Monday, May 18, 2009

Envy & Evangelicals

Of all the books I read in seminary (and there were many!), one that made a particularly deep impression was The Very Large Church by Lyle E. Schaller.

A lifelong UU who'd never been inside a metachurch, I'd lumped together "evangelicals" and "fundamentalists." I learned that not all evangelicals are politically and social conservative and that the message of many of them is more about hospitality and salvation than about dogma.

The programs and services offered by the megachurches are amazing.   I became jealous, imagining what UU congregations and ministers could do with the resources of churches of this size.  While nationally we UUs were holding our own in absolute numbers, we were becoming increasing insignificant as a percentage of U.S. population. 

In "The Coming Evangelical Collapse," Michael Spencer, predicts a major decline of evangelical Christianity.  His reasons include evangelicals having become identified with culture and political conservativism and their failure to pass onto their youth a faith that can survive the impact of secularism.  He write [italics his]:  We fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith.

In "The Future of Religion," Jon Cleland-Host raises interesting questions about the future of religion.

What does all this have to do with examining for UU ministry?  Well, when you don't like an outcome, e.g., the flatlining of UU membership since the Us joined the Us in 1961, you may be tempted to round up all the usual suspects, including the formation and development of ministers.  In this case, ministerial formation and development played a role in UUism's failure to grow, but the above articles give us context and perspective for evaluting that outcome and that role.

Have UUs also confused causes with a faith and have we failed to provide our youth--or even ourselves--with a faith that can survive secularism?   How do we form and develop UU ministers who bring hope for our religion and for our planet?


  1. Beg your pardon, but UU membership hasn't 'flatlined' since the early 60's. It grew steadily until the 70's. Then it collapsed, losing almost half its adults in a decade, bottomed out around 1980, and has slow climbed back to where it was in 1961.

    I'd like your take on this: "Why did UU collapse in the 70's, and what are the lessons for us today?"

  2. "Why did UU collapse in the 70's, and what are the lessons for us today?"All self inflicted I would think. It's a history worth examining in detail.

    I'd lumped together "evangelicals" and "fundamentalists." Two very very different histories here too. Plenty of good books out there...

    ...time to start reading some of them.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Thanks for these comments.

    Regarding the 1970's collapse, it seems that we boomers left in droves during our 20's and didn't return until we had children old enough to put into Sunday school. However, this is just one tiny possibility in a broad range of explanations. I would love to hear the thoughts and research of others.

    There is a lesson for us today in our own UU demographics and in the two articles cited above. That lesson is to resist the temptation for easy explanations that don't consider the larger context and trends that make up the environment of UUism.

    However, the temptation to explain is hard to resist. Our membership continue to rise in average age. We continue to have difficulty in retaining our own progeny. I am left wondering about the needs of the 20, 30, and even 40 somethings who may still identify as UU but who are not members of our congregations.