SALT LAKE CITY — When one thinks of Jehovah's Witnesses, most people think about individuals knocking on doors or manning carts with religious literature, which are staples of the religion's preaching methods.
But in March 2020, knocking on doors was suspended as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the United States and kept individuals indoors and away from others to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.
"This experience is going to help me to not take for granted the door-to-door ministry," said a member of the religion, JR Lopez, of Draper.
In order to stay safe and comply with restrictions, 1.3 million Witnesses of the religion's 13,000 congregations across the nation shifted efforts from door-to-door ministry to online proselytizing.
"I think you would, if you were to talk to most Jehovah's Witnesses, the transition at first was, 'This shouldn't last long,'" national spokesman Robert Hendriks said.
Now, more than a year later, the knock-ban doesn't appear to be ending anytime soon and the faithful group isn't rushing to return to in-person ministering until it's absolutely safe to do so.
"We can't really predict the future," Hendriks said. "It's not simply about lessening the risk; it's really about completely mitigating that risk to the extent that it's possible so that we're not putting our brothers and sisters at risk and we're not putting our neighbors at risk."
The initial decision to pull back in-person efforts and focus on virtual and other ministering methods was difficult, at first, but necessary, he added.
"We do what we do because we love our God, No. 1; we love life, life is sacred; and we love our neighbor," explained Hendriks. "And it's out of that love that we go to our neighbor, we invite them, we share the Bible with them, we do our ministry, we spread the gospel."
During the last year, Jehovah's Witnesses have focused on writing letters, making phone calls, participating in virtual ministry, and sharing resources from JW.org.
"Those same principles dictated that we needed to stop, as much as it is in our DNA, it was time," he said. "The same principles that move us to go see them and spread the word are the principles that we had to follow to do the exact opposite, so it was a paradigm shift for Jehovah's Witnesses because we've been preaching for well over 100 years, we've had public conventions for more than 100 years, but we've never had a suspension of activity like this in our years."
Several congregations across the country have reported an increase in attendance since moving to virtual worship, according to Hendriks. In Utah, which holds about 60 congregations and 5,000 members in several languages, there's been a 20-25% increase in virtual attendance versus pre-pandemic, in-person numbers. Other congregations report up to a 30% increase.
In the beginning, it was a challenge to figure out how to move efforts online, Hendriks said.
"So all of a sudden now we had to think about … how can we do this in a more orderly, systematic way so that we were reaching people?" Hendriks said. "And the results have been pretty amazing."
In the last year, the religion has been able to reach hundreds of thousands of individuals; in the United States alone, 51,000 reached out to Jehovah's Witnesses through their website and asked to be contacted. Another 240,000 joined the religion during the pandemic.
"We do miss the traditional way we were carrying out our work but have seen great, great results in this new way," Hendriks said, adding that they feel lucky they were able to seamlessly transition their ministry online and still be able to reach individuals.
Javier Zubiate, a native of West Jordan, grew up as a Witness and spent the last 25 years going door-to-door. Since that came to a halt in 2020, he's learned how to effectively minister online and through other methods.
"It's still been a really encouraging thing because even though door-to-door, going to people's houses was always my main point of ministry. I always did do other things as well."
Like many other members of the faith, Zubiate participated in other ways of preaching prior to the pandemic, like writing letters and making phone calls. However, he said he wasn't really comfortable with it until it was his only option.
"Telephone witnessing is not always my strongest suit, to talk to somebody on the phone, most comfortable thing to do. But just like with anything, the more you do it the better you get at it, the less awkward it becomes," he said.
Altogether, the virtual efforts of ministry have been successful, and going forward Hendriks said they plan to continue utilizing these other methods of preaching.
"I'd rather be out door to door and talking to all the wonderful people here in Utah. It's still so amazing to get to be able to share this good message of comfort, of hope about Jehovah, still to so many different types of people," Zubiate said.
That said, Jehovah's Witnesses are excited for the day when it's safe to once again see their neighbors to preach in-person.
"Living in Utah my whole life, people here are very, very kind, very receptive. It's really nice to be able to talk with someone, to have a really good respect for the Bible, and it's something we enjoy," Zubiate said. "It's going to be nice to be able to really go and talk with your neighbors ,and so that's something that we definitely look forward to."