Nearly 4,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses filled the Adams Center this weekend, taking on one lesson: loyalty.
That was the theme of this year’s regional conventions. Missoula's, which brought people from Salmon, Idaho, to Kalispell to Butte, is one of 457 nationwide this year and about 5,000 worldwide.
Each regional convention has the same rhythm, with identical videos and lessons. Speakers this year touched on different aspects of loyalty, specifically “Remain Loyal to Jehovah,” with videos relating to each of those points interspersed throughout. For example, the first of two symposiums Sunday morning focused on pride, improper entertainment, bad associations and fear of man.
Much of the three-day convention was devoted to instruction, with songs from the Jehovah’s Witnesses' songbook and dramatic Bible readings sprinkled throughout.
“It promotes an unusual unity,” said media services representative Mike McCormick. “We’re teaching worldwide. It transcends all nationalities and ethnic groups. The teachings don’t differ by country.”
This regional convention has been held at the Adams Center since 2013. They hope to return next year, with negotiations beginning soon after this convention ends. Missoula has three Jehovah’s Witness congregations, totaling about 300 to 400 people.
“It’s about loyalty, the quality of loyalty, and what a valuable quality that is,” McCormick said of the theme. “With family and friends … who you associate with can affect the way you think. We all think we’re solid, but every one of us is influenced in some way.”
That foreshadowed Sunday's lesson on “bad associations,” part of a larger segment titled “Avoid What Erodes Loyalty.”
Four speakers addressed the crowd in the first of two morning symposiums on Sunday.
Last year, they added something new to the conventions: audio and video, “not for entertainment, for instruction,” McCormick emphasized. “That’s why we’re here.”
He’s been a witness for 43 years, and said that while certain things have been tweaked at the conventions, the founding principles are simple and unchanged. It’s a weekend to learn. In that sense, each day is less like a church service and more like an educational symposium.
Witnesses – particularly children – took notes. Nearly everyone followed along in their Bibles, some physical, some on iPads and some, like McCormick, on cell phone apps.
Audio/visual overseer Chad Bustad was nervous. “It’s like a live show in front of 3,500 people,” he said, surveying the arena as it filled up. Bustad made sure all of the videos played correctly, and adjusted audio to fill the center.
“I think anymore, it’s how people learn,” he said of the audio and video components. “They watch TV, and with this video format, they learn that easily than just someone on a stage talking to you. With video, there’s always a message they’re trying to get to you.”
While other churches in recent years have found ways to connect with a new generation through music – drums, guitars, stage lighting effects, etc. – the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Sunday morning program was simple. Giant TVs broadcast the speakers on stage to those sitting in the rafters, and the audio equipment amplified their voices, but that was about as theatrical as it got. They sang once at the beginning, Song No. 61, “What Sort of Person I Should Be,” and then the lesson, “Avoid What Erodes Loyalty,” began. The speakers didn’t raise their voices as their message gained steam. Instead, the tone was conversational, asking the congregation to think about each aspect of loyalty while pointing to verses in the Bible.
“We’re here to be taught,” McCormick said. “It’s education, and people respond to that education.
“We try not to evoke a lot of emotion. It’s more about instruction. Of course, there’s a reasonable amount, but we don’t want to rely on that.”
The number of people at these conventions doesn’t necessarily reflect an increase or decline in membership. Instead, every year those at the world headquarters in New York “break up the U.S. into chunks,” Bustad said, organizing regions for the conventions. In 2013, there were 5,500 people in the Adams Center. This year, there were about 3,700.
There are also two one-day conventions throughout the year – called circuit assemblies – that reach about 2,000 people, McCormick said. But this weekend’s regional convention was the main event, much like Christmas or Easter services are for other denominations.
“They are the thing to go to,” he said of the regional conventions.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are often painted with broad strokes, with most recognizing them as the people who go door-to-door. That human contact is extremely important, McCormick said.
“There are some people who don’t want us there, but they’re not rude,” he said.
“Our emphasis is that we’re lovers of peace. We really try to emphasize on teaching individuals and families that the teaching that goes on within their family and their congregation … that knowledge is valuable and practical. We don’t feel the need to entice people into our buildings.”