Below is a recent letter from the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of New Zealand to clarify doubts about door-to-door teaching as well as “direct teaching”. I have heard this term (“direct teaching”) more and more but no one bothered to define what they meant by it. Towards the end of the letter, the NSA of NZ outlines their definition. Most helpful.
In the end, it comes down to using your own judgement and taking each and every opportunity to teach the Faith as a singular moment which can not be mass-produced. Sometimes the best thing is to say nothing, sometimes it is to challenge the person, sometimes it is to say a lot, sometimes almost nothing, sometimes to use logic, sometimes to use stories that evoke emotion, etc. Since we are talking about the most fundamental human endeavor, teaching is an art. Not a science.
Can you imagine if, stopping by the blacksmith, Mirza Abu’l-Fadl would have been invited to a Ruhi class instead of having the irksome exchange he did have?
Here is the letter:
In its recent consultations the National Spiritual Assembly has thought deeply about the purpose underlying the calling of these 41 conferences. What message should we take from this action of the supreme institution of our Faith as we draw nearer to the end point of the Five Year Plan? What must we do in New Zealand if we are to meet our commitments to the Universal House of Justice and establish nine intensive programmes of growth?
Inescapably we come to the conclusion that the immediate and urgent need is that the recent calls for a massive upsurge in teaching efforts must be heeded and acted upon by increasing numbers of the friends.
In particular we must embrace the clear and unequivocal guidance from the central institutions in regard to the audacious employment of direct teaching methods.
Learning from clusters in diverse places around the world is showing empirical and positive benefits from adopting these teaching approaches and we have had the hint of successes in New Zealand as well.
One of the elements in many direct teaching projects is the practice of what is referred to as “door knocking.” The National Spiritual Assembly is aware that some of the friends feel anxious about the practice of Baha’i teachers making door-to-door visits on homes, because of their concern that this practice is “pushy” and perhaps amounts to proselytising, which is forbidden in the Teachings.
It is important that such understandable anxieties are alleviated in order that needless controversy be avoided that would sadly hold back the momentum of the Plan. The National Spiritual Assembly offers the following explanation of its view on this matter, believing that this will settle the legitimate concerns of the friends while also encouraging individual initiative by audacious but wise Baha’i teachers.
As in most things, the solution to this issue lies in balance and moderation but without fear of treading in new territory. In its message to the Baha’is of the world last Ridvan, the Universal House of Justice noted with great pleasure the rising tide of individual initiative by the believers in “carrying out those acts of service befitting a healthy pattern of growth”. It praised the friends for having “taken to heart the words of Shoghi Effendi that they must neither ‘hesitate’ nor ‘falter’; neither are they ‘fanatical’ nor ‘excessively liberal’; they become adept at determining whether the receptivity of their listener requires them to be ‘wary’ or ‘bold’, to ‘act swiftly’ or to ‘mark time’, to be ‘direct’ or ‘indirect’ in the methods they employ.” In these words the Supreme Body highlighted that effective teaching takes the middle path between the extremes of overzealousness on the one hand and timidity on the other.
It might be thought that door-to-door visits are in themselves, unavoidably, an “overzealous” form of approach to members of the public. However, when the matter is considered in detail it becomes clear that making calls on people at their doors to inform them about some aspect of Baha’i activities or beliefs can be acceptable under the right circumstances. Factors affecting the appropriateness of doing so include the cultural outlook of the people in the particular neighbourhood, and the subject-matter and style of approach being made by the Baha’i visitor. There is a world of difference between, say, politely informing householders of a service being provided in a neighbourhood (such as children’s classes or junior youth programme) and an uninvited intrusive attempt to give what might be described as a “door-step fireside”.
In addressing itself to this question the National Spiritual Assembly has also made reference to the most relevant messages from the Universal House of Justice. An important one is dated 5 May 1982 and deals specifically with understanding the nature of what constitutes proselytizing, which is forbidden by Baha’u’llah. The Supreme Body wrote:
Proselytizing implies bringing undue pressure to bear upon someone to change his Faith. It is also usually understood to imply the making of threat or the offering of material benefits as an inducement to conversion.
A further letter from the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer on 30 June 1993 stated:
Baha’is tend to go to extremes, and too few people bring the proper balance to the way they act . At one extreme are those who are so on fire with love for the Faith . that they overstep the bounds of wisdom and discretion and stray into the area of proselytizing. At the other extreme are those who are so . concerned never to arouse an adverse reaction that they fail to convey the enormous importance of the Cause .; the first extreme leads to misrepresentation of the Teachings .; the second results in failure to fulfil . [the community's] fundamental duty of conveying this life-giving Message to the world.
In recent times the Universal House of Justice has also received queries explicitly on the subject of door-to-door teaching and on 18 October 2007 it wrote to a Local Spiritual Assembly giving the essence of how decisions are to be made on these matters: In general, the institutions of the Faith should be flexible in such matters and avoid restricting unnecessarily the efforts of the believers to teach the Faith. When questions arise as to the propriety of a particular method for use in a country, it is best to refer them to the National Spiritual Assembly.
In New Zealand, the National Spiritual Assembly recognises the need for prudence. Unquestionably, any teaching practice that veers towards any semblance of proselytising must be strictly avoided by the friends. The key is to be generally aware of the risks that accompany direct approaches to others about religion, and the problems that can occur if the Faith is introduced to others in an unwise or forceful manner.
For the future, the National Spiritual Assembly envisages the continuing possibility of door-to door approaches in teaching campaigns. In fact, it is imperative that our community move assertively, tempered with wisdom, in this direction. Decisions should be taken by Local Spiritual Assemblies and cluster agencies, which have the necessary close familiarity with local conditions to determine whether or not such door-knocking is appropriate. This view is obviously based on our trust that the friends will exercise discretion and discernment and always act within guidelines established by the New Zealand institutions.
As always in the teaching work, individuals must decide for themselves what approaches they are comfortable with in their personal acts of service. Involvement in such campaigns can never be compulsory but everyone can contribute to the success we all desire to see through adopting an encouraging supportive attitude with their ardent prayers.
The National Spiritual Assembly is also aware that many of the friends have queries in their minds about what constitutes “direct teaching”. The Assembly hopes that the following notes may be helpful in developing a more unified understanding throughout the community.
The form of door-to-door contact (door-knocking) described above does not in itself constitute “direct teaching” because it does not aim to get into direct discussions about the Teachings, unless questions are asked by householders which lead naturally into such discussions. However, the door-knocking that has been done in the recent campaigns has had the underlying intention of opening up opportunities for direct teaching to occur later. If the Faith is going to attract committed new adherents, sooner or later in the process of contact with people, it will be necessary to inform them directly about the Teachings.
The International Teaching Centre, in a letter dated 30 September 2007, observed:
Those [clusters] that have attained a healthy, sustainable growth pattern are characterized by a focus on teaching, in particular direct teaching, and not just on extending invitations to core activities.
The choice of method lies with the teacher, who must act with wisdom in all circumstances, according to his or her perception of the seeker’s receptivity.
There are clearly occasions when the indirect method of teaching is preferable. However, global experience in clusters at every stage of advancement is increasingly demonstrating the effectiveness of a more direct approach in most teaching encounters. This is especially true with respect to the essential activities of the Five Year Plan. In this Plan, there is special emphasis on organized, collective campaigns of teaching. Such campaigns usually take place in specific neighbourhoods where receptive populations have been identified. Forms of direct teaching within these campaigns may include:
- Asserting clearly and directly, in a fireside setting, the fundamental verities of the Cause.
- Presenting the fundamental verities of the Cause openly and boldly to family, friends, neighbours, and co-workers in a non-fireside setting.
- Nurturing toward acceptance of the Faith those who have already indicated their interest by their participation in the core activities.
- In certain neighbourhoods and under the right circumstances, visiting people’s homes with the intention of sharing the teachings with them, if they are receptive.
As these various examples indicate, the phrase “direct teaching” refers to the content of the message and not the place where the teaching occurs. Whatever the situation, wonderful results are being seen when Baha’i teachers present the Faith in a comprehensive and audacious manner.