UUism should be more than a social club for religious exiles

Someone said this in a Unitarian Univeralist (UU) group in Facebook and it really annoyed me:

The UU local churches turn over half of their members every five years. One quarter will still be present in ten years, one eighth in 15 years, with only about 1/16 of the original crowd in 20 years.

UUs maintain their ranks through the constant influx of refugees from other denominations, most of whom want to keep their kids in church. People who leave their previous denominations are often people who had a conflict of conscience in their previous religious home.

Some UUs just wandered in, but most were leaving something.

Ironically, ninety percent of folks who grew up UU want nothing to do with it as adults and, unfortunately, this is just fine to most UUs.

We call it the upstairs/downstairs division in UUism. So, it helps to understand that UUs are a “standing wave” phenomenon of people moving into and out of local churches at a brisk pace, with little growth.

The serious discussion of religious beliefs is not what UUism is mainly about, so much as finding a place where religious beliefs are not discussed much.

The internet provides more of a place for discussing UU beliefs than a typical Sunday at church does.

Most UUs believe that most other UUs have similar religious beliefs, but nothing could be further from the truth. We just don’t really talk about our religious beliefs much once we get to church.

I see these as serious problems and think we need to make changes to get younger UUs to WANT to remain loyal to the UUA and its churches. So let us discuss how. What can we do to make the UUA one of the fastest growing religious groups in America?

Fortunately, other UUs are just as concerned about this matter as I am. Thomas A. Earthman, who is the “Lifespan Religious Educator” at First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church, wrote the following essay several years ago:

Rehabilitating the UU Half-way House Trope


Rehabilitating the UU Half-way House Trope

Unitarian Universalism has a reputation of being the rehabilitation clinic for people who are leaving religion. That is a sad statement on how we view faith. People don’t come to us because they want to leave religion; they come because they want a religion that speaks to a broader world view and inclusion. People aren’t coming to church, even a Unitarian Universalist church, to get away from religion.

What many are looking for is community, encouragement, hope, and mental or ethical stimulation, and maybe some music or ritual. They are looking for religion when they show up, just one that is liberal and offers them a chance to explore theology, philosophy, and morality safely and sa part of a community. They are looking for a faith that allows them to be honest about who they are as a heretic, a doubter, or maybe just a hippie. It is when they don’t find anything fulfilling, for whatever reason, that they leave, often leaving religion behind for good. We need to tell them that we are believers, and that their faith, whatever shape it takes, maters [sic] as part of our shared identity.

UU ideals

“…we are believers. We believe in intellectual freedom; we believe in justice; we believe in compassion and concern for each other and the whole world. We believe in commitment to those ideals which make us caring and active in the struggles for human dignity. We are Unitarian Universalists.”
~ John M. Higgins

We are sometimes the last chance for religious community to embrace a person and make them feel welcome. Even after they are welcome, they have deeper needs we are obligated to meet. Our principles call on us to encourage one another to spiritual growth. They require our congregations to be laboratories for free, but responsible, exploration of the world and our role in it. That means we have to be communities of faith as well as covenant, or we’ve devolved into social clubs that are easily replicated in coffee shops and on-line message boards. Even sermons can be read in blogs or watched on YouTube. We have to offer more than Sunday services and coffee hour.

That is why Life-span faith development and small group ministry matter. That is why the focus of Unitarian Universalism needs to be open to change. It is why our mission is making the ideas we hold dear easy for people to share with their friends and family, so that we can spread them through human connections. It is what we ask you to support by being part of the I Am UU community.

The future of church is to offer what libraries, coffee shops, and the Internet cannot: a place where all of that is given freely, and supported by the folks who believe in the power of human beings, working together, to build a more just, more loving, more connected world. Is that what your congregation is? Tell us in the comments what is being done to take those ideas into the real world.

Thomas then said directly to me in Facebook:

People don’t come to a UU church because they are fleeing religion. They come looking for a religion they can believe in. They leave if they don’t find it…

Also, if you actually talk to young adults who grew up UU, they leave because the way adults do church isn’t the way we taught them to do church (most congregations force their kids out of their worship service) and we haven’t embraced the small group style that they are used to.

So now I want to use the blog to explore more the possiblities of UUism to become a true force for change in American society. And that can’t happen if we do not commit ourselves to growth to have many millions of members from all walks of life!

4 thoughts on “UUism should be more than a social club for religious exiles

  1. Look at this reddit thread:

    There a person wrote this comment:

    {{{As someone who grew up UU and became incredibly disconnected when I graduated high school, I think a lot is that there is so much programming done in high school that’s high school specific and there isn’t much done to retain anyone once they go off to college/leave youth group so you end up losing people because they aren’t connected to the community anymore, and they only end up coming back once they start having kids and want to raise them with some sort of religion too.}}}

    I replied: {{{Well, that absolutely has to change. A new class needs to be made in most UU churches for Young Adults (age 18-30) that are made for college students, childless adults and singles seeking love partners, dealing with all sorts of subjects (religion, politics, history, science, cultural issues).}}}

    The other UU then said: {{{I completely agree. Especially with how many people in that age range are looking for support/help finding answers/etc that continued connection with UU congregations could help with and support members during those times.}}}

    • Someone else then added:

      {{{I think about this a lot actually. I’d like to share my thoughts on it with you. Below is a list of issues, as I see them, that are preventing UUs from growing when I feel like we should be.

      1. Congregational Polity – while a benefit in many ways it also prevents us from being more effective and efficient with our resources. If each congregation is independent and all associations above that are voluntary it makes it MUCH harder to organize at the city, state, or national level. That doesn’t even contemplate UUs abroad or the larger Unitarian community. I often find that my congregation doesn’t even organize within our cluster of six congregations and when we do it only takes one to veto the whole thing. We may need to consider stronger regional bodies to better organize ourselves and leverage economies of scale if we want to survive.

      2. Lack of leadership from the UUA – The UUA has gone off the rails and is completely consumed by petty infighting, woke signaling, and bad governance. It has completely failed at its mission and is an embarrassment to the movement. I think a full house cleaning is needed. Boston, the leading seminaries (looking at you Meadville and Starr) and the UU ‘elite’ have lost touch with the day to day issues of the congregations. They are more worried about censoring ministers they deem heretical than dealing with the woeful state of the association and our dwindling numbers.

      3. Unclear Identity – I believe we have never really come to terms with how we changed as a faith post merger. Where alone the Unitarians and the Universalists had unique and clear theological roots, the combine faith has morphed into a cold stew of post modern humanism (no shade to humanists. Its the post modernists I take issue with). I often hear non UUs, and even some in my own congregation, suggesting we can “believe whatever you want” This above all else is why I believe we are in decline. We stand of everything and nothing all at once. There is no reason to stay if we stand for nothing with conviction. In many ways we’ve stopped being a religion in favor of being a clubhouse for like minded social justice advocates. We’ve lost our purpose and people can sense that.

      I would like to see us focus on what we have become that sets us apart from other religions and what makes us more than just another social justice organization. We are a faith of covenant. We learn and grow as a community and mutually agree on our shared values using the democratic process. We believe in the unity of god, with many names or no name at all, and that salvation is universal, if we seek it together. This is an amazing message if we have the courage to tell it, unapologetically.

      I write this in good faith. Finding a UU congregation has changed my life. I see so much potential to share our good news with the world. I hope you’ll share your thoughts as well. This discussion is badly needed.}}}

    • Another member of the r/UnitarianUniversalist subreddit wrote this in the same thread:

      {{{Many of us are leaving our UU church because the new minister is intent on converting everyone to Wokeism. Most of us are classical liberals and believe that the definition of racism is attributing characteristics to a person because of their race and the Woke re-definition of racism being a power struggle between white people and BIPOCs is the antithesis of our 7 Unitarian Principles. A lot of this struggle began about the same time as the Gadfly Papers. Now we have lost 30% of our congregation because they didn’t want to convert to a dogmatic ideology. I mean… most of us joined UU because we rejected dogmatic ideologies.

      Instead of embracing radical, illiberal, leftist ideologies, the UU church needs to work on attracting a broader demographic}}}

      OK…..so, first, Wokeism isn’t a thing; it’s a much a slur to use that as calling me a SJW.

      Second, I DO accept the definition of racism as “attributing characteristics to a person because of their race” and do NOT see racism as “a power struggle between white people and BIPOCs”. It’s only been a power struggle against entrenched white people in power and not against whites in general. So that argument makes no sense.

      Third, fighting white supremacy is not part of a dogmatic ideology. Unless you want to argue that abolishing slavery was also a product of a dogmatic ideology. Oh, wait what was that First UU Principle again?

      [[1st Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person;]]

      You could argue THAT is a dogmatic ideology and so……anything pushing for rejection of bigotry is. Then we have no reason to have principles!

      Fourth, the whole point of rejecting and opposing white supremacy is to make UU churches better places for people of color. You know, that “broader demographic” supposedly mentioned earlier!

      I hate when people use such disingenuous arguments!

  2. The minister of First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church, Rev. Annie Foerster, weighed in on this matter via email:

    {{{I know it wasn’t something you wrote, but I wanted to tell you it disturbed me. Even if everything you posted were true, which I don’t think it is, it doesn’t help in our welcoming new members and friends to have this be one of the first things that greet them. It would certainly make me think twice about attending a UU church. But it doesn’t reflect what I experience at church.)))

    My reply: {{{ I still think it served a good purpose by making me and others consider how we can retain members more effectively. I’m still angry at what the guy originally wrote too; it seemed so mean spirited for a UU to write in public. And I’ve seen worse!}}}

    She then wrote back: {{{Thank you, Dale. I agree with you. Let’s find positive things we can repost or write some of our own about what we like about our church. Annie}}}

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