Former Mormon Missionary feels sorry for Viennese JW man, reflects on the irony, seeks further masochism

JW in hallI felt really sorry for this JW bloke yesterday. There he stood in a Vienna U-Bahn station, silently holding his Watchtowers. No-one noticed him; those few who might have probably thought he was some cultish freak, a brainwashed dupe trying to sell us his silly Sekte.

I noticed him, and felt much Mitleid. He looked miserable, as if performing some pathetic duty, an ordeal endured in order to earn a place among the 144,000.

ronanreflectingEleven years ago I stood in the same spot, trying to bear witness of my religion. We were more animated than this guy, but still the end result was the same. We were mostly ignored, sometimes scorned. As I walked past him yesterday I wondered, “did anyone feel sorry for me?”

I’ve taken to wearing my MA shirt around town. Having walked the Viennese beat in my Mormon uniform for over a year, I have an irresistable masochistic urge to get the same stares I did with tie and nametag. Wearing “Mormon” on your body says, “I am a cultist with many wives.” Let ’em think what they want. I don’t give a patootie. Nor should the JW man. Although I would prefer that he went home to watch TV with his wife, that’s his call, not mine.


  1. Jonathan Green says:

    Dude, Ronan, all it takes to get stares up here is to march with four children to the bus stop on the way to church while wearing our Sunday best. Really, we couldn’t turn many more heads if we were pushing a handcart and singing. You’re totally on target about the perverse pleasure that comes from making a public statement like: We’re über-fertile Mormons, and we don’t care what you think.

  2. Reminds me of the JW’s I passed in the 96th Street station pretty much every day on my way to work. Except they were generally smiling, standing there, waiting for somebody to approach them. I always felt for them, as the crowds rushed by but (inasmuch as I was always late for work (how many times did I hear that on my mission: “no time”)), I never actually stopped. I would guess, though, that they’re still there, still ready to engage any busy New Yorker who will stop and smile.

  3. I’m always extra nice to JWs and always let them give me the WatchTower and talk to them, because I feel so darn sorry for them tracting and having doors slam in their face. I respect them so much for putting up with all that, even though everyone always vilifies them. Good on you!

  4. Well, I didn’t actually talk to him. Just stood there and pitied him, which may not have been the reaction he would have wanted. Truth is, I think JW’s are crazy; but I also realise that the rest of the world thinks we’re crazy, so the whole thing makes my head spin. Especially now that I live in my old missionary beat again.

  5. My aunt is a Jehovah’s Witness. And she takes the proselyting duties very seriously. We’re always a little amazed by her.

    Maybe she is a little “crazy.” Maybe I am too.

    The only “normal” people are the ones you don’t know yet.

  6. “MA” shirt?

  7. Yeah, have a look on the MA sidebar.

    [BTW, this was not an advertisement. Really!]

  8. And thus MA unveils its Viennese guerilla marketing campaign. Maybe we should buy a billboard near the autobahn as well.

  9. I love that, Seth.

    I lived in a small town for years that had a pretty big JW population. I was always nice to them when they came to the door. But I made a mistake when I agreed to let them set up an appointment for a bible study at my house. I said it’d be ok as long as I could use my Mormon scriptures. They showed up with their resident Mormon basher, a sweet little old lady who got an evil look in her eye whenever she started raving about Joseph Smith.

  10. #1 is funny.

    I have a fantasy of taking my 4 blonde kids on a trip to Europe just to see the reaction….Jonathan should post on his exp with all his kids in a anti-large family environment

    JW’s are fun. They seem to be doing better in Russia then we are but are they faltering in the US a bit?

    I actually baptized a complete JW family on my mission. It was a miracle. Their biggest hangups were Blood, birthdays, Christmas and Jesus being crucified on a tree not a cross.

  11. [BTW, this was not an advertisement. Really!]

    Uh Huh . . .

  12. I once set up an appointment with some JW’s and when they came over, I just let the door bell ring! I juked them!(or dissed or no-showed or what ever you called it in your mission)

  13. I always open the door for JW’s, and I always let them give their door approach, and I always accept one of their tracts, and if it is cold out I always let them step inside to give their approach. Having been on the other side of the door myself I feel it is the least I can do.

    I also like to look at the pictures in the Watchtower, they are like Arnold Freiburg art on acid.

  14. I went back and worked in the city in which I spent the first and last 4 months of my mission. Relatively speaking, I was a fairly regular street contacter during my mission; but, by the end, it was quite obvious that I would either have to go home or dramatically change the manner in which I proselyted.

    I sincerely believe that if the trends in European church growth are to change, then they way missionary work is executed has to be dramatically changed. More so than it ever was in the 50’s and 60’s.

    And Ronan, thanks for the reflection. It is good to remember.

  15. Hmmm… maybe you could have recommended that he do a little more work through members, or perhaps try singing hymns. Do you think Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-day Saints should swap proselytizing techniques?

  16. Steve Evans says:

    What Stapley said. He and I served in similar missions, and by the end of mine it was clear that the Lord does not intend for people to receive the gospel via porte-a-porte. Any European missionary who really, really cares about getting the message out and finding people will have to be very inventive. IMHO I think the key will be public service.

  17. IMHO I think the key will be public service.

    Right on.

  18. Steve Evans says:

    ….that said, the JWs are doing far better than we are in Europe. The question remains whether they are converting Europeans, but still….

  19. My Wife served in Italy and was very successful for a European Missionary, I guess. In examining all the different stuff she tried, her success stories basically boiled down to referals and street contacting. All the special concerts etc she did never got her a baptism. On the other hand, Her Brother served in the same mission as her 4 years later (and in the same area) and even the mail man asked “Are you related to Sister Cowart?”

    Thanks for the excuse to brag.

  20. I love the idea of a lone man walking the streets of Vienna in his Mormon Archipelago shirt.

    While I didn’t serve a mission, I did spend some time tracting with sister missionaries in housing projects on the outskirts Aix-en-Provence. More often then not, it was very discouraging work. I also agree that service might be the key to a desperately need change in public perceptions.

  21. An hour with a couple of energetic (I was looking for a non-pejorative adjective) Jehovah’s Witnesses in Japan was nothing like being in a house with about fifty (or was it a thousand?) Nichiren Shoshu-ites. I wondered at times if they would let us go, or if we were trapped.

  22. Every “Zeugen Jehovas” I met in Austria was an Austrian. Say what you like about sampling errors, but I don’t have the impression they are converting a bunch of economic refugees and asylum seekers.

    Despite the disadvantages (inter alia, not being allowed to actively proselyte) of being an unrecognized church in a country where that sort of thing matters, they still have five times the number of members as the Church in Austria.

    Given the numbers, maybe Ronan and his ilk would be better off taking lessons than feeling pity!

  23. Peter: definite sampling error. DEFINITELY.

  24. “Do you think the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-day Saints should swap proselyting techniques?”

    We did! Our district did a spur-of-the-moment street meeting in Lyon[s] and the only two contacts we made were a newspaper reporter and a JW couple, who were amazed that we got away with it, because apparently it was against the law. They invited us sisters to their apartment for lunch. Really pleasant, no bashing on either side. We told ’em what we were doing, and they explained the system they had of pencil marking the doors of apartments so we could understand the codes. Fun, weird, and certainly a one-time event.

  25. For Austria, and perhaps outside of Vienna, I think Peter’s right. Steve, I’m guessing France is very different. One advantage the JW’s have is that their missionaries are locals who can speak the lingo, know their stuff, are generally older, and don’t move around every few months. They have a very active, solid, committed local missionary effort.

  26. Jonathan Green says:

    The one thing I learned from reading the Watchtower is what a great magazine the Ensign is.

  27. Just how many French missionaries do we have here? Ardis, J Stapley, Steve EM, Steve Evans (apparently), myself… others?

  28. Levi and DMI Dave as well.

  29. ed johnson says:

    J Stapely: I sincerely believe that if the trends in European church growth are to change, then they way missionary work is executed has to be dramatically changed.

    Interesting. Do you think those in charge of the missionary efforts in Europe agree with you at all?

  30. any mouse says:

    i would LOVE to read about “all those kids” in a “anti-large family environment.” our good friends are currently in china. he’s from missouri and speaks better mandarin chinese than his taiwanese wife. they have a fifth baby due this year and have three girls. in china. their stories are hilarious and sometimes sad.

  31. Do you think those in charge of the missionary efforts in Europe agree with you at all?

    I don’t really have any information one way or the other. The reality is that the whole system would have to be revamped and changes that big tend not to happen.

  32. I served in Scandinavia. There were a lot of months were there were no baptisms in the whole mission. I often heard people talk about how we need to get a different approach. I have come to the conclusion though that there is no gimmick that will work that has not been tried before. In order for the church to grow in Europe, members will have to do their part by diligently living the gospel so they can be an example. The members need to be unashamed to share that they are members of the church with those around them. They also need to provide the missionaries with referals. They will need to be more dilegant about working with the less-active. This is nothing new or exciting, but if the members in Europe or anywhere else for that matter would do it, the church would grow.

    Tracting and street contacting have a place in missionary work, but at best they will only bring a baptism here and there. In reality, missionaries are quite limited in what they can do compared to members both in Europe and elsewhere.

  33. Kevin Barney says:

    Ronan in his MA tee wandering around would be a far better platform for missionary outreach in Europe than pairs of clean-scrubbed, obviously American boys wearing 1950s IBM get ups.

    The JWs are doing better than us almost everywhere. But the day our church makes us spend 10 hours a week proselyting is the day I say sayonara.

  34. BK, you are right that no “gimmick” will work. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t changes that would dramatically alter conversion rates.

    I wonder how popular Hamas would be in Gaza if all they did was knock on doors. I’m not saying we need to turn missionaries into insurgent militants; but, focusing on Christian service for the same period as missionaries have knocked doors in Cambrai, France would, I surmise, have lead to drastically different ends.

  35. One very frustrating thing about my mission was that it was very hard to do service other than for other members or investigators we may have had. I don’t know how it is in the rest of Europe, but in welfare state of Scandinavia community service is foreign concept. The the idea of doing community service is somtimes even greeted with hostility. The thinking goes that if you do a service for free you are taking a job away from someone else. We had a hard time getting four hours of service done a week.

    One thing I was very pleased to hear about in the Church News about a month ago is the new program they starting with European Young Adults in various cities. In conjunction with Institute they are opening centers for the Young Adults to hold activities and socialize. The centers are presided over by couple missionaries. I really feel that this will be successful to help with reactivation, conversion and retention of young adults. I like how this will provide a wonderful alternative typical European discotec scene.

  36. Razorfish says:

    Nice to see a strong esprit-de-corp from RMs who served in Europe. I spent time serving in southern France.

    I remember one small town where the prior elders kept meticulous notes / stats of their tracting efforts. They tracted out (on paper) what appeared many hundreds of homes / appt areas with no success. A depressing record just paging through the workbook.

    I liked more innovative approaches like building Book of Mormon towers by pedestrian walk ways. Glean the handful of interested people from the masses that pass by you, instead of casting the fishing lure out one person at a time via porte-a-porte.

    My entire mission we got 1 referral from Salt Lake City.

    #31 J.

    What would you propose to re-engineer or restructure missionary work in Europe for better success?

  37. Many of you here seem to think that the answer to Gospel preaching in Europe lies in what the members can do.

    I was born and currently live in one of them European countries and served a mission in another one.

    Let me submit the idea that I don’t know what is more prone to get a harsh reaction: sharing the Gospel as a uniformed full time missionary or as a neighbour.

    Most times we get the same type of rejections from our kind the missionaries do. If not worse. Take into account the Church is seen as an american church all over (the World?) Europe. Take into account also that many European citizens have a clear anti-american stand. Being American inclined can provide a substantial ammount of rejection from your co-citizens by itself, before any attention to religious beliefs is put. You are not only weird to them because of your creed, but have also given in to what they would consider one more type of cultural injection from “Uncle Sam”. You are seen as a traitor to ‘our’ traditions.

    So in general terms, most people’s attitude could be summarize as:
    It is okay for americans to be americans.
    Why are they comming here to sell us their stuff? (Church included there).
    How come you (moron) fell for it?
    And, finally, “Please, leave me alone”.

    In the end it is only through deep rooted personal relationships that you can get anywhere (unless you run into one of the elect, of course), that is, in general, you only stand a chance with those people who know the way you are before they know what you are (an LDS). And there is a limited ammount of people you can develop those more profound relationships with. And we have been pounded on so much and for so long on exploting those potential “convert-mines” that they (poor things) are mostly fed up with us when we switch on proselyting mode. Your only chance is keeping on preaching by example and hoping sometime, somehow, something will happen and they will open their hearts.

    And as far as changing this problem to Gospel sharing in Europe, I see as many initiatives in the local leaders (area level down) to decrease american pervasive presence in Church related interaction with the outside world, as to not care about it at all.

  38. I actually see the conversion problems in Europe to be a sign of the times in addition to all the other problems listed above. I personally doubt that it will change there amongst the native Europeans till the millenium.

    The future of Europe is largely athiest/agnostic inactive catholic/Lutheran till the demographics turn Europe majority Muslim in the next three generations.

    We may see a drawdown of missionaries soon if it has not started happening already.

  39. rleonard,

    It has.
    Not only because of the reasons you mention, but also because there are problems even with goverments allowing visas to the missionaries (you know, 11-S and US border policies and backfiring by other goverments, and the lot).

    I can tell you, in the country I live the Church is growing in numbers only through emigrant members arriving. (Sob)

  40. For me, nothing quite induces a headache as well as Jehovah’s Witness literature. I’m not exaggerating.

    And yet once or twice a year I’ll end up looking at some anyway.

  41. I can tell you, in the country I live the Church is growing in numbers only through emigrant members arriving. (Sob)

    You’ve put your finger on the problem here and in your post above: Europeans are about as open to outsiders as is a bank vault on the weekend. (or did I misunderstand what the “sob” refers to?)

  42. Peter,

    My sobbing comes from the fact that very few locals come to embrace the Church, not that I consider emigrants to be of a lower grade in any way. Mind you, if it was not for them, the Church here would be a lot more underdeveloped. They come with all sorts of situations. Some of them bring years of leadership experience, others come in very bad circumstances and in much need of help.
    But my worry is what would happen should the situation in their home countries improve and they decide to return. I can tell you the Church here would go through big trouble unless some divine assistance would keep the stone rolling.

    The problem you point out with Europeans is nothing else but a syptom of pride. And I agree with you, we are full of it and it shows on most our attitudes towards the Gospel.

  43. J. Stapley says, “I wonder how popular Hamas would be in Gaza if all they did was knock on doors.”

    How popular would Al Qaeda be if they dressed like Mormon missionaries and knocked on doors?

  44. Texas_tyrant8 says:

    To #19:

    MATT! So awesome running into you here! If anybody could baptize in Europe I expect it would be your excellent wife. I was in Mexico. A relatively low-baptizing area of Mexico but still 30 times more productive than any of the European missions. It would be nice to see some innovative tracting methods put into place there. Maybe bring back the “Baseball baptisms” of the 50’s. That seemed to be the heydey of the church in Europe.


  45. re: 43

    That video is hilarious. Don’t know which Ozzie TV show it’s from, but those guys have the tone of the missionaries dead-on perfect. How fun.

  46. Chuck McKinnon says:

    J. Stapley, Steve Evans,

    As a Bordeaux mission alum, I agree about the general futility of porte-à-porte; I spent maybe two hours doing that my whole mission. If I had to contact directly, it was street contacting.

    We spent probably one full day per week doing Cours d’Anglais: preparing and coyping fiches, hanging fiches, preparing lessons, and preparing treats. In most of my cities fully half our teaching pool came from that one day’s work. Once people knew us well enough to lose their suspicions, the natural questions were “Why are you here? What’s so important you’d give up two years of your life to teach it?”

    I often wished we weren’t limited to four hours’ public service per week. I think there’s a great lesson in the contrast between the experiences of Ammon (who distinguished himself by his selfless service until he found an opportunity to share the gospel) and Aaron (who immediately tried preaching to the people and calling them to repentance). By four months in, I loved the French enough that I wanted to try it Ammon’s way.