Tuesday, 9 February 2010

A dying/growing Unitarian movement

A very interesting conversation has been taking place at Reignite, a blog written by my colleague Rev. Stephen Lingwood. To summarize this in very few words: 1) the British Unitarian movement is dying, 2) why is it dying? and then the conversation turns to a variety of theories and potential solutions: sessions in pubs, more social justice stances, get rid of hymns [or not], bring in missionaries from the US! The suggestions could go on longer... I have heard plenty more: It's not Christian enough, it's too Christian, better facilitation training is needed, focus on kids, and on and on and on.

I think that my dear friend Unitalian, hits the nail on the head when he says on Reignite "People HAVE NOT got less religious - religion has simply not adjusted to their spiritual needs!" Whether we call it religion or spirituality, and whether we seek to satisfy that persistent need through church, synagogue, mosque, Tai Chi, meditation, 5 Rhythms dancing, yoga, or a whole variety of other possibilities that have been opened up by the decline of traditional religion - the need remains.

Every time I hear a Unitarian talking about the decline of the Unitarian movement that could (and IMHO should) be an ideal place for people to meet their spiritual needs with the freedom to search and the support of committed community, an evident flaw in the discussion arises. Nearly everyone is speaking from their own perspective and about their own likes and dislikes.  "Hymns are not the problem" means "I like hymns", "the problem is our low visibility" often means "I like things the way they are and want to find more people who like it that way too", and "people are seeking liberal Christian alternatives" means "I like to hear references to Christian stories, writings, and images."

Yes, there is an 'I' in Unitarianism. But it's so dominant in many places that it leaves no room for a focus on 'u', or (more aptly but less cleverly) 'them.'

It is entirely natural that we all look at the world through our own perspective. And when it comes to spiritual community, we tend to want it the way we like ourselves it. After all, we joined it for our own benefit, didn't we? Whether consciously or not, we tend to approach growth in a way that does not risk making our communities different from what we personally like.

But we can see quickly where that leads. A person joins a small, traditional, religious community because that is what s/he likes. It is no surprise that this person and others like him/her do not then suddenly turn around and welcome the rock band and ecstatic dance that might make the congregation more relevant because they know it would mean it is no longer the place they want for themselves. [Before you argue about the particulars, the band and dance are only meant as examples! I am not saying those are the keys to growth!] Congregations will stay as they are unless there is a momentous breakthrough and dramatic change in outlook.

We are all guilty of this selfishness, and I include myself in that 'we'.

When the President of the UUA, Peter Morales, generously came to these shores and worked with British Unitarian ministers recently he said essentially that not growing congregations is an ethical failure. If you know that your community has the potential to transform lives for the better, then failing to welcome newcomers to that community is like withholding water from a man dying of thirst. This is to say, the mission of transforming lives is morally essential - more so than the natural inclination to satisfy self-interest.

The overarching problem is that we do not feel a mission that is powerful enough to overcome our own self-interest. If we were dedicated to transforming lives and transforming the world more than we are to our own satisfaction, we would turn around quickly. We would put aside our dislike of anything that looks like 'marketing' and stop quarreling about any number of trivial matters and we would get down to the hard work of asking what the people near our congregations are like and what they need. And to the immediate objection that this will result in something that is not authentic Unitarianism, I say bah!

The essence of Unitarianism is a gem that includes recognition of the sacredness in every person, freedom to grow spiritually along our own individual paths, communities that sustain and feed their members, and reaching out to make a better, freer, more just and loving world.

That gem can be wrapped and packaged in many ways without altering its essence. Wrapping it in old hymn tunes and a worship structure that appeals to only a tiny fraction of the population is a strategy that can only be due to selfishness, laziness, or both.  What we are doing is akin to wrapping a fancy new i-Pod in old newspapers that stink of fish. Better wrapping doesn't change the product, but it sure makes it more likely to be considered and adopted by consumers.

My congregation has almost inexplicably bucked the trend toward decline, having grown from 6 to more than 80 members over the past 7 years, and more than doubled in the past three. It is now full of excited passionate young adults. And we have not got it right yet (and probably never will get it completely right since we will always have to struggle with the conflict between self-interest and mission.) There are still many thousands of people near us who have never stopped in. There are still many who stop in but do not return. But, I think we succeed as well as we have because we have been able to - at least a little bit - put aside our own self-interest to focus on the people who need the community we have built and try to make it their place too.

This is the key. Recognize that it's not about you, but rather that it is about the people whose lives you could help to transform. That would make all the difference.


  1. Hear, hear. I think the point about ethics is spot on - the ipod/ stinky fish analogy too....

    i think some other issues are:

    - confidence (unitarianism having dwindled and people seeing this as evidence of failure in itself. The church suffers from massively low self-esteem)
    - cool (in britain in particular, "church" is inherently uncool. But spirituality can seem flaky! I think the signature issues like marriage etc can begin to help address this...)
    - "manpower" (having the bodies to do it, hence my call for missionaries)
    - clarity (unitarianism is by definition hard to explain, therefore difficult to market. The broad terms commonly bandied are ok but a bit too wishy washy for a population "schooled" to believe religion is about a set of rules. We need to develop our own "rules" even if they are not rules. What do i mean by this? Well nuggets that actually describe Unitarian practice, eg: "most religions are top down, we're bottom up", "we don't tell you what to believe, we help you discover the belief in yourself", "unitarianism stands for both unity and uniqueness - how we each have a unique experience of spirituality but are joined by our common humanity" etc.

  2. Unitalian - I love your slogans! More please!


  3. We are quietly growing in our neck of the woods. And our nearest Unitarian neighbour/rival is also growing (a bit more vocally). Our pace of change I'd estimate as glacial, but I know that we have changed and we will continue to change.

    Loosely speaking, I work in marketing. At work our mantra is that we need to put the audience/user/customer first. This should be true in religion too. We have to help people access what we have to offer. We won't change who we are, but we can (and should) change what we do.

  4. I think that if every congregation took similar stand to the one that New Unity is taking, many more people would join (of course that's not the reason you took the stand you did, and nor would it be right for anyone else to take a stand on LGBT marriage & inclusion for that reason - but it certainly had that effect).