Into the beyond

Illustration © Jing Jing Tsong/Theispot

Changing how we do church is scary, but not changing means decline and a lost opportunity.

Image: (© Jing Jing Tsong/

© Jing Jing Tsong/Theispot


I have walked into Apple stores, as I travel to different parts of the country, and three times I’ve had the exact same experience:

I pull out my credit card to pay for my accessory or service. My Genius—as Apple calls the young, super-smart associate who’s just figured out how to solve whatever my current iProblem is—looks my card over and remarks, “Oh, you work for the UUA? I’m Unitarian Universalist, too.”

“Wow, that’s great,” I say. “Are you connected with one of our congregations around here?”


“Are you interested in that?”

“Not really.”

Sometimes the conversation ends there. Sometimes we talk a bit more. But it always ends the same way, with me not sure what else to offer or invite them into.

Most of us know these young adults. They may be our own kids or our grandkids, or they may be the children we’ve mentored in our churches or watched with pride as they’ve grown into accomplished young people. They say they’re UU. They’re proud of it. They may even have a chalice tattoo on their ankle. But they don’t come to church. And they don’t want to.

Most religious denominations are losing members, many rapidly—mainline Protestants most of all. Unitarian Universalist congregations seemed for a while to have bucked these trends, but our U.S. membership has slipped each year since 2008. And almost all denominations are losing young people. One-third of adults under 30—members of the rising “millennial” generation—claim no religious affiliation, and only two out of ten millenials believe church-going is important.

These statistics are scary. But I find another statistic even scarier: Seven years ago 10 percent of adults of all ages in the United States gave their religious affiliation as “None.” That number is now closer to 20 percent. Americans are losing faith in their religious institutions and in religious institutions across the board, and that trend is not in our favor. Or is it?

In 2012, UUA President Peter Morales wrote a vision paper called “Congregations and Beyond,” about how we need to pay attention to these trends. “Our core values,” he wrote, “appeal to far more people than are attracted to (or likely to be attracted to) our congregations. We have always treated this as a problem to be solved by devising ways to get people to become members of our congregations. But the reality of today’s world is that not everyone who shares our core values will want to become part of a traditional congregation. The fact that so many share our values is an enormous opportunity, not a problem. The future relevance of our faith may well depend on whether we can create a religious movement beyond, as well as within, the parish.” (See

Our denomination cannot flourish if we only offer one way of being in religious community. If our congregations only focus on serving the needs of their present membership, we become rapidly more insular and irrelevant to the larger community. According to national surveys, more than 650,000 people identify with Unitarian Universal­ism, and yet only approximately 180,000 are members of congregations. People who are philosophically in tune with our values can sometimes feel alienated by our predominant culture. Congrega­tions can and should respond to these realities with vitality and agility, but congregations alone are not enough. We have long used the language of seeing Unitarian Universalism as a “movement.” Let’s become one.

President Morales often says my job as the Unit­arian Universalist Association’s program and strategy officer is to scare him. Actually, my job is to scare all of us, at least a little bit, because if we don’t pay attention to these trends, we could end up like those near-empty or abandoned churches that are increasingly becoming part of our landscape.

What I’d rather do is turn that fear into excitement, albeit nervous excitement, and look on the positive side. Technology and culture are evolving in ways that present fantastic opportunities for us. We can seize these opportunities, but, as we have done many times before, we will have to change how we do church. Churches have always had to adapt to the changes in the culture around them, from higher to lower ritual, from hierarchy to congregational polity, from the traditional to the new ways of immigrant communities and of each rising generation.

People who are disenchanted with church today say they want more acceptance of difference. They want religion to make peace with science. They don’t want morality equated with sex, and they want churches to deal swiftly and openly with leaders who abuse their power. They still want spiritual experiences. They want to serve others, stand up for social justice, and live lives that matter in the world. They want joyous, loving community with other people. But they’re fed up with institutions.

That sounds like the reasons a lot of us are Unitarian Universalists, doesn’t it? The values we’ve always promoted match very closely with those of millennials and with those of unchurched liberals of all ages. You’d think at least some of them should be flocking to us.

Yet despite our anti-institutional self-image, we still act like an institution in many ways. The primary invitation we extend to people who are drawn to our message and our work is to join a congregation and support a church building and staff, with all the financial and time commitments that requires. People whose lives are more transitory and whose lifestyles don’t match our congregations’ traditional structures will not accept that invitation.

The questions for us are:

  • How can we more clearly communicate our values to the many, many people looking for this very approach to their spiritual lives?
  • How can congregations serve not just their own members but also the surrounding community?
  • How can we help people organize spiritual communities with or without a building?
  • To answer these questions, we’ll need to let go of some old assumptions and then embrace the inevitable changes in our wider culture.

Indian educator Sugata Mitra has been conducting “Hole in the Wall” experiments since 1999. He places computers in open kiosks in slum areas throughout India. In a matter of hours, computer illiterate children, with no instruction and no knowledge of English, working together have figured out how to use them to browse the Internet. Mitra calls the children’s efforts “self-organized learning experiences.” The experiment—which inspired the book that became the film Slumdog Millionaire—has been repeated with similar results in Cambodia and other countries.

We used to assume that people needed to be taught to make sense of the world. They needed to be given information, expertise, and teachers who could tell them how to do it. The Hole in the Wall has proved that a lot of that instruction is just not necessary. When you have access to all the information you need via a computer or smart phone, it’s not necessary to memorize. It’s not necessary to even read. The Internet changes the way our brains work.

So what we as religious and educational leaders need to do is provide the right questions, not the right answers. We need to encourage curiosity and create a framework for people to interpret the massive amount of information out there, not just learn facts. Doesn’t this sound a lot like Unitarian Univ­ersalism? Hasn’t that been our theme—that people don’t need to learn doctrine or memorize a catechism or historical facts to discover what is true and meaningful?

Yet much of our worship and our religious education is still centered on one person talking. That still can be a great and inspiring experience. But it’s not enough anymore. We have to create more opportunities for both adults and children to raise their own questions, follow their own curiosity, feed their own desire for learning. Then we can make meaning together.

I believe we are on the edge of a new phase in history—a phase that requires not just new technical skills but also an entire culture shift. When printed books were introduced, a religious transformation followed—because people could read the Bible and understand it for themselves. When radio and television appeared, we developed a consumer mentality, where we shopped around for what we wanted—channels, products, even churches—but we didn’t have much say in creating them. Now, with the Internet and social media, not only can we find what we want, anywhere in the world, we also can shape what we want or even create it ourselves.

People can find ways to meet their religious needs right now. Those millennials who were required to participate in community service as part of their schooling have had profound experiences serving others, and many find direct service a good alternative to church.

A congregation was a center for people who lived a few miles from one another when mobility and communication were limited by geography; the only way for people to connect in any deep way was face to face. Now people can have deep and meaningful interactions online. Social change movements can grow up overnight. Money can be raised, petition drives started, demonstrations organized instantaneously. People can learn about spirituality or social-justice issues without coming to church or to endless meetings. A congregation’s role now is less about teaching people about the issues and more about helping them find ways to create meaningful change amid a bewildering array of choices.

Meeting face to face is still an important way that social transformation can happen. But it can also happen in a second on the Web.

More than a decade ago, a quiz called Belief-o-Matic shot through the viral pathways of the Internet. For many who took the quiz, Unitarian Univ­ersalism popped up as their closest religious match—and a lot of them checked us out. We have UU ministers today who first heard of Unitarian Universalism through it. As many of our converts say: “I was always UU. I just didn’t know what it was.” Amazingly, Belief-o-Matic, which can be found on the spirituality website, continues to be one of our denomination’s best evangelical tools—even though Unitarian Universalists had nothing to do with creating it. Unfortunately, some of the people who found us were disappointed: There was either no congregation near them or not one they fit with or wanted to join.

Changing that—creating new ways for people who find us to connect, serve, and deepen their spirituality with others, with or without a congregation—while making smarter use of interactive technology is my work. These changes must become a major shift in the UUA’s mission and also in our congregations.

I understand the fear of change. I confess I wasn’t always on board with the idea of online worship. When the Church of the Larger Fellowship, which used to promote itself as a “church by mail,” launched online worship services a few years ago, it took about three months before I forced myself to watch. When I did, I was moved to tears. On the side of the screen, a chat stream scrolled: “We’re lighting the chalice in Minneapolis . . . in Texas . . . in Switzerland . . . in Ghana . . . in Haiti. . . .” I felt an immediate connection to this global community of people who come together at the same moment because they love Unitarian Universalism. Now I love those services.

The UUA took another big leap—without realizing how big it would become—in launching the Standing on the Side of Love (SSL) initiative. This online campaign grew up in response to the 2008 shooting at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, which the shooter targeted because it welcomes LGBTQ people. The campaign’s interfaith message is clear and simple: Love has the power to stop oppression. Under the SSL banner, hundreds of local events have been organized nationwide for gender identity rights, immigration justice, and religious freedom. Bright yellow T-shirts that proclaim “Standing on the Side of Love” pop out at vigils, demonstrations, and festivals. People who join the campaign understand they are part of something larger and feel proud to stand up in their communities.

New models of affiliation are also springing up spontaneously across the country. In Denver and Los Angeles, adults of all ages come to “ Create Meaning” groups, whose offerings include courses on spiritual topics, book discussions, Faith in Action trainings, and social justice events. In Washington, D.C., a movement called The Sanctuaries encourages creativity as a form of spiritual practice, from making art or music to sharing stories and helping neighbors. In Boston young seminarians and laypeople lead highly participatory evening worship services called Sanctuary Boston, with community singing, drama, poetry, and art.

We need dozens if not hundreds of these entry points. The UUA’s new website, which is being developed now, will use online technologies like Meetup and Drupal so people can form their own groups, without a building or congregation. People will be able to create a profile saying what they’re interested in—say, inspirational writing or economic justice. They will be able to find or learn how to start a group in their own communities, upload materials, and invite others for services, discussions, or activism—all from the same platform. The UUA can provide startup kits and then alert users with news about their particular interests, a level of targeted interactivity that the UUA has never offered before.

None of this means that congregations will become obsolete. Congregations will still be profound places for community and religious development. But in order to be relevant, our congregations must also find ways to embrace cultural and technological changes. If you like the church you have now—I’m not going to lie to you—you might not be able to keep it, at least not exactly the way it is.

The church that speaks to and serves the next generation will not be the same. But that has always been true. The question for us is, “How can we use our love of our church to try new ways, even if that means giving up some things we’re very attached to?” We all must start looking more outward than inward. And those changes may feel much scarier than taking church online.

For many members, our congregations are a religious refuge. Perhaps we came to Unitarian Univ­er­salism escaping a problematic family, a divisive church, or a place where we didn’t feel safe being who we were. Once we find sanctuary, our natural instinct is to pull the door closed. Changing what we have found so comforting can feel very scary indeed.

I have experienced this, too. Ten years ago, when I was a district executive, I was asking congregations—especially larger ones—to strive for excellence in worship and discontinue rituals like Joys and Concerns because it was too insular. Then, on a recent visit to one of our larger congregations, I was shocked to realize that the people participating most in that ritual were young adults new to the church. For a moment, I thought, “Oh no, everything I was teaching was wrong.” But I shouldn’t have been surprised. This generation posts or tweets about everything going on in their lives and wants a community comfortable with that kind of sharing.

In order to thrive, congregations will need to move away from instinctively asking, “How do we serve the people who have already signed the membership book? What do they want?” toward asking, “How can we send our members out into the world to serve the community? How can we welcome more people into our movement, whether or not they become members or even come to church?” Congregations must shift from serving a consumer mentality to promoting much more interactivity with the larger world.

We already have some great models out there:

The UUA recently began asking congregations to track not only their signed members, but also to estimate how many people they serve in a year’s time. First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts, likes to say, “The church has left the building.” The 381-member church counts 1,000 people it serves “beyond its congregation,” many of whom have never been inside its historic sanctuary. Ministers and members conduct regular small groups for assisted-living residents and veterans’ hospital patients; a social-justice project helps Iraqi political refugees settle in their new homeland; and First Parish runs a free bus service on Sunday mornings to all the churches in town.

All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma—at 1,849 members, the largest local congregation in the UUA—reports a number of over 35,000! They estimate 3,500 people come through their doors for services and various events. Their prominent social witness work around racial justice and LGBTQ rights brings the work of the church into the streets of the community. They live-stream two worship services each Sunday that each embody a very different style of worship and over 6,500 people watch regularly. Over 11,000 subscribe to the church’s podcasts and almost 14,000 have tuned in to its YouTube channel.

Congregations that find their own ways of turning outward will find rewards they never imagined. Many of you will discover new ways to do church—ways that you love as much as the old, as I did with the Church of the Larger Fellowship. You yourself may never want to sit in church with a smartphone in your hand, but the person next to you who is using social media to share insights from the sermon may be changing hearts and minds far beyond your congregation’s walls. You may already know the power of showing up at social justice and community events with other people from your congregation, wearing your Standing on the Side of Love shirts, and having people recognize you as a voice for change. The vibrancy that comes with all those outside connections will resonate through your church community and beyond. And rather than trying to create something young people may like, we can create the openness in our congregations that will invite younger people to create something they will like. We may just find that our children and grandchildren will want to connect with this movement after all.

I started by talking about fear—fear of declining numbers and abandoned churches, fear of the next generation rejecting church, fear of learning new technology and social media, fear of changing the congregations we love. But fear is not the reason to change. Wanting more people in the world to call themselves Unitarian Universalists, although I would love that, is not the reason. The reason to change is so our values—that love is stronger than hate, that each of us has worth, that we will find truth and meaning if we search—can be a real force in a world that desperately needs those values right now. That’s why I’m doing this work.

This article appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of UU World (page 22-27). UU World contributing editor Kimberly French helped shape this essay.