Traditional church is becoming less relevent in the lives of young Americans.  Yet, the values and perspectives of one third of American young people — those who identify as “nones” (as in “no religious affilitation”) — align beautifully with the values and perspectives of Unitarian Universalists.  So why aren’t we growing at an exponential rate?Slide2

Here’s the good news (although it may feel a bit flat at first): In comparison to other mainline Protestant denominations that share our demographics, we are doing relatively well.  (See this report on Religion and Spirituality in a Changing Society from CBS News.) We are maintaining our numbers while our Christian counterparts are hemmoraging members.  I believe this is because we do have the core values that align with the core values of many Millennials as they enter emerging adulthood.

Why aren’t we growing at a higher rate?   Well, I would argue that we are growing at a higher rate — that is, nearly a third of our congregations are.   During roughly the same time period shown on this graph, 31% of our congregations grew by 10% or more.   Looking over the list of congregations in the latest growth report, I see the names of growing congregations from every district and of all sizes. (16% of UU congregations grew 30% or more — see a sampling below for examples.)

What are these congregations doing differently?

The ones I am familiar with are living into authentic ways of “doing church.”

They focus on living into a compelling, outward-focused mission, not on maintaining a institution that is valued by and caters only to the needs of existing members.

They are not just welcoming to visitors.  They also offer a path to membership and into a faith community with opportunities for spiritual development and deepening.

hyporcrisyMy understanding of the people who claim to be “spirtual but not religious” is not that they have a resistance to commitment or to institutions, but a resistance to committing to something unless it is really compelling and worth ones commitment.  Many of our churches don’t meet that higher bar.

To become worthy of commitment, we need to live into the promise of our core values:  of covenantal relationship, of living into genuine diversity, and of cultivating an openness to change and being changed.  Until we have a critical mass of members in our congregations who are skilled at intercultural interactions, who are curious rather than dismissive toward theologies and political views that contradict theirs and who can articulate their own beliefs with humility, we won’t look much different than any other stagnant protestant denomination to the unchurched or unaffiliated.

We know that we are different, but we need to show that we are different.

In this video, UUA President Peter Morales claims we need to change the way we practice our faith and break down the barriers–not only when people walk through our doors, but also when those “nones” meet us outside our walls.  (Here is a link to the full keynote address.)

This is a sample of growing congregations from different parts of the US, though not necessarily the largest or fastest-growing ones. This list is by no means comprehensive! I tried to show congregations of different theologies, sizes and communities. 



About the Author
Rev. Renee Ruchotzke

Leadership Development Consultant, Central East Regional Group (CERG) of the UUA.

I have a vision of Unitarian Universalist congregations being led by thousands of diverse, spiritually mature and passionate people ready and willing to spread the good news of liberal religion.  I believe ministry is best when shared between lay and professional leaders. More information about me can be found on the UUA website.

  • “My understanding of the people who claim to be “spiritual but not
    religious” is not that they have a resistance to commitment or to
    institutions, but a resistance to committing to something unless it is really compelling and worth ones commitment.”

    Well, that’s true. What is the UUA offering, except a rather ironic “escape from religion”? If you’re fleeing religion, why would you join a non-religion religion to be among people who hate religion who are playing at being a religion, whose values are secular and almost unanimously hostile to the very idea of religion? Why not just stay at home and watch sports on Sunday, and avoid religion altogether?

    A reconnection to the UUA’s Unitarian Christian roots – and to the few remaining Liberal Christian brothers and sisters among you – is long overdue, with a greater appreciation of the Liberal Religionist (who are Religious AND Spiritual) rather than the Free Religionists dominating the church and demanding ever more ambiguity, ending in a demand for completely silence, in matters of the Deity. Maybe an examination of the unwritten Dogma of “Forced Agnosticism” among your congregations will make people of faith more comfortable sitting in them each Sunday.

    • vitalleaders

      Thank you for your comments!
      I hope that congregations that have an “unwritten Dogma of Force Agnosticism” are learning to be more like our congregations that are inviting their members to engage deeply with their faith. We do have many of the latter out there. 🙂

  • Theresa Lutz

    fyi UU’s of Transylvania County is in Brevard, NC, not in Florida as shown above.

    • vitalleaders

      Thanks, Teresa! I’ll fix that!

  • s_lingwood

    “Values” offer a bridge to others – but “values” are not what we’re offering, because the people have already got the values. So we need to stop talking about values and start giving a religious message that offers depth of spiritual transformation.

    I’ve written about this here:

    • vitalleaders

      Hi Stephen,

      Thank your for your comments and link to your blog! I love that this conversation is happening on your side of the Atlantic!

      I see the core values as a starting point, not an end in and of themselves. For example, if UUs had a core value of static certainty rather than continuous revelation we would be completely different. But how those values inform how we live in the world is where the transformation can happen.