Churchgoers from Elsewhere. (Surveys: `UUISM' Unique)

By Dart, John | The Christian Century, December 5, 2001 | Go to article overview

Churchgoers from Elsewhere. (Surveys: `UUISM' Unique)


Dart, John, The Christian Century


BEFORE THE American Unitarian Association merged with the Universalist Church of America in 1961, the former group ran an ad campaign suggesting, "I was a Unitarian all along and never knew it." The Unitarian Universalist Association could revive such a slogan today in view of recent surveys. Two polls indicate that only 10 percent of its members were born and raised in UU traditions.

Both a new, regional survey by an Ohio University scholar and a nationwide poll conducted in 1997 by the association determined that UUs found a philosophical-ethical home in the socially liberal, creedless, gender-inclusive denomination after rejecting the teachings and practices of their previous religious traditions.

"More so than for any other religious tradition, a person can become UU because of what he already believes rather than believing what he does because of becoming a UU," said James Casebolt, coauthor of two papers on the regional survey read at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion annual meeting in October. Casebolt surveyed UUA congregations in Ohio, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania.

Reasons given by Unitarian Universalists there for leaving other churches were along the line of "couldn't believe dogma, but wanted community" (ex-Methodist), "could not accept Jesus myth" (nominal Episcopalian), "my wife and I could not reconcile the Christian theology with a rational approach to life" (nominal Presbyterian). The second-most common theme was the perception that one's original tradition was restrictive and exclusivistic, said Case-bolt and student researcher Tiffany Niekro.

There have been enough seekers aligning with the now-1,000-plus congregations and fellowships to help the Boston-based UUA to post 19 consecutive years of growth. Adult contributing members number 156,968, said John Hurley, communications director.

However, 629,000 U.S. adults--four times as many as UUA members on church rolls--think of themselves as Unitarian Universalists, according to directors of a third poll, the Religious Identification Survey 2001. That estimate was extrapolated from the random survey of 50,000 households released in October by City University of New York. CUNY's previous poll in 1990 came up with 502,000 adults calling themselves Unitarian Universalists--many more than those active in congregations.

"We have a chuckle over those figures," said Hurley. The huge gap between actual members and self-identified members was attributed by Hurley partly to the individualistic legacy of New England transcendentalism. "They may consider themselves UUs but do not see that it is necessary to belong," Hurley said.

Former UUA president John Buehrens, who completed eight years in office this year, pointed to some trends that contribute to the drifting away of members as well as to the replenishment of congregations. "We have a very high rate of mobility -- some 15 percent of UUs change their address each year," Buehrens said in an e-mail interview. "Our young people also tend to 'marry out,'" he said. "They often are more adaptable about the religious nurture of children than their more religiously conservative spouses." (Indeed, the 1997 UUA survey and Casebolt's poll also found that current members rarely cited "religious education for children" as a reason they joined a UU congregation.)

Nevertheless, a concerted effort to appeal to high school youths and young adults has apparently paid off. "During the past decade the number of high school youth in our congregations increased fivefold, and the number of young adults increased six-fold," said Buehrens, who this fall is a visiting professor at the UUA's Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, the number of high school youths increased and the UUA transformed "a large number of lay-led fellowships into congregations with professional ministry," Buehrens said.

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