This article is the 3rd in a series about Masjid leadership in the digital age and draws from the book Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World. To stay up to date on all new articles published here, please join our email list.
“Why in the world would you still have an Urdu khutbah in Toronto? You’re going to lose the next generation” was my question/argument to an Imam I was having dinner with from Canada.
“We have a large percentage of people who don’t speak English that attend the masjid, someone has to serve them” was the reply.
It was at this moment that the light bulb went off. Attracting the crowd that doesn’t come to the masjid, and serving the people who do come to the masjid aren’t at odds with one another - both are important. This may seem simple and obvious, but it is difficult to implement strategically for most communities.
That strategy depends on where your community is in its growth stage.
A new masjid will focus on outreach by default. It has to put effort into attracting new congregants and establishing a base.
Once established, there needs to be a hand-in-hand strategy of deepening the engagement of existing members, while also doing the outreach to increase the number of members.
That in-reach must be intentional. While it will involve things like weekly classes - these programs are a means, and not the goal. Whoever is tasked with the spiritual leadership, or shepherding, of the community must develop a vision for what that development (tarbiyyyah) process looks like over time and how to achieve it. Success for this must be measured on continued incremental progress, and not numbers. We tend to discount activities that don’t draw a large number of people and label them unsuccessful. These smaller, focused, and longer-term efforts are needed to develop new khateebs, teachers, and community leaders from within the masjid itself.
Outreach efforts will be at a larger scale and involve activities that may be less about ‘learning’. This includes more social events, family get togethers, and family night types of programs. These will favor things like enrichment and relationship building more heavily than learning or academics.
Conflict arises when people aren’t able to differentiate the two. People who are more inclined to formal study or academics will inevitably discount outreach efforts as not serious, or “edutainment.” We belittle them, not realizing that outreach efforts are the funnel that produce the people who end up attending the in-reach programs. Likewise, people who are more involved in activism or interfaith efforts will tend to discount in-reach efforts as ineffective because they don’t see immediate numbers or impact. Those in-reach efforts are the long game that is needed to continue community development.
We need to stop looking at these activities as "either/or", and more of a "both/and".
The modern mistake being made with both in-reach and outreach efforts is the over-reliance on social media. These activities, when done correctly, rely heavily on consistent personal interactions and building of relationships. When the modern masjid is expected to serve as a community center, or hub, people must meet to build community.
Social media is taken as a shortcut to achieve this. Some organizations feel that by live-streaming, podcasting, uploading, and being ever present on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/Snapchat that they are automatically relevant, and doing their part to be accessible. These are great tools when used to serve a larger vision. They are an ineffective and a waste of effort if they only serve the end goal of “being on social media”.
Being on social media doesn’t automatically mean your impact is multiplied. There must be an actual vision and goal of the work being promoted. The pre-requisite to that is high capacity leadership already in place - meaning not everyone is going to be able to do this. An online presence must be strategic and not a dumping ground. What is the purpose of posting every khutbah? Or live streaming every class?
For many communities, social media is a great tool to do in-reach (NOT outreach) by letting community members stay up to date on local activities. And for a few, this online presence will translate into national or international impact because the work being done is already of such high quality that it attracts that regular audience from other locations.
Recognize what stage your community is in, develop a vision to grow it, and execute strategically on that vision.