I’ve sat in the pew of a Unitarian Universalist for nearly five years. I’ve been a member of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington for about the same amount of time. I can’t recall a point in those years where growth hasn’t been part of the conversation at that church. Even before I took a seat at the Program Council table (a group of committee chairs meeting monthly to accomplish tasks requiring cooperation), I was well aware that promoting growth of the church while retaining members was considered a top priority. I’m just as aware that we’re not managing to meet that growth goal, a quandary which we share with other congregations and the faith as a whole.
So when UUworld.org released the news that Unitarian Universalist membership dropped to 161,502 from the previous year, I wasn’t surprised. I’ve largely lurked on a Facebook page dedicated to discussing growth strategies, lurking because after only five years in this faith tradition, I don’t know what to add. I read the ideas others post, follow links about the general decline of adherents to liberal religion, and wonder about what it means to try to grow a religion.
I’d love to see Unitarian Universalism grow. I have absolutely no idea how to do that. In theory, a creedless religion open to those on any path up the mountain should pull from a large swath of humanity. We are the “come as you are” denomination, theoretically welcoming the marginalized, the uncertain, and certainly not conservative religious. I’ve already mused that we may not be as welcoming as we say we are, with theists taking a hit in some congregations while, if the comments to my blog posts are any indication, atheists feeling squeezed out by other congregations. But on paper, we should draw a large group. But we don’t, not as an individual congregation and not as a faith tradition.
What gives? I’ve joked that we lack the threat of hell. Without eternal damnation or heavenly reward, Unitarian Universalists lack the stick and carrot that accompanies much of our competition. Okay, so religious conservatives aren’t the most likely bunch to show up on a Sunday morning, where the sermon may revolve around marriage equity, interfaith work, or illegal immigrant rights. That saddens me as a citizen of this planet, but it’s not exactly surprising that we’re not drawing that crowd. The liberal adherents of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and the like are often discussing the same issues from their pews, pews filled with people who hold to more common theological ground than that found in any UU gathering.
But what about the fifteen percent of Americans who identify themselves as nonreligious? Half of those people count themselves as theists but don’t identify with a particular religion. The other half are agnostics, atheists, secular humanists, and all those who answered “none” when asked their religion. Those in this sizable portion of the religious belief pie seems to hold the greatest potential to be drawn to Unitarian Universalism. (UUs, however, fall into the “other” category on this chart, with 500,000 claiming it as their faith, a number more than three times the number of members on the books at UU churches. This is significant.) We are at once a religion of those with faith in humanity and the workings of the universe, with beliefs ranging from nothing to science, the self to God, nature to the atom.
And that’s the problem. How do you bring together people of such diverse paths to truth and meaning? How do you connect the liberal theist with the staunch atheist? Where does the Wiccan with Buddhist leanings fit into a church with contemplative Christians and abundant agnostics? In short, what is our common ground, and is that common ground firm enough to support a religious movement?
Bound up in this line of thought is the question of what Unitarian Universalists believe. In the past, I’ve admittedly given the rather flippant and unfortunate answer I’d heard others give: “Whatever they want.” It’s shorter than listing the seven principles, which don’t actually bind us together in any formal sense anyway. Here they are, as listed on the UUA website:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part
I like the principles. All seven. They’re hardly objectionable, even to many belonging to liberal religious theistic traditions. But they are not a creed, and being creedless is perhaps key to what sets Unitarian Universalists apart from other faith traditions. I think it’s also key to our dwindling numbers. A faith community, be it church, coven, synagogue, association, congregation, or gathering, needs an overriding agreement to bind the members together. While the UUA offers the seven principles as a list of what UU churches affirm and promote, these are not a creed nor faith statement. They are a guide, a suggestion, and apt to be revisited and revised in years to come.
And perhaps that’s the dilemma and blessing all wrapped up in one. We’re a church of change, growing and shifting as the world shifts. We are not static and therefore hold to no static truth. As a faith that encourages seeking for religious truth, we are unique. I’ve often wondered if with all our openness to the many paths of truth that lead to meaning if we don’t chase many of our members and potential members out the door, encouraging them to scurry down those paths that pave a more definable route up the mountain. In contrast to the clear paths laid by Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammad, Bertrand Russell, and other, Unitarian Universalism provides a Hogwart’s-like maze of moving staircases. I can see why many are drawn to the clarity of a faith with a proscribed path.
I’m not alone in preferring the Hogwarts model, however. I have at least 161,501 companions on those staircases. I enjoy walking a flight of stairs with others on my journey and yet revel in the freedom to separate my path from their when we differ in opinion. While I’m not a fan of writing mission statements or any other writing done by committee, I understand the purpose of revisiting and revising these individual church pieces as well. We are a faith open to the realities and quandaries a changing world present, and this requires a willingness to look again and again to what we hold — even loosely — to be true.
But as far as winning and keeping members, I think this openness to change and lack of creed shoots us in the proverbial foot. It’s hard to articulate what Unitarian Universalism is about and impossible to answer the question, “What does a UU believe,” with more than the flippant response noted earlier. Few elevators are long enough for a concise explanation of Unitarian Universalism, and frankly, most people have short attention spans. I’ve often joked that as an aspiring writer, I would have done well to pick a faith with more adherents if I planned to write about religion. But here I am, and I plan to stay with the loose, gossamer confines of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Like many here, I find comfort in elusive, evolving nature of this faith tradition. I remain concerned about our future and uncertain what I or anyone else can do to present Unitarian Universalism to the wider world in a way that makes it appealing for more than a quick stop on a road up the mountain. I don’t have answers. Fortunately, that fits my faith tradition perfectly.
Peace, Namaste, Blessing Be, Amen, and all of that.
For more on the principles: