A recent feature in Boston Magazine addresses the core crisis of Unitarian Universalism – how does the movement keep from dying out? As Alyssa Giacobbe points out, UUism is not a fan of zealous self-promotion:
Yet a marketing endeavor risked alienating members. As part of their ethos of acceptance and “finding your own path,” UUs are very averse to evangelism, or anything that looks like it. “One church’s marketing is another church’s proselytism”
I am part of the problem- the young members who come to the movement yet don’t regularly attend. And it is true- there is a lot of competition on Sundays if you’re a young activist looking to help society out a little bit. Perhaps this is why Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto’s alternative Thursday evening service was so attractive. Most of the regular Sunday attendees are my parent’s age or older. Getting up in the morning is not a huge issue. For twentysomethings, it can be.
The ongoing marketing shift by the UUA is needed, and I do like the new logo and the work on the website. There’s a difference between trying to be hip and trying to be modern. All religion is an interplay between past traditions (going back, at the very least, decades if not centuries, or millennia) and the expectations of modern society. Both sides of UUism date from around the birth of the American republic, and ever since the Constitution was signed there has been a split between the originalists who see things frozen in time, and pragmatists who see ideas and concepts that come to us from the past as alive. Life means change. The rules of evolution apply to institutions as well as living things: adapt or die.
Thankfully, this feature was long enough to deal with the complex nature of UUism. I’m sometimes asked to provide a brief explanation of what the faith is and what its structure is. There are some parts that can be boiled down to the core. Though on the contrary, there exists the need to tack on ‘it’s complicated’ or ‘I can’t really speak for everyone.’ I enjoy that freedom to choose my own spiritual path, and not have the weight of representing a whole faith. Anyone with a marketer’s mind hates that.
Each and every year, another one percent of Americans ditch organized religion and enter the nebulous rank of atheists, agnostics, and none of the aboves. Those that identify with a church may be less active participants than in the past. Only ten percent of that group are actually looking for a replacement. Though the rise of hard-line evangelical Protestantism gets all the press, the trend seems consistent. Members of any faith should assume it to be a given, and know that this one percent a year is coming from somewhere.
In some ways, UUism does not have as much work to do. To get an irreligious or agonistic person to care about all the dogma and rigid rituals of some organized faiths requires a lot of legwork. If I go to a Baptist congregation, the membership will have a lot of convincing to get me on board. That was a beauty when I walked into a Unitarian Universalist church: I didn’t need to change myself to fit in. I slid right in, and my spiritual evolution could start from a natural beginning.
Dave Ruffin, who is the focus of the feature, makes some statements that are both sensible and divisive. I do understand what he means here:
What UU needs to survive, he believes, is a radical rethinking: It needs to stop defending its liberalism and embrace being a religion. “We need permission to be the people of faith that we are,” he says. “We need to actually get religious.”
Having done some Q&As with mainline Christians and the non-religious, the main confusion is why Unitarian Universalism calls itself a religion and not a political or social club. At first I found this belittling and a tad offensive. With perspective it’s not hard to see why the two are hard to distinguish.
What is UUism’s “secret sauce”? Why do you need to get down to the church on Sundays and participate?
What sustains me and my religious community? Social justice and egalitarian mores, yes, but the Human Rights Campaign can say the same thing. A large chunk of congregants came from another faith, sometimes a very aggressive and zealous one. There’s a certain fear of religion built into UU communities, even if it’s not admitted.
Ruffin is right. Quite simply, in the 21st century Unitarian Universalism needs to go big or go home. There are plenty of other Sunday morning activities that can engage people. UUism doesn’t have a monopoly.
Not even close.