In a recent comment, Joe C. asks some very good questions, saying: “I agree that increasing worship attendance is a worthy goal and is likely to have good side effects. The questions then become: how do we increasing worship attendance? what kinds of worship service satisfy the needs of current and future members? what is the purpose of worship services in the UU context and how do we know if we achieved this purpose?”
All very good questions. Every local congregation is going to have to answer these questions to meet their local situations. A general principle seems apparent, though: one increases worship service attendance by directly addressing the hurts and hopes of present members and friends — and this is likely to address the hurts and hopes of potential members and friends, who may then begin attending worship services.
In this context, the purpose of UU worship services is to put individuals in touch with something larger than themselves. Some Unitarian Universalists (a minority these days) might say that it is God which is larger than ourselves, and the rest of us will not wish to put God in that place. But whatever our stand on the God question, all of us will say that there are larger moral and ethical principles that should govern our lives; there is the interrelationship of all life; etc. However we name that larger principle, one primary purpose of Unitarian Universalist worship services is to remind people that there is something larger than ourselves.
A second purpose of Unitarian Universalist worship services is to put individuals in touch with a living human community. This community is literally the immediate and present community of that Unitarian Universalist congregation. More figuratively, it is the worldwide community of Unitarians, Universalists, Unitarian Universalists, and other religious liberals; and it is the historical community to which the local congregation traces its roots. It is to our living human community that we can bring our hurts and hopes. It is from this living human community that we can draw strength to get through the hurtful and difficult times in life; furthermore, we can draw strength from this living human community, and take that strength out into the world to make the world a better place, i.e., to make our hopes come true.
Thus, when we say our goal is to increase worship service attendance, we are actually inviting people to join us in connecting with something that is larger than our individual selves, and we are inviting people to share their hurts and hopes with us as we share our hurts and hopes with them. When we talk about increasing worship attendance, we are implying that there are larger ends contained within that simple numerical goal.
How do we know if we have achieved these larger goals? In my experience in congregations that have lived out these ideals, there aren’t specific metrics we can look to (unlike some Christian churches that point to how many people have been saved). Instead, what we look for is anecdotal evidence that people’s lives are being changed, both by staying in touch with something larger than themselves, and staying in touch with a living human community. This anecdotal evidence can be reflected back to the congregation in a variety of formats: some UU congregations ask members and friends to give one or two minutes “testimonies” of how the congregation has changed their lives; some UU congregations reflect these stories back through the sermon (having asked permission from those concerned, of course); some UU congregations find that “Joys and Sorrows” (or as we call it here in Palo Alto, “Caring and Sharing”) is the time when persons reflect this back; some UU congregations may find this happens during a pastoral prayer; in some congregations, this occasionally may also take place outside of worship, e.g., in the newsletter.