When I was a child, I went to a UU church that was a larger-sized church for a church in our movement. The church religious education program was large enough to have paid staff, and a different classroom for every two grade levels through 7th grade, an eight-grade class of its own for coming of age, and an active high school group. But a church that size often comes in a larger metro area, as was the case with Birmingham Unitarian Church in Bloomfield Hills, MI. And so, in my school, I was one of only a small hand-full of families with Unitarian Universalist children in our school district of Ferndale, and in my grade there was only one other UU. I was lucky--I think my two sisters had no other UUs in their grade in our school. When I got to High School as a freshman, there were still the two of us UUs in a graduating class of over 300, and three UUs that I knew of in the school, although I later found that there were two sisters who went to another one of the metro area UU churches.
Now I'm in a smaller church and a smaller city, and the situation is very much the same. We have a smaller church school, with K-5 in one class. As I think about our UU children and youth, I don't think we have any two families with grade-school children in the same school. I think we have children in Jackson schools, Columbia schools, Hanover-Horton schools, Grass Lake schools, and a couple more school districts further north of Jackson, but no two children in the same school from different families. At the High School level, it's possible that we have more than two families with children in the same school district, if we count members who are not active in the church and whose children don't come to religious education classes, but our few active teens are all, I think, in separate school districts.
What these two examples tell me is that the vast majority of UU children and youth grow up fairly religiously isolated in their school lives. Before we get to college, where we're in educational systems with thousands of students, we don't have enough critical mass to, for example, form high-school-based religious club. And it also means that our children in religious education classes pretty much only see each other once a week. Occasionally strong friendships can form--some of my daughter's best friends are her church friends--but it's harder for our children to make friends with children from their own religion.
There are positive things about this, of course. It means we raise flexible, tolerant children, who are good at being allies and bridge-builders. It means our children learn quickly and early how to relate to people of other religions and appreciate and embrace that diversity.
But it has its drawbacks in terms of support for our children when they face religious intolerance, which they sometimes do. And I think it's also a factor in retention. My child wants to go to church so often for the primary reason that she loves the other children there and doesn't get to see them any other time of the week. But if she hadn't made those strong bonds there, there would be much less drive from her to go to church. And, as we see, our teens often start to get to be reluctant to go to church, and we lose them. I continued to go to church as a teen despite any strong friends who were active in my youth group, because we had a strong program--it had a sizable group, it was fun, and it was engaging. But if you have a small group, and no strong friendships, it's a rare UU youth who will prioritize religious education in a busy teen schedule.
Unfortunately, this means rocky roads for most UU religious education programs -- there's simply no magic formula to making friendships happen so that children will want to come to church. The best answer I have is this: One of the primary reasons someone comes to a UU church for the first time is because the person has been invited by someone that person knows. What better person to invite than the parent(s) of your child's best friend? If it works, you gain a friend at church, your church gains a member, and your child gains a reason to want to go to church.
I can think of no better way to help our children be less religiously isolated, to help grow our religious education programs and churches, and to build the drive in our children and youth to want to come to church.