The Economist in its recent survey on America has a piece on civic participation in America. It traces the nature of voluntary associations and how they have been changing. The case of the megachurch is very interesting and provides a lesson for mobilising civic participation (emphasis below is mine).
But over the past few years, one particular part of the American religious line-up has done far more than merely avoid decline. This is the megachurch, usually defined as a church with an average congregation of more than 2,000 each weekend. In 1960, there were fewer than ten of these. Now the number has risen to at least 1,200, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Twenty of these churches have weekly congregations of 10,000; three have over 20,000. They are Willow Creek outside Chicago, Lakewood in Houston and California's Saddleback. Nearly all their growth has taken place in the past 20 years. Saddleback, which has 82,000 people on its church rolls, held its first service 25 years ago.
Mr Putnam points to two aspects of the success of megachurches that matter to civic organisation in America. Neither has anything to do with doctrine. The first is that founders of megachurches made them attractive to people who were mildly religious but not committed in advance. Mr Warren of Saddleback and Bill Hybels of Willow Creek both went round asking neighbours who did not go to church what they disliked about it and what would persuade them to go.
They redesigned their churches on the basis of this consumer research. Out went 200-year-old hymns, pulpits and even church-like buildings. In came information booths, food courts, churches that look like schools, reggae services and sermons with Powerpoint presentations. As one Californian pastor told the Hartford Institute, “We're trying to create an environment here so the unchurched person can come in and say, ‘This is a church like I have never known.’ ” If megachurches can win millions of new supporters by lowering barriers to entry, there is no reason why secular civic organisations cannot do the same.
The second and more important feature of the megachurches is that they have created huge numbers of small groups. Saddleback has 2,600 small groups, co-ordinated by 9,200 ministers, for its congregation to join—for computer nerds, cyclists, knitters, you name it. This is a close approximation to the thousands of chapters of the old-fashioned voluntary associations, and makes it possible to engage in social activism on a grand scale. Last year, Saddleback decided to feed all 42,000 homeless people in Orange County for 40 days, and did it.
Would a similar approach in India, to make civic participation attractive to those who don't know what it means, or are not committed to it, work? I think so and we ought to make a concerted effort at it. Targeting youth would be the best way to make a start.Civil society organisations have an important role to play in our democracy and they are today notable for their lack of youth participation.