If you aren’t careful, conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses can go around and around in circles where nothing is accomplished and no one really hears what the other party is saying.
Here are 5 suggestions for communicating effectively with Jehovah’s Witnesses.
1. Ask questions instead of making statements.
You can’t teach Jehovah’s Witnesses anything directly. It’s not hard to see why this is so. They believe that they are “in the truth” (a Watchtower phrase) and you are in spiritual darkness. They think there is nothing of value that you could possibly teach them.
The Watchtower has trained them to be your teachers. They expect you to be their students. Accept this mindset as a given and ask lots of sincere questions.
Notice that I said “sincere questions.” If you come across as a sarcastic critic or as a cross-examining attorney, you will lose them. “Help me understand…” works far better than questions that are veiled accusations.
“Sincere” doesn’t mean fawning. It’s all right to ask tough questions. In fact, you should. But watch how you come across to them. You are trying to win them to Christ, not to win a debate or humiliate them.
In your first session, establish your right to ask them questions. You can do this in a friendly way by saying something like, “I find that I learn a lot more if I am an active participant in discussions and ask a lot of questions when I don’t understand something. Is it all right if I interrupt your presentation from time to time if I have questions?” Of course, they will say yes. Students are expected to ask questions, and as teachers the Witnesses will have to try to come up with answers.
If the Witnesses’ answers don’t make sense to you, don’t accuse them of anything. Simply tell them that you are puzzled by their answers and ask good follow-up questions.
I’m not saying that you should never make direct statements about what you believe. However, when you do make such a statement, it is very helpful to follow it immediately with a question like, “Do you see why I would think that?” or “Can you explain your take on that?” In that manner, you can get your point across without them feeling that you are trying to usurp their “rightful” role as teachers. They will be more likely to continue your discussions.
2. Don’t let them turn you into a passive student.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have a definite strategy for changing active questioners into passive students. At first, they will address your questions as soon as you raise them. But soon you will notice them suggesting that you defer your questions until later, promising that most of them will be covered during the course of their presentation. They will assure you that if you have additional questions, you can always raise them later.
Although this suggestion sounds reasonable, based on my experience I can tell you that if you agree to such a procedure, you will soon find yourself answering the Watchtower’s questions and forgetting to ask your own. The Witnesses will be the ones setting the agenda. This is especially true if they use Watchtower literature—it not only provides the questions but also gives you the approved answers. If you aren’t careful you will become a passive student who hears only what the Witnesses are comfortable telling you.
Don’t allow this to happen. Don’t argue with them or confront them with what they are doing. Instead, when they try to get you to defer specific questions, simply make it clear that you learn best by getting your questions answered at the time they arise. Tell them that you want to address the present issue before moving on to anything else.
3. Clarify terminology
The Watchtower uses Bible words and phrases but often attaches very different meanings to them. In talking with Jehovah’s Witnesses, therefore, it is critical that you get them to define the terms they are using. Likewise, define the terms you are using.
Unless you clarify definitions at the outset, you will think you are communicating while in fact you will be talking about totally different concepts.
Don’t take anything for granted. For example, Hebrews 9:27 says that “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” To the evangelical Christian, this proves that there is no second chance to receive Christ as Savior after we die. In fact, to us that conclusion may seem obvious.
The Watchtower, however, teaches a totally different meaning of the word “judgment.” To Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hebrews 9:27 means that after death those who are resurrected will have a testing period during Christ’s millennial kingdom in which to learn about Jehovah’s ways, progress to perfection, and thereby prove worthy of everlasting life.
If you suspect that you have conflicting definitions of words or phrases, explain your understanding of the terms and ask them to explain theirs. Make clear which definition is being used at various points in the conversation. That way, you will avoid the pitfall of appearing to communicate when in reality you are miscommunicating.
In situations in which you want to help the Witnesses see the problems with the Watchtower’s definition of a key term, one way to do it is to place the Watchtower’s definition into a related Bible text to see if it makes sense.
For example, the Watchtower teaches that a person’s spirit is not a conscious part of the person that will survive death. Instead they teach that it is an impersonal “active life-force.” Substitute that definition for the word “spirit” in 1 Corinthians 2:11 and see if it makes sense: “For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s impersonal, active life-force within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the impersonal, active force of God.” Your point will be clear; an impersonal force can’t know anyone’s thoughts but our spirits and God’s Spirit can.
As you listen to Jehovah’s Witnesses talk, you will find them using Watchtower lingo—phrases like “the ransom sacrifice” and “Jehovah’s arrangement for salvation.” It is fine for you to use these Watchtower expressions yourself, as long as you aren’t agreeing to doctrinal error by doing so.
For example, if you have heard them talk in terms of “Jehovah’s arrangement for salvation ,” you might have them read aloud a passage of Scripture and then ask, “How do you think that verse relates to Jehovah’s arrangement for salvation?” By doing that, you are helping them to read the Bible in context using terminology that they identify with and understand.
4. Avoid Christian lingo unless you are careful to explain what you mean by it.
We become so accustomed to hearing and using Christian terms that we sometimes forget that people outside the faith have no idea what we are talking about. Unfortunately, in such situations our well-intentioned efforts to witness can come across as gibberish.
If you talk about “accepting Christ as your personal Savior” or “coming to Jesus,” Witnesses will have no idea what you are talking about.
There are two ways to avoid this error:
- Think in advance about how your words will come across to someone from a totally different religious background. Will they be readily understandable or would it be better to use different terminology?
- If you do decide to use a Christian expression, solicit the Witnesses’ feedback by saying something like, “I’m not sure if that came across very well. Was what I said clear or confusing?” In this way, you are make sure that you are getting your points across.
5. Clarify differing positions.
One way to do this is to start by summarizing your understanding of the Watchtower teaching on that issue and then describing what you believe in terms of its similarities and differences.
As an example, you might say, “It’s my understanding from what you have said that the Watchtower believes that the name ‘Jehovah’ only applies to the Father. What I believe is that the name ‘Jehovah’ applies to the Father but that it also applies to the Son and the Holy Spirit as well.”
Often, a light bulb will go on. Most likely, they will still try to convince you that you are wrong, but at least they won’t think you are saying that Jesus was his own Father or that he prayed to himself.
The second way to make sure you are truly communicating is to ask the Witnesses to restate your position on the topic under discussion until you are satisfied that they have correctly understood you.
A friend of mine once explained to a Jehovah’s Witness the evangelical doctrine of justification by faith. He asked the man to restate what he had just said in order to make sure he understood. He was shocked when the Witness replied, “Sure. You believe that everyone will be saved.” He was able to correct the misunderstanding, although it took several tries before the Witness actually comprehended the evangelical teaching. The point is that had my friend not asked the Witness for this feedback, he would have had no idea that there had been a serious miscommunication.
In order to make this a fair process, you can also take the time to restate what the Witnesses have told you until they are satisfied that you have understood them. In this way, you do them the honor of showing that you are listening and avoid having a fruitless discussion in which no one truly understands what the other person is saying. Making it clear that you are seeking to understand them will increase the likelihood that they will listen to you and begin to think for themselves about something you have said.
(adapted from my upcoming book, Getting Through to Jehovah’s Witnesses)
Have you ever been talking with a Jehovah’s Witness and discovered that they totally misunderstood what you were saying? Please describe your experience and tell us how you think you would communicate your point more effectively next time.
Share your thoughts in the comments.
Coming up next: Witnessing to Jehovah’s Witnesses in Love: 3 Important DON’TS