From time to time I hear accusations that ISKCON is not growing; or worse still, that it may be shrinking; and that proof of this is that some temples are closing, empty during the week, or only attracting Indian families.
Personally I don’t believe that this is the case. I consider these accusations to be largely the propaganda strategies of embittered former members. Unfortunately I can’t prove it; we don’t seem to have international statistics on membership – at least stats that are easily available. Unlike other church groups we don’t seem to keep them. Srila Prabhupada wanted a GBC ‘Ministry of Records’ but as yet we don’t have one. Therefore each of us has to be content with impressions.
I will agree that some temples are closing, or empty during the week; and that some don’t seem to be attracting the national demographic of their particular country. But I know for a fact that growth is happening in other areas, and I would respectfully suggest to any ISKCON critic that he take certain factors into consideration.
Firstly that new devotees are not necessarily ‘joining’ in the manner they did in our earlier years. If you still want to consider ISKCON as being a ‘confederation of temples’ and ‘devotees’ being temple or ashram residents then you might be disappointed in the drop in numbers. But the fact of the matter is that the majority of new initiates neither live in our centres nor are they likely to do so.
If temples are empty of visitors during the week, but bustling with Hindu families at the weekend, it can only be said that this will not be sustainable. Like every other human being, devotees get older by the day, and if the senior members in a particular ashram are not gradually replaced by exactly the same number of junior members (or more) then that ashram is looking towards extinction in a few short years.
If the majority of devotees do not currently live in ashrams, it would seem this is a trend that is likely to continue on into the future. As much as possible we must now collectively work in ways to support our local ashrams and help them to attract new ashram members. At the same time, new strategies are required to spiritually care for the majority Vaishnava community that dwell everywhere else. And the entire enterprise must be based on sharing the life and teachings of Krishna consciousness with others.
However, it’s my impression that, in some places at least; the preaching attempts are not ‘joined up.’ Like a dot-to-dot puzzle in a children’s book, some numbers have lines between them and many others don’t. And it’s not the complete picture.
In places where some of the vital preaching elements are missing, it may be that a vital link in the chain of events bringing a new person to Krishna is missing. Sad to say, but in spite of all our best efforts with one form of preaching, we lose many people due to absences of other forms.
Sometimes, all the elements were in place a decade ago, but since then, devotees left and their vital services never replaced. When devotees leave a particular centre, often the skill, enthusiasm and determination for a particular preaching activity go with them. The sankirtan leader goes to another temple and book distribution dies. Or the devotee who did the university speaking gets married, and the university society is allowed to close. Solution? Every leader in a particular activity must simultaneously be training someone else for the service. That devotees will leave is likely, and centres have to prepare for the inevitable.
But what are those outreach activities that form all our preaching ‘dots’ which, if all joined up, form the complete preaching picture for any devotee community? Srila Prabhupada suggested at least these (but there many more):
1. Gorgeous temple worship and regular festivals for the Deities.
2. Book and magazine distribution
3. ‘Sumptuous’ Prasadam Distribution
4. ‘Street chanting party’ – harinam sankirtan in the city and surroundings
5. Public festivals with drama, kirtan, lecture and feast.
6. Grand Rathayatra processions
7. Programs in a hall, home, office, factory or school
8. Answering people’s questions
9. University engagements
10. Senior devotees teaching and guiding the junior devotees; setting the example for guests residing in the temple for a while to learn how to render pure devotional service.
11. Giving out free information in addition to selling books.
12. Inviting guests to the Sunday Feast (or whatever day of the week is good)
All of the above – even if expertly and successfully done – are merely prerequisites for growth, in contrast to actual growth indicators, and the actual growth of the community can only be measured in the number of souls taking up the teachings or the practices seriously. If ashram residents are required to continue ISKCON traditions in a particular city, then only when they reside in the ashram can you count growth. So if your temple (or community) is suffering from no-growth or slow growth syndrome you might like to ask the following questions:-
Prerequisites for Growth
1. Is our temple worship gorgeous? Do we have festivals for the Deities?
2. Has book distribution diminished and if so, why? How can it be developed again?
3. Is the prasadam ‘sumptuous’? Do we actually give it out? To whom?
4. When is the last time we went out on Harinam sankirtan?
5. How often do we hold public festivals (other than the Sunday feast)?
6. What about home programmes? What about the local university?
7. How many of us talk with people on a daily basis, and for how long?
8. Do people only come to the temple for kirtan and class or are they inspired to do it for themselves in their own home? Do we actively encourage people to do that?
9. Does anyone stay here to learn? For a morning programme? A weekend? A week?
10. Do we give out free information? What is the quality of that? The message?
11. Are senior devotees: a) setting the example? b) training and guiding the junior devotees? Could any congregation members help us with that?
As a result of our preaching:
1. Are more people gathering together with devotees?
2. Are they joining local devotee groups/ sangas/ nama hatta’s?
3. Are more people reading, discussing, understanding and practically applying what’s in Srila Prabhupada’s books?
4. How many people are chanting the Hare Krishna Mantra on a daily basis – 1, 4, 8 or 16 rounds?
5. Who is looking after them in a structured, systematic manner?
6. How many have made the choice to go vegetarian because of our preaching?
7. How many vegetarians are now offering their food to Krishna?
8. How many persons were persons were initiated last year? If not, why not?
9. How many of those newly initiated devotees are engaged in preaching? (Hint: If you answer ‘none’ to this one, something is wrong)
The first set of questions will reveal your growth potential, the second your factual growth.
And of course, after so much effort to bring new members to Krishna – make sure you don’t lose them through avoidable behaviours.