Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog


The Changing Religious Landscape includes Declining Attendance in the UUA

Faith Formation 2020 cites “a steady decline in the number of people attending worship and participating in church life.  In 1990 about 20.6% of the U.S. population was in church on any given weekend, today only 17.3% are in worship.  If current trends continue, by 2020 …. more than 85% of Americans will be staying away.”

Most of the students at Pacific School of Religion (where I am in a doctoral program) are in master’s degree programs to become clergy in various Protestant denominations.  Many of these young and second-career ministers-to-be are inspiring, bold, brave and creative people.  I would be happy to have them as my preacher and pastor.

Yet all their denominations have had major declines in attendance and membership in the last few decades. There are fewer and fewer full-time pulpits in their denominations.  A United Church of Christ official told us in chapel that he urges aspiring clergy to be prepared for bi-vocational ministries, or for entrepreneurial ministries outside churches, as fewer congregations can pay a full-time minister.  Many congregations are close to closing their doors, or selling their now-oversize facilities, or merging.    Main Line denominations dominated the social landscape of our nation the past century, and especially when the Baby Boomers were growing up and causing churches to burst at the seams.  They are still a presence but they have declined.  (In the last few decades, the largest mainline denominations have lost more people than even exist in my 160,000-member Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.)

Pentecostal and evangelical churches did grow in the same period but arguably are leveling off.  Catholic congregations have grown mainly from immigration of Catholics from other countries which has more than offset those who have left the faith of their upbringing.  [Sorry I don’t have a citation for you, but I’ve been reading this stuff for years.]

So what about us?

In October, USA Today gave us  publicity:   Unitarian Faith Growing Nationwide.  That’s odd… because in May, our UU World magazine reported that we were not.  In fact, while adult members in UUA churches increased a bit from 2011 to 2012, Religious Education enrollment declined again.  To me, this is not about losing “the church of the future,” as many of us fret sentimentally.  [Few participating adult UUs grew up in a UU church, and not many other folks stay in the denomination of their upbringing.] This is about a loss of participation, maybe lost ministry opportunities to families and to kids and youth.  Or it may be a loss of the relevance of current congregational life to the kids, youth and younger parents in our communities.

The Rev. Stefan Jonasson is the UUA’s Director of Growth Strategy.  He has consulted with my congregation, and calls our size category (larger mid-size, 300 to 500 members) an awkward one.  In the past decade, some in our category have lost lots of members, others have grown.  It’s a vulnerable size to be.

On his growth blog, Jonasson reports that in the past decade 12.7% of UUA congregations reported declines of 10% to 20%.  Another 22% have declined in membership by more than 20%. That’s a third of our congregations that have had more than “nibbling around the edges.”

In 1960, the United States had 179 million people.  The 2010 Census reflects 309 million people.  So our population has nearly doubled, but UUA congregations have declined or stayed the same.  This reflects the trend quoted at the top:  declining church participation.

If you’d like to read more opinions and more statistics about membership and attendance changes, here is the UU World article.

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2 Comments so far
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TIME TREASURE AND TALENT that is it on the note. We can make a visitor welcome and fell like a guest at the party but if money becomes a part of the conversation too early without the complete understanding first we lose vast numbers of potential members. My own Mother, a woman who is pretty well off, I introduced to UU congregation near her then home. She loved it and went a few times. But they then started their annual pledge drive and she never returned. Perhaps if we spent more time witnessing us serving our mission and mentioning the people and money cost in that regard on a regular basis not just before a campaign.

Comment by Bruce Moulton

Roger, do you think the increase in U.S. population is largely immigrants, many from Catholic countries? Also, I have read that the less educated people are, the more likely they are to have “superstitious” beliefs. Do you think this is the case?

Comment by Lauren Davis-Todd




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