Why UU youth programs suck

Our model for youth ministry in Unitarian Universalism sucks. The reasons why it sucks begin in our recent history, and in our current responses to the social changes going on all around us.

History first: Our model of youth ministry is an amalgam of three old models; none of the older models is particularly relevant to today’s world.

(1) First, there is the core model of youth ministry dating back to around 1900, when the Unitarian and Universalist denominations (along with many other denominations in mainline Protestantism) decided that persons in the age range of about 14 to about 20 had different religious and spiritual needs than adults — they did, that is, if their families were wealthy enough to keep them in school through their mid-teens; and since mainline Protestants were the ruling elite in the United States at that time, many mainline Protestant families were wealthy enough to keep their kids in school up to or even past the age of 16. By contrast, families in the Black churches and “ethnic” Catholic churches were less likely to keep their children in school up into their mid-teens, and those churches were less likely to have youth ministries that looked like mainline Protestant youth ministries.

This first model of Unitarian and Universalist youth ministry is rooted in entitlement and privilege that is based in unconscious membership in a religious elite that ruled the United States to serve its own purposes and values.

(2) The second layer of youth ministry emerged in the 1950s, when mainline Protestantism was at its peak in the United States. During the 1950s, mainline Protestantism was a central feature of United States social and political life. Returning veterans looking for a sense of stability poured in the doors of mainline churches, bringing their many children with them. In addition to that, the economy in post-war America was booming; so money, too, poured into mainline churches. In mainline churches in the 1950s, nothing took much effort — there were so many people coming into churches that those leading and managing the churches were mostly flying by the seat of their pants, but it didn’t matter because even mediocre programs and ministries would succeed.

This second model of Unitarian and Universalist youth ministry is rooted in a culture of mediocrity that is based in an unexamined assumption that churches do not need careful management.

(3) The third layer of youth ministry emerged in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, during the emergence of feminist and other liberation theologies, and the concomitant rise of identity politics. In this era, old repressive norms of sexism, racism, heterosexism, etc., were being challenged throughout mainline churches. Unitarian Universalists, after a brief unsuccessful flirtation with black liberation theologies, settled down to incorporate second wave feminism, in the form of feminist liberation theology, into the core of its identity. The Unitarian Universalist youth movement was an early adopter of second wave feminist group processes, including consciousness-raising and empowerment techniques. In the 1970s, lower class and non-white women began to critique second wave feminist techniques for catering to upper middle class white women who were already greatly empowered (compared to women beneath them in social and racial status), but most Unitarian Universalists of the day still saw themselves as part of the country’s ruling elite, and were unable to respond constructively to such critiques — and the UU youth movement of the time was equally unable to respond to such critiques, for the same reasons. At the same time, the youth movement adopted identity politics wholeheartedly, deciding that youth were an oppressed minority who needed to be empowered and freed from adult domination.

This third model of Unitarian Universalist youth ministry is rooted in the goal of freeing an oppressed minority, a goal which is based in an incorrect assessment of the status of the mostly white upper-middle-class persons in UU youth programs.

That’s a very brief summary of the history of Unitarian Universalist youth ministries. Now we move into the present day, where we find that most Unitarian Universalist youth programs offer a woefully inadequate response to the social changes going on around us.

(1) In today’s world, the defects of identity politics are becoming increasingly evident. Identity politics offers too simple a view of the world. So while we know for sure that society continues to discriminate against women as compared to men, gender-queer persons have been challenging our simplistic binary notions of gender — and this forces us to ask: If there is more than one gender, how must we revise our understanding of sexism? And while we know for sure that society continues to discriminate against blacks, lesbians, and women, persons with multiple identities challenge our neat categories of oppression — and this forces us to ask: If someone is a black lesbian, why should she be forced to separate her identity and her struggle for equality into three separate parts? So many elements of our youth programming — youth caucus at General Assembly, youth empowerment, separation of youth programming from oppressive adults — is rooted in the assumptions of identity politics, but now we have to question the oversimplification that lies at the very heart of identity politics.

Even within the limited world view of identity politics — even if we deny that cracks are showing in the many walls that identity politics uses to sort persons — it’s getting increasingly difficult to maintain that the mostly white, mostly upper-middle-class, mostly college-bound Unitarian Universalist adolescents that make up most UU youth programs are in any meaningful way oppressed. If most participants in UU youth programs cannot be considered oppressed, then we must ask ourselves why we are trying to liberate youth. To put it more pointedly, if UU youth are already empowered and already a part of the socio-economic elite in the United States, why do we say that they must be empowered?

(2) In today’s world, teenagers are unlikely to learn much about practical religion and theology outside the congregation. Schools may teach teenagers a little bit about religion in the context of the academic study of various religions, but most schools cannot teach actual lived religion and lived theology. Even those private schools that can and do teach some lived religion and theology are generally preparing teenagers for elite colleges, and elite colleges care little about lived religion and theology; and college preparatory schools will not waste much time on topics that don’t get their students into the “best” schools.

Yet the teen years are when persons first enter into formal operations thinking, and can (for the first time) think abstractly — in other words, this is the first age at which persons can actually do serious theology. In the past, mainline Protestants could expect some serious consideration of Protestant theology and religion in public schools, and teenagers would be expected to attend Sunday services and listen to sermons that would expose them to lived religion and lived theology.

(A short digression: to be honest, even if teenagers did attend UU Sunday services, or even UU adult religious education programs, teenagers would get very little in the way of serious lived religion and lived theology. Most adult UUs evade serious theology — most adult Unitarian Universalists think of our congregations as little more than outlets for what they call “social justice,” although what most adult UUs call social justice looks suspiciously like the same old program of the old Protestant ruling elites.)

But if we keep our teenagers out of Sunday services by segregating them into identity-politics-based youth programs, they will get no opportunity for serious consideration of lived religion and lived theology, at what is very critical developmental stage. Even as late as the 1970s, teenagers could be assumed to get some theological education somewhere, which meant that youth ministry could be nothing more than entertaining and amusing the youth who showed up. Not any more. And we’re ignoring this new reality.

(3) Since the 1990s, we’ve had solid research that shows that youth participation in congregational life correlates with a lower incidence of risky behaviors (e.g., illegal drug use, unprotected sex, etc.). While it might be too much to say that participation in congregational life saves teen lives, such a statement would not be too far from the truth.

At the same time, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that occasionally our congregations do save teen lives. I think of teens who came out as homosexual with the support of their congregations; teens who have survived being bullied with the help of their congregations; etc. (Unfortunately, I can also think of a handful of teens who did not survive, in spite of congregational support.) I am not hesitant to say that congregations can save the lives of teenagers. And when I talk with other Unitarian Universalists, they mostly agree with me.

However, we Unitarian Universalists seem to be unable to articulate how we save teen lives, or even why we save teen lives. Some of us might say that we save teen lives because of “the inherent worth and dignity” of all persons; those of us with more theological sophistication might point to evolving Universalist theology to explain why we want to save teen lives. But how do we do it? We can’t say we do it through youth groups and youth empowerment, because I can offer examples of teens who didn’t bother with a youth-empowerment youth group, but who were saved by their congregation. And we probably don’t want to say that we offer another youth program like the Girl Scouts or soccer teams, because our youth programs for the most part aren’t nearly as well run as most Girl Scout troops or soccer teams. At the most basic level of safety, few UU youth programs require criminal background checks of volunteer staff — and few UU youth programs offer a program that is as well-thought-out or compelling as the Girl Scouts curriculum, or soccer competition.

We may save lives in our UU youth programs, but only by accident, and not because we really mean to do so.

Now you know why I think most UU youth programs and ministries suck. The next step is to figure out what to do about it. And while I can’t promise when I’ll write about that — I’m in the middle of a major volunteer commitment on top of the demands of my job — I promise you that in the not-too-distant future I will get around to floating some of my ideas of how we could improve our Unitarian Universalist youth ministries and programs.

20 thoughts on “Why UU youth programs suck”

  1. I can’t thank you enough for taking this bull (BS?) by the horns. I find little to nothing to quibble about in your assessment, and looking back at the history I am staggered by what has apparently been a leadership vacuum in the Association on the matter for almost 40 years.

    I’ve been to various workshops and brainstorming sessions on the matter since I was a teen myself in the early 90’s, including various brain trusts shipped to District meetings from Beacon Hill looking to repeat “process” over and over again. The horse died ages ago, and all we’ve been left with are some bones to clink together.

    The situation is toxic and a clear and present danger to a future for UU’ism. To solve the problems for our youth programming, we have to look inward and determine what has been lacking for the rest of us. That is a tall order indeed.

  2. Bravo!

    In number one you talk about black churches and ethnic Catholic churches, and I’ve long thought there was something for the liberal churches to gain from looking at them.

    The one thing I think black and other ethnic churches give (beyond extended “family” connection) is a vocabulary—a way of asking questions of the world—that liberal churches think is secondary to reason and science. And the reason that vocabulary takes a secondary place is because that vocabulary is the vocabulary of the less privileged.

    I’ve read this through a couple of times now. And I’ve gotten different things from it both times. I’m sure I’ll get more when I read it again.

  3. I think it may be harsh to say that “youth programs suck”. With that said, I agree that the programs may be counter productive and ineffective because they rely so much on nurturing individualism and self-empowerment, instead of cultivating participating in the strength of the church, which is membership in community. You can empower yourself in many contexts, but I do feel UUism has something special going on with the premise of its faith communities.

    I never considered that liberation ideals were the motivation for some of the ways that the youth program is structured. It would make sense. This resonated with me, “At the same time, the youth movement adopted identity politics wholeheartedly, deciding that youth were an oppressed minority who needed to be empowered and freed from adult domination.” because I have encountered that sort of thinking from youth and YAs who grew up UU and … yeah. I’ve written elsewhere about how little I relate to the dialog of same-age (I’m in my twenties) UU young adults who went through the youth programming, whereas all of my participation has been in the congregation and I swear to you, we belong to different religions. One of the ways is how one relates to adults, and there is a sense that younger folks need to be lifted into leadership almost like an entitlement (I never experienced this in the Catholic faith).

    I agree with Kim that there are things to learn from at least ethnic Catholic churches (I have not been a member of a black church, so I feel it would be foolish for me to comment on those and I’ll trust Kim’s expertise). The youth program and confirmation emphasized community membership, and graduated you into all of the rituals that adults would take part in, and the facets of life that adults would do.

    Catholics have a very clear idea of what it means to be an adult in the church, and train their youth accordingly. To be an adult UU is more nebulous, and so a similar mode of programming may not apply as well. I think what may be most helpful for UU youth programming would be to decide what values a UU church can best teach which are not found elsewhere. As you note, demographically, UU youth are not the ones who need to learn to be entitled and empowered- relative to other demographics, most are quite privileged and the entitlement and empowerment will come anyway. I would argue that the strengths of the UU church would be belonging to an accepting community, and making place for everyone else (instead of their own self, as one would do with identity politics).

    I have been thinking about youth programming quite a bit lately, for some self-interested reasons.

  4. Hmm. I don’t know that UU youth programs “suck” either. Are they flawed? Sure. Living where I do in one of the redder states (Indiana) I see programs for youth in the so-called “non-denominational” churches that give me the willies. Kids as young as five and six are encouraged through the ubiquitous Vacation Bible Schools to be born again, accept Jesus as their savior, study the Bible as though it were the only guiding text in the world, and then march through life with a kind of glazed acceptance of God’s Word as Law. I get these kids in college, many of whom are now home-schooled (and by the way, fairly privileged many of them, out here — their dads middle-managers making a good living, moms at home taking care of hearth and kids and apparently education); if any youth programs “suck” it may be these fundamental Christian programs that effectively brainwash children, turning out little human beings that parrot the beliefs of their elders, do what they’re told, and replicate themselves by having lots and lots more children. That’s where my worry is. Not with the UU programs.

  5. once again Dan: One says “yep” in affirmation for your wise thinking. An interesting part of the conversation for me is how you say that “the model” sucks. Not individual programs, leaders or youth group programs.

    That strikes me as important.

    I’ve seen individual young people “saved” and loved into healing places through involvement with a local congregation – I’ve seen way more situations where someone begging for help was turned away (literally, spiritually, metaphorically)…I look forward to your reflections on how “the model” we have can be improved.

  6. Chris and Jean — What I didn’t make clear enough in the post was that I have seen working class and non-white UU youth who do not feel welcome in the wider UU youth culture. Something else I did not make clear in the post — the district and national youth programs serve a small minority of all UU youth; I’d guesstimate that about 10% of all UU youth attend district youth conferences more than once, and a smaller percentage of all UU youth attend national programs. In addition, over the years I have found that the typical UU youth program serves less than half of the UU youth affiliated with a given congregation. On this basis, I feel secure in stating that UU youth programming sucks — or, more precisely (as Ms. M. points out above), the model for UU youth programming sucks.

  7. While I think anyone that works in the field of UU Youth Ministry may have their own gripes with the way things are and concerns for the future, I think that your critiques are mostly missing the mark and aren’t useful ways of framing problems.

    Your first point. You say that UUs operate on the assumption that “persons in the age range of about 14 to about 20 had different religious and spiritual needs than adults” so long as “their families were wealthy enough to keep them in school through their mid-teens.”

    At a time when some 16 year olds were working full time jobs and considered adults and others were in fancy private schools, this critique may have had more value. In the year 2012, public school now goes through age 18 for everyone in America. It is much more commonplace for people in the USA to consider people under 18 to be not-yet-adult and for them to still be in school. It seems that providing spiritual programming for this age range should’ve become *more* relevant over time, no?

    Your second point is that UU youth ministry is “rooted in a culture of mediocrity that is based in an unexamined assumption that churches do not need careful management.” So why are there all these professional groups for ministers, DREs, administrators, etc.? Things could always be better, yes, but, to me, this critique doesn’t seem to amount to anything more than a feeling that “people should try harder to make things better” which is a cheap sentiment.

    Your third point about identity politics seems to really miss the point of youth empowerment. It was in UU youth conferences that I first learned about white privilege. It was through UUA that I first learned about modern expressions of feminism, racism, classism, the prison industrial complex, cultural appropriation, etc. Youth empowerment doesn’t mean acting like youth are slaves in shackles, it means helping youth identify their power and using it for good! Maybe the social justice you see isn’t radical enough for your tastes, but you don’t offer any alternatives.

    I also find it strange that you talk about the fact that the field of identity politics is changing, that neat categories are becoming blurry, and, therefore, that identity politics are becoming obsolete, but also recognize that UU youth are “mostly white, mostly upper-middle-class, mostly college-bound” and thus aren’t really that oppressed on the whole. You’e trying to eradicate the traditional categories of identity on the one hand and then holding them up with the other. You can’t have it both ways.

    Following this you bemoan the fact that “even if teenagers did attend UU Sunday services, or even UU adult religious education programs, teenagers would get very little in the way of serious lived religion and lived theology.” I agree that deep theological engagement, meaningful covenanting, and transformative spiritual practices are somewhat lacking from many UU congregations. I also think that adults could learn a lot about experiential, transformative, and participatory worship from what youth do during conferences.

    You find a silver lining to this dark cloud and acknowledge that “there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that occasionally our congregations do save teen lives.” However, you make sure to quickly add a dark lining to the silver lining:

    “But how do we do it? We can’t say we do it through youth groups and youth empowerment, because I can offer examples of teens who didn’t bother with a youth-empowerment youth group, but who were saved by their congregation…We may save lives in our UU youth programs, but only by accident, and not because we really mean to do so.”

    Wow. This is so amazingly dismissive and negative. It seems like you can’t even acknowledge the possibility that youth programs aren’t completely broken in every single way and may actually do some small good on purpose. There are lots of ways to save a life: being a good friend, being a good parent, and, believe it or not, being a good youth advisor. Most people don’t set out to be a friend or youth advisor with the thought “now I’m going to go save a life” — it just happens as a byproduct of caring about someone. You are essentially insulting all of the caring people who intentionally created programs which you acknowledge save the lives of teenagers by providing a safe and welcoming space for them by saying they have no idea how or why they did it and it was only an accident that they did any good at all. I mean, I understand wanting to see a little more theological rigor, wanting to see youth ministry improve, and so on, but I think you are going a little too far here.

    Lastly, your comments about the lack of basic safety of UU youth programs and criminal background checks for volunteers seem more indicative of your experience and don’t reflect the character of the bulk of UU congregations I’ve seen. In Washington, all of my colleagues that I’ve talked to do background checks on all of their youth advisors and teachers.

    Respectfully,
    Chris Pollina, DRE

  8. Chris Pollina — Thanks for your comments.

    I trust you understand that I gave a historical overview to show how assumptions that were operative in the past have been carried forward unconsciously. So Unitarian and Universalist youth movements c.1900 were aimed at persons of relatively high socio-economic privilege. Yes of course society has changed since then — but the assumption that our youth programs should be for persons of relatively high socio-economic privilege has remained unchanged.

    And the same basic idea goes for looking at how 1950s-era Unitarianism and Universalism has influenced unconscious assumptions about our youth programs. Yes, I know we strive for greater professionalism these days (although UUs are still woefully far behind in adopting state-of-the-art nonprofit management techniques). But the point is that in the 1950s we engaged in poor, sloppy management — and we still carry that unconscious assumption around with us, that our youth programs don’t really have to be well-managed. If you look into the literature of how contemporary conservative Christian youth programs are managed (read, e.g., Sustainable Youth Ministry), when you realize that youth ministry is a viable profession within conservative Christianity, you begin to realize how sloppily our UU youth programs are managed.

    I’m glad you learned about things like feminism, etc., in UU youth groups — so did I. But I’m trying to expand beyond the experience of a single individual to look at the whole system. And for my part, I have seen too many youth of color who were either unenthusiastic about, or even hurt by, UU youth programming for me to remain quite so relaxed.

    As for identity politics, yes it is a slippery and challenging area right now. On the one hand, we still need identity politics as a tool to challenge oppression. On the other hand, we’re beginning to see the cracks. There’s been lots of good stuff written on this subject, and you might find it worth investigating. My underlying point is that identity politics has evolved since the 1960s, but UUism in general tends to be stuck in 1960s-era identity politics.

    Regarding theological engagement, you might find a new book very useful to reflect on this — the book is The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry. Check it out, it’s worth knowing that this problem extends beyond UUism.

    As for salvation, I completely stick by my statement. I think we should recruit youth advisors, OWL leaders, etc., on the basis of saving lives — that’s what I sometimes do, and it works very well. And in so doing, I use a very carefully-thought-out theological grounding: We’re not talking about “saving souls for Christ” or whatever it is that conservative Christians state (see Jean’s comment above); after all, we’re Universalists, and we know that everyone is saved. But as Universalists, we also know (from the work of Hosea Ballou and others) that life on earth can be a kind of hell, so our goal is to help people live their lives in the here-and-now such that their lives tend towards the heavenly — tend towards living into a “kingdom of heaven,” which as Bernard Loomer has pointed out might also be called the “Web of life,” here on earth, here and now. If we’re not doing some kind of serious theological thinking about our youth programs, then we are just another secular social service agency (and we can’t compete with the effectiveness of other social service agencies).

    I actually find your thoughts in this area very troubling — not because of what you say, but because over the past decade or two I have seen this same pattern more than once. Criticizing Unitarian Universalism for being theological unsophisticated seems to provoke a great deal of resistance, often leading to ad hominem attacks. Unitarian Universalism today seems to spend a great deal of time and energy evading serious theological reflection, and I don’t get why. Why can’t we challenge ourselves to greater theological rigor without someone seeing such a challenge as insulting or threatening? Why can’t we engage in serious critique of Unitarian Universalism without provoking great anxiety and even anger? This I find very troubling, and I don’t know what to do about it.

  9. Dan,

    Thanks for the thoughtful responses. From what you said in the last part of your response, it seems you misinterpreted what I’ve said a little — criticizing UUism for being theologically unsophisticated and for often evading more than a surface level skim of theological reflection was the main point I *agreed* with you on. While youth ministry in the UU church may not be built to last in its current incarnation, may have a lack of theology, I still think a life saved by making a caring, welcoming space for youth is a life saved, and that whether or not the people involved have enough theological rigor to sustain UUism for another 10 or 20 years, it’s still a good thing. It seemed like you took issue with the good that youth programs do, which seems like a poor position to start from — shouldn’t building on successes be a part of Unitarian Universalism’s evolution?

    Anyhow, I’m often outspoken about my difficulties with UU programming, especially for adults, as it bothers me a lot more than the offerings for children and youth. I gravitated towards Buddhism after I aged out of YRUU specifically because it had the things that I think UUism is often lacking in — an emphasis on transformative practice, a sense of discipline, and a depth of wisdom and theology that warrant study, devotion, and commitment. A lot of the UU services I’ve seen feel to me like “UU 101” and I am left feeling like I’ve gotten a nice pep talk on some topic or another, but nothing very profound. I often wonder if a person could be a UU monk, and if so, what would that person *do*? I think that the seven principles and six sources could be tools for very deep theological reflection, but most UUs can’t actually name what they are, let alone say that they’ve made a serious go of engaging in theological study, deep reflection, and spiritual practices. I agree that our church can often seem more like a social services / community organization than a church.

    A little bit of an aside, but a related idea: something that seems strange to me is that most Sunday services completely do away with what I see as the best parts of youth worship — participatory rituals that often take you out of your comfort zone and ask you to share something of yourself, things that in some fashion or another ask the people assembled to embody our principles. I often find the format of song / welcome / song / chalice lighting /song / sermon, etc. to be so brisk and varied that I have difficulty settling into any of the different parts of the service. I always enjoyed that youth services generally involve a song to start, one long ritual, and a song to close. Been thinking about how to bring elements like this into adult services as I found that style of worship really hooked me and thus made me care about going to church functions. I don’t think that I would’ve found much inspiration to get into the matter of theological study in any depth at all without the grounding of youth worships, so I think that’s definitely something worth considering carefully in any critique of youth worship. Thanks again for your thoughts on this,

    -Chris

  10. Chris, UU youth worship is basically what’s called circle worship in other contexts. I’ve tried to do it as a weekly adult service, but it takes more time to prepare it (much of UU youth worship uses the same half dozen ideas, but that doesn’t work week after week) — nor does it seem to appeal to that many adults — and circle worship is not all that accessible to persons with limited mobility or other physical impairment. Another problem in some settings is that it is not all that scalable — I’ve participated in circle-type worship with 150 people, but it was chaotic and lost a lot of its magic. I think circle worship would work best for adults in a small group context — which is true to its roots in second wave feminist consciousness raising groups.

    Another way to look at this issue is that UU youth worship tends to be more participatory than UU adult worship. UU adult worship tends to be a theatre experience — you sit back in your seat and enjoy the show. But there are other ways to make worship more participatory besides using standard circle worship tropes — worship associates, volunteer musicians, choirs, Twitter feed projected in the worship space, etc., all promote participation rather than passive consumption. Some Christians groups have been doing this sort of thing in the so-called “emergent church” or “emerging church” movement, and it’s definitely worth looking at what they have done.

    According to some sociologists, one of the reasons the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are doing so well is that their worship is lay-led. UU professionalization may be one of the things that’s harming us. This would suggest that the real strength of UU youth programs is not so-called “youth empowerment” but rather leadership development.

  11. Dan wrote:

    Something else I did not make clear in the post — the district and national youth programs serve a small minority of all UU youth …

    This problem isn’t unique to UU youth programming at the district and national levels. One could say the same about district camps and conference, GA, etc for adults.

    For example, the Southwest UU Summer Institute in the Southwest District serves less than 300 individuals (less than 5% of the district’s UU population). Would we say this is a “failure” because only a small minority of UU’s are served by it?

    This shouldn’t be an argument over youth empowerment and the history of previous youth ministry programs (e.g. YRUU, LRY, etc). Youth programming should be diverse enough that it includes both space for those youth who want youth leadership/empowerment opportunities and those who don’t. Some youth are so over-scheduled that adding youth empowerment to their schedule would be intolerable.

    I had one child who enjoyed YRUU camps and cons and one who did not. As a parent, I was OK with my kids having this choice and being able to discern for themselves what was best for them.

    And you’re right that youth ministry requires both intentionality, money, and resources.

  12. Hi Dan-
    Because I don’t know your personal history, I have to guess at the context of your opinions. Your description of the history of UU youth programs felt like an intellectualized understanding rather than insight based on experience. When and where were you part of UU youth groups and programs? When and at what age did you join the UU community? Have you ever experienced another religious community? Did you grow up in a church? These are some of the questions that come to mind as I try to understand your deep anger and disappointment with UU youth traditions. I certainly recognize some of the weaknesses in our youth programs as you describe them, but my experience (45 years) hasn’t been anything like what you describe.

    Difference in personal experience is a reality that we all live with. I think we should be very cautious about making broad generalizations. You base your ideas on some assumptions that surprise me, especially coming from an experienced and educated UU minister.

    1. “… after all, we’re Universalists, and we know that everyone is saved.” We’re not all Universalists. I’m a Unitarian. I work with Universalists because we’re part of the same religious community and because some of our youth find meaning in Universalist ideas.
    2. “As for salvation, I completely stick by my statement. I think we should recruit youth advisors, OWL leaders, etc., on the basis of saving lives” That sounds pretty Calvinist to me. Are you saying that every teen needs to be saved by our religion? What are we saving them from?
    3. “Why can’t we challenge ourselves to greater theological rigor without someone seeing such a challenge as insulting or threatening?” You apparently aren’t aware that theology has been optional in the Unitarian community for well over a century. Secular and religious Unitarians have been coexisting (with a significant level of tension) for many generations. I personally think that this accomplishment is more important than the invention of another neo-Christian religious denomination.
    4. “But if we keep our teenagers out of Sunday services by segregating them into identity-politics-based youth programs, they will get no opportunity for serious consideration of lived religion and lived theology, at what is very critical developmental stage.” What is the basis for your assumption that every person born of UU parents needs religion and theology in order to live a meaningful life?
    5. “Since the 1990s, we’ve had solid research that shows that youth participation in congregational life correlates with a lower incidence of risky behaviors (e.g., illegal drug use, unprotected sex, etc.). While it might be too much to say that participation in congregational life saves teen lives, such a statement would not be too far from the truth.” A different but equally plausible explanation is that youth who enjoy congregational life are less likely to be risk takers to start with, which makes this a self-selecting group rather than a cause and effect relationship.

    Dan, the model that you’re describing for youth programs is the model of a conservative church, with one set of theological and religious truths that are taught to young people in their youth groups. Only minor variations are permitted and only the religious worldview is acceptable. I know this model well. I grew up in it and my brothers, one of my sons, and many in my extended family live in this world. I don’t want to live there; if I did, I’d join a conservative church with a compatible theology (many evangelical churches have liberalized large parts of their theology). I want to live in a free religious community, which is what I found among Unitarians.

    Most of the UU youth that I know are proud to be UU. For some of them, being UU is a religious path. For others, it’s a life philosophy. For most of them, it’s an attitude and a way of living. To say it another way, it’s existential, not theological. If you try to force your religious ideas on them, they’ll leave. The way that you speak about how you think things ought to be reminds me strongly of the Baptists that I grew up among. The only way that your ideas will succeed is if the UU community deliberately becomes a conservative religion.

    Conservative and liberal religious communities are defined by how they function far more than they are defined by their intellectual theologies.

  13. Dan – our statistics indicate that our UU Youth Programs don’t work – but it doesn’t tell us why. I’ve heard a few stories from individuals as to why it didn’t work for them, but obviously one shouldn’t generalize from a small sampling (although we all do). Your reasons seem very plausible, and fixable – if we want them fixed. I’ll certainly be interested in seeing what you suggest for improvements. Are there UU congregations where the youth are growing (and not connected to more parents with those children)? If so – what’s the difference? Are there congregations where more youth are retained, and if so – what’s the difference? Thanks so much for your work in trying to retain UU youth.

  14. Wow. I’m saddened by your experiences with UU youth programming. I’m from Pacific Central District YRUU and I have loved our programming endlessly. It seemed to me that you made a generalization of “All UU youth programs suck”, because we have wonderful youth programming where I’m from. But at the same time, as I said before, it saddens me quite a bit that you’ve had such a horrible experience with your own youth programming.

  15. Sarah, actually I’ve personally had great experiences with UU youth programming, both as a youth (back in the LRY days) and as an adult advisor. But when I see that most local UU youth groups serve less than half of eligible youth, and district/national youth programs serve at best a quarter of eligible UU youth — when on top of that, we lose something like 85% of those who grew up as UUs — then clearly something is not working the way it should be working. Thus despite my own personal enjoyment of UU youth programs, I feel justified in saying that UU youth programs suck.

  16. I just found this site and was taken by this article. I must agree that how UU’s incorporate youth and families into their services, sucks. Today I brought my daughter, 16 years old, to a large UU church in New York City, because she wanted to go to a UU church to be with a community of her peers. What we found was a congregation devoid of children, families, and teens. The average age must have been about 63. Young children are kept out of the service with daycare, and I saw perhaps two teens at the service. The service was conservative, very holy solemn music, Bach, Purcell et al, and very professionally done. I did not disagree with the sermon, but neither did it inspire or knock my socks off.

    I found the experience lacking in joy, celebration, and general love of life. I would love to see families, that means parents with children of all ages taking part in the service. A choir should have children and adults of all ages. Sing some roof rousing spirituals, for god sake!Protest songs and freedom songs are great too. If I want a polished, professional, first class performance, I can go to Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall.

    I could go on and on, but you get by drift.

  17. Dan, interesting observations. As much as I like Bach, it does get tiresome to only hear music by dead white guys.

    Maybe it’s worth checking out some of the other New York City area UU congregations? I’ve heard good things about Fourth Universalist on the Upper West Side, and First Unitarian in Brooklyn. And I suspect you’re more likely to find what you’re looking for in a smaller congregation (say 250 or fewer members). I think if I were in NYC, I’d schlep to Brooklyn to check them out first (they have a minister of religious education, which says they are willing to invest heavily in kids); though I’ve heard Rosemary Bray McNatt of Fourth Universalist preach and she makes me think that would also be worth a try.

    Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

  18. Dan,

    Thank you for this informative piece, it is very helpful as a new DRE who is quite disappointed with our current models for youth ministry. You have articulated what I suspected about the “youth empowerment” model…and btw where can I find information on UU’s flirtation with Black Liberation Theology? Dan, do you know of any UU congregations who have tried the Evangelical style Youth Church model?

    J

  19. Jamil, the history of UU flirtation with Black liberation theologies may be found in a number of places, most notably in the histories by Mark Morrison-Reed. You could also read William R. Jones, “Is God a White Racist?”, for one UU’s articulation of a Black theology of liberation, but remember that Jones was consistently marginalized.

    As for UU congregations that have tried an evangelical-style youth ministry, Jessica Rubenstein was doing something like that at the Winchester, Mass., UU congregation through the 2000s. She was the one who really got UUs started on doing youth mission trips. At one point, I remember there were over 80 youth in the youth group while she was youth director there — this in a congregation with an average attendance at worship of something like 250.

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