Jehovah’s Witnesses across the world are dressing up to go to their living room.
During the weekends between July 11 and Aug. 30, millions of Witnesses — including thousands in Utah — are looking their best at home to worship God during the denomination’s first virtual global convention.
Typically, adherents would flood restaurants and hotels between May and September to attend regional conventions. But they’ve all been canceled due to the coronavirus, including ones planned in Utah.
Ogden’s Dee Events Center was scheduled to host a June 26-28 convention in Spanish and a July 3-5 gathering in English, drawing some 9,400 attendees, according to a news release. It would have marked the 40th year for the regional meetings in that northern Utah city.
St. George’s Dixie Convention Center was supposed to host five conventions, including two in Spanish. About 13,400 individuals were expected to attend, said Michael Overholt, a Salt Lake City media host for the events.
Witnesses usually build off of one another’s energy during these conventions, so congregants are sad that they cannot worship together, Robert Hendriks, U.S. spokesman for the denomination, told The Salt Lake Tribune. But the faith’s governing body opted to stream a worldwide virtual convention through six installments to honor the second greatest commandment: Love thy neighbor.
“We realized that not only were we putting each other at risk, which, of course, is bad enough, but also our neighbors, the city,” Hendriks said. “And so the decision to cancel these conventions was really a decision that was rooted in love.”
Each of the 688 regional gatherings in the United States usually included mass baptisms and prayer sessions in the language of those attending. After the denomination decided in April to forgo in-person conventions, volunteers transcribed messages — centered around the theme “always rejoice” — into more than 500 languages.
Even though the mass baptisms are out, Hendriks anticipates about 300,000 people will take that step during individual services.
Worshippers can view the global convention through the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ website. Hendriks said many congregants pray and read the Bible before they stream the videos and then discuss the proceedings afterward.
“It’s not just about the information, but it also is about the fellowship,” he said. " … My brothers in South Africa, my brothers in Hong Kong, China, Russia are doing the same thing as I am and are getting the same information and joining the same fellowship. There is a level of solidarity and unity that make you feel good about the experience.”
Hendriks also said the message to “always rejoice” is relevant to current events — even though this year’s theme was picked five years before the pandemic.
“When you think about joy, for many it’s fleeting, for many it’s unattainable,” he said. “But yet we’re saying, and our theme is saying [and] the Bible says, always rejoice because joy is really a condition or quality of the heart that can be achieved and sustained even against the backdrop of sadness.”
Overholt said the convention’s first weekend went well for his family and his congregation. Plus, having the event simultaneously allowed the messages to be shared more easily and readily.
“If [your regional convention is] scheduled for one of the early ones, oftentimes there’s a release of a new book or a Bible movie, and it gets released at your convention. You’re asked to kind of keep that quiet until the rest of the world gets to their convention,” Overholt said. “But what was nice is the whole world was tied together on the same day, so we could share that.”
According to Hendriks, virtual attendance is “through the roof” and streaming has allowed more people to join. Meeting remotely also has helped some members grow their faith.
“Spirituality isn’t about a place. Spirituality isn’t about a building,” he said. “Spirituality is about our personal relationship with our Creator, and our relationship with our brothers and sisters. And that doesn’t die because you can’t meet in a building.”