Bahá'í Epistolary

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Direct Teaching Methods and the Institute Process

I was once unexpectedly invited to join a list made up principally of Bahá'ís who had been deeply involved decades ago in the mass teaching projects that saw a significant expansion of the Bahá'í community in the United States. It was inspiring to see the passion for teaching, and the commitment to learn and audaciously experiment. A point of dialogue was how the earlier approaches to "teaching the masses" fit in with the new processes associated with the last 5 Year Plan. The following is my introductory letter to the group, that articulates my thoughts on the subject. It is followed by a response to a two friends, elsewhere, to their reservations regarding the validity or wisdom of mass teaching methods.

Honoured friends,

With great humility I join your list, as our beloved Master wrote, "with no good deeds to tell of, only hopes". I am fascinated to hear of your initiative, and touched by the San Antonio project's goal of "Growth without creating conflict in the community", which combines like the projects described in the newsletter audacious, systematic and intense individual initiative with a deep engagement with and humility before the institutions of the Cause.

I admire the vitality of commitment evinced, together with the "learning mode" which our beloved said was the greatest legacy of the Four Year Plan and the first intimation of the change of culture that ushered in the Fifth Epoch of the Formative age of our Faith. It calls to mind the vision and methods championed by Hand of the Cause Dr. Muhajir, and appears already to be yielding significant results.

I would be very grateful to hear, in this light, the current progressis in the Army of Light initiative in connection with "the goal to welcome into the Cause of God at least 2001 new souls in this One Year Plan, byRidvan 2001, and then 5000 in each year of the Five Year Plan". How many souls did enter the Faith in the One Year Plan by Ridvan 2001? Where are we now?

For my part, I have had experience of such direct teaching methods across the UK, in Mexico, former Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Ireland. Almost without exception, such initiatives have in my experience proven successful in attracting new souls into the Faith, sometimes in substantial numbers. What has proven hardest has been, on the one hand, successfully integrating such souls into existing communities in a lasting and fulfilling manner, and on the other, in UK at least, making direct teaching methods culturally acceptable to the Baha'icommunity.

Generally, such mass teaching initiatives are built around individuals with confidence and skill in the process, who act as catalysts for involving other Baha'is in the campaign and enrolling new believers. In UK, most Baha'is are deeply, intensely uncomfortable about approaching people in the street about the teachings, associating such behaviour with either aggressive proselytisation or marginal religious behaviour. It is the sort of approach that they would personally cross the street to try to avoid if it was coming from someone else. Individuals who see the promise of such an approach generally manage such reluctance and diminish it in at least a proportion of the community, who supports and joins them in teaching. The problem is that when such an individual or group leaves, the momentum is lost and the community returns to more culturally comfortable ways of expressing their faith.

In relation to the new believers that invariably emerge when direct teaching is done skillfully and with sincerity, the problem of consolidation tends to arise either because the individuals who have been instrumental in the declaration and enrolment of the new believer have moved on, and the remaining Baha'is are unable to replicate the spiritual connection built with the original teacher; or because the new believer approaches his new faith from an entirely different cultural standpoint to that prevailing in his new Baha'i community. In Britain, where the culture of the Baha'i community has tended to be professional, literate, and ethnically predominantly white British and Persian, episodes of substantial growth among working class and unemployed families, and among ethnic minorities, have generally petered out after a few years, not only in terms of new enrolements, but in terms of retention of new believers too.

I recall, in this connection, the passages in Century of Light which the Universal House of Justice mentions in their remarkable letter to me which I believe Rich shared earlier with this list:

"Determined efforts were made to respond to the guidance of the World Centre that expansion and consolidation are twin processes that must go hand inhand. Where hoped for results did not readily materialize, however, a measure of discouragement frequently set in. The initial rapid rise in enrolment rates slowed markedly in many countries, tempting some Baha'iinstitutions and communities to turn back to more familiar activities and more accessible publics.
"The principal effect of the setbacks, however, was that they brought home to communities that the high expectations of the early years were in some respects quite unrealistic. Although the easy successes of the initial teaching activities were encouraging, they did not, by themselves, build a Baha'i community life that could meet the needs of its new members and be self-generating. Rather, pioneers and new believers alike faced questions for which Baha'i experience in Western lands - or even Iran - offered few answers." (Century of Light, pp.101-102)

It seems to me that what we have achieved in the past are "successes" in "teaching activities", but a crucial element was missing without which such activities were inherently fragile, and the accompanying expectations "quite unrealistic". That element without which the process of entry by troops is hamstrung is, as I understand it, "a Baha'i community life that could meet the needs of its new members and be self-generating" (ibid). What followed was a process of learning and experimentation described in such letters from the beloved as those of the 26 Dec 1995 to the Conference of the Continental Board of Counsellors; April 1998 on Training Institutes, February 2000 on Training Institutes and Systematic Growth, and 9 January 2001 to the Counsellors. The distilled insight of the last decade has resulted, across the world, in the emergence of the three core activities of study circles, devotional gatherings, and children's classes, as the key instrument for achieving "a Baha'i community life that could meet the needs of its new members and be self-generating". As we invest ourselves heart and soul in the process of establishing these critical elements of Baha'i community development over the next twenty years, and as we integrate our non-Baha'ifriends into these activities, we will move our clusters through successive stages of development till we achieve the "culture of growth" which, the Universal House of Justice points to in their letter to me as the ultimate goal of the Four, One and Five Year Plans.

The key difference then, in my mind, in relation to prevous patterns of large-scale expansion, is that whereas in the past the fundamental motor of such enrolements was the enthusiastic and skilled efforts of a small number of Baha'i teachers, in future I anticipate the key motor of large-scale growth will be the achievement of a critical mass of growth-focused and effective "category A" clusters, consisting of:

"a high level of enthusiasm among a sizable group of devoted and capable believers who understand the prerequisites for sustainable growth and can take the ownership of the program; some basic experience on the part of a few communities in the cluster in holding classes for spiritual education of children, devotional meetings, and the Nineteen Day Feast; the existence ofa reasonable degree of administrative capacity in at least a few Local Spiritual Assemblies; the active involvement of several assistants to Auxiliary Board members in promoting community life; a pronounced spirit of collaboration among the various institutions working in the area; and above all, the strong presence of the training institutes with a scheme of coordination that supports the systematic multiplication of study circles."(UHJ January 9, 2001)

How do these faltering and obfuscated thoughts resonate across the ocean among such valiant and exemplary souls and true eagles in the firmament of servitude and consecration to the Blessed Beauty and His precious, sacred Universal House of Justice?

Your affectionate and humbled pupil,


* * * * *^
Dear both,
Thank you for your kind and encouraging responses. If there was no note of contrariness, beloved ones, it is because I do believe that mass teaching approaches do retain immense potential even now, when combined with the patterns of community life fostered by the House of Justice in their Jan 9 letter; when embedded in the attitudes of openess and lack of exclusivism called for in the message to the religious leaders; and when built on the foundation of clusters that evince the characteristics called for by the beloved, and focused on growth. I do not see personal teaching, the development of study circles, devotional meetings and children's classes truly "open to all" on the one hand, and large scale, well-planned, direct teaching campaigns on the other, as mutually incompatible, although the latter, unlike the former, need not be universal.
I recall our House of Justice's explanation that: "At this stage in the development of the Faith there are many new experiments taking place in the teaching field and also in the work of consolidation. It is obvious that not all these experiments will meet with success. Many have great merit while others may have little or none. However, in the present period of transition and rapid growth of the Cause we must seek diligently for the merit of every method devised to teach and deepen the masses." The Universal House of Justice, DDBC, 7.2 Each time I have overcome my inherited (and I must say substantial) discomfort to sally forth to gather souls in His Name with a direct method, on the streets of Britain for instance, each time I have encountered truly precious souls, ready souls, looking for the Faith, yet with no one to share with them the message, and felt deeply moved and grateful at having been part of such a sacred and soul enriching process which beyond the joys of service resulted in some deeply precious friendships with souls I would never otherwise have encountered, nor, it is likely, any other local Baha'is. This condition of yearning after new truth and not knowing where to turn for it Baha'u'llah describes in the Iqan as "the great oppression" of the latter days prophecied in the great Gospels. The bulk of the global Baha'i community owes the gift of the faith, it seems to me, to precisely such audacious and for many in the West counter-intuitive approaches, however discomforting they may, still, initially be in certain corners of my mindset.
Their effectiveness had nothing to do with the illiteracy or material ignorance of the target audience, as was demonstrated by the response of tens of thousands of cultured and educated individuals in Eastern Europe, and had already been shown among hundreds of like souls in Western countries. I recognise that such approaches are not suitable to all, and hold inherent spiritual pitfalls, but I cannot think of a single approach that does not. I therefore truly respect and admire those souls who feel called to advance this particular approach with sincerity, thoroughness, and in a learning mode and spirit of unity and submissiveness to the institutions, and look on with interest and prayerfulness for their progress.
For one thing I do not think has changed in Baha'i culture, is our focus on expansion. Rather, I would suggest the contrary to be the case, and that the culture the House of Justice is specifically and explicitly seeking to move us towards is what they designate as "a culture of growth". The key innovations are not, it seems to me, in deviating from a focus on expansion, but rather in our overall approach, which has become systematic, focused on learning from trial and error, and centred around a universal core of community activities which are not exclusive to Baha'is and which build a nurturing and self-generating community life. This does imply, as you reminds us, a much more open outlook towards the Other than may have been the case before, a much more dynamic and fluid boundary between the Baha'i community and its environment. At the same time it appears to me that, ultimately, it also calls for a more universal, more mature, and more consecrated focus on expansion on the part of each and every one of us.
As our beloved source of guidance wrote to an individual believer on April 1 1996, at the very begining of the House of Justice's efforts to evolve to a new stage our prevalent Baha'i culture: "In the future the Cause of God will spread throughout America; millions will be enlisted under its banner and race prejudice will finally be exorcised from the body politic. Of this have no doubt. It is inexorable,because it is the Will of Almighty God. However, as the House of Justice hasbeen trying to get the friends to understand for some time, the necessary precondition to translation of our community's social vision into reality is a massive expansion in the number of committed, deepened believers who are well grounded in the essentials of the Cause. Those who fail to comprehend the urgency assigned to the objective of achieving a large expansion have obviously failed to appreciate the moral imperative behind this aim."(quoted in "Raising the Call: The Individual and Effective Teaching", p.12)
It seems from this quote that we seem "for some time" to have had difficulty grasping "the urgency assigned to the objective of achieving a large expansion", on account of not understanding clearly enough "the moral imperative behind this aim". I certainly feel that such an analysis reflects my own frailties, and that the intellectual and more crucially spiritual connection between "our community's social vision" and the need for "a massive expansion in the number of committed, deepened believers who are well grounded in the essentials of the Cause.", with the clear emphasis on "massive expansion" and on "urgency", is one that has not always been clearly present in my heart, or animated in an authentic and personal way my labours and priorities in the Cause. The work of the souls in San Antonio; in Bryan/College station where 50 souls (mostly hispanics and African-Americans) have embraced the faith; in Northeast Oklahoma where 90 new believers have entered the Cause including a new LSA composed entirely of Cherokee Nation believers; etc., are all personally inspiring responses to both the moral imperative and the urgency of expansion, that have challenged me to reflect on my own response, and seek His signs in the regions and in my self.
With humble love,
Your friend,

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