As any group therapist can tell you, group work is complicated. The history of the churches too can be read as a continuing story of growing and shrinking congregations. One of the reasons new congregations often grow is not just that they offer an approach that works for the time, but also that they’re simply, being new, more open to new people. Their group structure isn’t fixed yet and so it’s easier for them to accommodate and welcome new people.
The Theosophical Society is, in the West, still an organisation full of converts. That is, first generation theosophists. This is unique in the history of religion. Religions usually start out full of converts, but within a few generations there’s a significant percentage of members that have grown up in the movement. Christianity grew so fast in the early centuries that it probably always had a large percentage of ‘newbies’, but there too it also quickly had settled churches.
I personally think this is something to do with theosophy not being A religion at all. It’s instead a collection of seekers after truth. But the fact that children of theosophists don’t become theosophists, as the Chohan had hoped, except in India, does make it harder for the organization to stay alive, to start growing again.
Alright, that’s the demographic background almost done. Another fact: most theosophists are over 50, in fact they’re often much older than that. I personally don’t have a problem with that. I can relate to old people very well, and I think they often do have fascinating stories to tell and wisdom to share. But in general, it’s hard to change and revitalize a group filled with old people. Especially of course since we live in a culture where young people are the ideal.
All this is stuff most theosophists realize, on one level or another. But it does mean that on an individual level lodges can have a very hard time keeping up their membership levels, or growing.
Still, in The Hague we’ve seen it work this past year and I’d like to share the factors I think were part of that.
1) A lodge chair who has a number of very useful qualities:
- Well and diversely read
- Full of PR ideas and initiative
- A vision of the work of the Theosophical Society that is broad and different from the other theosophical organisations in The Hague (we have a LOT of competition)
- Has connections all over the Dutch spiritual scene
- Is shy and accepting of everybody
2) A lodge secretary / coffee and tea maker who may not be very efficient at his job, but who does welcome everybody who comes. He compensates a bit for our president’s shyness. What they share is an attitude of ‘everybody is welcome’. Thank you for coming. I’m talking not about SAYING everybody is welcome, but about having that attitude.
3) Me? I’ve been a member and active in the lodge for about two years now. I’m not in the board and only helped fine tune the program. But I am present on most lodge nights and like to think that makes a difference.
Alright, that’s the people. Now for what we (or they) have actually done.
- Turned the statement about freedom of thought into leaflet. This is the one thing the TS does different from the other Theosophical Organisations, so our chair decided to stress that.
- Making hundreds of well printed (expensively made) very informative folders of the lodge program. They have done this for years in The Hague and this chair has kept it up.
- Spreading these folders not just to the actively kept list of people who’d like to keep informed, as well as the members, but also to all the nearby libraries and whatever alternative stores would have them.
- Having a lodge website with the same information as in the folder
- Having a very diverse program of public lectures almost weekly, regular meditation, and a Secret Doctrine Study-group.
- Having had, for a few years, an introduction group – not accessible to members – for those who want to learn about theosophy and the Theosophical Society.
I’d like to stress that in each and every one of these our chair emphasizes the freedom of thought and undogmatic nature of theosophy. We’re a searcher’s organisation, so people need and deserve that freedom. And, unlike the other theosophical organisations, this means that no theosophical teacher is tabu.