Monday, May 02, 2005

The "Troops" are Thinning Out

This year's Ridvan letter from the US NSA is out, and it reports, that
Thousands of Bahá'ís are well along
in the main sequence of institute training courses. Twenty
clusters have achieved "A" status and many more will be so
designated by the end of the Five Year Plan. Study circles,
children's classes, junior youth classes, and devotional gatherings
are thriving, in numbers ranging in the thousands.
Community vitality is high, contributions to the Bahá'í
Funds are setting records each year, and projects of social
and economic development are increasingly well organized,
effective, and numerous. In the light of this progress, we
have asked ourselves why growth has declined by 60 percent
in the past seven years.


Low growth in the Baha'i community is, of course, an old story. Baha'is have been asking themselves what happened to "entry by troops" ever since growth slowed down in the early 80s. And, there are a lot of factors, both external and internal, to account for that. One of them, they mentioned in this letter i.e., the aging of the community:

In the late 1960s, when we first experienced "entry by
troops," the Bahá'í community was 80 percent youth. The
average age of American Bahá'ís was 25. Today, the community
is 80 percent adults, with an average age of 50. And
although there is strong evidence of spiritual receptivity
in every generational cohort, youth are, by far, the largest
community of interest.


I read once that in 1973, 90% of all Baha'is on the rolls were under the age of 25. It remains, to this day, a religion that is largely composed of Baby Boomers. The community was very small before that generation came along, and it was never successful at attracting later cohorts. I could have told you, without the official statistic, that the average age of the Baha'i community is 50, because most Baha'is I know are just right around that age. And, this is a problem, because young folks aren't as likely to be converted by someone in their parents' generation, and 50-year-olds, for the most part, have settled on their religion. I myself was an rather aged convert of 25; most Baha'is I know converted before they were 21. An aging religious group is in trouble if it expects growth.

There are other factors, much discussed on the Internet, but I'd like to focus on what, in particular, has been happening during the last seven years that would cause such a steep decline during that period. What's been happening for the last seven years? Well, the Internet is one thing. Yes, I know it's easy to exaggerate the impact of the Internet when you're on it all the time, and of course, the web didn't just pop up in the last seven years. It has, however, expanded a great deal. I wasn't online seven years ago. One used to have to subscribe to email lists through email, instead of clicking a button at the website -- a mystery I was unaware of for the first couple of years I was online. Anyway, cyberspace has gotten both larger and more user-friendly; there are more people here.

And the administration no longer controls what is said about the faith. Those who come online seeking information about the Baha'i Faith get the good, the bad, and the ugly. And some seekers have probably been stopped by the controversy. I once had someone write to me about my article *Enemies Within*, just furious because a seeker who had been investigating the Faith for months decided it wasn't a place she wanted to be. And, I felt bad, because that isn't actually why I wrote the article. On the other hand, the things I said were true -- and a person turned off by the content of that article would also certainly be turned off by the reality of life in the Baha'i community, sooner or later. It might behove Baha'is like Ms. Furious who wrote to me to think about addressing some of the problems I raise, rather than ragging on me about exposing it. I never say a bad word about Baha'u'llah, in whom I believe, and I believe in His Message. She didn't notice that.

The second major thing that's been going on during the last seven years has been Ruhi. For those who don't know about it, it is the main curriculum for Baha'i study circles and has been all the rage in the Baha'i community for the past few years. Some people love it; other absolutely hate it, and there have been complaints about it's rigid, rote style of programmed learning -- rather reminiscent of the Jehovah's Witness courses. Other have complained that it has virtually taken over their communities, crowding out other activities. Most Baha'i communities are small, and can only sustain so much.

Nevertheless, the big push has been to get "clusters", which are areas that contain several Baha'i communities within the same geographical area. (I looked up mine, and it includes towns way up in the mountains that nobody here would travel to, particularly if they had to drag kids along.) These clusters are classed D, C, B, and A, depending on how many have taken the Ruhi courses and how many books of the series they have completed. I've heard that to be an "A" cluster, there has to be about 50 people who have made their way through all the books.

Now, here's a real shift: Lesser clusters have actually been *discouraged* from putting together teaching programs. You're supposed to get your cluster to "A" first. I spent most of the time I was enrolled feeling intense pressure to teach, and bring in new members, but that seems to have gone by the wayside. Some of these clusters will never be "A"; some probably don't have 50 active Baha'is willing to drag themselves through Ruhi. But there are now 20 "A" clusters in the U.S. all set for entry by troops. The idea has been floated that this year is the test year for Ruhi -- because that has been the theory; get the community deepened and properly prepared before trying to bring in new members. That's not a bad idea in itself, although I question the idea of having all communities tied to a single program.

Anyway, Ruhi has to be one of the key factors in the dramatically slowing growth of the last few years. Teaching hasn't even been on the front burner, for one thing, and the community is committed to a program that some of the more intelligent and freethinking Baha'is find alienating.

3 comments:

Baquia said...

Karen,

it seems that the AO is finally acknowledging what many 'heretics' have been saying for a long, long time.

Even the guys genuflecting in the direction of Lample have pointed out this 'challenge'.

But it is one thing to notice the reality facing the world wide Baha'i community in the face. It is a totally different thing to accept it and take responsability for it as well as move towards a solution.

Maybe I'm being pessimistic but I think they'll just find a scapegoat and stop there. Blaming the 'liberals' is much too tempting, I'm afraid.

Eric Hadley-Ives said...

Karen,

I think the switch from an emphasis on teaching to an emphasis on improving the quality of community life was a turn in the right direction. You yourself were frustrated by the hollow community life you found in the Faith with all efforts devoted to converting new believers when there wasn't really much going on spiritually to convert them to. So, the Baha'is decided to use systematic training and focus on making Baha'is more familiar with their religion. This was done communally, in community-building groups. The study classes had practical exercises (like visiting Baha'is outside of classes and doing service projects). Much like the successful "one-city and one-book" projects (adapted by cities such as Chicago or universities across the USA) the administration pushed a single series of study courses.

This is clearly a better situation than the one you experienced in your community when you were a "card-carrying" Baha'i. You're correct that the Ruhi books that were selected as the "one book" study course are egregiously flawed. Probably the idea that one series of study courses would work for everyone was also mistaken. Maybe we all should have deepened on the Hidden Words instead. But then, the NSA had encouraged us to read specific books of the Baha'i Revelation before, and I never saw massive community responses to these suggestions.

And yeah, the Internet is a great thing. It's better to slow down or stop growth as savvy seekers read about the Diaglogue Affair, the persecution of intellectuals within the Faith, Juan Cole's Panoptican article in the Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion, and of course your own excellent portrayals of the pathetic side of the Faith. I'm hoping this will force the Faith to evolve toward greater openness. The members of the American NSA need to ask for forgiveness and confess their errors. That would restore the dignity of that institution. The UHJ needs to approach people who have been chased out of the Faith and admit the mistakes, and beg people to come back into the Faith.

If the UHJ and NSAs would simply follow Shoghi Effendi's instructions about openess, and obey 'Abdu'l-Baha's directions about treating people with respect and kindness. . . the Internet problems would go away. The only critics left would be the crack-pots. As a younger and more internet-wise generation grows to maturity I believe we will see more progressive people elected to NSAs and the UHJ.

It's better the Administrative Order learn from the mistakes it has made over the past 25 years now, while the Faith is relatively obscure and powerless. In ten or twenty years from now the UHJ and NSAs will look back at this as a "dark age" and will remember never to repeat the errors that have been made. All future Baha'is will learn the history of the Faith with this era as an example of how the Faith must not be.

The Ruhi course take-over and the Internet are working to bring us toward this future. And slow growth in enrollments is an important part of the process.

Karen said...

Dear Eric,

Yes, I would agree that the concept is better than what we had before i.e. creating a strong community life before attempting to bring in converts. And there are other aspects of the current program -- devotional meetings, and an emphasis on children's classes, that I support wholeheartedly.

The problem with Ruhi is the one-size-fits-all mentality. Some of this is in Baha'i culture, where if the administration likes Ruhi then the darn thing must have been put together by the Almighty Himself. From what I understand, the UHJ wants the study circles, whether it's Ruhi or not, but it only counts, when you are evaluating a cluster's status, if people have gone through the Ruhi course. Some people are even being accused of being uncovenantal if they don't like the course!

And you are correct that deepenings before were often half-hearted; I used to get frustrated with this, since I couldn't imagine anything more important than studying the Writings.

What is it with Baha'is that they won't get motivated to do anything unless there is some kind of directive from on high?

You might be right that slow growth is, as you say "a part of the process". What I'm worried about is that the Faith is headed towards a situation where it will become largely an "inherited" religion, and it won't ever be able to go back to being a growing, thriving, religious movement. But then, I may be too pessimistic, and only time will tell.