SURGING NATIONWIDE

Religions are not always what they seem.

A colleague once told me of his experience teaching a course on cults and small sects in the 1980s, when he had required his students to go out and actually spend time with one of the then-controversial groups. (Something I would never have done, for reasons of legal liability, if nothing else). From a suggested list of available groups, several selected the Unification Church, better known as the Moonies, and they duly made contact with a local branch of the group. Students attended the church’s services and participated in Unificationist activities.

At the end of the semester, though, my friend was baffled to read the descriptions he was receiving in term papers. Far from being secretive or manipulative, the group that students described was welcoming and friendly, and its members showed an admirable sense of humor, and a wide-ranging tolerance. The Unificationists were delightful, cultured, intelligent, people, profoundly dedicated to social service and racial justice, and to making the world a better place all around. And they loved to read good books! The students were baffled as to why such thoroughly nice people could possibly be so unpopular. How could anyone consider the Unification Church a cult?

The professor was no less puzzled, until he checked and found that his students had actually spent the term doing field research on the local Unitarians.

That story came to mind recently reading a USA Today report by Bob Smietana, headlined “Unitarian Faith Growing Nationwide: Unitarian Universalist Congregations Hold Growing Appeal Throughout The U.S.” According to Smietana, the UU church is a movement whose time has come. Reporting one Nashville believer, he remarks, “De Lee is one of a growing number of Unitarian Universalists, a group of people who believe in organized religion but are skeptical about doctrine. … Unitarians believe their open-minded faith has a bright future as an alternative to more exclusive brands of religion. … The church hopes to appeal to the rising number of ‘nones’ — those with no specific religious identity. A recent poll from the Pew Center for the People and the Press showed that about one in five Americans falls into that category.” Supporting his view, Smietana cites scholar Diana Butler Bass, a distinguished expert on “progressive” churches.

From my own dealings with UU members through the years, I entirely echo the views of those students in my friend’s misguided class. The church attracts sane, decent people, it does excellent work, and I have no wish to denigrate it. Its strong points include a laudable gift for denominational self-mockery, always a sign of health in any religion. But the notion that the church is growing on any scale, or that it is going to occupy any significant place in the American religious spectrum is so far from reality that it’s a mystery why a major newspaper would choose to run such a story.

Not a word Smietana says in his story is inaccurate, but it wholly lacks the context the reader would need to make sense of its claims. As he says, frankly, the church today has some 211,000 members nationwide, and that represents a solid growth over the past decade, some sixteen percent. But look at those numbers in context. That figure means that the United States has about as many Amish as it does UU members – surely, a sobering analogy.

Also, that growth statistic is not too impressive when set aside other bodies. Even if you take the questionable step of extrapolating that figure uninterrupted and assume sixteen percent each decade, the UUs still wouldn’t even approach half a million members until the latter part of this century. That still leaves them dwarfed by other churches whose growth genuinely has been impressive, including the Assemblies of God, Seventh Day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Today, the Assemblies claim some three million US members, and the Adventists and Witnesses a million each, and all are growing fast. And I could choose plenty of other examples. Brand-new upstart denominations like the Vineyard have rapidly swelled to perhaps 150,000 members, with huge potential for future growth.

The difference between these groups and the UUs is of course that they tend to the conservative end of the theological spectrum, with profoundly supernatural world-views. It’s hard to resist the conclusion that the media are reporting so favorably on UU growth because that is what they would like to see.

Maybe if you say something often enough, it’ll start to happen in the real world.

By the way, the Amish are also growing faster than the UUs. But don’t expect them to take over the nation’s religious life any time soon.

 

 

 

  • lared

    The growth of Jehovah’s Witnesses is truly astounding, for they are not mere church attenders but each are actually ordained ministers active in the public ministry. This does not happen overnight but requires thorough education in the Bible. All this despite the continuous onslaught of misrepresentations and even outright persecution in various lands.

  • https://www.facebook.com/pages/Unitarian-Universalism-Faith-of-the-Free/83274552762 Ron

    Somebody didn’t do his/her homework. A simple Google search of the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (mentioned in the article) would find that they are counting “adherents” (self-identifying UU’s) rather than congregational membership as reported by the UU Association. The numbers listed are about 665,000 for 2010, compared to 559,000 in 2000. Pretty simple stuff, this research thing.

    • Philip Jenkins

      Indeed.

  • The Emerson Analyst

    “But the notion that the church is growing on any scale, or that it is going to occupy any significant place in the American religious spectrum is so far from reality that it’s a mystery why a major newspaper would choose to run such a story.”

    Well said. . .

    I do not know what data or methodology ASARB used to arrive at its claim that Unitarian Universalism has grown by almost 16% over the last decade or so, but this dubious claim is very far from the reality of stagnant or declining UU “church” membership as presented in the official membership statistics of the UUA itself. In fact official UUA statistics reveal that there are several thousand fewer Unitarian Universalists today than there where over half a century ago in 1961 when the Unitarians and Universalists merged because they were both experiencing significant decline. As Mark Twain might have put it , it would seem that there are liars, damned liars, and ASARB statisticians. . . ;-) Come to think of it. . . borrowing a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Samuel Clemens might also have quipped that the reports of corpse-cold Unitarianism’s growth are greatly exaggerated!

    Here is the detailed fact based comment that I posted to The Washington Times. It is a synthesis and refinement of several comments that I posted in response to the USA Today “puff piece” -

    This article about the alleged growth of Unitarian Universalism in America is highly misleading. Membership in the Unitarian Universalist Association has actually been quite stagnant since the merger of the Unitarians and Universalists in 1961 and, when seen as a percentage of the overall population, Unitarian Universalism is actually losing ground on the membership front. Most ironically, current UUA President Rev. Peter Morales quite truthfully and accurately described Unitarian Universalism as “a tiny, declining, fringe religion” in his “stump speech” announcing his candidacy for president of the UUA in 2008. Sadly, U*Uism is every bit as much “a tiny, declining, fringe religion” today as it was four years ago when Rev. Morales uttered that unflattering but realistic assessment of what some U*Us call “The U*U Movement”.

    How can The Washington Post claim that the “Number of Unitarian Universalists grew nationally by 15.8% from 2000 to 2010″ when official UUA statistics claim a total of 216,931 UUs in 2000 and 221,367 in 2009? It should be noted that those UUA membership figures include RE enrollments aka “UU Sunday School” children. Adult UU membership was just under 165,000 in 2009. UUA RE enrollments show a steady decline since the 2002-2003 “church year”, going from a high of 63,080 in 2003 to 56,683 in 2009. A loss of over 6000 children attending UU RE.

    In fact these official UUA membership statistics contain the “sad but True” revelation that, in terms of “Membership & RE Enrollments Combined”, there are actually fewer Unitarian Universalists today than there were over 50 years ago in 1961 when the American Unitarian Association merged with the Universalist Church. . .

    As they say, “read ‘em and weep” for UUA President Rev. Peter Morales’ “tiny, declining, fringe religion.”

    1961 – Adult members: 151,557 RE enrollments: 77,546 Combined: 229,103

    2009 – Adult members: 164,684 RE enrollments: 56,683 Combined: 221,367

    Yes, over a period of 48 years, between 1961 and 2009, Unitarian Universalism “grew” by a whopping 13,000 adult members, a “less than impressive” growth rate that averages out at only 271 additional adult U*Us per annum. Yet, during the same 48 years, “UU Sunday School” enrollments declined by almost 21,000 children. What do these “discouraging” UUA statistics bode for the future of the Unitarian Universalist “fringe religion” in America? So much for this misleading article’s greatly exaggerated rumors about the all but non-existent “growth” of Unitarian Universalism.

    • Jay

      It is a shame it is not growing faster. Being as it is has a message of inclusiveness and tolerance that many religions have forgotten in the need to keep unwavering devotion. It is a good sign that more and more people are going non affiliated. It is not always true but I find most who have gone non affiliated have put critical thought to their faith. This to me is superior to a prepacked set of ideas that may or may not apply. You can give a man fish or religion ,but if you teach him to fish or seek spiritually it will produce much better results.

  • http://lincolnmullen.com Lincoln Mullen

    In 1822 Thomas Jefferson predicted: Unitarianism ‘will, ere long, be the religion of the majority from north to south, I have no doubt.’ (Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, Nov. 2, 1822) USA Today is in good company.

  • Steve Dufour

    “Far from being secretive or manipulative, the group that students described was welcoming and friendly, and its members showed an admirable sense of humor, and a wide-ranging tolerance. The Unificationists were delightful, cultured, intelligent, people, profoundly dedicated to social service and racial justice, and to making the world a better place all around. And they loved to read good books! ”

    This actually does sound a lot like modern-day Unificationists, mostly those who joined in the hippie-era and their children and grandchildren.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X