Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog


The Rise of the Religiously Unaffiliated: Threat, Opportunity, or Not So New? – Post 2 of 2

This is a continued post on the nuances of lower church participation and what Molly Worthen says is the new visibility of unaffiliated religious people.  (See her New York Times opinion  article “One Nation Under God?” on Dec. 22, 2012.)

Regular worship attendance in the U.S. is less than 30%, she writes, “even as 77% still identify as Christians and 69 percent say they are ‘very’ or ‘moderately’ religious.”

Given that many UUs identify ourselves as not Christian (and many Christians would say that as well), we may feel that we could be an exception; we should not expect a low rate of participation among people who say they share our religious approach.  I doubt we are so exceptional.

The Rev. Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association writes:

                   [The] number of people who identify as UUs is about four times the membership of our congregations (about 160,000 adult members and about 650,000 people who identify as UUs). In other words, for every adult member there are three non-members who say they are Unitarian Universalist.

                   The second largest gathering of UUs, after General Assembly [which draws about 4,000 registrants to a different convention city every June], is the Southeast UU Summer Institute (SUUSI). A significant number of people who attend SUUSI year after year do not belong to any UU congregation. There are other UU camps and conferences that draw similarly large numbers of unaffiliated people.

The above is from his January 2012 paper “Congregations and Beyond,” (launching an initiative of the same name).

Some of us may think this means our death knell as a movement, or at least as a brick-and-mortar denomination.

How can we keep our churches going if people stop going to our churches?  How can we embody our values if we have no institutional embodiment of our tradition?  This is a valid concern, yet the fact that our message and values live and breathe in camps, conferences, on-line communities, and friendship networks raises a question:  Do we want to preserve our church only for the sake of its preservation, or do we want to explore new forms for making an impact on the larger society and world?

I have not attended SUSSI or another regional summer , but I know lay and clergy friends who do.  One couple of old friends of mine have dropped out of active lay leadership in their home church.  They did this out of despair at persisting patterns of unhealthy congregational conflict and the experience of behaviors that undermine trust.      It seems they have been driven away from their congregation by its lack of faith and not by their own loss of it.  Indeed, their family keeps to their spiritual practices and maintains fellowship with UUs through a summer camp.   As their kids reach adulthood, I can’t imagine they will lose the UU values with which they have been reared or their commitment to community involvement. Maybe the kids will keep to a spiritual practice, though plenty of people who regularly attend services in a variety of traditions do not easily keep up a regular personal or family spiritual discipline.

Speaking of kids and youth, Morales says:

                   The majority of children raised as UUs do not join UU congregations when they are young adults. However, they continue to identify as UUs and share core UU values. Often they have close friendships with fellow young adults they met at church or at “youth cons.”

True, most of our youth do not join congregations in adulthood.  I’ve known UU teens who were continental youth leaders but now don’t attend church, but I know of others who became UU ministers. I know many children of UU ministerial colleagues, now young adults, who do not belong to a church, even though they might attend a service occasionally.  Yet there are preachers’ kids (PKs) who go on to seminary.  I don’t know many PKs who make up the middle ground between the poles of minister and lapsed UUs, that is, younger adults who are regular UU church members and lay leaders.  It could be they are easy to overlook if one is looking only for the disaffected and drifted away.

Did we drive the no-longer-affiliated young adults away from us, or did we fail to hang on to them?  Or is this a fair choice of question.  Perhaps there could be complicated, multiple, and overlapping factors we should consider.

Note that the majority of adults in our congregations grew up in another tradition or in “None of the Above.”   Are their childhood churches berating themselves because they didn’t hang on to them as adults?  Should they?

Consider, perhaps, whether this fluidity is a persistent aspect of the American religious landscape.  Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville first came to observe and write about Democracy in America, we have been known to have a marketplace of competing congregations, all with their own traditions, spiritual styles, ways of outreach and hospitality, and programs.

As Americans have become increasingly transient and less rooted in one place for the long term, it seems natural that congregation-switching would accelerate.  So would withdrawal from participation.  As we move around, it can be harder to establish a new church involvement after leaving one where you had a sense of deep roots and connection.

Yet this geographical transience, and the personal isolation that often comes with it, points to an opportunity for ministry.  Instead of hand wringing over denominational statistics, we can get curious about needs that we might be poised to serve through our local congregations.

I am sure nostalgic institutionalists among us will worry that such virtual and viral forms of decentralized UUism may dwindle away over time.  Moreover, as the leaders who help raise the funds to sustain a congregational home (with its buildings, programs, and staff), we can worry about the failure of our tried and true financing models to keep things going.   Given that the landscape is changing, we must consider alternative financial models for programs and ministries that will still need money.  This takes us to another part of Morales’s summarizing of the new reality:

Some of our committed and generous donors [to denominational operations or specific projects] do not belong to congregations. I recently met with a donor who gave us $300,000 and yet has never been a member of a congregation. A few weeks ago I spoke with another non-UU who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I’m happy to know there are visionary and generous people willing to make large donations to support our denominational programs.  Yet I take this not as a clear solution, but as evidence that there is more complexity to the current landscape in which we do our ministries.

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