Almost 9,000 people were packed into the Cow Palace on the outskirts of San Francisco for the National Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it was oddly quiet in the aging arena. All you could really hear was the speaker onstage, flanked by massive banks of flat-panel TVs all wired together so the people in the cheap seats could see him at the podium. Well, they would be the cheap seats if the Jehovah’s Witnesses charged admission.
“It’s funny how technology changes things,” my guide, Melvin Scoggins Jr., observed. “In the past you’d hear pages turning. Now everyone has the app. Even the older people have their devices.”
Melvin, an immaculately dressed attendant, is one of my guides through this Jehovah’s Witness convention. The religious organization is holding five different conventions at the Cow Palace in July with two in Spanish and three in English. The combined events will draw 50,000 believers coming from congregations in Oregon all the way down to Salinas, Calif., to the same concrete barn where I once saw Ozzy Osbourne and AC/DC during the arena rock glory days of the 1980s.
And while the crowd may be the same size as it was for sold-out rock concerts, their behavior couldn’t be more different. The Jehovah’s Witnesses applaud each speaker with enthusiastic but polite clapping. There are no hallelujahs, no spontaneous cheers.
“We like to maintain our dignity,” Melvin explained.
Throughout the course of the convention, there’ll be 49 different Bible discussions—the Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t refer to them as sermons—and 35 video presentations.
“We used to have dramas actually enacted right on stage—full-costume Bible drama,” Media Services Director Alan Mobley recalled. “Now for the purpose of expediency and for just uniformity, we can look at a video of the same message.”
“Do you miss the live dramas?” I asked.
“They were exciting,” Mobley said with a slight grin. Mobley was in a few of these productions when he was in 20s. He is in his 60s now.
While the Jehovah’s Witnesses embrace modern technology at their convention, they primarily still get out the word the old fashioned way by distributing leaflets door-to-door.
“We have nothing against Twitter or Linkedin, but when it comes to inviting the public, we still like face-to-face contact,” Mobley said. “We like to go to where the people are.”
The melding of ancient rites and 21st century tech is at its most profound when one member of each congregation is baptized in an above-ground pool at the side of the stage. About 40 chosen baptism candidates line up next to the tank. They range in age from 12 to almost 60, and every ethnicity is represented. They get in the water one-by-one, with a team of men in swim trunks and t-shirts waiting to submerge them.
The ritual itself hasn’t changed much since John the Baptist dunked Jesus in the Jordan River, but now there are smartphones and iPads trained on the pool as mobs of friends and family members take pics and video of these watery declarations of faith.
Everyone has their devices.
Every month in “Shattering Conventions,” author Bob Calhoun crashes a new tradeshow, convention or conference looking for a way to fit in—even when he doesn't always belong. Calhoun is the author of "Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor." You can follow him on Twitter at @bob_calhoun.