As lifelong Jehovah’s Witnesses, Colorado Springs residents Sam and Amanda Rocha have been knocking on strangers’ doors since childhood.
Amanda’s earliest memory of participating in the denomination’s well-known door-to-door ministry was when she was 7 years old. She, her siblings and parents formed a united front.
“I remember bonding with my parents and seeing how they expressed their love and interacted with people in their homes,” she said.
For Sam, those nascent experiences showed how his parents believed in what they were telling others.
“We enjoyed it,” he said. “We went out and did it with friends and made it fun.”
Now, for the first time in their lives, the couple cannot perform their door-to-door ministry.
When the coronavirus pandemic erupted in March, all 13,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations nationwide, encompassing some 1.3 million members, suspended the practice of knocking on doors and setting up informational carts on sidewalks with Watchtower publications, said Robert Hendriks, spokesman for the group's U.S. churches.
Congregants have been doing it for 101 years.
“This was a dramatic shift and a shock to the system,” Hendriks said. “We’ve fought in courts to sustain our rights to preach door-to-door and practice our faith, with more than 50 Supreme Court decisions in this country.”
Along with many aspects of daily life, evangelism also has had to adapt during COVID-19.
But some religious groups say that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
A new Jehovah’s Witnesses preaching campaign, in which members cold-call people on the phone and write letters to those they can’t reach, has proven successful, according to leaders.
The Rochas, who run a landscaping business, miss visiting people they don’t know in their neighborhood two to four times a week and developing a personal connection.
“It’s something we’ve been used to all our lives,” Sam said. “It’s been different, but we want to make sure we and other people stay safe.”
The new method enables congregants to contact more people than by knocking on doors, he said. The Rochas’ congregation of 150 members sent out 1,200 letters in November to residents who live in the area.
“We try to get to know them and share something positive that’s benefited us, something from the Bible about things going on in the world, about COVID, about hope for the future,” Sam said.
Amanda said she’s been talking to a neighbor on the phone regularly for several months about the Bible. They study, pray together and have discussions.
“We connect every week, and it’s a highlight of my week to talk to her,” she said.
Some people reject their attempts to talk about their faith, but Amanda said they respect people’s wishes and do not bother those who aren’t receptive.
“We by no means push our beliefs,” she said.
'Showing up on Zoom'
To be considered an active member, Jehovah’s Witnesses must participate in the door-to-door ministry, now the phone calling and letter writing campaign, Hendriks said. They believe Bible verses instruct them to do so.
“Jesus very clearly taught his apostles and disciples to go from city to city, from house to house, to preach the Gospel,” said Hendriks, spokesman for the churches. “We feel we have an obligation to preach the Gospel accounts.”
Having a heartfelt conversation about spirituality with someone makes for a successful effort, Hendriks said.
Also considered as a step forward is being able to contact someone a second time. Forming a relationship and setting a regular commitment to study the Bible with someone — now over the phone or on a video chat instead of in-person — is the highest level of achievement.
The recruitment methodology works, officials say. About 275,000 to 300,000 new members are baptized as Jehovah's Witnesses each year.
Calling people on the phone and writing letters has had “a powerful effect” on communities, Hendriks said, as COVID has led many people to pivotal points in their lives, and they are hungering for encouragement, comfort and hope.
As a result, attendance at virtual public meetings has swelled, Hendriks said.
“We have people calling in who for years couldn’t come to our twice weekly meetings in person,” he said. “They were medically fragile, elderly, disabled, had allergies. Now, they’re showing up on Zoom, commenting and talking. It’s a whole new experience.
“It’s made us more inclusive and has helped us reach many more people.”
Becoming a Jehovah’s Witness typically takes years, but now, aspiring congregants have been able to move through the instruction process online and with remote contact and join the denomination in eight or nine months, Hendriks said.
“They’ve never been to a meeting hall or gone to a convention — our signature event every year — but because they’ve had more time, they’ve been able to dive into the studies.
“It’s become a great blessing.”
'A vibrant reception'
With more people reevaluating their priorities in life during the pandemic, the Mormon Church also has seen increased interest, said David McConkie, president of the Colorado Springs East Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has about 3,200 members.
People’s core concerns about their health, employment, disease and other problems have made them more introspective and receptive to spiritual teachings, he said.
“Their hearts are softened to the role of God in their lives,” McConkie said, “and we have learned new ways of connecting with people.”
Reaching out through social media and inviting people to participate in virtual meetings has become a blessing amid the tragedies of the pandemic, he added.
“The primary mode of evangelism in our church from the dawn of time is the heart-to-heart connection of believers that has transmitted the faith,” McConkie said.
In the 21st century, modern technology is continuing to allow believers to share the same messages through a different means, which has been met with “a vibrant reception,” he said.
In times of crisis, Christian churches throughout the ages not only have provided spiritual sustenance but also have offered hands-on help to people, said Peter Burgo, spokesman for the Colorado Springs-based Christian and Missionary Alliance.
The network of 2,000 evangelical Christian churches in the United States also operates a disaster relief and missionary ministry with 700 workers in 70 countries.
For decades, the religious organization has provided medical, broadcast, benevolent and food ministries to disaster survivors and refugees in war-torn countries, Burgo said.
Evangelism during COVID has meant shifting its “compassionate care” program to assist people affected by COVID.
Talking about God’s love for people isn’t enough during catastrophic events, Burgo said.
“It must be demonstrated through tangible acts of compassion — meeting real needs through practical acts of care,” he said.
But also, “People need to know they are not alone, and they need to know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
Church members have been modeling God’s love by providing food and other essentials to people who have lost their livelihood, supplying personal protective equipment, checking in on neighbors and “helping in any way they could to demonstrate Christ’s love and compassion to those in need,” he said.
“This is what evangelism looks like during a pandemic — or any other catastrophic event that brings about enormous human need.”