I don’t think anyone in ISKCON doubts the importance Srila Prabhupada gave to preaching. Like his own spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada considered preaching – or outreach, as we tend to call it these days – proof that ISKCON was alive and well. “Preaching is our real business, preaching and distributing books. If your preaching work is strong, then your management of temple affairs will also become automatically very strong. Just like if the head wills it, the hand will move. Preaching is like the head of our KC Society – if the head is removed, the whole body dies.” (Letter, December 8, 1971)
In the 1970s and ’80s, following the instructions and lead of Srila Prabhupada, ISKCON members distributed millions of Srila Prabhupada’s books. Hari-nama parties regularly went out to share in public the singing and chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra. University programs were thriving in many places. Devotees were encouraged to bring people to the temples, and Sunday feasts were usually well attended.
Then the strong focus on preaching subsided, although, of course, devotees have continued to preach. ISKCON has had internal work to do. Devotees have moved out of temples and had little time for active preaching, while those who remained were largely engaged in temple maintenance. As the congregation grew the preaching changed too, with less emphasis on “shaving people up” and more on the kind of education and encouragement that would support people becoming and remaining devotees at home. It has taken ISKCON time, collectively and individually, to absorb these changes.
In the meantime, the society around ISKCON has also changed. ISKCON, once the sole purveyor of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in the West, no longer holds that position. The yoga movement is burgeoning. People can now go to their local yoga center for a kirtan. Google and Facebook have changed the way people ask and get answers to their questions and participate in spiritual communities.
Given all this, it’s essential that ISKCON examine strategically how to deliver Srila Prabhupada’s pure message, using the preaching methods he gave us, in a way that is accessible to the people of our times, who, while having the same needs as any conditioned soul, are different from the people of Srila Prabhupada’s time.
Bhakti Vinoda Swami, head of the Committee, explains: “Outreach means how well we are sending out our message to the conditioned souls. How efficient are we at that? Our first step in the Outreach Committee is to create a measurement of effectiveness – what I am calling an outreach index – whereby all temples and devotees can assess how well they are using the preaching tools Srila Prabhupada gave us: temples, books, festivals, Deities and food distribution. These are the main ways we have to attract people to Krsna. Are we efficient in using them?
“With this in mind we are creating a web site resource for temples and individual preachers that will contain listings and contact information for standard ISKCON outreach programs as well as information on all the innovative preaching devotees are doing around the world. We hope to start a dialogue on how these programs can increase ISKCON’s collective outreach index and allow devotees to share their best practices and challenges. We’ll also be creating a questionnaire devotees can use to get feedback on how they’re doing. And the site will offer global networking possibilities. This means someone in Tucson can look at the experiences of the devotees in Thailand and decide, ‘We’re going to try this in our own outreach programs because it sounds so sensible.’”
Aside from the web site, the Committee wants to emphasize the core of every preaching initiative: relationships with those we meet, whether while distributing a book or in line at the supermarket.
We used to call this contact sankirtan, and it’s something ISKCON’s Congregational Development Ministry has been encouraging for a long time. The Outreach Committee would like to widely promote the simple idea of gathering the names and contact information of those we meet, then to encourage us to invite those people to temple programs, seminars on the books they’ve purchased, festivals, and cooking classes.
Urvasi Devi Dasi, a new and dynamic member of the Outreach Committee says, “This kind of sankirtan is being done in pockets around the world, but we should be doing it everywhere. ISKCON is good at creating an initial impact, but we’re not actually so good at helping people move forward into a full Krsna conscious practice. Cultivation of devotees, with a systematic process of caring for those who come forward for more association with ISKCON, can start simply, perhaps with a small study group in someone’s home that allows for more personal interaction with devotees. Later, people can attend their local Sunday feast or join a bhakti-vriksha group, learn to chant japa and develop a taste for Srila Prabhupada’s books.”
If you have ideas you’d like to share with the Outreach Committee or would like more information, please contact Bhakti Vinoda Swami at firstname.lastname@example.org or Urvasi Devi Dasi at email@example.com.