Wednesday, 19 January 2011

A liberal congregation grows in London

For the past four and a half years, I have been fortunate enough to be the minister - first student and then fully fledged - of the Newington Green and Islington Unitarians in north London. Each year over those years, I've had the pleasure of marking and celebrating the growth of this rapidly-growing congregation. The time for that tallying is always at the beginning of the New Year, when we honour and celebrate those who became members of the congregation over the previous year. So, here we are again!

I was sure that this year our growth would finally slow down. A month ago, it looked like it would, but a late swell of new members meant that we grew faster than ever before! Four and a half years ago, there were thirty-five members. This year, we are welcoming twenty-eight new members. After adding in the new members and removing a few inactive members from the roles - we have decisively broken the one-hundred barrier and reached 106 members. This is a congregation where - when my predecessor began some ten years ago - the total membership was about one dozen.

Each year, as we grew, we have heard comments from outside the congregation that the growth can not and will not continue. We have heard that our success is simply due to being in a good location. And most sadly, we have heard that with growth like that, we must not be 'authentic Unitarians.' Fortunately, that latter view comes from a small minority of very discouraged people.

Well, the growth has certainly continued. If I'm not mistaken, we are now the second largest Unitarian congregation in England as measured by membership.

Why have we grown? And why is our membership so young (we are at least half young adults, despite the minister being a decidedly middle-aged adult!)

As always, explaining congregational growth is extremely difficult - it is the result of so many factors. Some are the things we're doing right and others are simply the traps we've managed not to fall into.

Here are the factors I think explain our growth:

  • Our services are not bad... They could be a whole lot better (and they will be!) but they are good enough not to repel visitors!
  • We handle conflict reasonably well - people don't sense a lot of anger or hostility when they come in
  • We are visible in the world - with signs, articles in the local paper, our web site, Twitter, Facebook, etc. we make sure that people can find us easily.
  • We know what we're here for. My predecessor laid the ground work and a clear mission has emerged of a justice-seeking congregation that welcomes, accepts, loves, and thereby heals. 
  • We are not afraid. We've taken controversial stands on social justice issues and let the chips fall as they will.
  • We have good lay leadership. Our committee members and other volunteers understand our mission and put that ahead of their personal preferences.
  • We have focused on the people who need Unitarianism and are not yet among us. We strive to be conscious of their interests, tastes, needs, and ways of thinking. We have reached out to them with programming that addresses their life issues and interests.
  • We set goals and then keep our eyes on them and work to meet them. 
  • Continuous improvement - we never cease to ask how we could be doing something better
  • We are not afraid to fail - we fail often and know that this is the cost of trying new things. Experimentation is good!
This is the best I can do at this point in time. I hope it is helpful to others. 

I would just ask us all to remember that it is not only religiously conservative congregations that can grow. If we reach out to the millions who share the open-minded, open-hearted, justice-seeking perspective of Unitarianism, we will experience dramatic growth, we will transform lives, and we will make a better, more tolerant, more justice, more peaceful, and more loving world.


  1. Congratulations to you Andy and everyone in Newington Green and Islington.

    I shall try and make my envy into inspiration for growth too!

  2. Stephen - I really appreciate your comment. The envy is painful and I know that feeling all too well myself. Thank you for your ability to get beyond it!


  3. Andy, I think it's the responsibility of other ministers to take responsibility for their envy without creating a culture that discourages growth and better ministry and mission.

  4. Our congratulations too Andy. Long may this (and your Ministry) continue.An example to us all.

    Ash @ New Meeting House, Kidderminster.

  5. I think your factors are right on the mark, Andy. Keep up the good work!

  6. Andy, I wonder how many 'internet members' like myself you number?

  7. Well, I think you are lucky to be in a good location. London always seems to be growing and attracting new people, especially young people. And I think that your rate of growth won't stay the same. Likely it will go up and down over time. You'll almost certainly face different sorts of challenges when you get past 150 average attendance - those challenges might reduce further growth.

    I'm also envious of your success. It would be nice to pick up and move to your congregation. Instead, I'm simply inspired to be welcoming when new people come (and they do).

  8. Congratulations Andy. I think the factors you have identified are really important.