Religious revival?

Back in February, I read a short news item in Christian Century titled “Gallup chief sees signs of religious revival.” Reporter Daniel Burke of Religion News Service interviewed Frank Newport, the editor-in-chief of Gallup Poll. Newport challenges several things pundits have been taking for granted about the religious landscape in the U.S.:

The rise of the “nones”: According to Newport, we should be cautious about how we interpret the rise of the “nones,” those who report no religious affiliation. “When Gallup asked the question about religious identity back in the 1950s, almost zero would say they have ‘none’,” Newport says in the interview. “People would say ‘Baptist’ or ‘Catholic’ even if they were not particularly religious.” Newport sees a change in how people “express their religiosity,” not necessarily a decline in religion. Or maybe people are just being more honest than in the past.

Demographic trends may point to an increase in religious identity: Based on demographic trends, Newport sees a possibility for an increase in religious identity in the U.S. “If you look at age, the baby boomers are approaching 65-85 years of age, which we’ve seen as the most religious group for decades,” Newport says, which means that large numbers of Boomers could find religion as they age. Secondly, the Hispanic population is increasing, and Hispanics “tend to be more religious.” Thirdly, “religion has been correlated to health,” and people might start seeking out religion to increase their well-being. Finally, more religious states are seeing in-migrations from other parts of the country, and people are more likely to participate in religion in states where more people around them participate in religion.

Mainline Protestants are unlikely to grow: From a pollster’s point of view, Unitarian Universalists look pretty much like mainline Protestants, so we should be concerned when Newport says that mainline Protestants are unlikely to grow. How do religions grow? Newport says it’s simple: “For any group to grow, you have to have more people coming in than going out.” He outlines three ways religions can grow:

(a) Immigration: We’re seeing lots of Hispanics immigrating into the U.S., so it’s likely that Catholicism (and maybe Pentecostalism) will grow — but, says Newport, “there is no massive in-migration of Protestants,” and certainly no massive in-migration of Unitarian Universalists.

(b) High birth rates: Mormons are doing well because Mormonism encourages big families. Mainline Protestants tend to have lower than average birth rates. And I’d be willing to be that Unitarian Universalists have a birth rate that’s less than the replacement rate.

(c) Evangelize effectively: Mainline Protestants are doing a lousy job of evangelizing. Unitarian Universalists probably do a better job of evangelizing than most mainline Protestant churches — good enough that we make up for our low birth rates and lack of immigrants. But that doesn’t mean we’re good enough at evangelizing to grow.

So there you have it — the rate of religious identification may increase in the coming decade. However, the only way we Unitarian Universalists can take advantage of that possible increase is to evangelize more effectively.

4 thoughts on “Religious revival?”

  1. UUs are _outstanding_ evangelists. Our churches are full of converts. The reason we don’t grow is that our _effective_ birth rate, the rate at which UUs have children who turn into adult UUs, is microscopic.

    The idea that we are stagnant is wrong. We are amazingly dynamic. We recruit almost a whole new denomination every generation. If we could keep half the kids we would be growing by leaps and bounds.

  2. My local UU congregation is making an effort at outreach through various church sponsored activities (drum circle, coffee shop, movie night, etc) but frankly they do a lousy job at evangelizing.

    I was raised in the Southern Baptist tradition and I know first hand what most people are hungry for; love, acceptance and emotional uplift. The Baptist of my youth would take a personal interest in prospective members and make them feel wanted. The positive thing I remember about them was feeling loved by the entire congregation. I won’t go into the negatives here.

    The UU’s that I am acquainted with have proudly told me things like, “You need to seek us out, we won’t come looking for you” and “We don’t get emotional about our faith”. I guess they think that sets them apart from mainstream protestant religions and, in a way, it does. But it doesn’t do much for growing a congregation. In fact, it’s kept me at a distance even though I identify as a UU and occasionally attend services and activities.

    The answer to growing a congregation is simple. If you grab people by their hearts strings, their minds will follow. It seldom works the other way around.

  3. Let’s be clear about who “you” is. It’s not the minister–there are plenty of powerful preachers out there grabbing heart strings with every sermon, and their congregations don’t grow. It’s not a couple-three friendly greeters–many congregations have these but visitors still come and go without feeling love overflowing.

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