Sunday, 2 May 2010

Growth - 'the new orthodoxy'?

A letter in the 1 May 2010 issue of the Unitarian magazine, The Inquirer, complains that recent issues of that journal have focused too much content on the subject of growing congregations.  "An unworthy motive" is how the author of the letter describes growth. The fact that detailed suggestions have been offered is termed "prescriptive" and the whole focus on growth considered perhaps "a new orthodoxy."

Although the author of that letter did not mention any names, you - dear reader - can be certain that I am the target of the barbed phraseology of this letter in which the author pretends to fret about "stepping over newly defined boundaries of heresy." The tone is called "strident", which I have learned often translates as 'American'.

No one is telling congregations to grow. I and others are responding to their desire to grow by providing information on how to go about that process.

To be honest though, I am fully in support of Unitarian growth. I would go so far as to say that to oppose that growth is immoral.

If you 1) believe you have something that can change people's lives for the better and 2) you consider yourself a generous person, are you not obligated to do what you can to share it? That sharing means something more active than waiting in the dark with the lights off hoping that no one shows up but being gracious if someone does.  It means doing what you can to make your presence known and your life-changing proposition appealing.

This endeavor is called 'trying to grow a congregation.' It is not for the sake of money or abstract numbers - it is for the sake of the lives that can be changed and the peace that can arise as a result.

Some - and perhaps many - Unitarian congregations don't really want growth; they don't really want to reach out to people outside of their existing communities. They have good reason for this. The truth is that sharing Unitarianism is not without discomfort. It means change to the community where they find comfort - perhaps very dramatic change - and that is not at all easy.

I understand this discomfort and I understand that helping others in this way may not be what they signed up for. I can only hope that such congregations will come to feel that as they have eaten the fruit and sat in the shade of trees planted long before their birth, that they also must plant trees for the future.


  1. As the saying goes- 'You just can't help some people'

    Its seems to me the writer in the Inquirer article muds the waters between 'right beliefs' (Orthodoxy) and 'rational thinking'.

    Is the action to do nothing or refuse advice an admirable belief or even rational in the dire situation many congregations find themselves?

    It seems to me some people would rather congregations closed than actually take any advice or face up to the fact they are dying.

    To ignore this reality and not see it as an emergency issue for the movement is I think purely selfish.

    There is a plain ignorance, and often denial, about declining numbers and I doubt many people realise we are near the 3,000 members mark nationally and will carry on declining. (Anyone noticed the GA never mentions membership statistics openly at the yearly meetings? I think this is a major mistake)

    Many of the congregations are top heavy on the elder age spectrum and they will therefore not be sustainable in the long term unless they do something about it in terms of growth, or at least replacing those they lose.

    The problem is you can take the horse to the water but you can't force it to drink.

    In this case I'd say they those who do nothing will eventually reap what they sow. But I think its essential that negativity does not drag down everyone.

    The GA and more specifically the EC needs to get tough with the decisions it makes at not spending needed resources, in any way, towards supporting congregations that are terminal, unless there are clear possibilities for growth and continuity.

  2. Scott Wells here, a minister writing from the the capital of the the United States of Strident --

    Growth seems tied, to me, to new congregations. I've wondered how many Unitarian (or Free Christian) churches have been established in the "new towns" for one.

    And I wonder where your readers come from!

  3. Hi Scott

    Thanks so much for your first comment here.

    There has been relatively little formation of new congregations. Those that have formed have tended more toward a small fellowship model, rather than being seized by growth.

    The congregations that have really grown a great deal here have been old ones where some particular event ignited a blaze of growth.

    Comfort is the enemy of growth - often true in personal life as well as that of the congregation.


  4. Like Leigh has written, I think the correspondent in The Inquirer has confused growth and orthodoxy.

    Growing isn't a matter of what one believes or of expectaion to conform; growth is the desire that others will experience the good of what we Unitarians have. This is not a doctrine, it's a behaviour we should not only adopt as responsible members of our congregations, but covenant to support each other in doing for everyone's benefit.

    Similar to the charge of growth as a new orthodoxy, I recently heard "growth-people" being labelled as a new kind of Unitarian tribe à la Unitarian Christians, Buddhists, Humanists, etc. This is simply not the case, as different paths to growth have been identified and encouraged, to respond to the needs of the communities surrounding our congregations.

    People from across the different belief strands of our movement desire that Unitarian communities grow, and they want to be supported in doing so.

    I too can understand how the talk of growth can be wearying, particularly in the light of previous less successful attempts, and the risks that often need to be taken. Despite this, the correspondent is wrong on the nature and need for growth in the British Unitarian movement, and I am glad for Andy's measured and robust response to the letter.

  5. :Although the author of that letter did not mention any names, you - dear reader - can be certain that I am the target of the barbed phraseology of this letter in which the author pretends to fret about "stepping over newly defined boundaries of heresy."

    Yes, U*Us are pretty good at that kind of thing where they criticize someone without actually naming them.

    *I* call it inU*Uendo. . . :-)

  6. It's easy to confuse 'a way of doing something' with 'the way of doing something'. Your method for growth involves doing things that people find uncomfortable because they are not traditional. You are evangelistic about it. Always going to put someone's nose out of joint.

    Thing is, ideally, growth is partly a symptom. Most of the things that we should be doing to grow, are the things that we should be doing to make our congregations the places that we want them to be anyway. Friendly, welcoming, spiritual and religious communities. Growth can be just a by-product of that (with a little marketing on top).

    Also, I take it as a great consolation that people in declining congregations are going to be outnumbered by people in growing congregations. Inevitable.

  7. There's a perception that UUism is different to Unitarianism, but actually a lot of people who are new to UK Unitarianism have been attracted to it by UU material on the web, so are more likely to be UU in outlook. The answer to this, if someone is one of those people who wants to maintain the distinctive character of British Unitarianism, is to put up a lot of well-written material on the web - and such material is either in short supply, or poorly presented, or badly structured (with the exception of the new GA website, and various blogs including this one, of course).

    I only became a Unitarian when I perceived that British Unitarianism appeared to have moved closer to UUism, and/or that my position had moved closer to British Unitarianism (in other words, that I do value non-dogmatic non-exclusivist Christian spirituality of the type espoused by Christian-flavoured Unitarians).

  8. @Yewtree:
    True, a thousand times over. Most British Unitarian resources are not very good, or not very comprehensive or both, compared to the best UU resources. People who come to Unitarian congregations have usually looked it up on the internet, and have almost always read UU material as much as British material.

  9. I'd just like to echo Yewtree's comment - I suspect many new people are coming to British Unitarianism largely because of American Unitarian Universalism - a debt rarely acknowledged.

    A bit of an odd example maybe, but I'm reminded of the case of an Anglo-Polish friend who grew up in the close-knit Polish community in the UK made up of exiles from communism and how it was recently rocked by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Poles thanks to EU labour laws. The settled Polish community found it was regarded as essentially "living in the 1940s" by the brash, modern, in-coming Poles.

    The impact of UUism could be seen as having a similar effect on British Unitarianism, which appears to have jealously guarded its traditions but now fears being "swamped" by a wave of evangelistic Unitarians who would draw in newcomers from a wide range of beliefs and perspectives that might challenge the cosy, settled view.

    To which I suppose the only appropriate response is - if only!