Go big, or go home: where do the answers lie?

My earlier post about the state of Unitarian Universalism in 2014 has found an audience I didn’t expect, getting shared by UU PlanetI Am UU, and ministers and congregations all over the country. Typically, my blog gets a couple dozen hits a day. It’s spiked like never before. The best moment for me was when my congregation shared the story, even though I hadn’t told anyone there about it.

The fancy new logo of the Unitarian Universalist Association
The fancy new logo of the Unitarian Universalist Association

The one recurring bit of response: yeah, but what should we do? It’s a valid critique, as my piece focuses mostly on the nature and structure of the problem, rather than what solution could be. If I had easy solutions I would have written the Unitarian Universalist Association a letter with them spread out. Instead I cast some thoughts into the void of the Internet and found many people with the same concerns.

While the cliché is that youth will save us, that’s not true. Youth are the vessel by which the faith survives in the 21st century. But the people with the lived experience are the grey-haired generation. They have seen UUism go through its previous evolutions, and their perspective will inform the next evolution. Also, the struggles of the faith predate my involvement with it. A dialogue must mix youth voices with those that sat in pews in 2004, 1994, 1984, and 1974. UUism, as a decentralized institution, changes slowly and deliberately. Those that have seen the long arc have much experience that is needed, though they may be too entrenched to fully use it. That’s why growth is an exchange between the new, the old, and those in the middle.

One thing I floated, and some congregations may already do this, is the concept of exit interviews. People arriving for the first time fill out information about themselves and how they came to know about the local church. But those that stop going, or go rarely, aren’t asked why their habits changed. UUism has low social pressure- members don’t try to shame others into attending. That openness should allow us to ask departing members frankly about why the faith wasn’t working for them anymore. Only though data can we understand the problem of retention. If you’re an active UU member and absolutely love it, it’s hard to understand why others don’t. There isn’t the luxury of perspective.

The options for freethinkers, humanists, and unorthodox believers are growing rapidly. I can’t stress how quickly this process is picking up. Sunday Assembly, the new option for ‘churchgoing atheists’, isn’t even a year-and-a-half old. It has three assemblies in the Bay Area where I live. Once upon a time UUism was an oddball, clearly distinct from other gatherings. It was the political and spiritual renegade- endorsing gay equality decades before the issue broached the mainstream. It put scripture, literature, and science on equal footing and used them in conjunction rather than having Sunday service be purely religious.

It’s not an oddball anymore. The demographics are shifting. The traditional UU political stances are more mainstream, and humanists and atheists are starting their own alternatives to religious practice. On one hand, the country is moving in a direction where the Seven Principles and Six Sources sounds more reasonable. On the other hand, that movement is spawning other institutions. The political and social sands are shifting, but that doesn’t mean thousands of people are falling right into UU congregations.

I don’t want to paint Sunday Assembly and its kin as some kind of foe. It looks hella fun, and I hope to get there in the next couple months. But its existence presses Unitarian Universalists to answer key questions: what makes us different? why does UUism need to exist today and in the future? in a 2014 where the church’s signature stance on marriage equality is being accepted socially and in the legal system, how do we capitalize when we are on the right side of history? All of these ‘competitors’ allow for self-reflection. If questions like these can’t be answered with conviction and power, then we may be on the path from concern to crisis.

These discussions have electrified me, and many others have been part of this ongoing path towards finding the place of Unitarian Universalism in the second decade of the 21st century. Every congregation is full of incredibly bright and dynamic individuals; in conjunction, they are capable of incredible things.

As I transfer to a campus UU group this fall, and see how young UUs like myself are organizing their action and their thoughts, I hope to gain more of that perspective. Since the church is so diverse, every new UU (or potential UU) can help us answer the key questions: why are you here? why do you stay here?

Remaking Unitarian Universalism: Go big, or go home.

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 fancy new logo of the Unitarian Universalist Association
The fancy new logo of the Unitarian Universalist Association

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.