The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ 2021 convention begins not with prayer or with preaching but with song.
The virtual gathering — themed “Powerful by Faith!” — opens with a music video featuring safari animals, stunning jungle views and people smiling and laughing as they go about their everyday lives. Over the footage, a choir sings a joyful tune in Lingala, a language used in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo.
The performance is followed by a second music video in Thai and a third in Dutch before viewing congregants are asked to sing a hymn in their own language.
The variety of languages heard in the convention’s inaugural session represents just some of the millions of Jehovah’s Witnesses virtually uniting for six weekends of faith, inspiration and instruction.
The first session is also indicative of what future conventions might hold: greater online participation, particularly for Witnesses who have disabilities or other concerns that make in-person attendance difficult.
Before COVID-19, the only streaming options available were whatever conventions were recorded and posted online after the event.
“It’s a herculean effort to put 500 languages online, so we don’t know what the future holds,” said national spokesperson Robert Hendriks. “However, we would say this is a must for the future. We have to have this option for the world.”
Thousands of Utahns will tune in
Millions of worldwide Witnesses, including more than 6,300 in Utah, typically flood restaurants and hotels between May and September to attend regional conventions. Last year, the in-person gatherings in the Beehive State — traditionally staged at Weber State University’s Dee Events Center in Ogden — and elsewhere were canceled due to the coronavirus.
This year, though the pandemic is receding, Witnesses are playing it safe and again streaming convention sessions over six weekends in July and August, uniting 15 million to 20 million people in 240 countries.
Congregants are encouraged to watch the conference on Saturdays and Sundays, starting July 3 and 4, from their homes. But they also can view sessions online the previous Monday. For example, this year’s debut session became available June 28.
Utah’s 69 Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations will participate in the convention in five languages: English, Spanish, American Sign Language, Portuguese and Swahili.
Hendriks said the hours that have gone into convention preparation and the numbers of people involved are incalculable.
“It’s very difficult to even imagine how much effort collectively [has gone into this],” he said, “but suffice it to say that it’s tens of thousands of man hours and thousands of people who are involved in doing this.”
Pluses and minuses
In-person gatherings are typically held over one weekend, but Hendriks said the denomination is spreading the virtual sessions over six weeks like it did last year because it’s beneficial to congregants.
A three-day, in-person event is more than just a teaching moment; it’s an “immersion experience,” Hendriks said, one that includes worshipping together and afterward working with fellow Witnesses to clean the stadium.
Without that in-person immersion, he said, it’s better for congregants to receive the information in smaller, digestible chunks.
“While many people kind of want to binge on their entertainment,” Hendriks said, “bingeing on spiritual food is not necessarily the best thing.”
In-person conventions also typically include mass baptisms, but COVID-19 has required smaller gatherings for individuals. Hendriks said baptisms have taken place in backyards with a vaccinated person performing the religious rite and local congregants participating via Zoom.
“[We’re] just kind of going back to our roots of baptizing in a body of water,” he said, “just like Jesus in the Jordan.”
Keith and Trish Janus, a Jehovah’s Witnesses couple in Utah, said the online convention format has advantages and disadvantages. They miss, for instance, the in-person association of their friends, Trish said.
They’re grateful, however, for the virtual format, Keith added, because the couple are “a little bit older” and more susceptible to serious complications from COVID-19.
They’re also looking forward to the Bible story reenactments that are part of the convention each year. Keith said the productions, which were performed live until 2014, are not only effective teaching tools but also help him reflect on his life.
Trish said this year’s video, about the Old Testament prophet Daniel, will make that story more real to her.
“It helps you to be able to apply some of those things [to your own life],” she said. “We’re dealing with a lot of challenges today. So it helps in practical ways.”
Hendriks said each convention’s Bible story production takes years to make, given the research, casting, filming and more.
Each video also includes an original song, which is incorporated into the trailer’s music.
The Bible drama, Hendriks said, is the “marquee moment of the convention.”
Misconceptions about Jehovah’s Witnesses
While it’s true that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate traditional events like Christmases and birthdays, Trish said they do hold gatherings where they celebrate and enjoy one another’s company — as evidenced by their conventions.
Another misconception is that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in Jesus, Hendriks said, “and that stabs us in the heart because Jesus is our Lord and Savior.”
Outsiders sometimes view the denomination as a “closed” religion, but that’s not true either, Hendriks said. Meetings are open to all and everything the faith has ever written since 1950 is on the JW.org website.
“There’s nobody more open to society than we are,” he said. “We love Jesus, and we love our neighbors, and we want to be as open as possible with them.”