It looks like adult membership in the UUA has dropped again, for the third year in a row. We are not alone, of course. The UCC, for example, saw a 2.8% drop, the largest one-year decline among the groups measured. Other mainline and liberal churches are is similar situations. So, too, are some conservative ones. I will leave it to the folks whose job it is to slap happy faces on things to do so. I, however, think we have a problem.
It seems that there are two obvious questions to ask about this...
Why is this happening? What are we going to do about it?
I don't pretend to have an answer. That said, I will hazard a guess that cannot be universally applied, but may be relevant in some situations. I suspect that our church cultures do not reflect our world's reality. Peter Morales, President of the UUA makes a reference to culture in his report to the UUA trustees. "The culture is moving our way theologically," he says, "but not institutionally”. I am not sure I know what he means about the first part. Theologically our multi-cultural nation is all over the board. I think his second observation has some merit, though. My concern (and I have mentioned it here in the past) is that we have found ourselves unable to adapt to the needs of our communities. Instead, we expect the community to adapt to us. We liberals tell folks that they are all welcome...if it is convenient for our particular institution in its currrent format.
For example, Let's say you live in a town with a Little League. If you don't have one, I bet you know a municipality that does. Some mom or dad volunteers to coach their child's team. They--both of them--work all week. Saturday they drive a few towns over to visit Grandma. Sunday afternoon, the kids need to do homework and Mom and Dad need to sit back and watch some TV. The only time for team practice is (you guessed it) Sunday morning. What do we (the churches) do? We do what we have always done. We notice that that particular family isn't in church every week. We complain about attendance. We remind people that it is the responsibility of members in our faith community to attend church from time to time. Then we feel bad because folks would rather play baseball. They feel bad because they can't make it. Bad feelings abound.
What if we provided other programs and worship services that Mom and Dad Baseball could make? Maybe it would mean that there wouldn't be as many folks in church Sunday morning. Of course, they weren't coming anyway. So maybe it means the Baseballs get to stay part of the community instead of dropping out.
This failure to adapt isn't necessarily about worship language and liturgy. Churches with "contemporary" worship services are struggling, too. It isn't about "theology" either. Liberals and conservatives are struggling to maintain attendance. It think it is--at least in part--about something much more dull. It's about our busy, busy lives. It is about how modern people use their time. It is about how people interact with the organizations we are affiliated with.
Yes, the busy-ness of our lives is exactly why folks need their congregations. People need to find time in their schedules to connect with God or the Transcendent or whatever. The problem is, we expect them to come to worship on our terms. The mainline denominations are old and they do things the old way. It feels like it is perpetually 1955 or 1963. It's 10am (or (9:30 or 11:00) on Sunday morning. We tell folks that they must go to church at that time or not go at all. Yeah, we don't actually say it, but our actions do. There is no grace in this attitude. There has to be a better way.
I will attach a link to a post I wrote earlier this year about this same topic. I will say, though, that there is no blanket fix for the problem. Like politics, all religion is local. Each congregation knows (or should know) its situation and context best. Every community must adapt in its own way. We need to wonder how many ways we have for folks to connect with our institutions. We also need to adjust our expectations for what constitutes a "success".
I am rambling...
Here is that link to one of my previous posts on this subject. Okay...here is another (even older) one.
Here is a link to the UU World article.