The 2017 Regional Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses is underway this weekend at the Freeman Coliseum and Expo Hall in San Antonio where 18,400 Witnesses have gathered for one of 481 such meetings across the United States – all with identical schedules, timing, preaching, lectures, teaching sessions, and videos.

With the theme of “Don’t Give up!” Jehovah Witness are encouraged to be strong and faithful in today’s world when hearing reports of persecution in other countries, dealing with personal struggles and life’s hardships here at home, and when meeting resistance to their evangelizing in an increasingly secular culture.

Conventions for Jehovah’s Witnesses are primarily teaching and preaching opportunities, not business sessions or a gathering for decision-making.

Research: Witnesses Highly Religious And Highly Diverse

Jehovah’s Witnesses began in late 19th century in Pennsylvania under the leadership of  Charles Taze Russell and a group of students studying the Bible. Taze’s followers believed that Jesus would soon return to establish a 1,000-year era of peace on Earth and usher in a righteous social system that would eradicate poverty and inequality.

The Pew Research Center reflects that “Jehovah’s Witnesses are one of the most highly religious major U.S. religious groups. Nine-in-ten Jehovah’s Witnesses say religion is very important in their lives, say they believe in God with absolute certainty (90%) and that the Bible is the word of God (94%).”

When it comes to weekly worship, Witnesses attend at a rate of 82% versus the 39% average for all other religions in the U.S.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are the third-most most racially and ethnically diverse religious group in the U.S., according to Pew Research. No more than four-in-ten members of the group belong to any one racial and ethnic background: 36% are white, 32% are Hispanic, 27% are black, and 6% are another race or mixed race. The most ethnically diverse religious group in the U.S. is the Seventh-day Adventists, followed by Muslims.

Sheena and Michael Detroy, a local biracial couple married for 33 years, explained that the racial and cultural diversity and acceptance of the Witnesses is deeply embedded in the life of Witnesses worldwide.

“We have congregations in almost every country on Earth and our publications have been translated into 897 languages and dialects,” Michael said. “Being accepting and welcoming is at the core of who we are.”

(From left) Michael Detroy and Sheena Detroy smile at one another during the 2017 convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Freeman Coliseum.
Michael (left) and Sheena Detroy smile at one another during the 2017 Regional Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Freeman Coliseum. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Facing Today’s Challenges

Witnesses have often been regarded as outside of mainstream American religion.

Early controversies involved refusal to serve in the military or refusal to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in schools. Witnesses remain targets of oppression in some parts of the world today, most recently in Russia. Last month, the Witnesses were designated as an extremist group and banned from operating.

Constitutional issues involving Jehovah’s Witnesses have expanded safeguards for religious liberty, freedom of speech, and freedom of conscience for all religions both in the U.S. and Europe.

A major challenge for Jehovah’s Witnesses is their low retention rate relative to other U.S. religious groups.

Among all U.S. adults who were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses, two-thirds or 75% no longer identify with the group. By contrast those who were raised as evangelical Protestants (65%), Mormons (64%), Jews (74%), and Muslims (77%) still say they are members of those respective groups. On the flip side, about two-thirds of adult Jehovah’s Witnesses are converts.

A large crowd gathers in the Freeman Coliseum for the 2017 Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
A large crowd gathers in the Freeman Coliseum for the 2017 Regional Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Jehovah’s Witnesses have the widest gender gap of any denomination. Roughly two-thirds are women. This gender gap is particularly large in the context of U.S. Christian groups. For instance, 54% of U.S. Catholics are women.

Compared with other U.S. religious groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses tend to be less educated, according to Pew. A solid majority, 63%, of adult Jehovah’s Witnesses have no more than a high school diploma, compared with, for example, 43% of evangelical Protestants and 37% of mainline Protestants.

Some consider the Jehovah Witnesses’ preponderance of women, the lower education levels, and the ethnic diversity encompassing marginalized peoples to be a direct reflection of the earliest days of Christianity which spread primarily in urban areas and Roman cities among women, slaves, the disenfranchised poor and non-citizens in the Empire.

But Jehovah’s Witnesses also adhere to conservative positions on social issues. Three-quarters say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases and say that homosexuality should be discouraged by society. Almost 75% of Witnesses also reject evolution, saying humans have always existed in their present form since the beginning of time.

Michael Detroy, who is one of the media spokespersons for the convention, says that the strict moral code of their faith is sometimes unacceptable to many in a world that sees biblical morality as antiquated. “We take what we believe the Bible teaches very seriously,” he said.

Ken Williams is an overseer who travels among the Kingdom Halls through the area.   There are more than 100 congregations in the San Antonio area including Korean, Vietnamese, French, Russian, as well as English and Spanish-speaking communities.

Ken Williams speaks to the audience during the 2017 convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Freeman Coliseum.
Ken Williams speaks to the audience at the 2017 Regional Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“My role is to go from community to community to preach and to encourage and uplift our sisters and brothers,” Williams said. “When I started witnessing 35 years ago, this was a different world. Back then most people had some exposure to the Bible and religion.  Today we encounter countless people who have never been exposed to faith of Jehovah’s word in the Bible.

“Even harder is that in the past people might be indifferent to faith and the Bible, but today we often encounter open hostility,” Williams said. “But then, so did Jesus in His day. We need Jesus’ strength and perseverance, regardless of what it will cost us personally.”

Message To The Faithful: ‘Don’t Give Up!’

The need to persevere strikes home for Bob Jones, 69, who is now legally blind. The onset of his blindness began in 1999. Less than four months later his wife died, leaving Jones to care for a 7-year-old son and 81-year-old father.

“I certainly could not have done what I needed to do without the strength that came to me from Jehovah,” Jones said. “But I don’t think I could have done it without the strength and faithfulness of the Jehovah Witness community standing there with me every day. They were right there when I needed anything, especially getting around because I couldn’t drive.”

The Gaffney family from San Antonio heard the inspiration and support they most need to persevere in their ministry of witnessing the Gospel to others because that has become the focus of their lives individually and as a family.

(From left) Mike Gaffney, Sky, 15, and Gloria Gaffney share a laugh during the 2017 convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Freeman Coliseum.
(From left) Mike, Sky, and Gloria Gaffney share a laugh during the 2017 Regional Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“I gave up a successful aerospace career so that we could simplify our lives, focus on raising our daughter, and devote ourselves to preaching Jehovah’s words in the Bible, Gloria Gaffney said. “It is hard, but that is our calling. We need the support of our faith and our faith community.”

Sky Gaffney, 15, spoke of the joy she receives by sharing her faith with other teens and how close it brings her to her peers. Her greatest excitement comes from witnessing in different languages. Sky says that she has developed enough proficiency in Vietnamese  to assist native speakers who are evangelizing the community.

“Plus we have translation apps on our smart phones and tablets that can help us talk to just about anyone,” Sky added.

“We chose our career and our lifestyle in a way that it will support our ministry,” Mike Gaffney said. “I still have my aerospace job, but we live as we should and as the Bible teaches. Through our faith we learned to simplify our lives and to focus on what Jehovah wants for us.”

All three members of the Gaffney family are Jehovah Witness pioneers. Being a pioneer means committing to at least 70 hours of public witnessing per month.

Membership in Jehovah’s Witnesses

Witnesses worship in religious services that include Scripture reading, preaching, and song. They gather as a congregation in “Kingdom Halls,” buildings that look small conference centers rather than traditional religious edifices. The inside of a typical Kingdom Hall is simple, with little adornment – usually just a podium for speakers and chairs for the congregation.

A full member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious denomination is called a publisher.  The baptized publishers are the members who go door-to-door to explain their faith or are often seen distributing religious reading material in public venues. Publishers “witness” to others in both public and  private settings.

There are both baptized and unbaptized publishers.

Unbaptized publishers are prospective members engaged in a study program and who participate in public witnessing to determine if they want to fully join. Public witnessing, considered an essential ministry, is highly encouraged and expected, but not required by doctrine for salvation.

Those seeking to learn about the Witnesses are “interested persons.”

“We welcome anyone to join our worship services and sit in on our education sessions at any time,” Michael Detroy said. “We are completely open and transparent. Come to any of our Kingdom Halls to get to know us.”

Baptisms Bring Excitement and Fulfillment

Public baptisms at the convention began just after noon during the Saturday sessions. Jehovah Witnesses practice full immersion baptism in which the candidate for baptism is fully immersed under water by a minister who performs the ritual.

Prior to the baptism the candidates must affirm that they have repented of their sins and dedicate themselves to do the will of Jehovah. They also must state they understand that their baptism identifies them as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses in association with God’s spirit-directed organization.

“This is the most exciting and awesome day of my life,” said Shane Johnson, 25. “I’m dedicating my whole life to Jehovah, I’m dedicating myself to Him. I have been studying and preparing for over a year.”

Edward Speed

Edward Speed holds a Master of Arts in Systematic Theology from St. Mary's University. He reports on religion and spirituality for the Rivard Report.