I first wrote this essay in December 2019 at PrayWithYourFeet.org. I’m reposting it here, because I see what is going on with my little church as a microcosm for a broader societal phenomenon: (1) the preoccupation with growth, (2) the dissolution of social bonds, and (3) the emerging role for small communities in the future.
“The movement which many call ‘Unitarian Universalism’ has been dying for 43 years, continues to die, and the fact of its slow but steady death is the elephant in the room that few in the UUA want to face, let alone talk about.”— David Loehr, “Why ‘Unitarian Universalism’ is Dying,” Journal of Liberal Religion (2005)
At a congregational meeting back in 2019, our interim minister told us that, if we didn’t change, our church won’t exist in a couple of decades. It felt like a punch to the gut. But I think he was right. In fact, I would go one step further: My church will probably not exist in 2040.
The building where I attend church has been a Unitarian church since 1874. In a few years, we’ll be celebrating our 150th anniversary. I don’t think we’ll see our 175th.
Over that 150 years, there have been a lot of changes. Unitarianism began as a theological rebellion against Biblical literalism. It was an experiment in rational religion. Over the decades, Unitarianism left behind its Christian roots and became increasingly humanist and atheist, with a liberal sprinkling of Buddhism/mindfulness and Wiccan/Neo-Pagan spirituality. In 1961, Unitarians and Universalists merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Universalism had been declining for decades before the merger. Since the merger, UU numbers have been stagnant. In 1961, there were 1,035 congregations and 151,557 members. In 2019, there were 1,029 congregations and 154,704 members. There was a peak in 1968 with 177,000 members and another in 2009 with 165,000 members. The lowest point was 1982 with 135,000 members. We’ve been in decline again since 2010, and this one may be terminal.[FN1]
While there are roughly the same number of members today as there were in 1961, those numbers hide a decline. If you consider that the U.S. population has grown by 75% since 1961, then you’ll see that UU membership has actually been shrinking as a percentage of the overall population.
If we look at UU demographics, the picture looks even more bleak. While membership numbers are the same today as they were in 1961, there are half as many children enrolled in UU religious education (38,000 vs. 77,000). According to the Pew Forum, about 80% of UUs are Gen X’ers or older. We’re not just shrinking; we’re dying–literally. My own congregation, in Northwest Indiana, is a microcosm of this.
Many UUs remain baffled as to why we’re not growing. Polls report dramatic growth in self-identified atheists and the spiritual-but-not-religious. Most of these folks have discovered that they don’t need a church to be spiritual. Unitarian Universalism offers a community where people can believe what they want and seek spirituality on their own terms. But most people don’t need a church for that. They have the internet. They have yoga. They have Oprah. They have myriad other ways to be spiritual that don’t involve getting out of bed Sunday morning.
What’s more, Unitarian Universalism comes encumbered by many of the trappings of the dogmatic religions which the spiritual-but-not-religious have rejected: steeples and bells, pews and pulpits, organs and 19th century dirge-like hymns. If Unitarian Universalism rejects most of the substance of dogmatic religion, we have kept many of its forms. At best, they are unnecessary baggage. At worst, these are uncomfortable reminders of a problematic past. What the UU offers, religionless church, is not the same thing as churchless religion. And it’s the latter that Millennials and Gen Z’ers want.
We’re not alone, of course. Attendance rates in liberal or liberalizing denominations have been declining for decades, while membership in conservative denominations has grown. The collapse of the Sunday Assembly movement should send a clear message to UUs: we can’t look to the Religious Nones to fill our pews.
And the UU will never be an attraction to the other part of the population who is looking for clear answers[FN2] and divine help. I’ve argued elsewhere that UU atheism is a form of privilege (specifically White privilege [FN3]). As Ross Douthat wrote in a recent New York Times piece, intellectualized spirituality like UUism “has a strong appeal to the privileged but a much weaker appeal to people who need not only sense of wonder from their spiritual lives but also, well, help.”
That leaves no significant demographic pool from which UUs can expect to draw new members. Frankly, if we haven’t figured out how to grow in the last 60 years, we’re not going to in the next 20.
Just this past Sunday our interim minister led us in a discussion about the history of our church and our vision of our future. I have lost count of how many times we have engaged in this exercise in the last decade. I think it’s time for UUs to come to terms with the fact that we are dying. Rather than continuing to ask ourselves the perennial question of how we can grow our numbers, I think it’s time we question the desirability of growth. The obsession with the growth of religious congregations is part and parcel of the obsession with growth in Western capitalist culture (which, incidentally, has brought our civilization to the brink of collapse).
Once we accept that we are dying, we can start asking different questions. Instead of asking how do we bring more people in the door, we can ask how we can best serve the world and our community in the time we have left.[FN4] Every congregation will need to answer this question for themselves in community. Here are some of my tentative thoughts:
1. Let Go of Growth
We see a lot of people come and go from our congregation. And maybe that’s not something we should regret. I’ve notice that our congregation serves as a kind of spiritual waystation for many people: a soft place to land after a bad experience with conservative religion, a way of dipping one’s toes into religion after years of religious disengagement, or just a stepping stone on the way to another religious home. Maybe that is our unique service to the world.
In Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor suggests a different role for religious congregations than is usually imagined. She asks,”What if church felt more like a way station than a destination? What if the church’s job were to move people out the door instead of trying to keep them in, by convincing them that God needed them more in the world than in the church?”
What if we saw our own congregation this way? What if we accepted that our church would always be more of a waystation than a destination for most people? And what if our role was to move people out the door instead of trying to keep them in? What if we saw ourselves more like a monastery or other religious order, rather than a typical church? Of course, a few of us stalwarts would be necessary to keep the doors open. But we could decide that that is our mission and let go of growth as a goal.
2. Small is Beautiful
My congregation has under 100 members. And our regular Sunday attendance is well below that. It dips to its lowest point in the summer, when the emptiness of the chapel seems louder than our singing. Most of my fellow congregants see this as a problem. I wonder, though.
In the 1996 movie, Jerry Maguire, starring Tom Cruise, the titular character loses his job after writing and sharing a “mission statement” (really a manifesto) in which he offers a radical critique of his industry’s (he is a sports agent) obsession with money. We only see glimpse of the text during the movie, but one line stands out: “Fewer clients. Less Money.”
We’ve had congregational consultants and prior ministers advise us that our congregation exists in the uncomfortable territory between being a fellowship–which are small and lay-led–and a congregation–which have ministers, buildings, and religious education programs. I wonder if our particular situation calls not for more members, but … Fewer members. Less money.
Unitarian Universalism tends to generate low levels of commitment. It is very easy, I think too easy, to join our congregation. Studies have shown that the more a religion demands of its members, the more committed the members will be to the religion. Universalism offers many opportunities to give of our time and money, but demands very little of people.
What if instead of rushing people into membership (I’ve seen people join and never come back after their membership ceremony), we made it harder to become a member? What if instead of focusing on bringing in more people, we focused instead on healing and growing the relationships among the people who are already here? What if instead of stretching ourselves beyond our practical capabilities, we cut back on what we do and focused on doing fewer things better?
I was inspired by a story about a small church, like my own, in Chicago that is doing just what I propose here. They have 90 members (and are dwindling), and they also has a historic building. But they have decided that what matters is not “saving the life” of their congregation, but using what life they have to “do the next right thing.” For them, that meant becoming a sanctuary congregation.
3. Adopt a Hospice Mentality
I think Unitarian Universalism will probably still be limping along in a couple of decades. But for all intents and purposes, we’ll be culturally irrelevant–if we’re not already. In 2030, we’ll be 0.04% (4/10000) of the U.S. population, compared to 0.08% in 1961. And if those trends hold, it will be half that again by the end of the century. (By way of comparison, Jews represent 2.1%, Mormons 1.8%, and Muslims 0.8%.)
In light of that, every decision we make in the next ten years should be informed by that reality. There’s no point in acting like we’re going to be around forever, when we’re not. We need to accept the fact that all things die, including religions, and Unitarian Universalism’s time has come.
I love our little church by the railroad tracks. And I love the other UUs who help make it home. But sometimes loving something means letting it go.
Knowing that Unitarian Universalism is going to die, it’s natural and right to grieve. But that need not be the end of the story. Like a patient with a terminal disease, knowing that we will die can cause our love for the world to broaden and deepen. Knowing that our relationships won’t last forever can cause us to cherish them even more. And what do we do for the people we love and will lose? We try to deepen our connections with them in the time we have left. We try to lessen some of their suffering and increase some of their joy. And we consider what will be our lasting mark on the world.
[FN1] This isn’t just a modern problem either. Writing back in 1897, Meadville-trained minister, John Trevor, bemoaned the unfulfilled potential of Unitarianism:
“For want of something, I know not what, all their freedom, all their knowledge, all their generosity, all their high personal character—everything which seems to mark them out as the one denomination to lead the van of religious and social emancipation—never comes to the point of making them a great reforming power. People, with qualities in many respects far inferior to theirs, are moving the world to-day; while they, perplexed and pained as they are, and anxious to find the road by which they may march forward, are scarcely able to maintain the status of their own churches.”— John Trevor, My Quest for God (1897)
Unfortunately, from my perspective, very little has changed in over a century.
[FN2] In 1979, the president of the UUA, Gene Pickett, observed in his inaugural address:
“The deeper malaise lies in our confusion as to what word we have to spread. The old watchwords of liberalism–freedom, reason, and tolerance–worthy though they may be, are simply not catching the imagination of the contemporary world. They describe a process for approaching the religious depths but they testify to no intimate acquaintance with the depths themselves. If we are ever to speak to a new age, we must supplement our seeking with some profound religious finds.”
I don’t think UUism has answered this call in the intervening four decades. Of course, individual Unitarians are making these “finds,” but they are not made a part the communal life of the church.
[FN3] As DeReau Farrar wrote a couple of years ago in UUWorld, “Any movement in Unitarian Universalism to make God unwelcome in our sanctuaries is effectively akin to posting ‘Whites Only’ signs on our doors.”
[FN4] Coincidentally, I think this is the same question we need to be asking as a society and as a species, in light of runaway global heating, climate chaos, and impending civilizational collapse. See my essay, “‘Another End of the World is Possible’: Practicing the Yoga of Despair.”