Technology and the Jehovah’s Witnesses

Alexandra Berg, Åbo Akademi University

Alexandra Berg, first year student at Åbo Akademi University, has assisted the Finnish Recovira-team with participant observations for the projects’ aesthetic analysis. Here you can read about her observations and experiences when visiting the Jehovah’s Witnesses last winter.

Last year, in the gloomy midwinter, we went to visit the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were a well-dressed group of people, who treated us with warmth and consideration. We attended an event set in the Kingdom Hall’s main lecture hall; a large and bright room filled with dozens of people. I was excited and a bit nervous. I had never been to a Jehovah’s Witness event before. My nervousness proved to be unnecessary, because when we arrived everyone was hospitable and did their best to make us feel welcome.

I found it very interesting to notice how highly digitised the gathering was. There were two large TV screens in the front of the hall, angled downwards, so the audience could easily see them. The TVs were actively used during the sermon, displaying text or pictures relevant to the topic. At one point, everyone who was able to, stood up and sang together, and the lyrics were shown on the TV screens. The atmosphere in the room was relaxed. I got the impression that everyone was comfortable singing, and the songs were familiar to them.  There was a separate desk in the room with computer monitors. Towards the end of the sermon, the congregation watched videos portraying scenarios one might encounter when doing mission work, and how to navigate certain situations. 

The usage of mobile phones was highly encouraged during the lecture. Almost everyone had an app containing material and resources related to the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The event’s schedule and program were available in the app, as well as reading materials, such as Bible verses, think-pieces about life and faith, and issues of Watchtower. In an interactive section during the sermon, people received prompts on their apps, and they could answer questions posed in the app.

Various speakers spoke into microphones. There were microphones located by the individual seats. Many members of the audience took their turns to answer questions or give their insights. The sound was loud enough to be clearly heard, but at a comfortable volume suited to the hall’s size and acoustic capabilities. 

I really enjoyed the event and meeting all the people. They were very friendly and happy to converse with me. I was surprised at the smooth incorporation of technology, and it was very intriguing to meet so many new people.

-Alexandra Berg

Researchers of Religion, Digital Media, and Rituals Met in Helsinki

Katriina Hulkkonen, Linda Annunen and Ruth Illman, Åbo Akademi University

An international group of researchers interested in religion, digital media, rituals, and death gathered at the University of Helsinki on 13–15 March 2024. The seminar was jointly organized by the research projects Recovira and Digital Death, DiDe.

The seminar was opened on Wednesday 13 March by a keynote lecture delivered by Professor Douglas Davies of Durham University. His theme was “Death rites online and absent. Death ritual through virtual presence and literal absence: the paradox of live-streaming funerals and the absence of ritual in ‘direct cremation”. Davies’ presentation highlighted a ludic, or playful, attention to death and funerals. Play bends the rules in order to create something new, which becomes apparent especially in two funeral trends: the “no-fuss-funerals”, which are stripped of typical funeral aesthetics and traditions, and funerals carried out as a celebration of life. In this sense, rituals in times of change might bring forth ludicity that in turn allows for changes in funeral rituals.

Prof. Douglas Davies opened the seminar with a keynote lecture on the theme of death rituals in digital age. Prof. Joshua Edelman, PI of the Recovira team, responded with reflections on performativity and play. Image credit – Ruth Illman

The following day was reserved for a roundtable seminar where the researchers of Recovira and DiDe discussed their preliminary results in-depth. In the first roundtable session “Religious communities in digital contexts: Trends and transformations”, Henrik Reintoft Christensen and Alana Vincent talked about the current state of our Recovira project as well as the benefits and challenges of using survey data and social media materials. The presentations sparked discussion on how technology shapes religion and religious communities and how a critical approach could be formed within the Recovira project. In other words, how could our research better consider and critically examine the negative aspects of digitalization and the power structures that relate to it? The participants asked very interesting questions, for example: What is the position of commercial technology companies in the field of religion? What opportunities do religious communities have to respond to or resist increasing digitalization? 

The second roundtable session of the afternoon focused on ritual changes, death, and grief. First, Dorthe Christensen discussed the perspective offered by the autoethnographic method to study digital death practices and grief. Terhi Utriainen then talked about various perspectives for examining death rituals. At the same time, she presented the forthcoming Handbook on Contemporary Death Rituals in Europe. The presentations gave rise to a lively discussion, where for example the definition and use of the concept of ritual was scrutinized. Is there an end to a ritual? Are classics, like the ritual theories of Victor Turner or Catherine Bell, still relevant today? Moreover, what kind of new theoretical tools do we need to study death rituals?

The day continued with an open panel discussion led by Professor Johanna Sumiala, PI of the DiDe team. The speakers were the author, columnist and pastor Hilkka Olkinuora, the funeral home entrepreneur Kyllikki Forsius, the director Hannu Mäkelä from the Digital and Population Data Services Agency, the researcher Maija Butters from the University of Helsinkiand the Vantaa-based Imam Sharmarke Said Aw-Musse.

Death in Finland Today: the public panel discussion at the Think Corner drew a large audience both on-site and online. From left: Johanna Sumiala, Hilkka Olkinuora, Kyllikki Forsius, Hannu Mäkelä, Maija Butters and Sharmarke Said Aw-Musse.

During the conversation, the panelists offered different viewpoints on practices and attitudes toward death. They largely agreed that nowadays, the silent and natural death of an individual is hidden while the violence of death has received a lot of attention in the media, especially due to wars. The discussion highlighted the importance of funeral homes, bureaucracy, and the role of relatives in practical matters related to death. The panelists presented their views on the change in funeral customs in Finland. Based on the discussion, funerals have become more individual. The panelists’ views also resonate with our Finnish Recovira data, according to which in the case of the Lutheran Church, people want to arrange smaller funerals than before. However, the discussion also revealed that funerals are often large in the Muslim community. For example, community members not close to the deceased may also come to pray at the funeral. In addition, the panelists pondered, what kind of a place social media is for dealing with grief, how the fear of death is visible today’s Finland, and whether there should be more education related to death. Based on the discussion, death rituals are still important for communities, relatives and loved ones, as well as for the dying person her- or himself in dealing with death and grief. The panel discussion ended with the wish that people would be present for the dying person and talk more about mortality in general.

On Friday, both projects continued with internal project meetings. For the Recovira-team, this included planning a book that will focus on overlappings and differences expressed in the research data from all project countries. In addition to these more concrete plans for the Recovira project, for us members of the Finnish team, this three-day seminar offered interesting and different topics for reflection concerning, among other things, creativity, critical research on digitalisation and religion, the limits of the use of the concept of ritual, and people’s somewhat changed relationship with death.

National and local discourses of digitalization in an Evangelical Lutheran parish in Finland during the pandemic

turku-cathedral-bell-tower-by-heikki-raisanen
A summary of my Master’s thesis conducted as part of ReCoViRa in Finland
Ossian Klingstedt, Åbo Akademi University

The aim of my thesis was to analyze the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland’s (ELCF) discourses on digital media during the COVID-19 pandemic. By applying the theoretical perspectives of mediatization, vicarious religion, and religious-social shaping of technology, I identified the specific discursive formations that were fundamental to the ELCF’s way of understanding and talking about digital media. In this light, I analyzed the ELCF’s adoption of digital tools during the spring of 2020 with a focus on its communication on both a national and a local level. The data analyzed consisted of a set of publications and information notices published by the ELCF both before and during the spring of 2020 (national level) as well as a group-interview conducted in 2023 with employees of the Swedish-speaking parish in Turku, Åbo svenska församling (local level).

My thesis shows how, at the national level, the ELCF’s communication regarding digital media was governed by specific discursive formations that depicted the church as a public utility and essential part of Finnish society – a “folk church” – while internally reproducing a notion of the church as being in a certain kind of existential crisis, due to e.g. membership loss and general disinterest in its activities and provisions. The ELCF drew on these discursive formations when justifying its use of digital media, arguing that, in a media-saturated society, it is necessary to extend activities and services to digital environments. In this, the ELCF’s official discourse includes clear elements of technological determinism, as the church sees adaptation to societal processes of digitalization as inevitable.

The COVID-19 pandemic accentuated this discourse of forced adaptation once it became clear for the ELCF that certain technical solutions would be a necessity for it to be able to have an active role in society during the crisis. At the beginning of the pandemic, the central task of the ELCF became to maintain its services, but in a way that prioritized safety and health. Thus, technological solutions, such as streamed church services and pastoral care through video calls, came into the picture, and were put into use with the aim of maintaining the ELCF’s self-identified mission as a “folk church”: even in exceptional circumstances, the argument went, the church must be available for those who need it. At the local level, it was felt that digital media provide good opportunities for expanding the church’s communicative reach and for participation even in restricting conditions, as attendance numbers in online church services surprisingly exceeded those of in-person services before the pandemic. The administration of the “virtual church”, however, also greatly increased the workload for specific employees instead of functioning as a well-integrated supplement to established offline practices. Furthermore, some ritual acts, such as the Eucharist in particular, were perceived as impossible to fully realize through current digital mediums. Local parish employees therefore made a clear qualitative distinction between the “online” and the “offline” church, although further integration of digital elements into everyday parish activities and services is to be expected in the near future.

Image credit – Heikki Raisanen: Turku Cathedral Bell Tower

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