The problems with the Fellowship Movement, if you ask ministers, was that they produced congregations that were lay-led and often hostile to ministry, and as a corollary, insular and small and resistant to growth. They often resisted words like "worship" and "sermon" and held services that were more like lectures. The pluses are self-evident: it created a lot of congregations where there were none.
In Gordon Gibson's new book, Southern Witness: Unitarians and Universalists in the Civil Rights Era, he describes a typical Southern Fellowship beginning (Kindle Locations 276-283):
So there we were, circa 1951. Someone from the AUA, I think it was Fellowship Director Munroe Husbands, noticed that six or seven of us here or nearby were members of the Unitarian Church of the Larger Fellowship. (AUA started the CLF in 1944 to be a “church by mail” for isolated religious liberals.) Munroe wrote to inquire if we were interested in starting a fellowship and asked what prospects we thought a fellowship might have. Several of us said we were interested . He then placed an ad in our local newspaper describing Unitarianism and asking people to respond if they would like to come to an informational and organizational meeting. He set a date to come to town, asking one of us to book a function room at one of the leading downtown hotels. He submitted a couple of more newspaper ads about the meeting at the hotel and encouraged all of us who’d responded from CLF and from the first ad to talk to our friends about the meeting. He got to town a day early and phoned all of us. The evening of the announced meeting arrived, and we were excited to see the sign outside our meeting room saying, “Unitarian Fellowship.”Six or seven families and a newspaper ad, and one devoted staff person organizing -- that was the genesis. And many of those fellowships grew into full-size congregations that exist today. Where I live in Jackson, Michigan, there was one such fellowship. It eventually folded into the Universalist church after the merger, and there are some Fellowship members in the Church I serve today, and we recognize now the Fellowship's history as a part of our own history.
I think it is time for a new Fellowship Movement. I'm sure these are words that have been uttered before, but I also think the time is ripe.
We have a "new era" upon us, and we're floundering as to how to respond. We know that fewer people are coming to brick-and-mortar churches, and the "nones" are on the rise. We know that ministry is becoming more and more expensive for churches to support. We know that bi-vocational ministry is on the rise.
I think the answer looks something like multi-site and and something like a Fellowship. The folks that are not attracted to a traditional church and its worship as the central focus might be attracted to something that is Unitarian Universalism in another package, like the Fellowships were. And these entities might need to be largely lay-led, like the Fellowships were, because the entities with six or seven families can't support ministry. Some of the Fellowships didn't meet weekly -- that might work better for some of today's families to be on a bi-weekly basis. But it needs institutional support, like the Fellowships had through the UUA staff and the mailings from Boston that provided the Fellowships with pre-prepared worship services and programs.
Today, it won't be an ad in a newspaper, but something spread by social media. And maybe the staff person isn't from Boston but rather, like the multi-site model, supplied by the nearest congregation. But the model being so fixed and clear and authorized and organized centrally is what made the Fellowship model so successful. We need that clear vision and mandate to grow these new entities, the new Fellowships.
Here in Jackson, there could be a Fellowship again, of people who are not likely to go down to my church 10 miles South of town, and who maybe aren't looking for a traditional worship service, or who want a different style of music if they do, or who in other ways want something different from what we're already providing. In Albion, 25 minutes away, there is a core group of families ready for something in their area who could be a Fellowship, too. Maybe Grass Lake or Adrian also has a critical mass. Maybe Chelsea or Dexter folks don't want to commute to either Jackson or Ann Arbor on their weekends and have a handful of interested families. And that's just how it looks from my area. These smaller towns are ready for something like a Fellowship Movement.
But here's the thing. In my small church, I'm the only full-time staff person, and I'm pretty busy. Starting up a program like this isn't as high on my agenda as it could be. And it'll tax my time and my resources to do it. I know the potential is there, but I don't have the model, the canned program to hand them and the database of who the interested people are that the Fellowship Movement had. I don't have money in my budget to do the advertising or rent the hall, either. It's going to take a lot to get me to do this. It's going to take a Movement.