UUism declines for 2nd straight year; RE for 7th straight year

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….)

19 thoughts on “UUism declines for 2nd straight year; RE for 7th straight year

  1. Ian

    Fascinated to hear any conclusions you might have on this, no matter how tentative and nascent.

    I’d love to find out if it is possible to have some kind of theological grounding in religious naturalism or religious humanism. I’m interested in theological approaches to humanism.

    Is there a route in talking about the theological grounding of Jesus, in a way that is descriptive of Christian theology, rather than promotes it?

    Alas, there’s no UU over here in the UK, so my understanding is based on visiting UU congregations while I’m over in the US on business, so as an adult only.

  2. Lizard Eater

    Daniel — do we have any programs that give children/youth “experiences”? I’m immersed in theories of Christian worship right now (evangelical seminary) and one thing we’ve talked about extensively is the need for worship to be experienced, not just observed.

    So, as a Mom of 4, and as a cradle UU, I’ve been wondering about the experiences we give our kids. Real experiences, not just “talking about our feelings.” (My criticism of RE when I was 12 years old.)

    When I read Kendyl Gibbons’ words about being raised UU and wanting to pray, I shouted — it was exactly like my experience.
    http://anthonyuu.wordpress.com/2010/02/01/what-kind-of-unitarian-universalist-are-you/ Do we have an RE curriculum that teaches different ways people pray/meditate — one that allows them to try it out?

  3. Jim

    What you say about UU Children’s RE curriculum is why my young daughter now goes to Sunday school at a UCC church.

  4. Bill Baar

    “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.”

    This sentence, and the paragraph I clipped it from, nicely sums the pickle we’ve gotten ourselves into.

  5. Mark Edmiston-Lange

    I believe we have been on a trajectory too much like the journey of the Universalist Church of America from 1870 on. And I believe the last time we had a robust and persuasive theology was in the 1950’s through early sixties – having since then lived off the echoes of the persuasions that had power at that time.

    Yet our core message does have amazing power. That core message has been neglected because it seemed the only way to keep peace in the house – “We covenant to be vague enough so as to not hurt anyone feelings.”

    I don’t have a problem with the 7 principles. But if our religious commitments empowered us to practice them with vigor – we’d be good. And there’s the rub. They are regarded as sentiments and not articles of faith. And sentiments are easily renegotiated when it seems advantageous to the sentiment holder.

    There are readily understood and largely biological reasons for this state affairs. Homo sapiens’ talents for forming social bonds follow some pretty clearly identified scripts. And to be truthful, I think the social unease that swirls through our congregations is common to society. The good news, if we practice our faith, we no longer need to continue acting like a curious sect (as we are prone to now) and be a reliable source for hope for people in general. That is, if the unease we feel in our congregations is related to the unease in general, our recovery will provide an important clue for people in general.

    No one knows, in fact, what real recovery will be like. But I’m willing to put all my money on a very unitarian and universalist perspective – there is one god for one people on one planet.

  6. Jeremiah

    I cannot agree more with this post.

    As of this past Sunday, YAC, the organizing body overseeing Maine-based youth conferences collapsed due to lack of District support and concerns by DRE’s that too much leeway was given to youth.

    And no successor program, other than individual churches and retreat centers doing programming in a piecemeal fashion. I have yet to see anything compelling on youth empowerment coming from Beacon Hill other than the same warmed-over platitudes being spewed semi-annually at District conferences (in addition to the usual doling out of awards for jobs blandly done followed by several rounds of back patting).

    The District deliberately removed all support for a sister group, DYC, earlier this year. Its interim youth programming coordinator was ostensibly brought on board to end all such programming before being replaced with a long-term position, so as to deflect any blame away from the administration.

    I could go on and on. Needless to say, I really don’t see a robust future at this point. I’m looking forward to reading about the magic formula.

  7. Larry Ladd

    From my 2004 UUA Financial Advisor report to the General Assembly and UU congregations:
    “For three years in a row I have written in this report that the declines in religious education enrollments should be “a warning signal for our movement.” In my report in 2002 I wrote: “We need to identify the causes of the slowing growth in religious education enrollments. Is it that our adult membership is aging? Is it that we are becoming less successful in attracting young families and single parents? Is it other factors? Most importantly, this indicator likely predicts a decline in adult membership in the near future.” For the second year in a row, I regret to report that, to my knowledge, there has been no serious discussion within our movement about the implications of this regrettable development.”
    Larry Ladd

  8. Elz

    If I may be so bold, my most recent post is an attempt at said magic formula. I would welcome your comments, esteemed one. And say hi to University Ave– my mom went to Palo Alto High while her father taught at Stanford.

  9. Bart Frost

    I will go on record and say that one outcome of ending Youth programming at the continental is the decline in the number of youth and young adults interested in maintaining their connection to Unitarian Universalism.
    Combine that with the utter disrespect that a number of DREs face (disclaimer: I’m the child of an ex-DRE), even though DREs are the ones that grow congregations the most and the reason why the numbers decline is easy to figure out.
    Furthermore, compare the RE numbers to those of Young Adults active in a congregation. The 18-35 age range is the Chalice Generation (those who were raised UU) more than any other age range, yet it STILL has the highest rate of non-congregation attendance. Maybe, instead of focusing on congregational services (that largely serve UU converts), the UUA should focus on retaining the those who were raised UU.
    ~Bart Frost

  10. Steve Caldwell

    If the social science data is accurate, religious participation is declining in North America.

    Is it possible that the stagnant to no-growth conditions observed in Unitarian Universalism may simply be yet another symptom associated with the shrinking of the “religion” sector of the economy.

  11. Jean

    Now *this* is a phrase I just have to wonder about: “…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.”

    Are you all under one roof? My goodness.

  12. Victor

    … perhaps this decline has something to do with “”belief” is a tiny part of what ties us together” (from your previous post on God)?

    The lack of a meaningful theological component to most RE materials is a direct result, I believe, of our misunderstanding of what it means to be non-creedal. Almost everyone equates being non-creedal with “no beliefs” and hence, little emphasis on theology. That simply isn’t what being non-creedal means. We have no common doctrinal system of beliefs, but we certainly do share common beliefs.

    Before we begin educating our children on what it means to be a UU, I think we need to step back and start educating the adults…

  13. Dan

    Ian @ 1 — For what it’s worth, there are Unitarian congregations in the U.K. I have corresponded with the ministers of two of these churches — Andy Pakula at the Newington Green church in London, Chris Hudson at All Souls Church in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and feel they are pretty much in line with Unitarian Universalism here in the States. I think Andy would place himself somewhere within religious naturalism. (Andy’s blog is “Throw Yourself Like Seed.”)

    Lizard Eater @ 2 — The educational philosophy of UU religious education right up through the multimedia era was grounded in giving children experiences; check out the old Haunting House curriculum, or Sophia Fahs’s Church Across the Street. Since the 1980s we have drifted away from that educational philosophy.

    Jim @ 3 — Not surprised. But also, watch your UCC church, get involved, and make sure they stay focused on the right things — there are plenty of UCC churches with RE programs that are adrift.

    Bill @ 4 — “Pickle” is such a polite word….

    Jeremiah @ 6 — Actually, I think the collapse of youth programming is a parallel phenomenon that is related but still separate. Youth programming at the district and continental level had become seriously problematic by the early 2000s for two main reasons. (1) I was hearing complaints from girls and youth of color about (respectively) sexism and racism at the continental level, and some of this was happening at the district level. This was coupled with some very exclusive behavior on the part of many youth leaders, to the point where several times I brought talented, vibrant youth leaders to cons and they basically said, Don’t make me go to a con ever again. (2) The legal situation has changed dramatically in the past decade, to the point where I have talked with adult advisors who refuse to attend cons because of their (justifiable) fear of lawsuits and false accusations — they’re not worried about the youth, mind you, but about the parents.

    Thus, I would say that youth programming suffers from everything I mention in this post, plus breakdowns in the cons system, plus a worrisome legal situation for adult advisors.

    Larry @ 7 — Thanks for posting excerpts from your reports. I well remember hearing the 2004 report. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who listened.

    Elz @ 8 — I’ll check out your post and comment at more length over on your blog.

    Bart @ 9 — You raise three excellent points. Youth programming at the continental level has to be fixed, and soon. The disrespect that DREs face (and I have talked with your mother about this, years ago) most often manifests itself in the pitiful salaries paid to religious educators; if we want to look at one single factor that more than any other has most contributed to the decline of religious education, it would be the pitiful salaries that have driven many excellent religious educators to seek other lines of work. And finally, retaining born UUs has to become a priority; I was born a UU and had to fight to stay in UUism, and it’s just silly that it was a fight for me to stay.

    Steve @ 10 — I don’t think so, based on the fact that I’ve watched lots of families go through UU religious education programs — after they are treated badly by older generations who would just as soon not mess up their churches with kids, and after they realize that there’s nothing of real value in UU religious education, they leave. Honestly, the first factor is probably the deciding one — any parent who looks at how badly funded religious education is these days (pitiful salaries for DREs, inadequate space, lots of money spent on things for child-free people, etc.) is not going to want to stick around. Parents these days have high standards (and rightly so) for kids programs, and we’re not living up to those expectations.

    On the statistical side, with declining religious participation and rising population, I would expect us to be staying about steady in terms of adult members and religious education enrollment. Religious education enrollment is declining a lot faster than adult membership, which may make sense because religious participation is declining faster in younger age groups, but it seems to me that the decline in UU religious education enrollment is a lot steeper than it should be. Furthermore, I would be willing to bet that if we offered excellent religious education programs, parents would send their kids — in the Palo Alto church, we’re currently offering the OWL comprehensive sexuality education program for gr. 7-9, and 4 of the 10 kids participating are not from the church.

    Jean @ 11 — It’s the squeaky wheel phenomenon — the fundamentalist humanists, the crusading neo-pagans, and the angry UU Christians tend to be small populations who are loud and demand a lot of attention from leadership; thus leadership does not have the time and energy to devote the the real problems facing us, like declining religious education enrollment.

    It’s amazing to me how many people these days believe that “democracy” means “I get what I want, and screw you.”

    Victor @ 12 — Yep, the two posts are connected. And yes, I think you’re absolutely right: we do have to educate the adults. Which, speaking as a religious educator, is much harder than educating the kids — adults are far more resistant and set in their ways.

  14. Steve Caldwell


    Related to this blog post is the recently published “Monitoring Report—Global Ends” from Rev. Peter Morales (the title is using a lot of “policy governance” jargon). Here’s a link for this report:


    On pages 5 through 10 in his report, he looks at the adult and child/youth demographic trends.

    He also looks at the regional demographic trends (the New England region has shrunk demographically and plenty of UU growth has happened in the Sunbelt and Western States).

    Take care,

  15. Dan

    Steve @ 14 — Thanks for the link to the report. I note that my headline for this post is wrong: the overall trend for RE for the past 7 years has been decline, but there were two years of increases.

    It seems to me that Morales does not give the decline in children and youth enrollment the attention it deserves. In his initiatives to promote growth, he mentions children and youth programs only tangentially; unless I’m missing something, none of his initiatives is specifically directed at increasing enrollment of children and youth. Needless to say, I think increasing enrollment of children and youth should be a top priority.

  16. Bill Baar

    Morales wrote: “I have always believed that opening our doors to seekers is the moral equivalent of feeding the hungry or housing the homeless. People need religious community.”

    I’m not certain how many “seekers” there are out there. I’m not certain people need “religious” community. I think we need to be a little more aggressive and not just assume they’re “seekers” out there. So why should I go to Church each sunday instead of spending my time with the community of Model Railroaders instead?

  17. Dave Wieneke

    Dan, thanks for this post — as a UU RE volunteer my experience very much confirms your view.

    There is little if any religious content in our SpiritPlay class. This week’s theme was “when people are nice, those they are nice to, join them in that sentiment”. Red principle.

    I also listened to children’s sermon in which Joshua at Jericho, the problematic tale of the children of Isreal killing a city given to them by God, was summed up as why “everyone should welcome strangers”.

    Without spiritual depth, our faith runs the risk of being a self worshiping community — in which we so enjoy the congregation, that we just don’t care about the pretext of gathering too much.

    Best wishes from Boston and Podcamp!

  18. Dan

    Bill Bar @ 16 — Hear, hear for being more aggressive. I’ll bet the Model Railroaders are more aggressive about their hobby than most UUs are about their religion!

    Dave @ 17 — Good to hear from you! I miss Podcamp Boston. And thanks for the feedback from your point of view as a Sunday school teacher.

  19. Mike

    Oh, darn. Here I was thinking it was just me and mine that were less-than-satisfied. And that it was just our congregation that was loosing families.

    Dave @ 17. — My understanding is it isn’t really Spirit Play if the story doesn’t include the spirit of mystery and wonder some people call God. It can still be UU and the first principle, but it’s not Spirit Play.

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