I’ve been getting tired of the way liberal religion is becoming increasingly marginalized in the United States, which means I’ve been thinking a lot about church growth. Did you know that most Unitarian Universalist congregations average less than 100 men, women, and children at worship and Sunday school each week? Same is true of other liberal churches. If we could only get those small churches to grow… but many people who belong to small churches say they like the feeling of knowing everyone at their church.
OK, maybe, but here’s ten reasons why mid-size churches are better:
(1) Mid-size churches are better than small churches because you don’t have to be on a committee every year, so there’s less volunteer burnout.
(2) Mid-size churches are better than small churches because you can serve on the committee you really like, whereas in a small church everyone has to serve on every committee.
(3) Mid-size churches are better than small churches because in a mid-size church with two ministers, even if you don’t like one of the ministers, there’s another minister that you might get along with.
(4) Mid-size churches are better than small churches because you can have lots more programs such as more adult religious education, more support groups, more small group ministries, etc.
(5) Mid-size churches are better than small churches because you can have bigger choirs (in small church choirs, you better be an excellent singer because you might be the only person in your section some Sunday!).
(6) Mid-size churches are better than small churches because you can have more programs for children and youth (like children’s choirs, dramatic productions, etc.).
(7) Mid-size churches are better than small churches because they are far more financially stable — if one big donor leaves a small church you’re in trouble — mid-size churches spread the financial load over more people.
(8) Mid-size churches are better than small churches because when a couple gets divorced, the mid-size church is big enough that both of them can still belong to the church (especially if there are two worship services).
(9) Mid-size churches are better than small churches because there are more small groups where you can really get to know people well.
(10) But the top reason why mid-size churches are better than small churches is because if all our small churches were mid-size churches, Unitarian Universalism would really be a force to be reckoned with in the world — if all our small churches were mid-size churches, there would be twice as many of us out there making a difference!
Now you add your own reasons why a mid-size church is better than a small church….
Mid size churches are good for all the reaasons you give, but this does little to advance the cause of liberal
I think the obstacle there, for liberals, is they need to understand their only hope of finding new liberals is among conservative church goers.
UUism isn’t going to grow recruiting the unchurched. It’s only conservatives who for one reason or another can’t remain in their Church homes, who will come to UU Churches.
And UUs aren’t the most kindest sort for welcoming these folks.
Once every couple of months I sleep over at the homeless shelter Sat night for our Church and stay over Sunday
am for the service usually done by Bikers for Christ. I think I’m the only UU who hangs around for that. It’s basically people talking about their trials and tribulations from the past week and saying prayer and lots of songs.
I suggested to a UUer on the Social Justice committee it would be good to stay for these services, offer a UU prayer or meditation… witness a bit…. the UUer told me I was a hypocrite for participating in a service like that…
so… besides being homeless, I should tell the homeless they have no God either…
…and, this from people who protest war but worry about violence they might encounter spending a night in a homeless shelter.
The Churches will remain small and get smaller fading away if UU’s can’t get comfortable with a public proclamation of our covenant –and we have a darn good one in Geneva– if we can’t share it with folks most likely to join us.
The mega Churches do a much better job getting the unchurched. Our only source is really among the conservatives and we best get comfortable being with them. I’ve yet to be turned away by them and almost always treated with respect gained by sharing the same tasks of washing dishes, taking folks out for their smoke break… and so on…
This is an interesting post and has some good points. I appreciate it, in part because it makes me think.
Of course, there are multiple impracticalities to the idea that ALL of our small churches should or can become mid-sized. The two congregations I served before coming to Eliot Church are located in small towns (1,700 and 3,000 folks, respectively) surrounded by other small towns (the one I lived in had a population of 700, but that included many folks who spent most of the year in Florida). They are also in an area with very limitted infrastructure, a depressed economy, and many aging instituions struggling to survive (including other churches). These congregations provide a powerful and valuable liberal witness in their communities but will never be large because none of the other churches are large, either.
Also, at least in Eastern MA, there is always the question of where these new folks come from. I am currently serving a small-but-growing congregation with a strong volunteer base and many, many young children. We are being very intentional about growth, too (“community days” direct mailings, adds in the paper, me out shaking hands and kissing babies, etc…). I think it would be great to have larger UU churches, but many of those churches that are growing are (anecdotally, at least) taking members from other UU churches! This, too, is a problem for many of the other mainline denominations and associations (we are also UCC). Since the towns are relatively close together and (for many) local identity isn’t as strong as it used to be (working out of town, private school for the kids, relatively transient populations, etc) there is a natural urge to “shop” for services regionally. That is, the very things that make mid-sized and larger churches great are the things that will ensure that not all of our churches will become mid-sized.
As we work through our own development, I am increasingly aware of how little control we actually have when it comes to growth. A great deal of church growth has to do with the demographics of a region as well as, of course, with the culture and tone of both the congregation and the neighborhood. It is one thing to attend or serve a mid-sized congregation. It is another to build one. Thank you for posting this. And good luck.
One question, and one comment.
First, how is “mid-sized” defined? Over 200? I belong to a UU congregation with just about 300 members….it seems like just the right size to demonstrate all of the advantages you outlined in your post. Even as a new member I still feel like it is small enough to get to know people.
Second, regarding BB’s comment: “UUism isnâ€™t going to grow recruiting the unchurched. Itâ€™s only conservatives who for one reason or another canâ€™t remain in their Church homes, who will come to UU Churches.” My guess is that I am one of these so-called “unchurched”…I have a mainstream Protestant background, but broke away from organized religion as a young adult. 25 years later, I finally stumbled upon UUism. I’m quite certain there are a lot of liberal, “unchurched” folks out there that have no idea of what Unitarian-Universalism is, and how closely it aligns with their beliefs.
I’ve heard a few interesting statistics during the last week (I don’t have sources…please correct me if they are not accurate). First, only 1.5% of the general population has an awareness of UUism and what it is. Second, my minister mentioned a poll in which 40% of people consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” I think these figures suggest that there are a lot of individuals out there to reach out to besides “conservative church goers.”
You’re right that there out there Carol.. “the spiritual but not religous”… but the mega
churches do a far better job of getting them…. and UU’s, for all of our liberalism, are
a pretty traditional lot.
Bill (first post) — Yes, we get a lot of newcomers from the conservative denominations. But my experience has been we can do a pretty good job of getting unchurched folks to participate, if we invite them in. Another big source of potential newcomers is our children; it’s surprising how many UU parents do NOT invite their own children to come to church! You also say: “And UUs arenâ€™t the most kindest sort for welcoming these folks.” –I think a large part of that is actually the difficulty of making the transition from a small congregation (150 or less average attendance on Sundays) to a mid-size church (200 to 400 average attendance on Sundays). See Alice Mann’s book “Raising the Roof” to learn more (ask Lindsay if you can borrow a copy) — or for an overview, check out the following online resource:
Adam — Yep, it’s impractical in some areas. But here’s my rule of thumb: We could attract at least 1% of the population within a 30 minute drive of any of our congregations (45 minutes in the Midwest and the Far West, probably less in Europe). Having spent many years in the Boston area, I would say we still have lots of room for growth even if you factor in the density of congregations (because of the density of population). I believe the real issue is that most of our congregations don’t grow because of the difficulty of size transitions, esp. pastoral to program-size church — and that we could help congregations see why it’s to their advantage to grow by showing the benefits of having a mid-size church. For an online resource, see page 8 of the following:
Carol — Church size is best defined by the year-round average of adults and children who attend church each Sunday (the number of people who have signed the membership book is typically far less useful a number). As to your comment, demographic research by the Unitarian Unviersalist Association indicates that while there are only about 250,000 actual Unitarian Universalists in the United States, another 250,000 people consistently report themselves as being Unitarian Universalists on independent polls, and another 4-5 million people look very much like existing Unitarian Universalists demographically speaking.
Bill and Carol — I do not believe that we are particularly good at attracting the “spiritual but not religious.” I believe we are good at attracting people who are “cultural creatives,” who are engaged in creating their own cultural norms. According to demographers, I’m actually a cultural creative so maybe I’m biased.
Those congregations that are growing are recruiting the “unchurched.” And those congregations that are not growing are recruiting the unchurched are failing to consoldate them. Unless Catholics in rebellion are “conservative Christians” we aren’t recruiting conservative Christians at all.
I meet very few people from uncharged backgrounds in my Church. Always people who grew up often Catholic (it’s Chicago area) or from a conservative sort of Church… they fell away and come back when they have kids and look for less doctrainare place that still feels like Church and offers programs for kids.
The mega Church, which I visit somethimes, is huge and gets a far wider range… My wife is in a choir with some leaders of the Church of the Brethen. Their world HQ is here in Elgin Illinois. They study these Mega Churches in detail. Very effective in recruiting the unchurched.
Great post, Dan. It helped me identify the main question to ask our Membership Committee: do we want to target our outreach to the unchurched, or to the disenchanted ex-Something? I believe that in my conservative Irish Catholic enclave, we would do well to focus our efforts on the latter. Right now it’s a catch-as-catch-can mishmash.
If YOU were going to be our speaker at the district annual meeting this coming weekend, I’d go.
Hiya, PB — I have much the same demographic in my area as you do in yours, except it’s not just Irish Catholic, it’s lots of other ethnic Catholic groups too. We get ex-Catholics coming in the door, and we don’t see a whole heck of a lot of unchurched folks because in this area my feeling is that the majority of people have at least a nominal church affiliation. Perhaps for that reason, we’ve been finding that our support for equal marriage has been a great attraction for newcomers — as people get driven out of more conservative churches because of that “wedge issue,” they come to us.
I’m still hoping to mobilize the unchruched folks in the area, though. That may require growth first, because I still believe that unchurched people are far more likely to attend a program-size church (or larger) — there is so much you have to put up with in a small church, I can’t imagine many unchurched people willing to wade their way through the volunteer burnout and financial instability of a small church, just in order to get to the theological message that might be hidden there.