Monday, June 04, 2012

Unitarian Universalism in New England

Unitarian Universalism is sometimes called a "New England" religion.  New England is the "historic homeland", the region in which Unitarianism and Universalism started as distinct religious movements.  Proportionally a higher proportion of the overall population are UU's in New England than elsewhere.

It is also the area of the slowest growth for Unitarian Universalism; in fact, the number of UU's in New England is declining.

Consider this.  The proportion nationally of religiously unaffiliated is about 16%.  In Massachusetts, it is about 17%.  In all of the other New England states it is significantly higher, ranging from 23% in CT and RI, 25% in Maine and 26% in NH/VT.

Unitarian Universalism is not growing but shrinking as the number of religiously unaffiliated is growing.  To the religiously unaffiliated, we are not a solution, but a part of the problem.

And consider this:  as opposed to most of the rest of the country, Unitarian Universalist institutions are common and easily available.  UU churches are almost as ubiquitous as Dunkin Donuts. We have a branch within easy driving distance for most of the population of New England.  We also have a history; lots of people know us already.

Unitarian Universalism has a problem in New England, and it is a different problem than UUism faces in most of the country.

I reminded of one of the first internet meme, "We are in your base, killing your doodz." (Why that was once considered hilarious escapes me now.)  But UUism is declining in its base.

I don't have a real analysis, nor a solution to suggest.  But New England Unitarian Universalists need to start strategizing about what we have to offer in this specific cultural context.

One area of inquiry should be understanding the discontent of Roman Catholics in New England.  It may be that rising number of religiously unaffiliated are people leaving the Catholic church for institutional reasons.  Contrast this with people becoming unaffiliated because of theological disagreements with conservative Protestantism.  Or people leaving the mainstream of the mainline because it is too establishment.  

Another area of inquiry has to be the implications of many small churches, each with an expensive building to maintain.  This is a different problem than what UUism faces in other parts of the country.

Another area of inquiry is the town vs suburb difference in many New England towns.  The UU church is often in the center of the old historic town -- on the town green.  Yet the population growth is in newer suburban-type subdivisions often near highways.

Unitarian Universalism, you would think, is a good fit for New England.  So what is it that we are not getting about the spiritual needs of our neighbors that would prevent us from serving more and more of them?



3 comments:

Jeff said...

It may or may not have anything to do with internal denominational aspects, vs. external factors. My brother and I grew up UU in New England, and we'd both be there now, except we left long ago to pursue brighter economic possibilities in other places (I've left the USA entirely, at this point). That means two young birthright UUs, and now our wives and children, have been lost to New England UUism (but, of course, we're a catch for UU churches elsewhere). Among my circle of church youth group friends, there are exactly two (out of a regular attendance of 40-50) who stayed in our home town (both are active at our church). About twenty years after graduating high school now, nearly all of them are living and working out-of-state.

So it can't hurt to revitalize aspects of New England UUism, but if you really want to turn the shrinkage around, you may have to revitalize all of New England itself. Just my off the cuff observation.

Tom Schade said...

Jeff, thanks for sharing your experience. I don't think, however, that our problem is the much-discussed lack of retention of young adults in their home churches.

It is also harder to grow in an area where overall population is not growing.

But UU numbers are so small that we could double or triple in size without changing the overall statistics on religious affiliation by a percentage point.

Considering that UU's do not have a very well thought out strategy for convincing people to be UU's, and what we do have is assumed to be equally useful all across the country, we could double or triple in New England with a strategy.

Jeff said...

Is New England growing or shrinking, and if it is growing at all, do the demographics in any way match those that UUism most readily draws upon? Those are key questions for anyone hoping to grow, whether it is through internal increase or missionization. That was my real point (I only gestured to internal retention because that's my own experience, though I can't help notice that any church that loses 98% of its youth must eventually face a grim future, even as our out-migration benefits other churches elsewhere). I don't know the answer to the demographic questions, as I've long since left the region. But it was in decline when I left, and I don't have the impression that has changed significantly.

New England's dominant religion is Catholicism, especially in the more inhabited areas (southern New England). UUism hasn't planted churches in New England in a long time, if we discount relocated churches that followed people to the suburbs. Maybe that's because people had relative access to nearby UU congregations, and UUs tended to draw on demographics that could afford to drive reasonable distances. And more and more, people are simply abandoning religion of any type. Religion already left the public sphere long ago, a result of the earlier wrangling between Protestants and Catholics that led to an unspoken compromise (as well as fatigue). Now it seems to be dribbling away from the private lives of many as well. Maybe that presents an opportunity for evangelization, or maybe it reflects an atmosphere that would make significant increase challenging. Hard to know, since substantial efforts haven't been made. You're right that going by the statistics, a doubling or tripling shouldn't be that hard. I'm skeptical though, but I'd love to see it happen.