Tuesday, April 26, 2011

And why can't we convert people to UU?

Two more questions from the UUA Staff's Strategic plan for Ministry

 Why aren’t we able to convert more religiously defined “none of the aboves” to
Unitarian Universalism?
 Why don’t the neighbors who live near our churches attend them?

The second question is easier.  It remains the case that most people who want to be religious are perfectly well-served by orthodoxy and wouldn't be well-served by a UU church, no matter how well it was doing at outreach and welcome, program and social justice.  We're a niche market in the religious world!  Most neighbors of any church will never be members.  We can only hope that they can at least say about us,  "I don't believe what they believe but they are good neighbors and do interesting things." (that is a lot more than most of our churchs' neighbors can say about us.)

Now, about those "none of the aboves"  (as in, not Christian, Jewish, Moslem or any other world religion).  This group, 3% of the twenty year olds in the WWII generation,  6% of 20 year olds in the next generations, has increased since then and is a whopping 26% of current 20 somethings.

Here's what has changed in 50 years.  Fifty years ago, people who were not comfortable in orthodoxy went looking for other congregations to belong to, because congregations held a privileged place in the social structure.  When I was a kid nobody mowed their lawns on Sunday mornings in my suburb and there was no store open bigger than a 7-11.    This has changed.  Now people who don't want to be religious are free not to be in all parts of society (although in the southeast and Utah, church still has social privilege).  Most people who define themselves as "none of the above" are perfectly happy with their non-religious lives.  They don't go to church looking for freedom, they use their freedom to shop, play sports, do chores, work, and spend time with family on Sunday mornings.

There is a group of folks who say that they have no religious preference BUT are spiritual.  They don't like "organized religion" because they don't agree with the creeds, because they think church fights about homosexuality are really lame, because they don't believe in Hell, and because they don't have much experience with churches anyway, and when they go they are usually faced with music they can't sing, rituals they don't understand, websites which are not kept up to date, and a lot of talk, talk, talk which, if they are under 40, is completely foreign to their experience of the visual world.

Now, if they knew about us, they might like us because we don't fight about homosexuality, don't believe in Hell, and encourage folks to find their own theology.  But we also talk, talk, talk, sing from books in the foreign language of "musical notation" (not to mention German, Latin, French, and Cree), and in general don't do a very good job of living in the young adult world.

They might even brave all of this; learn our tunes, get PDF newsletters, and learn to love sermons full of quotations, except for this one little thing:

When people who are "spiritual but not religious" go looking for a religion, they go looking for spirituality; for heart, depth, warmth, spiritual practices, lessons in prayer, clues to a relationship to god.

These things are not easy to get in UU churches.  If we focused on them more, trained our ministers to provide them, helped lay people to tolerate, if not enjoy them....THEN we might attract some of this group of folks to our churches.  But not before.


Bill Baar said...

We're a niche market in the religious world!

I agree but not all UUs do; and especially those in Boston. Whether you agree really impacts your strategy for growth too.

Anonymous said...

I agree it is a niche market. I was raised in the UU church, but since moving away from my home church I have not found a church that meets my spiritual needs. I know I'm strange in the UU world, but I don't want my spirituality mixed with politics and activism. If we could take the liberal politics out of the church and returned to a spiritual base I would find it a much more inviting place to call home.

Victoria Mitchell said...

Wow, so well put! I really enjoyed your analysis of "none of the above" young adults, which rings true for most of my peers in university and the twenty-somethings I interact with. When I'm asked by curious older adults what I'm looking for in a congregation and I answer with "connection" or "real, deep, meaningful conversation and exploration" - they give me a strange look. But that's exactly what our congregations have the potential to offer, which you have articulated in similar words here.

asarsit said...

...I think your analysis is correct, and I look with a bit of envy at the Unity and Center for Spiritual Living communities, who, at least locally, seem to be growing in leaps and bounds because they fill this very niche you speak of -- very spiritual and warm atmosphere, god-talk, but not Bible-oriented. But at the end of the day, I just can't get into their overall "theology". While I might crave a little more spirituality, I also crave what our UU church and ministers offer: solid, intellectually tight, well-written sermons with literary and scientific references, and very little gooey, meaningless rhetoric. I walk away from services feeling not only inspired, but with a broader mind...and every now and then, more so than in the past, I also get my spiritual hit. Our churches are getting better at this. Continuing this dialougue and being aware of the issues, and not afraid to grapple with them is what will lead us forward. Thank you for doing this!

jason said...

I'm a thirty-year-old UU convert and one of the things I think is really missing for my generation is spirituality. I think social justice is important--crucial, even--but I think a spiritual foundation, especially one that is welcoming, helps motivate and guide social justice.

I don't think we have to give up what makes us UU to get this--a little emotion goes a long way. We can and should have intellectually stimulating sermons, but it would be nice of the actual words used had some force or poetry to them. It's not enough just to talk for a little while about some stuff. I want to be moved.

OnlyConnect said...

Something tells me you read "American Grace" by Robert Putnam. I am in the middle of it and every third page I am yelling 'wow!', that is exactly what I want to know.

I think we have a wonderful church -- all it needs is more spirit and emotion. It takes leadership, love and perhaps a bit of courage to bring those elements into our worship.

Anonymous said...

All note worthy comments, but tell me what does spiritual mean? Is it prayer, "God," hope, meaning in life and after?
Tell about a spiritual practices for a UU church?
Spirit & emotion?
I agree with the general comments, but tell me more.