A Movement in Decline?

The UU World reports that the latest UUA numbers show that our movement is in decline.  They say:
A year ago UUA membership declined by 132 members for a total of 156,015 adult members. This year membership dropped 267, a decline of .16 percent. Total adult membership this year is 155,748.
 And also:
Religious education enrollment dropped 1,262, for a total of 55,846 children and youth this year. A year ago it dropped 809. In 2002 it was 60,895.
Now people are quick to point out that we're in a recession.  And that churches report their numbers to the association, and then, for all small and mid-sized congregations, the UUA bases their fair-share dues on the number of members they have.  Our UUA and district dues last year were $76 per person.  So therefore, in a time when our congregations are having financial troubles, congregations will naturally want to trim every member off their rolls that they possibly can.

This is true.  But I think that we always want to trim our membership numbers like this.  We may be doing it more, but I don't think this accounts for this drop in membership.  The reason why I don't think so is those religious education numbers.  We pay our dues based on our adult members.  We don't pay our dues based on our children.  Religious education enrollment can include the children of non-members who are enrolled in our programs.  So what explains this drop?  A drop in children over all in our country?  Well, the next census may tell.

But meanwhile, I'm saying, if you want to know the truth about the health of our congregations, look to our religious education.  If we're dropping off there, which this report is saying we are, then I think we really are dropping off over all. 

My guess, based on the way it is here, is that yes, we trim our rolls every year by a little--we look at who has moved away, primarily.  But there are some people we never trim every year, because they're maintaining some small connection to the church.  However, our religious education numbers report not how many children our members have, but how many we're actually seeing enroll in our program in the fall.  If that number is down, that's the real truth.  Membership means a whole lot of different things to different people, but it's the numbers of people who come and sit in our pews and go to our religious education classes that we should be really focusing on.


Steve Caldwell said…

I wrote a long blog post about the decade-long UU growth trends for adults and children/youth yesterday:

"UUA Demographic Trends and 'Tipping Points'"

The condensed version of this long blog article without the supporting statistics is the following:

(1) New England appears to have crossed a threshold demographically with the increase of "Nones" reaching the 25-30% range of the adult population.

(2) The "None" demographic group is varied and eclectic -- the irreligious, the unreligious, the anti-religious, and the anti-clerical. Theologically they are varied - theist, deist, agnostic, atheist, etc. They are not "unchurched" or "unaffliated" (i.e. they are not religious searchers who are between congregational and denominational affiliations). They are not anti-rationalist supporters of new age theology, mysticism, or the supernatural. They are most likely to be rational skeptics.

(3) "Rational skeptics" used to be a demographic that Unitarian Universalist congregations were very good at reaching. We were so good at this outreach that folks of other theological persuasions used to complain about the "oppressive" presence of "humanism" in our congregations.

(4) We may be reaching a "tipping point" in New England with respect to this increasing percentage of "Nones." As the "None" demographic increases in other regions to 25-30% and beyond, will we see shrinkage of Unitarian Universalist congregational membership numbers? Are the growth trends in New England a warning for the rest of the UUA? How do we best market ourselves in a culture that is becoming increasingly secular?

(5) Although "Nones" are presently 15% of the total US adult population, 22% of Americans aged 18-29 years self-identify as Nones. As this growing "None" adult population become parents, they may not see a need to join Unitarian Universalist congregations or enroll their children in Unitarian Universalist religious education programs. How will this trend affect future UU growth?

What do you think?
Robin Edgar said…
The U*U Movement has been stagnant or in decline for most of the last 50 years since the merger of Unitarians and Universalists in 1961. There are a variety of reasons for this stagnation and decline but one of the major ones is that few God believing people are all that interested in going to a "church" where they will be treated as second-class citizens by condescending, if not outright intolerant and abusive, "fundamentalist atheist" Humanist U*Us as is all too often the case. Perhaps the situation has improved somewhat over the last decade or so but, from what I can see, there are still plenty of "less than polite" atheist U*Us who are all too ready to go out of their way make their U*U "Welcoming Congregations" "less than welcoming" to God believing people in general and Christians in particular. I can't imagine that there are very many politically conservative U*Us these days considering just how "less than welcome" *they* are in what The Oregonian once described as "The Church of the Far Left". The incredibly lax standards of behavior for U*U clergy doesn't help either. . .
Cynthia Landrum said…
@Steve -
Yes, the latest Pew research study on Millennials showed a decreased interest in belonging to organized religion, even compared with GenXers at the similar age. I think all of organized religion will decline accordingly, unless we can figure out how to tap into the next generations' interests.
Cynthia Landrum said…
@Robin -
Your hypothesis that UUism is in decline because of antipathy towards theistic beliefs is possible. I tend to think that we've been becoming more and more open to theism and less stalwartly humanist than we were in recent decades, however, which should mean that our trend would be going in the opposite direction towards growth.

It might actually be that being "fundamentalist" anything, even "fundamentalist atheist" gives people a strong reason to be joiners, whereas a more open spirituality leaves people feeling like they can handle this on their own!

Ah, the irony, if that's the case!

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