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Local denomination sees massive spike in attendance during yearlong pandemic

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Dustin and Rebecca Borstelman minister to their neighbors in Bannock County through phone calls and letter writing. | Photo and video courtesy Jehovah’s Witnesses’ public information

IDAHO FALLS – After a turbulent year, many churches have been forced to reduce their proselyting efforts and they’ve seen a drastic decrease in attendance due to COVID-19 and the shut down of in-person worship services.

But for one denomination, the pandemic has resulted in increased interest and a massive spike in attendance.

Keith Hildreth, a regional spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, tells EastIdahoNews.com they quit knocking on doors last March and shifted to writing letters, making phone calls and holding Bible studies and worship services virtually. In the process, there’s been a double-digit increase in many congregations nationwide.

“It’s amazing!” Hildreth says. “And it’s really surprising.”

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Between Preston and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, there are at least 14 Jehovah’s Witness congregations, with a total of 800-1,000 church members throughout the area. Hildreth attends the Cedar Hills congregation in Pocatello and he says there’s been a 10% increase in attendance, including two baptisms last August and likely four more this summer.

Hildreth isn’t sure exactly why there’s been such a renewed interest but says it may be due to the fact that people are more likely to pick up the phone than they are to answer the door. Mail correspondence is hand-written because the clergy doesn’t keep track of people’s email addresses, which gives it a personal touch.

“You can find addresses and people’s names and so we’d write a letter. When we write a letter, people do open their mail,” says Hildreth. “When we were knocking on doors, a lot of times, nobody was home.”

He also credits the increase to pandemic fatigue and a general sense of hopelessness about political tensions in the world today.

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Last year, the church completed a 15-year project to make an American Sign Language version of the Bible available to people for free. It’s working to add an additional 36 languages in 2021. Hildreth says the incredible response to this project has helped boost proselyting efforts.

Dustin and Rebecca Borstelman of Pocatello have served as full-time volunteers of Jehovah’s Witnesses for the past 10 years. Since the transition to writing letters, they say their proselyting efforts have been much more effective.

“There is no doubt we are effective with the letter writing,” Dustin says in a news release. “People are busy and gone a lot, but with a letter, they are going to get it when they get home.”

The Borstelmans say proselyting through phone calls and letters has increased their love for others and strengthened their relationships with friends and neighbors.

“Our love for our neighbors is stronger than ever,” Robert Hendriks, U.S. spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses, says in a news release. “In fact, I think we have needed each other more than ever. We are finding that people are perplexed, stressed, and feeling isolated. Our work has helped many regain a sense of footing — even normalcy — at a very unsettled time.”

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a worldwide church with a membership of 8.6 million and more than 120,000 congregations. One of the church’s defining doctrines, according to Hildreth, is the belief that man was called to live on an earthly paradise. Church members believe they will be called to return the earth to its paradisiacal state at the end of Armageddon, he says.

Despite widespread access to the COVID-19 vaccine, Hildreth says in-person proselyting and worship services are not expected to resume anytime in the near future.

“It’s a personal decision whether you want to get vaccinated or not, but we’ve got to stay safe,” he says. “We have a respect for life. We want to keep our neighbors safe and we want to keep our families safe. We’re not looking to open anytime soon.”

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