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?
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.
My 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.
- UUs of Transylvania County, Brevard, NC 205.2% (from 58 to 177 members)
- UU Fellowship of Central Oregon, Bend, OR 168.3% (from 60 to 161 members)
- All Souls Unitarian, Washington, DC 149.6% (from 401 to 1001 members)
- UU Church of Bowling Green, KY 119.6% (from 56 to 123 members)
- UU Church in Anaheim, CA 97% (from 33 to 65 members)
- All Souls Unitarian, Tulsa, OK 94% (from 1075 to 2086 members)
- UU Fellowship of Wayne County, Wooster, OH 88.3% (from 111 to 209 members)
- First UU Fellowship of Hunterdon County, Baptistown, NY 86.7% (from 75 to 140 members)
- First Parish in Brookline, MA 79.3% (from 145 to 260 members)
- Fox Valley UU Fellowship, Appleton, WI 73.1% (from 391 to 267)
- Jefferson Unitarian Church, Golden, CO 45% (from 513 to 744)
- UU Congregation of Gwinnett, Lawrenceville, GA 41.3% (from 109 to 154)
- 1st Congregational Society of Chelmsford, MA 38.1% (from 155 to 214 members)
- First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY 30.4% (from 783 to 1021 members)