I have been giving a lot of thought to the young people who are leaving the Watchtower organization in recent years. Last night, I was reading the thread posted by jwfacts a while back in which he provided some statistics and graphs showing the rapidly declining growth in the Watchtower. One factor that was discussed at length was the high number of young people who do not stay in the organization. I have several observations to add to this. I realize this is a really lengthy post, but I ask that you indulge me for a few minutes.
First of all, I think the Watchtower’s problems with their inability to retain the young people runs very deep. I think the issue is much more serious than they would like to admit. And, I think the issue is much broader than what the simple statistics are showing. I myself was born and raised in the organization. Besides me, at least 75% of the kids I grew up with in the congregation are out – for good. Many of these were good kids too.
It’s not hard to figure out why so many JW children are conditioned from an early age to associate drudgery with the meetings and assemblies. There simply isn’t anything designed or built into the programs that work with the attention spans of young children. Many churches offer separate classes, services, or groups for children that are compatible with their maturity level and that get them acclimated to going to church. However, the Watchtower stubbornly sticks to a “one size fits all” program for everyone. How many schools do you know of, that stick preschoolers, high school students, and graduate students all into the same classroom together?
On top of this, many JW adults expect children to silently sit still through long convention talks on Daniel’s prophecies or the nuances of the word parousia. If they act up and don’t sit still; spankings are usually soon to follow. Spare the rod, spoil the child. By the time many young JWs reach their teen years, not only have they been conditioned to associate worshipping Jehovah with great displeasure; but they still don’t have any groups or programs tailored to them as teens, or which meet their needs. I believe this is a huge factor in the turnover of young people leaving the organization.
This is an area where I believe the Watchtower leadership shows an astounding lack of insight. I also believe this is an area where they are also profoundly disconnected from reality. Instead of engaging in some honest soul searching and introspection about how to help and nurture young people at an organizational level, the Watchtower leadership, writing department, and traveling overseers all attribute the high turnover to their favorite straw man: Satan. It there is a large turn-over in the congregation, it must mean that Satan is working overtime; not that that anything could ever be wrong with the organization itself. When commenting on the young people who leave the organization, another common tactic that the organization uses is to cynically compare them with the ungrateful Israelites who found Jehovah’s manna to be undesirable.
The Watchtower organization is like a restaurant that keeps serving the same bland menu even though many of the patrons don’t like the food and aren’t coming back. Instead of adjusting the menu, or admitting that the chef isn’t as good as he thinks he is, the owner simply blames the customers, and claims that the patron’s taste buds must not be working properly.
At what point do they begin to ask themselves if there is something that THEY are doing wrong? Ironically, they can’t do that, because the organization has already been identified and branded as a “spiritual banquet” where “nothing is lacking”. Therefore, if young people are uninspired, bored, or unmotivated to engage in the theocratic treadmill, JWs can simply blame it on the influences of MTV, high school, or on their favorite buzzword: the “world”.
It should be noted that the Soviets used the same methods of argumentation and reasoning – claiming that nothing was lacking in Mother Russia. Strangely, their newspapers only had good news to publish about the Soviet government, and only had bad news to report about Western democracies. If anyone defected, the leaders simply blamed it on American influence, the defector’s lack of gratitude, or on some horrible personal defect of the defector. Does this sound familiar?
Besides meetings and literature, what is the Watchtower doing, or even attempting to do to truly refresh, uplift, and inspire their young people? Quick-builds only happen so often, and Bethel just isn’t a possibility for everyone. About the most exciting thing that most of the young people will get to do is hold up printed signs at conventions that say “Please Be Seated”, or turn knobs in the Kingdom Hall sound booth. If they are really lucky, and they are privileged enough to have a dad who’s a prominent elder, they might land an exciting acting role - waving their arms around in huge pantomime gestures in an assembly drama. Are you inspired?
When you take a look at many of the mega-churches for example, it is very impressive how much they put into creating support groups and programs for their young people. I have seen a lot of creativity and progressive thinking when it comes to how they design ministries for young people. Many of them not only help the young people with their unique issues, but also really inspire them enough to get active and “pay it forward”. These groups are designed to approach the young people where they are at right now – not from where someone thinks they “should” be.
This is not to say that there are no enthusiastic young people in the Watchtower organization, because there truly are. I was one of them. But the fact that there is such a large turnover of the young people is a major symptom that something is deeply and fundamentally wrong with the Watchtower’s model. Again, they continue to enforce a “one size fits all” education and worship program to both children and adults. When these programs do address the children directly, it usually only entails an assembly drama about Samuel, or the promise that very soon, they will be able to play with tigers and elephants.
Enter the social media - Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube – all readily available on your average smart phone. Consider this: any Witness can now sit in an assembly during the morning session; dutifully nod their head like a bobble head doll; and then walk outside and link up with ex-Witnesses online via their iPhone to express what they really think. (Rutherford must be having a meltdown in his grave). Given the choice between what this media has to offer, versus reading a Kingdom Ministry insert, where do you think a bored and uninspired teenager is going to go?
Beside simple boredom, what we also see in the Watchtower organization are many emotionally troubled people and single parent families who join the religion for the promises of relief that it holds out for them. In situations such as this, I have often noticed that the kids don’t have much in the way of emotional support and guidance. Other churches give single parents some relief by offering activities and programs for their children to get involved in and bond with other young people. I have seen many really good kids in the organization totally get neglected because they didn’t have a father who was a Witness. Many of them had some very deep emotional issues that never got resolved. Additionally, it has been noted by many of us that when there is a family in which the father does not hold some kind of office, the family is often left out on the periphery without much social support. I have observed that children in families like this most often never thrive, and are swiftly on their way out by the time they reach teenage years.
Many teenagers in the organization have issues that require a little more remedy than sitting with a notepad at the assembly and counting with tally marks the number of times the speaker says “Jehovah”. Sitting through hours upon hours of talks and Watchtower studies is not going to help them with many of the emotional and social challenges they’re grappling with. Is it any wonder that the turnover among the young people is so high? Is it any wonder that they would seek to fill the void in their life with sex, drugs, and alcohol? This is human nature. And, as is human nature, it is much easier for Watchtower leaders to put all of the blame for this on invisible metaphysical characters such as Satan, instead of dealing with the elephant in their own living room.
One would think that relatively simple endeavors like those offered in other churches would be worth it to the Watchtower leaders; when considering their inability to retain the young people. Yes, one would think so, but this would involve the Watchtower leadership reinventing, and rethinking matters that they are convinced have already been settled. Most importantly, these endeavors just might diminish time and resources that are used for going door-to-door. Nothing can be allowed to take any time away from the Watchtower’s sole purpose of existence: proselytizing. An organization that has established itself as the sole possessor of truth and the single place of refuge from the coming apocalypse cannot divert time and resources to anything that is not related to its recruitment activities.
That is why I believe they will never adopt the very common sense solutions that could be so helpful to their members; especially the young ones. Yet, ironically, it’s clear that their growth is already suffering due in part to this stubbornness. Their lackluster growth will only continue; and they will find it harder and harder to recruit new members. The more that they grit their teeth, lash out at dissenters, and shake their fists at the internet, the more they motivate their disenchanted young people to satisfy their curiosities about what is on the net. It’s psychology 101.
With the recent crack-downs on college education, the Watchtower is looking less and less like a spiritual paradise, and is looking more like North Korea. What we see from regimes like North Korea is a disregard for many of the societal endeavors that make a nation stronger, such as infrastructure, good universities, economic freedoms, and democratic processes. Instead, all of the nation’s human capital is invested in one thing: warfare. The leader Kim Jong is so deluded that his idea of inspiring his people is to walk out on his balcony with his huge Elvis glasses and clap his hands. The Watchtower organization’s sole purpose is to proselytize, whereby all of its human capital must be channeled into that goal. Other programs that would make for a much stronger, robust, and enthusiastic membership are pushed aside and dismissed due their possibly interfering with proselytizing. Much like Kim Jong walking out and clapping his hands, the Watchtower’s idea of motivating its people is to deliver talks denouncing college, Watchtower articles ridiculing those who disagree with them, and the repetitive promise that the end is “just around the corner”. Are you inspired yet?
The Watchtower organization simply has nothing new to offer, and no new ideas. Just imagine if the Ford Motor Company was still manufacturing and marketing the Ford Pinto. Imagine if Ford was blaming the consumers - saying that consumers had poor judgment for not wanting to buy the Pinto anymore. This is where the Watchtower is at. In some respects, it’s very entertaining. But in another respect, it’s quite sad, when considering the young people in the organization who desperately need and yearn for something more.
The turnover in membership is something that is only going to grow; as is the percentage of the young JWs who eventually leave. Those few born-in JWs who do stay in will pay an enormous price in that they will never have gotten to know who they really were. For them to stay in the organization and have an approved standing, they will have had to squash their inner self, and adopt an organizationally-created identity. Many will have had to cover over passions and talents that would have given their lives much greater meaning. Many of us here paid that price, only to wake up to it years later. But fortunately, after having been out for a number of years, many of us are getting to know who we really are and what gives our lives meaning.
We are in a great position to be a source of strength and compassion for those younger people who are wandering out and stumbling into forums like this. The important thing for us is to show them that there is a great life to be lived after leaving the Watchtower.