Unitarian Universalist “iPod” strategy

You can check out “Coffee Hour — Where UU Bloggers Mix It Up” for a discussion of how to keep Unitarian Universalism from slipping into decline. They pose the question this way:

“So it’s time to put your imagination caps on. Think big about what “big changes” you’d want to see in UUism. What would your “iPod strategy” for UUism look like? What would it take to get there? And would any of your “iPod buyers” end up “making the switch” (and give up their old PCs for new “UU Macs”). Or would that even matter? Would a bunch of new “UU iPod” owners be enough?”

Feeling crankier than usual (which is pretty cranky!), I couldn’t resist offering my own answer, which I will paste in below…. Those of you here in the Geneva church have already heard versions of this tirade, so feel free to skip reading it once again here.

In some ways, we are like Apple. We already have a great product — an open, liberatory theological message which is not based in creedalism. We know from looking at the demographics that there are millions of people out there who would fit right in. It’s even pretty clear that we are getting more curious visitors than many other religious movements.

I believe our problem is that most of our congregations actively reject newcomers. At one level, it’s a sociological problem. Most of our churches are so-called “pastoral-size” churches which would rather die than give up the sense of false intimacy that arises when you have less than 150 active members (i.e., less than 150 average weekly attendance at worship and church school).

Perfect example — try telling many UU congregations to give up the sharing of joys and concerns, and you’ll cause an enormous uproar. Yet joys and concerns clearly turn off many (even most!) newcomers, because joys and concerns represents the congregation as a small, tight in-group, where if you don’t know everyone’s first name and if you don’t feel comfortable sharing personal problems in front of a group, you just can’t fit in. (Yeah I know you like them, but you’re one of the few that stayed.)

I’m of the opinion that congregations of about 300 active members represents a good, stable size that balances between the ideals of our polity and economic reality. Wouldn’t it be great if we had such congregations scattered throughout the United States, no more than a 30 minute drive apart? Of course, when you suggest to most UU congregations that once they reach their goal for growth they could do new church starts thirty minutes away, again you meet up with enormous resistance, as if such a thing were unthinkable. It’s that false sense of intimacy again — “Why, then I couldn’t see my friends!” — but if they’re really your friends, you’ll figure out a way to stay in touch that needn’t involve meeting at church once a week.

Rather than Apple, we’re more like Wang — remember them? They produced the first commercial word processors. But they got too attached to their mini-computer platform which died when micro-computers came along — they didn’t understand that mini-computers were just a means to an end, not an end in itself. Just so, we Unitarian Universalists have become attached to this false sense of intimacy, mistaking it for the real work of liberal religion.

Our real work needs to take place on the congregational level. We have to start taking a hard look at ourselves, understanding which of our behaviors actively reject newcomers. All the ads in the world won’t work if we reject people once they arrive! Having a great theological “product” is useless if we scare people away before they can hear our theology!

So yeah — it’s up to each one of us — we each have to take full individual and personal responsibility for the fact that Unitarian Universalism is fading out. We have to stop blaming our decline on the UUA, or on the surrounding society — our fate is in *our* hands. So what will you do, personally, to make sure newcomers are actively welcomed and integrated into your congregation? Will you actively support an additional worship service? Will you help with new church starts? Will you rein in joys and concerns? Will you talk with newcomers at coffee hour instead of just your friends? It’s up to you and me, my friends, no one else — and we *do* have the power to turn things around, if we choose to.

One thought on “Unitarian Universalist “iPod” strategy

  1. Administrator

    Comment from old blog

    Thanks for your bit on this. I was going to do something very similar looking at both the large amount of pastoral size congregations and the prevalence of family size lay fellowships that “squat the franchise” in a variety of locations. My particular interest is in Durall’s idea of whether your church has mirrors or windows, and whether the congregation looks inward to itself or projects itself out to the world.


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