by Randy Watters
In July 2001 I passed my 49th birthday, and I must say this is a time of reflection for me! As 20 years in ministry have passed by, I have been privileged to learn a lot, and to meet a large number of very good people! The years of my ministry to Jehovah’s Witnesses has borne fruit and blossomed into a diverse community of HELPED and HELPERS. (Of course, the roles always seem to reverse at times, to help us keep our sanity and balance!)
In 1981, my first community after leaving the Watchtower was Hope Chapel, a large “surfer” type church in California. They believed in the simple gospel of Christ and the laying on of hands, both in prayer and in love. Coupled with superb teaching on the ministry of Christ, Pastor Ralph Moore taught me about running a church, about community, about brotherhood and sacrifice. I already knew what the Bible said, but as a Jehovah’s Witness for eight years, I can’t say it was quite the same kind of knowledge! In a healthy church, the goal is to love one another and build one another up, not by rules, but by the grace of Christ. In the Watchtower, good people were left without the tools to know or show the love of Christ. I guess you could say that the Kingdom Halls always lacked the Spirit of Christ.
Upon turning in my letter of resignation to the Watchtower in 1981, I decided to forget about the organization and learn to live my life without it. This was easy to do with the help of a few fellow church members. What a wonderful transformation in the way I felt, yet little knowing how much baggage I still carried at the time! As a church group we even went to Israel, Egypt and Greece on a private tour one time, and enjoyed a wonderful and educational vacation.
In 1982 my own spirit became “agitated” enough about the Watchtower’s antics to begin operating Bethel Ministries (as a sub-ministry of Hope Chapel). I attribute much of my inspiration to Ralph Moore and Ed Gruss (author of Apocalypse Delayed, 1970). My ministry actually began with a sermon Ralph was giving and out of the blue he mentioned that the “Watchtower has all these printing presses,” and “Why can’t we use OUR printing press to do something similar?”
After the sermon I went up to Ralph and mentioned that I used to WORK on those Watchtower presses, and asked him, “Could we use our church presses to print something up about Jehovah’s Witnesses and their headquarters regarding recent events?” Ralph offered to print 10,000 tracts (11X17, entitled, What Happened at the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Spring of 1980?) free of charge, and I could send them all over the world and start a ministry. This I did, and beginning with a one-page newsletter in 1982, which a year later became known as “The Bethel Ministries Newsletter,” I was making new friends all over the world. I have known many of you readers for over a decade, some about 20 years! Reflecting on this nostalgia and the amazing changes that have occurred since then, I am delighted to write this letter.
The Healing Years
I was not alone in adjusting to life after a cult. Others were there for my encouragement. The first ex-Witness I met was Ed Gruss, formerly a professor at Los Angeles Baptist College. Soon I would be introduced to Keith and Lori MacGregor, Duane Magnani, Bill Cetnar, Erich Grieshaber and many others in ministry. Not to speak of the dozens of great friends that later began to minister and mature (along with me) in kind of a parallel “growing up into Christ,” for lack of a better phrase. Mainly, we became good friends.
We were all associated with various non-descript churches, yet found a common bond in our Witness background and the desire to help others. I can’t count how many wonderful friends I met at the Pennsylvania ex-Witness conventions each year, as well as in the countless speaking engagements I took part in with all kinds of churches. I was a regular on the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), and co-host Jan Crouch read my book Refuting Jehovah's Witnesses and had me on the prime time show. (Walter Martin was too radical for them.) With the help of many of my friends, cassettes and videotaping of our seminars were made available. These are still helping hundreds each year.
All of us have personal issues upon coming out of the Watchtower. For some it is family, for others it is friends and livelihood issues. For me, it was trying to start my life over! What would I do? I wanted to stay in full-time ministry for life. Now I found myself in ministry again, and it began to support me full-time starting in about 1985. Being part of a non-profit corporation, donations were the mainstay of our existence, with some sales.
The Pastoring Years
In the late 80s the next pastor of Hope Chapel, Zac Nazarian, began imploring me to start a church that could help ex-Witnesses, since I already basically HAD a small fellowship and study at my house. I was also already licensed as a Foursquare pastor. In 1987 I officially started Hope Chapel West Manhattan [Beach] with a group of about 35. We started meeting on Sunday evenings and Wednesday evenings. About 50% attending were ex-JWs, and 50% were standard born-again Christians. I was not on salary by the church, yet I had a part-time paid assistant who still offers his services periodically to this day. In fact, many of these original people are still friends of mine, though some have moved away.
The church experiment was educational but not without putting a strain on my time. After three years, I mentioned to our members that I had to go back to just helping Witnesses, as I could not keep up with church matters and teaching concerns. My heart was always in the JW ministry. After trying out several “potential” pastor replacements, the church finally voted to dissolve itself in 1990.
Bethel Ministries continued under the wing of Hope Chapel until Free Minds, Inc. was created in 1992 as a non-profit educational organization, not connected with any religion. Had I given up on Christianity? No, just crowds of people and their unending problems (ha!). I left Hope Chapel in good standing and I recommend people there to this day. I prefer to entertain all my friends in my own home nowadays.
The Free Minds, Inc. website (www.freeminds.org) was up and running by October 1, 1996, and has since had nearly half a million visitors. We also have three other satellite websites. Internet use was becoming quite popular, and this was the “new way” to reach thousands of people. And reach them it did! More and more emails came in gradually, dwarfing the audience of the Free Minds Journal by comparison. The difference was, most of the contributions were from my long-term family of friends who were Christian, and many of the internet audience were active or inactive Jehovah’s Witnesses who daily stumbled upon the site.
Though the person browsing the Free Minds site could find any sort of Christian answer to their questions, these new ones almost always had no tolerance for preaching or attempts to convert them to evangelical Christianity. Obnoxious web sites by other Christians often drove them back to the Free Minds site, where they could browse almost any subject they wanted without censorship or discovering hidden agendas.
Many, of course, REQUEST advice, and these are the ones who are the most ready for assistance, whether it be spiritual or factual, or whether they are just looking for friends to correspond with along the way. I am happy to give that. My most often-sent email is actually based on the issue of grace according to Galatians and Corinthians. There is a message in it for everyone, whether they choose Christianity or not.
The internet has changed the “scene” regarding HELP for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Ten or twenty years ago it was a matter of finding a church who had an ex-JW if you needed help. Or, you might listen to Walter Martin on the radio. Christian bookstores had a book or two on the Watchtower. Nowadays, however, most of the older evangelical outreaches are somewhat unknown on the internet, with a few exceptions. The community of Christians in ministry that was so powerful back in the 80s is being partially replaced with a huge potpourri of current Jehovah’s Witnesses who can’t leave (usually due to family ties) and who know it’s a cult, and many other ex-Witnesses and Christians from every background and location imaginable. MOST of them have never spoken to each other face-to-face, or even on a phone.
More factual information is available on the net about Witnesses than even the Witnesses have themselves! If a circuit overseer “coughs in Mississippi,” some JW will talk about it on the internet the next day. Many of their secret letters to the elders are being posted all over various websites! Due to the new glut of factual information AND critical group discussion, they are losing many of the members as we speak (an exodus that has barely begun!). Witnesses are talking in secret, and they are no longer as afraid that they will be caught. You can be invisible as well, since anyone with a computer and modem can read the posts without being noticed.
Need for Community
As you can observe in a couple of the letters to the editor in this issue, there is a strong desire of every normal human being to want to be part of a community. Community means nurture, protection, fellowship and spirituality. It is a wall of confidence that protects against fear and doubt. Losing community due to disfellowshipping or shunning can be very painful.
What happens when the community develops an abusive pattern of regulating the lives of its members? People suffer, and some leave. In many cases, they are now isolated from former nurturers, and are not able to interact with others in an unselfish way. They withdraw and sometimes become bitter and vengeful. They miss the health of a living community. For some under duress, perhaps it is better that they remain in the cult, at least for the basic needs of living. For others, seeing their kids once or twice a year is enough to keep them attending a meeting and not voicing any questions. There is an incredibly large number of Witnesses out there who have no option of leaving at the moment, which is very sad. I often pray for these people specifically.
Churches can be real good replacements for this sense of security and community. I know of no better form of group healing (supernatural or otherwise) than is to be found in learning to love one another, to lay hands on someone who is sick, and to go buy groceries for the poor. In my 49 years I have not experienced a greater high.
My advice to ex-JWs being afraid to go to a church is this: “Look. You have the Bible. Study it from a historical and critical viewpoint on your own. Read encyclopedias on Christianity for reliable history. Also, don’t expect some charismatic speaker or Christian author to teach you a well-balanced world view. Learn to think for yourself. Question anything. But learn to see church communities just as they were in the first century, a time of fellowship and hospitality, for the sake of being in the Spirit. You don’t have to judge people any more. If you don’t like the community, try another one. Just make sure you go in expecting to give more than you receive. Allow the community to adjust to you. You are the outsider, still a stranger to them. Most of them are no more spiritual than you are, so don’t expect more attention than you would give if you were in their shoes.”
For those who are tired of religion and the whole Bible world view, their fellowship will probably continue to be limited to internet discussion boards and chat rooms, with occasional personal gatherings for the bolder ones. While I applaud the desire to be in control of one’s own thoughts and destiny, and wish them well, I try to remind them that community is still important. Suicide, despair, and neglect CAN be prevented in the lives of many, if we put our doctrines aside and learn to live with one another, and make this world a better place. Let’s fellowship with real people and interact with their lives in a healthy way, and not in the bitterness seen so often on internet discussion boards. Time to get a life!