Where I come from, Jehova's Witnesses are people you hear about in anecdotes, but never really actually encounter. "Just tell them you're already saved," my mom jokes.
Living in Mexico with a family of them has been an interesting experience, which can be both interesting and frustrating. In general, they are soft-spoken and willing to listen (not just my family, but the other JW's I've encountered here), and their literature can be impressive in its thoroughness and scientific backing. On the other hand, sometimes I feel like they're trying to gently point me towards their obvious truth, with questions like "do you know about the end times?" or publications that seem to have all of the answers.
From time to time, my host mother mentions that two English-speaking brothers from the church stopped by trying to "give me the good news," but I was away. I am intensely uncomfortable being evangelized to, and I've always been pretty happy that they missed me. "Score one for Team Brethren," I say with a smile, winking upwards.
Perhaps God did not find this amusing. At any rate, this morning they finally caught me. I have to say, their English was astounding, especially if they learned it just to spread the Word. And aside from one awkward moment when they asked me "what I thought of" the Good Friday service I went to at their church (did my host family fail to tell them that I'm already a churchgoer?), it was not a lamentable interruption to my noon breakfast. They'd heard that I was going to be working with incarcerated youth this summer and gave me a handy book about issues youth face, all with a Biblical foundation. I dodged any direct theological talk - while I have many good things to say about Jehova's Witnesses, I find that my family and the literature they give me tends to imply that they have all the answers. I don't always feel it's worth it to tell people with that attitude that I don't agree with them about some given issue, so I tend to keep quiet here.
The book they gave me definitely points to the "right answers." Sometimes it has obvious interpretations of the Bible, but other times it seems to take some larger, though usually common, leaps without providing any sort of argument for these assumptions. At one point, it seemed they couldn't actually find any Bible verse on a particular issue so they went so far as to put in a bracket quote that changed an ambiguous verse into a clear one (I won't provide specific examples, because I'm not trying to talk about these issues at this point).
I won't be using the book this summer - the nonprofit I'm working for is not religious, and my job is to keep kids, Christian or not, out of jail. But this story does bring up some thoughts about evangelism and "right answers."
When a consultant told my church congregation recently that we need a minister of evangelism, someone asked him if he was aware that we would find no such thing in the Church of the Brethren (I'm not up to date on the matter, but I think we hired/are hiring someone from outside the COB). And it's true, many of the Brethren I know get antsy at the idea of evangelism (though I would interject that there are also very strong evangelical strains in the Church - just not so much in Goshen, IN). We focus intensely on service and throw around that old Alexander Mack quote, "they will know us by the manner of our living" (I love that). But I think - and I say think because I'm a far cry from a historian - we're distorting Church history a bit when we use that quote in relation to evangelism.
My understanding is that that quote is in response to the decision of the "brethren" not to take a name, not in defense of a non-evangelical stanse. In fact, from what I read in the introduction to my copy of the 300th anniversary devotion book, it seems like the early Brethren were actually quite evangelial, gaining members even from Mennonite communities (correct me if I have this wrong).
But history aside, what's the right attitude here? My problem with evangelism is that it implies that we're right and other people are wrong. It seems presumptuous to assume that we (as Brethren or as Christians), and no one else, know God's mind. Could people of other religions have discovered the real truth, or (as I prefer to believe), a different truth than ours that is still a perfectly valid understanding of an infinite and undefineable God?
Still, maybe the Brethren do have something to offer. I have met, at college and here in Mexico, plenty of people who have been completely turned off to Christianity, yet are impressed and refreshed by the things I have to say about my faith and about the Church of the Brethren. One friend, Jon, a devout atheist, actually told me "Nick, I've always been pretty against this whole Christianity stuff, but from what you've told me I think the Brethren have some stuff I can really respect and get behind."
I've yet to bring any converts into our fold (as far as I know), but I feel like I'm on the right track: telling people who we are and learning about who they are, then finding common ground in how we can do God's work here on earth. And I get to express all this enthusiasm I have for the Church of the Brethren while I'm at it!
Of course, Brethren - and Christians - are all over the map with this stuff, and I still haven't figured out exactly how evangelical is too evangelical - or not evangelical enough. Where do you fall on the question of evangelism? I look forward to reading your comments.
PS - Still looking for more authors. Volunteer or you'll just have to keep reading what I think!