uuworld.org, the official news Web site of the Untiarian Universalist Association, reported on Monday that Unitarian Universalism (UUism) has declined in the United States for a second straight year. The actual decline is small: down 267 adult members in 2009, a decline of 0.16 percent. Given that membership numbers are somewhat fictional to begin with, and given that many congregations are determinedly purging their membership rolls in order to reduce their annual Fair Share financial contribution to the denomination, we can console ourselves that perhaps we’re not really declining.
The really depressing news is that religious education enrollment for children and youth has been declining since 2002. And in 2009 it declined a lot: “Religious education enrollment dropped 1,262, for a total of 55,846 children and youth this year. A year ago it dropped 809. In 2002 it was 60,895.”
This is a clear downward trend that cannot be explained away. Considering that we are in the midst of a population surge for children, with birthrates that highest they’ve been since the tail end of the Baby Boom of the early 1960s, this is especially depressing news.
I believe several things are contributing to the decline of our religious education program. First is the old familiar problem we often face: those who are already in our congregations cling to the programs that they like, without thinking about how they might serve those who aren’t currently a part of our congregations. This problem has been addressed frequently elsewhere, and if you read the standard literature on church growth you’ll find plenty of excellent suggestions on addressing this problem.
A second problem is an assumption that declining programs can be fixed by instituting a new curriculum (e.g., Tapestry of Faith), or by getting rid of traditional Sunday school and trying something new (e.g., small group ministries for kids, Spirit Play, kids in entire worship service, etc.). But changing one element of a congregational system is not going to change underlying structural problems. Here in the Palo Alto church, a variety of innovative and wonderful religious education programs have been tried over the past decade and a half, but the underlying limitations remain — the big problem in our case being that we have lost dedicated religious education space to rentals and offices, which reveals that we no longer have a church culture that places children at the center of our community.
A third problem that I see is that there is little meaningful theological component to most of our religious education materials. The New Beacon Series of the early 20th C. was grounded by Sophia Fahs’s compelling theological vision of religious naturalism, a very low Christology, and cross-cultural awareness — think of Jesus the Carpenter’s Son and Beginnings of Earth and Sky. Some of the multimedia programs of the 1960s and 1970s were grounded in existential theology, particularly that of Tillich — think of the About Your Sexuality curriculum, which helped teenagers define who they were through their sexual decisions, and Haunting House. In the 1980s, we saw the emergence of Unitarian Universalist identity and, even more so, feminist theology as central theological concepts that were embraced by a loose network of independent curriculum developers — think of Hide and Seek with God for a brilliant exposition of feminist theology.
Since then I just haven’t seen any religious education curriculum with a compelling theological component. Spirit Play is grounded on a compelling pedagogical method, but the program has little theological interest. Small group ministries for kids is likewise focused on methodology, not theology. Some of the curriculums for the Tapestries of Faith program are really quite excellent, but again there’s no compelling theology running through them.
Nor should we be surprised at this. We Unitarian Universalists have been working hard to reduce theology to the “Seven Principles,” anti-racism, social justice, and the debates between humanists and theists. We religious educators have been scared to ground our programs and curriculums in serious theology — we know that if we mention God, we will be excoriated by the fundamentalist humanists and the hardline neo-pagans, and if we don’t mention God the crusading UU Christians will yell at us. So we talk about Jesus in the most mealy-mouthed namby-pamby way possible, we avoid talking about God except to assure kids that God is not a white man with a white beard on a white cloud, and we offer no compelling vision for how a religious naturalism or religious humanism could guide our lives. When we do anti-racism and theology, we daren’t mention the theological grounding of what we’re doing. We teach mostly in negatives, and the few things we affirm are so vague (the artfully vague “Seven Principles”) or so ungrounded (our anti-racism and social justice work) or so outdated (the humanist-theist debate) that families leave us in droves.
In a later post, I’ll reveal the magic formula that will change the way we do religious education and attract tons of families into our congregations, reversing 8 years of decline. (Now all I have to do is figure that magic formula out myself so I can write about it….)