Now that we are holding in-church services, and UCN is looking at new/old ways to reach out to the wider community, I thought I’d bring up an issue that has been on hiatus for a while (because of Covid), but that deserves some new thoughts: church growth.
Specifically, do we want UCN to grow, and if so, what do we plan to do about it?
I remember being at a UUA workshop on growth several years ago, with a number of UU ministers in a panel discussion. One of the ministers there said that when he meets UUs who say they don’t want their congregation (or Unitarian Universalism in general) to grow any larger than it is, he asks them this thought-provoking question: “Do you think we have a faith that speaks to less than one tenth of one percent of the population?” Granted, our faith will probably never appeal to the majority of Americans, or even to a significant minority–but is one out of a thousand really our upper limit? If it is, he said, then by all means don’t let anyone else know about it. But if there are some spiritual seekers who are looking for just this kind of faith community (as many of us were at one time!), then why not let them know about it? (Or do we really believe our UU faith is so insignificant as to have nothing to offer 99.9% of the population?)
Another minister said that while growth should never be the main goal of a healthy congregation, it should be a side effect. That is, growth for the sake of growth is wrong-headed (and tends to water down the values and mission of the church)–but a congregation that isn’t growing (at least enough to replace the members who move or leave or pass away) is actually dying.
Still another minister said that the question is not so much “Should we grow?” as “Should we feed the hungry?” In other words, there are people out there who are yearning for what our kind of religious community can offer (how many of us were hungry for it ourselves?)–so the question isn’t whether we should grow so much as whether we should provide “food” to those who are yearning for what our faith can offer.
And another UU minister made this provocative statement: “A church that describes itself as a ‘close-knit community’ … is a church that’s dying.” What she meant, I think, was that a congregation that feels too much like a family… will do what a lot of families do: shore itself up by keeping others out.
And finally, this UU minister (me, Tony Larsen) believes that we are at an interesting milepost in American cultural history. Surveys show that the fastest growing religious group in America now is the “nones”–that is, those who don’t identify with any particular faith or denomination. Add to that the evidence that younger generations are becoming more progressive on social issues than their parents’ generation–on gay rights, for example, or transgender acceptance and awareness of systemic racism–and you can’t help but wonder if UU religion isn’t tailor-made for younger families (if they only knew we existed!).
Interesting ideas, don’t you think? See you in church (or online), my friends, with a little…
peace and unrest,