A number of concepts are integral to understanding the recent global Plans of the Faith, and Part II consists of a document dated 29 October 2005 prepared by an ad hoc committee for a workshop presented as part of the Serving the Divine Plan Program at the Bahá’í World Centre. In the document, passages from letters written by or on behalf of the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice are used to explore a few of the most essential concepts such as advancing the process of entry by troops, two essential movements, and learning in action. The document also explores areas in which significant learning has taken place within the Bahá’í community from the start of the Four Year Plan at Riḍván 1996, through the Twelve Month and Five Year Plans, until the end of 2005, when the provisions of a new global enterprise were announced by the Universal House of Justice.
In its message of 26 December 1995 to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors, the Universal House of Justice announced that the Bahá’í world would embark upon a four-year global enterprise at Riḍván 1996 aiming at a significant advance in the process of entry by troops. The advance was to be achieved through marked progress in the activity and development of the individual, the institutions, and the local community—the three participants of the Four Year Plan. The House of Justice went on to explain the significance of this step:
That an advance in this process depends on the progress of all three of these intimately connected participants is abundantly clear. The next four years must witness a dramatic upsurge in effective teaching activities undertaken at the initiative of the individual. Thousands upon thousands of believers will need to be aided to express the vitality of their faith through constancy in teaching the Cause and by supporting the plans of their institutions and the endeavors of their communities. They should be helped to realize that their efforts will be sustained by the degree to which their inner life and private character “mirror forth in their manifold aspects the splendor of those eternal principles proclaimed by Bahá’u’lláh.” An acceleration in the tempo of individual teaching must necessarily be complemented by a multiplication in the number of regional and local teaching projects. To this end the institutions should be assisted in increasing their ability to consult according to Bahá’í principles, to unify the friends in a common vision, and to use their talents in service to the Cause. Furthermore, those who enter the Faith must be integrated into vibrant local communities, characterized by tolerance and love and guided by a strong sense of purpose and collective will, environments in which the capacities of all components—men, women, youth and children—are developed and their powers multiplied in unified action.
The two stages in the unfoldment of the Divine Plan lying immediately ahead will last one year and five years respectively. At Riḍván 2000 the Bahá’í world will be asked to embark on the first of these two stages, a twelve-month effort aimed at concentrating the forces, the capacities and the insights that have so strongly emerged. The Five Year Plan that follows will initiate a series of worldwide enterprises that will carry the Bahá’í community through the final twenty years in the first century of the Faith’s Formative Age. These global Plans will continue to focus on advancing the process of entry by troops and on its systematic acceleration.
The phrase “advance in the process of entry by troops” accommodates the concept that current circumstances demand and existing opportunities allow for a sustained growth of the Bahá’í world community on a large scale; that this upsurge is necessary in the face of world conditions; that the three constituent participants in the upbuilding of the Order of Bahá’u’lláh—the individual, the institutions, and the community—can foster such growth first by spiritually and mentally accepting the possibility of it, and then by working towards embracing masses of new believers, setting in motion the means for effecting their spiritual and administrative training and development, thereby multiplying the number of knowledgeable, active teachers and administrators whose involvement in the work of the Cause will ensure a constant influx of new adherents, an uninterrupted evolution of Bahá’í Assemblies, and a steady consolidation of the community.
Moreover, to advance the process implies that that process is already in progress and that local and national communities are at different stages of it. All communities are now tasked to take steps and sustain efforts to achieve a level of expansion and consolidation commensurate with their possibilities. The individual and the institutions, while operating in distinctive spheres, are summoned to arise to meet the requirements of this crucial time in the life of our community and in the fortunes of all humankind.
… entry by troops is not merely a stage of the progress of the Cause destined to occur in its own good time, dependent on the receptivity of the population as a whole—it is a phenomenon which the Bahá’í communities, by their own activities, can prepare for and help to bring about. It is also a process which, once started, can be sustained. By a wise allocation of resources and the energetic pursuit of simultaneous plans of expansion, deepening and consolidation, the process of entry by troops should bring about a rapidly increasing supply of active believers, soundly based local communities, and steadily evolving local and national Bahá’í institutions.
Of course, it has been explained by the Guardian that entry by troops is a stage in the growth of the Faith that presages the day when mass conversion on the part of the diverse peoples of the world will take place:
… winning to the Faith fresh recruits to the slowly yet steadily advancing army of the Lord of Hosts, whose reinforcing strength is so essential to the safeguarding of the victories which the band of heroic Bahá’í conquerors are winning in the course of their several campaigns in all the continents of the globe.
Such a steady flow of reinforcements is absolutely vital and is of extreme urgency, for nothing short of the vitalizing influx of new blood that will reanimate the world Bahá’í Community can safeguard the prizes which, at so great a sacrifice, involving the expenditure of so much time, effort and treasure, are now being won in virgin territories by Bahá’u’lláh’s valiant Knights, whose privilege is to constitute the spearhead of the onrushing battalions which, in divers theatres and in circumstances often adverse and extremely challenging, are vying with each other for the spiritual conquest of the unsurrendered territories and islands on the surface of the globe.
This flow, moreover, will presage and hasten the advent of the day which, as prophesied by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, will witness the entry by troops of peoples of divers nations and races into the Bahá’í world—a day which, viewed in its proper perspective, will be the prelude to that long-awaited hour when a mass conversion on the part of these same nations and races, and as a direct result of a chain of events, momentous and possibly catastrophic in nature and which cannot as yet be even dimly visualized, will suddenly revolutionize the fortunes of the Faith, derange the equilibrium of the world, and reinforce a thousandfold the numerical strength as well as the material power and the spiritual authority of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh.
The Five Year Plan, which will undoubtedly be the focus of your consultations over the next few days, requires concentrated and sustained attention to two essential movements. The first is the steady flow of believers through the sequence of courses offered by training institutes, for the purpose of developing the human resources of the Cause. The second, which receives its impetus from the first, is the movement of geographic clusters from one stage of growth to the next.
The first movement, then, is essentially an educational process at the grassroots of the community. The following quotation from a letter written on behalf of the House of Justice to a National Spiritual Assembly makes clear the responsibility of the institute in overseeing this process:
At this point in the growth of the Faith, the mandate of your training institute is fairly clear-cut: A sequence of courses has been adopted as the national program for the development of human resources. It is the job of the institute, then, to help a steadily increasing number of youth and adults advance through that sequence.…
A number of messages written by the House of Justice or on its behalf explain that the sequence of courses adopted by institutes should “endow growing contingents of believers with the knowledge, spiritual qualities, and skills and abilities to effectively carry out the many tasks of expansion and consolidation.” The following passage describes in the briefest way how this educational process was set in motion at the outset of the Four Year Plan in 1996 and taken to the grassroots:
During the Four Year Plan, enormous effort was exerted in raising up training institutes in every part of the globe. To reach an increasing number of believers with their programs, institutes were encouraged to adopt a decentralized system for the delivery of courses. Study circles, guided by trained tutors, enabled the educational process to be taken to the local community. As more and more believers in each country entered the institute program in this way and advanced through its sequence of courses, the human resources of the Faith steadily grew at different levels of capacity.
The establishment of this educational process was one of the major accomplishments of the Four Year Plan. The first movement was well under way, then, by the end of those four years. The concept of the second movement was introduced at the start of the Five Year Plan in 2001 when National Spiritual Assemblies were asked to divide their countries into small geographic areas that would enable the friends “to think about the growth of the Faith on a manageable scale and to design and implement plans close to the grassroots.” As a significant number of believers proceeded through the sequence of courses, they were now to be deployed at the level of the cluster to meet the needs of expansion and consolidation. “The educational process in which the friends have engaged over so many weeks and months,” it has been explained, “should give shape to the individual and collective activities they now undertake.” The House of Justice underscored this point to the National Spiritual Assembly of Brazil in a letter written on its behalf:
… the [Regional Bahá’í] Council must ensure that, as the ranks of avowed supporters of the Faith swell through the institute process, they are deployed in the field of service, reinforcing the work of large-scale expansion and consolidation. This multiplication and deployment of human resources is to be carried out, of course, in the context of a regional plan to move each cluster in the region from its current stage of growth to the next advanced stage.
From the above passage it is clear that the multiplication and deployment of human resources is carried out in the context of a plan to move a cluster from one stage of growth to the next. The 17 January 2003 message of the House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the world further elaborates on this idea:
During the initial months of the Plan, National Spiritual Assemblies proceeded with relative ease to divide the territories under their jurisdiction into areas consisting of adjacent localities, called clusters, using criteria that were purely geographic and social and did not relate to the strength of local Bahá’í communities. Reports received at the World Centre indicate that there are now close to 17,000 clusters worldwide, excluding those countries where, for one reason or another, the operation of the Faith is restricted. The number of clusters per country varies widely—from India with its 1,580 to Singapore, which necessarily sees itself as one cluster. Some of the groupings are sparsely populated areas with only a few thousand inhabitants, while the boundaries of others encompass several million people. For the most part, large urban centers under the jurisdiction of one Local Spiritual Assembly have been designated single clusters, these in turn being divided into sectors, so as to facilitate planning and implementation.
With the various countries and territories divided into manageable areas, national communities moved quickly ahead to categorize clusters according to the stages of the development of the Faith mentioned in our 9 January message. The exercise afforded a realistic means for viewing the prospects of the community, but the task of refining the criteria needed for valid assessments is proving to be an ongoing challenge to institutions. To assign a cluster to one or another category is not to make a statement about status. Rather, it is a way of evaluating its capacity for growth, in order that an approach compatible with its evolving development can be adopted. Rigid criteria are obviously counterproductive, but a well-defined scheme to carry out evaluation is essential. Two criteria seem especially important: the strength of the human resources raised up by the training institute for the expansion and consolidation of the Faith in the cluster, and the ability of the institutions to mobilize these resources in the field of service.
The areas into which a region divides will fall into various categories of development. Some will not yet be open to the Faith, while others will contain a few isolated localities and groups; in some, established communities will be gaining strength through a vigorous institute process; in a few, strong communities of deepened believers will be in a position to take on the challenges of systematic and accelerated expansion and consolidation.
In most clusters, movement from one stage of growth to the next is being defined in terms of the multiplication of study circles, devotional meetings and children’s classes, and the expansion they engender. Devotional meetings begin to flourish as consciousness of the spiritual dimension of human existence is raised among the believers in an area through institute courses. Children’s classes, too, are a natural outgrowth of the training received early in the study of the main sequence. As both activities are made open to the wider community through a variety of well-conceived and imaginative means, they attract a growing number of seekers, who, more often than not, are eager to attend firesides and join study circles. Many go on subsequently to declare their faith in Bahá’u’lláh and, from the outset, view their role in the community as that of active participants in a dynamic process of growth. Individual and collective exertions in the teaching field intensify correspondingly, further fuelling the process. Established communities are revitalized, and newly formed ones soon gain the privilege of electing their Local Spiritual Assemblies.
The coherence thus achieved through the establishment of study circles, devotional meetings and children’s classes provides the initial impulse for growth in a cluster, an impulse that gathers strength as these core activities multiply in number. Campaigns that help a sizeable group of believers advance far enough in the main sequence of courses to perform the necessary acts of service lend impetus to this multiplication of activity.
In this connection, the House of Justice wrote: “The pattern of activity that is being established in clusters around the globe constitutes a proven means of accelerating expansion and consolidation.” It indicated, however, that this was “only a beginning”:
In many parts of the world, bringing large numbers into the ranks of Bahá’u’lláh’s followers has traditionally not been a formidable task. It is therefore encouraging to see that, in some of the more developed clusters, carefully designed projects are being added to the existing pattern of growth to reach receptive populations and lift the rate of expansion to a higher level. Such projects accelerate the tempo of teaching, already on the rise through the efforts of individuals. And, where large-scale enrollment is beginning to result, provision is being made to ensure that a certain percentage of the new believers immediately enter the institute program, for, as we have emphasized in several messages, these friends will be called upon to serve the needs of an ever-growing Bahá’í population. They help deepen the generality of the Bahá’ís by visiting them regularly; they teach children, arrange devotional meetings and form study circles, making it possible to sustain expansion.
The challenge is not simply to have a certain percentage study one or two courses, but a sequence of several courses through an effective system of distance education. And if the institute succeeds in accomplishing this, there should be a corresponding increase in the tempo of the teaching work as more and more friends arise to serve the Faith. A steady stream of newly enrolled believers will, in turn, enter the institute’s program, and in this way the system as a whole will be in a constant state of expansion.
To maintain the system envisioned at the level of the cluster, then, the ratio of believers in the sequence of courses to the total Bahá’í population needs to be kept within a certain range. Beyond the need to maintain proper ratios, however, there is the question of tempo. The deployment of believers into the field of service should lead to an intensification of teaching activities so that the rate of the expansion of the overall Bahá’í population steadily accelerates. This, in effect, is the idea underlying an intensive program of growth, as explained in the 9 January message of the Universal House of Justice:
At the core of the program must lie a sound and steady process of expansion, matched by an equally strong process of human resource development. A range of teaching efforts needs to be carried out, involving both activities undertaken by the individual and campaigns promoted by the institutions. As the number of believers in the area rises, a significant percentage should receive training from the institute, and their capabilities be directed towards the development of local communities.
What has become clear during the latter part of the Five Year Plan is that, if such programs are made up of a cycle of certain activities that is repeated every few months, it is possible to increase the rate of expansion, while at the same time maintaining the proper ratio of individuals in the sequence of courses to the total Bahá’í population. The Universal House of Justice in its Riḍván 2005 message wrote the following about such programs:
As the necessary conditions have thus been created, systematic programs for the expansion and consolidation of the Faith have been launched accordingly. A valuable body of knowledge about the nature of intensive programs of growth is accumulating, and certain features of these endeavors are now well understood. Such programs tend to consist of a series of cycles, each of several months’ duration, devoted to planning, expansion, and consolidation. Human resource development proceeds uninterrupted from one cycle to the next, ensuring that the process of expansion not only is sustained but progressively gathers momentum. While undoubtedly many more lessons are still to be garnered, the experience already gained makes it possible to replicate the approach in an ever-increasing number of clusters around the world.
Referring to the global Plans, a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer in August 2002 indicated that the challenge before the friends everywhere is “to study the guidance issued by the House of Justice, on the one hand, and to learn from experience as they strive to put that guidance into practice, on the other.” A letter written to another believer not too long before expressed the hope of the House of Justice that “the general messages it issues from time to time, as well as its letters that shed light on certain specific aspects of these new developments, will help the friends to clarify issues in practice and move steadily toward unity of thought and action.”
The above passages suggest that, at a most fundamental level, the implementation of the global Plans of the Faith is impelled by learning. Every global Plan represents a stage in the unfoldment of the Divine Plan, which is leading humanity towards the world civilization envisioned by Bahá’u’lláh. The success of each stage of this historical enterprise depends on the capacity of the Bahá’í community to respond to the provisions set forth in the global Plan that defines that stage. It is in this context that the aim of accelerating the process of entry by troops, which will remain the focus of the global Plans until 2021,
… identifies a necessity at this stage in the progress of the Cause and in the state of human society. With this perspective, the three inseparable participants in the evolution of the new World Order—the individual, the institutions, and the community—must now demonstrate more tangibly than ever before their capacity and willingness to embrace masses of new adherents, to effect the spiritual and administrative transformation of thousands upon thousands, and, above all, to multiply the army of knowledgeable, consecrated teachers of a Faith whose emergence from obscurity must be registered on the consciousness of countless multitudes throughout the earth.
It is in learning to respond to the requirements of the global Plans, as set out in the messages of the House of Justice, that the capacity of the three participants increases. In this sense, learning is a “mode of operation.” On various occasions, the House of Justice has explained that this mode of operation is characterized by action, reflection, and consultation:
If learning is to be the primary mode of operation in a community, then visions, strategies, goals and methods have to be re-examined time and again. As tasks are accomplished, obstacles removed, resources multiplied and lessons learned, modifications have to be made in goals and approaches, but in a way that continuity of action is maintained.
The instrument that has allowed the process of action, reflection, and consultation to accelerate and the learning to occur at a fairly rapid rate at the grassroots is the reflection meeting. In its 17 January 2003 message to the Bahá’ís of the world, the House of Justice wrote,
It is especially gratifying to note the high degree of participation of believers in the various aspects of the growth process. In cluster after cluster, the number of those shouldering the responsibilities of expansion and consolidation is steadily increasing. Meetings of consultation held at the cluster level serve to raise awareness of possibilities and generate enthusiasm. Here, free from the demands of formal decision-making, participants reflect on experience gained, share insights, explore approaches and acquire a better understanding of how each can contribute to achieving the aim of the Plan. In many cases, such interaction leads to consensus on a set of short-term goals, both individual and collective. Learning in action is becoming the outstanding feature of the emerging mode of operation.
What is important is that the experience gained in one part of the world does not remain isolated from the experiences elsewhere. Through the institution of the Counsellors, the lessons learned at the grassroots are systematized into a body of knowledge that can help the friends acquire a better understanding of the dynamics of promoting the process of entry by troops. This knowledge can then be diffused widely by the International Teaching Centre, the Counsellors and their auxiliaries, stimulating the work at the grassroots and accelerating the learning process further. The House of Justice has described this aspect of the Counsellors’ work in the following way:
A resource made available to the Counsellors by the International Teaching Centre and through them to the community at large is an accumulating store of wisdom born of experience—the experience of a highly diverse community dedicated to the creation of a new civilization. Through the network of Counsellors, Auxiliary Board members and assistants, the Teaching Centre can observe the workings of individual and collective endeavors, analyzing their methods and approaches, and introducing the conclusions it draws into the processes of the systematic growth of the Faith. Thus in the institution of the Counsellors we have a system through which the lessons learned in the remotest spots on the globe can be shared with the entire body of the believers, enriching consultation, stimulating experimentation and inspiring confidence that the great enterprise in which the Bahá’í world is engaged is assured of success.
You represent an army of able and highly motivated servants of the Cause throughout the world. Yours is an institution which, in one respect, has a particularly intimate relationship with the Universal House of Justice; in another, it is able to exercise an influence that penetrates the very grassroots of the community. Its nature fits it, uniquely, to serve as a river of encouragement, example and love whose waters can refresh and invigorate the spirit of every believer they touch.
In the period covering the Four Year, Twelve Month and Five Year Plans, as the friends have learned to put into action the guidance of the Universal House of Justice, the changes in their habits of thoughts, modes of expression and patterns of behavior have become so widespread and so pervasive that there has been a marked shift in culture:
Since the outset of the Four Year Plan, the entire Bahá’í world has been undergoing a profound change in culture required by the single focus of the global Plans in this latter part of the first century of the Faith’s Formative Age—advancing the process of entry by troops. It is important that the necessity of this change be fully appreciated by the friends and that new ideas not be measured by old modes of thinking, which, while valuable in many respects, have not been conducive to rapid growth.
When new and challenging ideas emerge, it is inevitable that differences of opinion would arise and levels of understanding vary. Not infrequently, extremes in thinking appear. It takes time for habits of thought and modes of expression to change and for patterns of action to be adjusted. What the Universal House of Justice finds encouraging is that the institutions of the Faith in…are making strides and are intensely engaged in trying to see how growth can be accelerated through such elements as study circles, devotional meetings and children’s classes and that they can count on wise believers like you to help them in this essential process.
The central theme of the Four Year Plan—that of advancing the process of entry by troops—produced a high degree of integration of thought and action.… The thematic focus of the Plan bore implications for all categories of Bahá’í activity; it called for a clarity of understanding which made possible systematic and strategic planning as a prerequisite of individual and collective action. The members of the community came gradually to appreciate how systematization would facilitate the processes of growth and development. This raising of consciousness was a huge step that led to an upgrading of teaching activities and a change in the culture of the community.
Collective consciousness of the requisites for advancing the process of entry by troops has given rise to new ways of thinking and acting, as the House of Justice explains in a letter written on its behalf:
A remapping of the Bahá’í community through the formation of clusters worldwide is an example of a change which is challenging the community to embrace new ways of thinking and acting, such as to mobilize a common effort among local institutions and individual believers that extends across contiguous borders within each cluster. As you will appreciate, this is a process which necessarily involves an initial period of adjustment and which will continue to unfold over a period of time into distinctive features of a dynamic community that is constantly evolving.
In the Riḍván 1998 message the Universal House of Justice called on Bahá’ís to approach their work systematically, referring to systematization as a “necessary mode of functioning animated by the urgency to act”:
Our hopes, our goals, our possibilities of moving forward can all be realized through concentrating our endeavors on the major aim of the Divine Plan at its current stage—that is, to effect a significant advance in the process of entry by troops. This challenge can be met through persistent effort patiently pursued. Entry by troops is a possibility well within the grasp of our community. Unremitting faith, prayer, the promptings of the soul, Divine assistance—these are among the essentials of progress in any Bahá’í undertaking. But also of vital importance to bringing about entry by troops is a realistic approach, systematic action. There are no shortcuts. Systematization ensures consistency of lines of action based on well-conceived plans. In a general sense, it implies an orderliness of approach in all that pertains to Bahá’í service, whether in teaching or administration, in individual or collective endeavor. While allowing for individual initiative and spontaneity, it suggests the need to be clear-headed, methodical, efficient, constant, balanced and harmonious. Systematization is a necessary mode of functioning animated by the urgency to act.
The message went on to highlight the essential role that the training institute plays in systematically developing the human resources that will sustain and accelerate the expansion and consolidation of the Faith. In a sense, the development of human resources can be thought of as the first act of systematization on the part of Bahá’í communities. This step was initiated in December 1995 when the House of Justice introduced the concept of the training institute, related it to the earlier teaching institute and charged the Counsellors with assisting National Spiritual Assemblies everywhere in establishing training institutes at the national and regional levels. How this call for systematization came about is explained succinctly in the message of 26 December 1995 to the Counsellors:
During the Nine Year Plan, the Universal House of Justice called upon National Spiritual Assemblies in countries where large-scale expansion was taking place to establish teaching institutes to meet the deepening needs of the thousands who were entering the Faith. At that time, the emphasis was on acquiring a physical facility to which group after group of newly enrolled believers would be invited to attend deepening courses. Over the years, in conjunction with these institutes, and often independent of them, a number of courses—referred to, for example, as weekend institutes, five-day institutes, and nine-day institutes—were developed for the purpose of helping the friends gain an understanding of the fundamental verities of the Faith and arise to serve it. These efforts have contributed significantly to the enriching of the spiritual life of the believers and will undoubtedly continue in the future.
With the growth in the number of enrollments, it has become apparent that such occasional courses of instruction and the informal activities of community life, though important, are not sufficient as a means of human resource development, for they have resulted in only a relatively small band of active supporters of the Cause. These believers, no matter how dedicated, no matter how willing to make sacrifices, cannot attend to the needs of hundreds, much less thousands, of fledgling local communities. Systematic attention has to be given by Bahá’í institutions to training a significant number of believers and assisting them in serving the Cause according to their God-given talents and capacities.
The development of human resources on a large scale requires that the establishment of institutes be viewed in a new light. In many regions, it has become imperative to create institutes as organizational structures dedicated to systematic training. The purpose of such training is to endow ever-growing contingents of believers with the spiritual insights, the knowledge, and the skills needed to carry out the many tasks of accelerated expansion and consolidation, including the teaching and deepening of a large number of people—adults, youth and children. This purpose can best be achieved through well-organized, formal programs consisting of courses that follow appropriately designed curricula.
An account of the historical developments leading up to the efforts to establish training institutes worldwide during the Four Year Plan is discussed in some detail in Chapter 9 of Century of Light. The chapter offers insight into why human resource development should have been the first area of Bahá’í activity to receive systematic attention. It will be helpful to quote from the document at length.
As believers from urban centers set out on sustained campaigns to reach the mass of the world’s peoples living in villages and rural areas, they encountered a receptivity to Bahá’u’lláh’s message far beyond anything they had imagined possible. While the response usually took forms very different from the ones with which the teachers had been familiar, the new declarants were eagerly welcomed.…
At the heart of the development, as has been the case in the life of the Cause from the outset, was the commitment made by the individual believer. Already, during the ministry of Shoghi Effendi, far-sighted persons had taken the initiative to reach indigenous populations in such countries as Uganda and Indonesia. During the Nine Year Plan, ever larger numbers of such teachers were drawn into the work, particularly in India, several countries in Africa, and most regions of Latin America, as well as in islands of the Pacific, Alaska and among the native peoples of Canada and the rural black population of the southern United States.…
Even so, it soon became apparent that individual initiative alone, however inspired and energetic, could not respond adequately to the opportunities opening up. The result was to launch Bahá’í communities on a wide range of collective teaching and proclamation projects recalling the heroic days of the dawn-breakers. Teams of ardent teachers found that it was now possible to introduce the message of the Faith not merely to a succession of inquirers, but to entire groups and even whole communities. The tens of thousands became hundreds of thousands. The Faith’s growth meant that members of Spiritual Assemblies, whose experience had been limited to confirming the understanding of the Faith of individual applicants raised in cultures of doubt or religious fanaticism, had to adjust to expressions of belief on the part of whole groups of people to whom religious awareness and response were normal features of daily life.
The chapter goes on to explain that the large influx of new believers during the period brought with it unprecedented challenges, not the least of which were deepening these friends and adapting to a wide range of cultures and modes of thought. It then continues by saying,
Initially, such problems proved stimulating as both Bahá’í institutions and individual believers struggled to find new ways of looking at situations—new ways, indeed, of understanding important passages in the Bahá’í Writings themselves. Determined efforts were made to respond to the guidance of the World Centre that expansion and consolidation are twin processes that must go hand in hand. Where hoped for results did not readily materialize, however, a measure of discouragement frequently set in. The initial rapid rise in enrollment rates slowed markedly in many countries, tempting some Bahá’í institutions 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 Bahá’í 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 Bahá’í experience in Western lands—or even Iran—offered few answers. How were Local Spiritual Assemblies to be established—and once established, how were they to function—in areas where large numbers of new believers had joined the Cause overnight, simply on the strength of their spiritual apprehension of its truth? How, in societies dominated by men since the dawn of time, were women to be accorded an equal voice? How was the education of large numbers of children to be systematically addressed in cultural situations where poverty and illiteracy prevailed? What priorities should guide Bahá’í moral teaching, and how could these objectives best be related to prevailing indigenous conventions? How could a vibrant community life be cultivated that would stimulate the spiritual growth of its members? What priorities, too, should be set with respect to the production of Bahá’í literature, particularly given the sudden explosion that had taken place in the number of languages represented in the community? How could the integrity of the Bahá’í institution of the Nineteen Day Feast be maintained, while opening this vital activity to the enriching influence of diverse cultures? And, in all areas of concern, how were the necessary resources to be recruited, funded, and coordinated?
The pressure of these urgent and interlocking challenges launched the Bahá’í world on a learning process that has proved to be as important as the expansion itself. It is safe to say that during these years there was virtually no type of teaching activity, no combination of expansion, consolidation and proclamation, no administrative option, no effort at cultural adaptation that was not being energetically tried in some part of the Bahá’í world. The net result of the experience was an intensive education of a great part of the Bahá’í community in the implications of the mass teaching work, an education that could have occurred in no other way. By its very nature, the process was largely local and regional in focus, qualitative rather than quantitative in its gains, and incremental rather than large-scale in the progress achieved. Had it not been for the painstaking, always difficult and often frustrating consolidation work pursued during these years, however, the subsequent strategy of systematizing the promotion of entry by troops would have had very little with which to work.
The significance of these three decades of struggle, learning and sacrifice became apparent when the moment arrived to devise a global Plan that would capitalize on the insights gained and the resources that had been developed. The Bahá’í community that set out on the Four Year Plan in 1996 was a very different one from the eager, but new and still inexperienced body of believers who, in 1964, had ventured out on the first of such undertakings that were no longer sustained by the guiding hand of Shoghi Effendi. By 1996, it had become possible to see all of the distinct strands of the enterprise as integral parts of one coherent whole.
At the outset of the Four Year Plan, then, the Bahá’í world was able to capitalize on the insights it had gained during the preceding period as it focused on establishing a network of training institutes as a means of systematizing the work in the area of expansion and consolidation. Laying this foundation was the first act of systematization. Through it mechanisms were put in place to develop the human resources of the Faith. In its message of 26 November 1999 to the Bahá’ís of the world, the House of Justice praised the accomplishments that were achieved putting this network into place and alluded to the next area of Bahá’í activity to receive systematic attention, starting with the Twelve Month Plan:
It is essential that, during the one-year effort, national and regional institutes everywhere bring into full operation the programs and systems that they have now devised. National communities should enter the Five Year Plan confident that the acquisition of knowledge, qualities and skills of service by large contingents of believers, with the aid of a sequence of courses, will proceed unhindered. Ample attention must also be given to further systematization of teaching efforts, whether undertaken by the individual or directed by the institutions. In this respect, the International Teaching Centre has identified certain patterns of systematic expansion and consolidation for relatively small geographical areas consisting of a manageable number of localities.
With institutes well positioned to address the challenges of human resource development, the stage was set to further systematize the teaching efforts worldwide. In its 9 January 2001 message regarding the Five Year Plan, the Universal House of Justice asked that this systemization take place in the context of a “cluster”—a small geographic area that would enable the friends to think about the growth of the Faith on a manageable scale and to design and implement plans close to the grassroots of the community. As a first step in the execution of the Plan, Bahá’í institutions set out to map their countries with the aim of dividing them into clusters and categorizing them according to their current stage of development. Invariably, this undertaking served to galvanize the believers, for they were able to evaluate in realistic terms their strengths and weaknesses and to see with striking clarity a way forward. The resulting plans of action were thus able to envision the systematic deployment of the avowed supporters of the Faith, whose ranks were swelling through the efforts of the institute, to establish a pattern of growth based on three core activities—study circles, devotional meetings and children’s classes. As this pattern has unfolded in clusters around the world, an increasing number are gradually reaching the stage where they are ready to launch intensive programs for the expansion and consolidation of the Faith.
As indicated above, the concept of the cluster was introduced at the beginning of the Five Year Plan to assist in the systematization of teaching. Once communities had been divided into clusters, the institutions of the Faith were challenged to learn how to effectively deploy the human resources being generated by the training institute in the field of service. In this way, the systematization of teaching efforts, and before it of human resource development, has been a central feature of the global Plans of the Faith since the Four Year Plan.
And as the friends and institutions have proceeded earnestly along the path traced out by the Universal House of Justice, they have begun to internalize and integrate the lessons and experiences of systemization called for in the global Plans. They have come to realize, for instance, that an essential requirement of systematic action is to arrive at a unified vision of growth for their communities and regions. The House of Justice has noted in the statement “The Institution of the Counsellors,”
At the outset of the work of the year or at times when new plans are being formulated, it is often useful to arrange for consultations between the Auxiliary Board members and the National or Regional Teaching Committees or Regional Councils before these plans are given final definition. A highly fruitful practice has developed in many parts of the world whereby members of a number of institutions and agencies of a country, or a region thereof, come together in a meeting of consultation to reach a common vision for the growth of their community and discuss strategies for action. These “institutional meetings” help to steer the friends away from thinking merely in terms of the mechanics of projects and to infuse their plans and subsequent action with the spirit of the Faith. They do much to reinforce the confidence of the institutions in devising the teaching strategies that will best serve the needs of their respective regions and in mobilizing the support of the Local Assemblies and the believers.
Further, it is becoming clearer, especially among Auxiliary Board members and their assistants, that a vision for the growth of a cluster or region can only emerge from a far-greater vision of such realities as the greatness of this Day, the power of divine assistance, the potential inherent in every human being, and the powers that become available to the believers when they truly unite and work in a spirit of oneness:
To labor in the arena of service, the individual draws upon his love for Bahá’u’lláh, the power of the Covenant, the dynamics of prayer, the inspiration and education derived from regular study of the Holy Texts, and the transformative forces that operate upon his soul as he strives to behave in accordance with the divine laws and principles. Therefore, these are all themes of an ongoing relationship between the Auxiliary Board members and the believers.
Evolving a vision of growth, it is being recognized, is fundamentally a spiritual process, one that implies ever-increasing consciousness of the spiritual forces released by Bahá’u’lláh. What is more, the friends everywhere are coming to the understanding that, in developing a vision of growth and the strategies to bring structure to it, some knowledge of possibilities, resources and even methods is necessary. A natural consequence has been the increasing number of concrete plans of action that “take into account the particular resources of the believers” and “the capacity of the local Bahá’í communities.”
In this connection, the believers and their institutions have also taken to heart the admonition of the House of Justice that progress “cannot be achieved by a mere series of spasmodic, uncoordinated exertions, no matter how enthusiastic” and have learned the value of continuity of action. The concept of a line of action has proven particularly helpful in this respect. The House of Justice has explained in the context of intensive programs of growth: “The best approach is to formulate plans for a few months at a time, beginning with one or two lines of action and gradually growing in complexity.” A line of action consists of a sequence of projects and activities, each building on the previous one and preparing the way for further advances. In this light, the role of periodic meetings of consultation to “reflect on issues, consider adjustments, and maintain enthusiasm and unity of thought” has been crucial to the friends’ efforts to pursue lines of action and build on their accomplishments:
Arrangements can then be made for the lessons learned from this experience to be discussed with the active supporters of the Faith in each region, helping them to identify the approaches and methods applicable to their specific conditions and to set in motion a systematic process of community development. This process should be one in which the friends review their successes and difficulties, adjust and improve their methods accordingly, and learn, and move forward unhesitatingly.
Towards the end of the Five Year Plan, this guidance finally gave rise to the organization of intensive programs of growth in terms of cycles of growth, a matter which is currently the object of learning in cluster after cluster as an increasing number around the world reach this stage in their development. The following passage from a letter dated 19 October 2005 written to one National Spiritual Assembly summarizes the overall learning to date:
The promising pattern of action emerging in clusters throughout the world integrates individual initiative and community endeavor in order to embrace an ever-wider circle of people and teach receptive souls. This pattern appears wherever a sizeable number of individuals who are moving through the sequence of institute courses make a conscious effort to translate what they are learning into action, undertaking specific acts of service that challenge them to draw upon the knowledge and insights they are gaining and to sharpen the skills and abilities they are developing through the courses. One of the most noteworthy outcomes of the institute courses is the emergence of an ever-increasing number of tutors who, having themselves studied the courses and struggled to walk a path of service, engage others in the study of the sequence, instilling in them the same desire to arise and serve. In this way, a broad base is laid for universal participation, which remains one of the most fundamental goals of the Bahá’í community. You have, yourselves, witnessed this development in the few clusters that have reached an advanced stage of growth.
You have, likewise, observed how the conditions thus created in such clusters have made it possible to launch intensive programs of growth, in which large numbers of friends eagerly participate in the learning that takes place through successive cycles of activity seeking to integrate well-coordinated collective action with effective individual initiative. And you are equally aware of how interaction among three entities—the institute, the Auxiliary Boards, and the Area Teaching Committee—in close collaboration with responsive Local Spiritual Assemblies, can help carry the friends from one cycle to another and accelerate the learning process.
The pattern of activity that emerges from one cycle of the program to the next will, however, prove effective only if the tendency to fall into certain habits is avoided. Among these are an undue reliance on proclamation efforts in the intensive teaching phase; a proliferation of core activities that does not serve the purpose of involving a growing number of seekers; a disproportionate focus on increasing short-lived contacts that loses sight of the need to systematically teach those who have shown interest in the Faith; and an overemphasis on the administrative activities occupying veteran Bahá’ís as enthusiastic new believers are being introduced to the disciplines and functions of the community.
To ensure the successful unfoldment of the process of action and reflection that should run throughout the successive cycles, the friends will want to keep at least two points in mind. First, having dedicated an enormous amount of time and energy towards studying a sequence of courses aimed at helping them carry out certain acts of service, they should now strive to apply what they have learned in the teaching field. Specifically, if the content of the courses explores fundamental concepts related to direct teaching, it is only natural that they would seek to translate these into action. If a home visit, to take another example, is defined in the courses as an opportunity to enter into a deep conversation on spiritual matters, then it should not be reduced to a mere social call in which the Faith may not even be mentioned. In short, the educational process in which the friends have engaged over so many weeks and months should give shape to the individual and collective activities they now undertake.
Second, the meetings of reflection called at various intervals during the cycles should serve to reinforce an attitude of learning among the participants in the program so that any fear of failure or criticism gives way to the joy of earnest striving. To achieve this, the friends involved in organizing the meetings should recognize that guided, participatory discussion can prove more instructive than elaborate presentations and prolonged theoretical analyses. A careful review of vital statistics, which highlight weaknesses that require remedial attention and point to strengths that can be built upon in the next cycle of activity, will go far in facilitating the planning process.