Some years back, while still regularly attending all the meetings, she stopped going in the field service. She found it difficult to do especially since she was completely unsupported. After six months, she was considered inactive. Remember, she’s still going to all the meetings regularly, but she hasn’t turned in time for six months. Then comes the day she approaches her Field Service Group Overseer to get a copy of the Kingdom Ministry.
He refuses to give her one because “she is no longer a member of the congregation”. Back then, and likely still, the Organization directed the elders to remove the names of all inactive ones from the field service group lists, because those lists were only for congregation members. Only those who report time in the field service are considered Jehovah’s Witnesses by the Organization.
I knew this mentality from my days as an elder, but came face to face with it in 2014 when I told the elders I would no longer be turning in a monthly field service report. Bear in mind that I was still attending meetings then and still going out in the house-to-house ministry. The only thing I wasn’t doing was reporting my time to the elders. I was told—I have it recorded—that I would not be considered a member of the congregation after six months of not turning in a monthly report.
I think nothing demonstrates the organization’s warped sense of sacred service then their penchant for reporting time. Here I was, a baptized witness, attending meetings, and preaching from house-to-house, yet the absence of that monthly slip of paper nullified everything else.
Time went by and my sister stopped going to meetings entirely. Did the elders call to find out why one of their sheep was “lost”? Did they even call by phone to make inquiry? There was a time we would have. I lived through those times. But not anymore, it seems. However, they did call once a month for—you guessed it—her time. Not wanting to be counted as non-member—she still believed the Organization had some validity at that time—she gave them a meager report of an hour or two. After all, she regularly discussed the Bible with co-workers and friends.
So, you can be a member of the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses even if you never attend a meeting as long as you turn in a monthly report. Some do so by reporting as little as 15 minutes of time a month.
It is interesting that even with all this numeric manipulation and the massaging of the statistics, 44 countries are still showing declines this service year.
The Governing Body and its branches equate spirituality with works, specifically time spent promoting JW.org to the public.
I remember many an elder meeting where one of the elders would put forward the name of some ministerial servant for consideration as an elder. As the coordinator, I learned not to waste time by looking at his scriptural qualifications. I knew that the Circuit Overseer’s first interest would be the number of hours the brother spent every month in the ministry. If they were below the congregation average, there was little chance of his appointment going through. Even if he were the most spiritual man in the entire congregation, it would not matter a hoot unless his hours were up. Not only did his hours count, but also those of his wife and children. If their hours were poor, he wouldn’t make it through the vetting process.
This is part of the reason we hear so many complaints about uncaring elders treating the flock with harshness. While some attention is given to the requirements laid out in 1 Timothy and in Titus, the main focus is on loyalty to the Organization which is primarily exemplified in the field service report. The Bible makes no mention of this, yet it is the primary element under consideration by the Circuit Overseer. Placing emphasis on organizational works rather than gifts of the spirit and faith is a sure way to allow men to disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness. (2 Co 11:15)
Well, what goes around, comes around, as they say. Or as the Bible says, “you reap what you sow.” The organization’s reliance on manipulated statistics and its equating spirituality with service time is really starting to cost them. It has blinded them and the brothers in general to the spiritual vacuum that is being revealed by the current reality.
I wonder, if I were still a full-fledged member of the organization, how I would take this recent news of the loss of 53 congregations. Imagine how the elders in these 53 congregations are feeling. There are 53 brothers who achieved the esteemed rank of Coordinator of the Body of Elders. Now, they’re just another elder in a much larger body. Those appointed to the service committee positions are now out of those roles as well.
This all started a few years ago. It began when District Overseers who thought they were set for life were sent back to the field and are now eking out a meager existence. Circuit overseers who thought they’d be cared for in their old age are now dropped when they reach 70 and have to fend for themselves. Many old-time bethelites have also experienced the harsh reality of being ousted from the home and career and are now struggling to make a living on the outside. About 25% of worldwide staff was cut back in 2016, but now the cuts have reached the congregation level.
If attendance is down by so much, you can be sure that donations are down as well. Cutting your donations as a Witness benefits you and costs you nothing. It becomes a sort of silent protest of the strongest kind.
Clearly, it is proof that Jehovah is not speeding up the work as we have been told for so many years he would. I heard tell that some are justifying these cuts as just making efficient use of the kingdom halls. That the organization is tightening things up in preparation for the end. This is like the old joke about a Catholic priest seen furtively entering a brothel by a couple of ditch diggers, where one turns to the other and says, “My, but one of those girls must be awfully sick”.
The printing press brought about a revolution in religious freedom and awareness. A new revolution has happened as a consequence of the freedom of information available through the Internet. The fact that any Tom, Dick, or Meleti can now become a publishing house and reach the world with information, levels the playing field and takes power away from the large, well-funded religious entities. In the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 140 years of failed expectations have dovetailed with this technological revolution to assist many in waking up. I think that just maybe—just maybe—we are at that tipping point. Perhaps in the very near future we are going to see a flood of witnesses exiting the organization. Many who are physically in but mentally out will be freed from the fear of shunning when this exodus reaches a kind of saturation point.
Am I rejoicing over this? No. Not at all. Rather, I am in fearful expectation of the damage it will do. Already, I see that the majority of those leaving the organization are also leaving God, becoming agnostic or even atheist. No Christian wants that. How do you feel about it?
I am often asked who the faithful and discreet slave is. I’m going to be doing a video on that very soon, but here is some food for thought. Look at every illustration or parable that Jesus gave involving slaves. Do you think that in any of them he’s talking about a particular individual or small group of individuals? Or is he giving a general principle to guide all his disciples? All his disciples are his slaves.
If you feel the latter is the case, then why would the parable of the faithful and discreet slave be any different? When he comes to judge each of us individually, what will he find? If we had the opportunity to feed a fellow slave who was suffering spiritually, or emotionally, or even physically, and failed to do so, will he consider us – you and me – to be faithful and discreet with what he has given us. Jesus has fed us. He gives us food. But like the loaves and the fishes that Jesus used to feed the multitude, the spiritual food we receive can also be multiplied by faith. We eat that food ourselves, but some is left over to be shared with others.
As we see our brothers and sisters going through the cognitive dissonance that we ourselves likely went through – as we see them awakening to the reality of the Organization and the full extent of the deception that has been perpetrated for so long – will we be courageous enough and willing enough to help them so that they do not lose their faith in God? Can we be a strengthening force? Will each of us be willing to give them the food at the proper time?
Did you not experience a wonderful sense of freedom once you eliminated the Governing Body as God’s channel of communication and started relating to Him as a child does to his father. With Christ as our only mediator, we are now able to experience the type of relationship we had always desired as Witnesses, but which always seemed beyond our grasp.
Don’t we want the same for our Witness brothers and sisters?
That is the truth which we need to communicate to all those who are or will soon start to wake up as a consequence of these radical changes in the Organization. It is likely that their awakening will be harder than our own, because it will be forced upon many unwillingly due to the force of circumstances, of a reality that can no longer be denied or explained away with shallow reasoning.
We can be there for them. It is a group effort.
We are the children of God. Our ultimate role is the reconciliation of mankind back into the family of God. Consider this a training session.