Monday, January 23, 2012

Congregations and Beyond



Peter Morales' paper,  Congregations and Beyond  (found here)  raises some interesting issues for UU's and other religious people, especially those in small denominations and those which practice congregational polity.  (polity is church governance.  Congregational Polity is the form of government that makes congregations the basic unit of the denomination.  So, for instance, technically, you are only a UU if you belong to a congregation which belongs to the UUA.  You can't be an individual member of Unitarian Universalism.)

The basic problem is that the institutional category,  "congregation", once virtually a pillar of American society, has become less and less interesting to younger generations.  (Congregation is still a pillar of society in a few places, notably the South, or in Utah.  You can tell this is the case when the first question asked of a newcomer to town is,  "What church do you belong to?"  Some newcomers to town take this as a rather agressive evangelizing effort but it probably isn't.  It is probably just a social locator.  "Oh...he's an Episcopalian.  Got it.")

There's no doubt about the declining fortunes of "congregation".   To recap, here's a paragraph from my part of last year's Minns Lectures. (find it here)


Just to give you a sense of how the market share of all religion has changed over 50 years, let me go over some statistics.

Researchers  have been asking 20 year olds about their religion for several generations, so we know that 3% of young people of the WWII generation said they had no religion, and about 6% of the next generation…my parent’s generation…persons now in their 70s and 80’s.   About 12%  of the Boomers in the 1960’s and 70’s claimed “no religion”  20% of gen X’ers who were 20 years old in the 80’s and 90’s and a whopping 26% of the Millennial Generation now claim “no religion”.  From 3% to 26%...and rising.   

Now, there is a difference between  "no religion" and "no congregation."  There are actually a fair number of people who do have a religion but don't belong to a congregation.  But there will not be very many people with no religion who DO belong to a congregation.  So, for those who are interested in congregations, these statistics are even more dire.  

When you notice these overall statistics, you have to remark that the ability of Unitarian Universalism to hold its own over the past generation is a show of strength, not weakness.  And, indeed, most denominations have done much worse than we have.

Peter is asking what we should do.  It's something we should all be thinking about.

12 comments:

LdeG said...

I have seen the statement in several places discussing Morales' paper that "you can't be a UU if you don't belong to a congegation" - because of congregational polity? I would post this on my own blog, but I don't want to make my own religion appear dense to my non-UU friends, acquaintances, and whatever tiny part of the general public might stumble across it. I have moved to a part of the country where UU congregations are thin on the ground. I left my old congregation. I am an organizer of am "emerging" congrgation that is as yet unincorporated, and may not be large enough to be accepted by UUA for some time. If I don't join CLF, am I no longer a UU? Same person, same beliefs. I do wish someone would explain, because this makes no sense to me.

Christine Robinson said...

Technically, that's true. There is no way to "count" as a UU unless you belong to a congregation. But UU's value what is in our hearts, so until we figure out a way to count all the UU's who claim us, consider yourself a UU!

Paul Beedle said...

Yes, that's what Peter's asking us to think about.

AND: "The Board’s bylaw proposal that we expand the
 definition of a congregation is the result of more than a decade of discussion that
 recognizes that the nature of congregations and religious life is changing."

I can appreciate Peter's point. I can't fathom what the Board is on about. "Expand the definition of a congregation"? How about, "call the new structures we need what they are"?

LdeG said...

Those several times more UUs than belong to congregations numbers come from somewhere - the Pew Foundation and other surveys - so someone is counting. They count Methodists and Presbyterians and all kinds of believers who do not belong to congregations. Of course I, and hundreds of thousands of others, consider ourselves UUs whether we belong to an official congregation of the UUA or not. To speak of us as "not counting" is to think of UUA as "the church" rather than what it is - an association of congregations. To say we "don't count" is to set UUA up as the arbiter, and conveys a mindset of "How can we increase our numbers" rather than "How can we better serve unserved people who share our beliefs?"

LdeG said...

Those several times more UUs than belong to congregations numbers come from somewhere - the Pew Foundation and other surveys - so someone is counting. They count Methodists and Presbyterians and all kinds of believers who do not belong to congregations. Of course I, and hundreds of thousands of others, consider ourselves UUs whether we belong to an official congregation of the UUA or not. To speak of us as "not counting" is to think of UUA as "the church" rather than what it is - an association of congregations. To say we "don't count" is to set UUA up as the arbiter, and conveys a mindset of "How can we increase our numbers" rather than "How can we better serve unserved people who share our beliefs?"

Christine Robinson said...

@Paul

The bylaw change is to expand the definition of congregations to include virtual gatherings like Second Life, which does act in most ways just like a congregation.

Christine L. Slocum said...

Is it fair to read Morales' paper as though the UUA has an enumeration problem?

If it's a matter of counting people who are UUs, perhaps counting based on survey and not on congregation is good enough. I have a suspicion that not every religion reaches all of its members. Think of Catholicism, for instance. Who knows what method they use, but I bet it has some estimation.

Jeff said...

I know that this is a side issue rather than the focus of your post, but I feel it is important enough that we need to be clear on it. Your statement that one cannot be an individual member of Unitarian Universalism is not correct (it is, however, an idea one often encounters, and it's easy to understand how this impression arises). Individual Unitarians and Universalists preceded the development of Unitarian and Universalist congregations. Individual Unitarian and Universalist congregations preceded the development of larger denominational structures (for the Unitarians in the particular, the development of a national congregational association was a very late creation, coming about only in 1865). There is an important distinction between being a Unitarian Universalist and being part of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Any person who claims a Unitarian Universalist identity and has some basically recognizable UU beliefs or practices is rightly considered to be an individual Unitarian Universalist. Such a person may or may not be a member of a congregation. Then there is the Unitarian Universalist Association, which is a later development within the overall umbrella of Unitarian and Universalist history. Individuals cannot be members (unlike the original American Unitarian Association) of the Unitarian Universalist Association (whose full name is in fact the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations). But the UUA and UUism are in no way the same thing. The UUA is merely one organization within the UU religion--there are other organizations that are not part of the UUA, and individual members who are not part of UUA-related organizations (including UU congregations).

RickABQ said...

I find the "No Religion" statistics fascinating, because if I listen to what is going on in the world around me, I would have sworn the trend was in the opposite direction. As a person who would almost certainly have been in the "No Religion" category if not for finding iMinister's church, I find myself feeling increasingly surrounded, almost marginalized, by the conservative religious tone of society around me. Maybe I'm over-sensitive, or maybe they're just a lot louder than they used to be. Regardless, I wouldn't have predicted those numbers.

zimruch said...

I believe that there are some qualities that need to be in the DNA of any Unitarian Universalist community. The main one is mutual accountability. The first congregations formed on this model. Just like bishops could and did make mistakes, so could and did individuals. A single person only has one perspective, but a group of people who come together with forbearance and good will can come much closer in discerning truth. We use that model in juries as well as congregations. It's not perfect, but--when done well--it does help to keep corrupting levels of power (and damaging levels of dysfunction) in check.

LisaTO said...

Hello,

I'd like to invite you to participate in the conversation about Congregations and Beyond during the consultation that will take place starting tomorrow night. You can join in here https://www.facebook.com/groups/334403263248852/ or on twitter with the hashtag #congbeyond.

Lisa

puzzler said...

I appreciate the reasoning beyond why congregations are on the decline. However, I often find that no one is looking at counter trends, which in my opinion indicate that UUs have an opportunity to develop now, communities that will serve significant needs are going to be clear 10 years from now. The human heart cannot keep pace with the pace of all things digital. I believe we are going to see that people currently between ages 18-50 (yes a huge demographic) are going to turn to a tangible, in person relational cultures as they age. Translation: community institutions. But not just any community institution. The need will be for those that address deep longing for human connections. The Pew research organization recently released a report that noted there will be a turning away from social networking/social media involvement as people age because basic human needs are not being met. I believe this report is one of a few now coming out that are worth looking at.