Re-imagining Our Growth Model

UU's presently work with the following model of church growth:

1.  Get a nice building with good parking and good minister.
2.  Put on the very bestest worship service you can.
3. Be really really nice to the people who show up.
4.  Get them active in the church community so they will join the church.
5.  Use your growing membership to create more programs and increase the staff.
6.  Take it up a notch: better building, better staff, better worship service and repeat.

Gross over-simplification, I admit.

It is the "attraction model."

The pathway to membership, though, tends to pass through the narrow gate of the worship service.  You have to like, or at least, tolerate the worship service to be willing to make the commitment to the church.  Which is odd, because once you are a member, attendance in worship is really even more optional than in other traditions.  People can be members of the church without going to worship, but by being active in the programs of the church.

The programs of the church work by and, often, for the members of the church.  Hence our public ministry projects tend to be done by smaller groups than the whole church, but done in the name of the church.  For example: the social justice committee of the First Parish of East Cupcake have taken a firm stand against the Keystone Pipeline.

Back when everybody went to church on Sunday morning, the Unitarian Church was for many people, the bestest worship service they could imagine.  Lively, non-dogmatic, non-demanding: if you had to go somewhere, it was a good choice.  It was wider gate to pass through than most of the other denominations and traditions.

But when you don't have to go somewhere on Sunday morning, it's a different story.

Anywhere from a third to a half of the people in the United States, maybe even more, agree with the basic propositions of liberal religion.  Many of them also aspire to live lives shaped by the values and virtues of liberal religion: reverence, self-possession, honesty, humility, openness, fairness, gratitude and generosity.

Many of them also see the same political, economic and social policy implications of those values  as we do.

Our worship style is, in some ways, the most particular and peculiar thing about us.  And I don't think that is terribly significant.  I do think that it is narrow, and class-biased, and very culturally specific, and educationally demanding.  And I think that we should open it up in all the ways that we are trying to do now.

But what I really think we should do is stop making it the narrow gate through which a person must pass to be a UU.

Imagine this process of church growth:

1. start with your present UU people.
2. encourage and empower them to connect to the networks of people in your community who seem to living our values and virtues in ways that match their own. Their work is to strengthen and deepen those networks and connections.
3. Put on the bestest worship services that you can--but services that are not just events to attract people to join the church and become active in the church's programs.  Our services should be a service -- a gift given by Unitarian Universalists to the community at large: a weekly opportunity to orient yourself to the virtues and values that are most life-giving.
4. Take it up a notch: do it better, with more people and for more people.

Our goal is to increase the number of people who are practicing religious liberals, living the life.  Not to increase the number of Unitarian Universalists.  If we do our work well, that will happen anyway.


  1. I agree with your analysis of what we've done in the past and what we need to do now. I have long struggled with how we break worship out of our class and racial biases. Even when preach about internal stuff, as I often must in my role as an interim minister, I try to broaden the language and avoid Unitarian Universalist acronyms. Acronyms and other forms of insider language are exclusionary. Many of our congregations are in a rut of excellent music, which people listen to but don't participate in. Yes, I like your idea of the service as a gift to the community.


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