Thoughts about the UUA decline numbers

So the UUA’s a bit smaller this year than last. The question I have — perhaps unanswerable — is how many of those are (put plainly) old, middle aged and young. Are these numbers a sign of social and economic stress, or are we approaching a demographic cliff?

The answer would suggest next steps. But the good news is also the bad news. Despite the talk of cradle Unitarian Universalists, we’re dependent on converts. (The cradle UUs could use some PR help, being second only to the Quakers in making participation from infancy a smug, if unearned, status.) This is good because there’s the opportunity to grow, should we tap adequately into the culture. But the bad news is that we would probably make the most sense to those coming from a churched setting, and those numbers are falling.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. The statistics around a continuing 10 year decline in RE enrollment is worisome. It could point to a decline in the number of adults of child-rearing age. And this would indicate an approaching demographic cliff (the height of which we would need to figure out). If our little growth is from older converts, expect shorter time-span demographic churn.

  2. Maybe if congregations worked harder to engage their college-aged young adults, the numbers wouldn’t decline. It’s hard to be a member of a congregation when you feel like you aren’t welcome.

    What if Unitarian Universalism stopped focusing on converts and focused on keeping those who grew up UU in UU congregations? What would that look like?

  3. Scott – the troubling thing here is trying to market a religion when the “religion sector” of the economy is shrinking. I blogged about the “none” religious demographic growth trend and what it might mean for Unitarian Universalist growth trends back in 2010:

    A growth strategy based on recruiting from persons who were “churched” in another tradition won’t work well if the pool of “churched” potential converts shrinks.

    I wonder if we’ve hit a demographic tipping point in the New England region as well.

  4. @ Bart

    What would it look like to you if congregations better engaged young adults (and I mean young, 18-25)? I have a history of working in campus ministry, and found some pretty big barriers at the end of the young adults themselves. Some were the simple realities of being young, moving around alot, and having difficult demands on your time (these problems seem to plague all religious traditions/communities). But other barriers internal to our own UU raised young adults were more distressing: young adults raised UU who had significant disdain for their elders, no interest in anything that did not look like a YRU Con, and a sense of being superior by birthright to those UU’s who came in from the outside (other religion or none at all).

    I for one, can not say that I have a growth/outreach/service strategy that can address both the congregational barriers, and the issues I’ve seen manifest among some young adults raised UU.

  5. I wish I could find a way to evaluate the RE enrollment decline as a feature of the end of the baby boomers’ childrearing and the peak of the much smaller Generation X’s childrearing years. We saw the decline coming in the late 1990s at the large congregation I served as youth director: The largest age cohort was moving through the RE program, and was (if I recall correctly) in the sixth grade around 2000, but the population of every grade following it was smaller.

    The generational issue now is that the much larger contingent of children of baby boomers, who are now young adults, are the demographic that shows the least inclination to affiliate with religious institutions. As they have children, their numbers at least might repopulate RE programs—but only if they thought a religious education was worth giving their kids.

  6. I will admit that there’s a gap in my church between the youth who became young adults and the young adults from elsewhere. Elsewhere might be a UU church in another state or another faith, but we certainly have an issue seeing eye-to-eye and I’m not certain if it is the age gap (there is often about 5-7 years) or if it is something else.

  7. I’ve encountered tons of support from my congregation at every step along the way. I was the only kid my age–they set up an RE class just for me. We needed a young adult group, so I started one and the young adults moving into town from out of state found us and started attending. I had a baby, and I discovered that we had a “parents of young children” group. So I will say that the church does a great job of being welcoming and supportive.

    What I do see, despite tremendous efforts from some of the leadership, is a culture that hasn’t caught on to how transformational a worship experience can be, and how spiritual practice can lead to profound change and a sense of calling that will shape a deeper life experience. I think that if we could push that part of U.U.ism with more focus, it would appeal to every age group and make the denomination as a whole stronger.

  8. My congregation has been very supportive, although our baby seems to be the only one in the nursery on Sundays. I have to admit that I have been a UU my whole life, but had no idea because I didn’t know much about it (my husband says the same). We didn’t join until we were in our late 20s.

    In college, I was looking for spiritual guidance and only found a “Campus Crusade for Christ” group. They were nice…but I didn’t believe in the literal interpretations of the Bible, like they did. Had there been a UU group, I’m sure I would have joined and felt right at home. I wonder how many other young adults are in a similar place; they are looking for something, but don’t know we’re out there.

    I think there is a growing number of non-religious younger people because they don’t 100% buy into what’s “being sold” to them and they are more liberal. If they find out what it means to be a UU, we might have a chance of converting many more.

  9. I agree with Derek. However, I am a young adult raised UU. Ignoring birthright UU’s entirely seems to be common. It doesn’t particularly matter to me, but it is perplexing to hear the question “what age were you when you found Unitarian Universalism?” as if everyone should have an answer.

    I completely agree that many of the UU young adults have wound up like Derek is saying though. “Congregations don’t minister to me” is something I hear a lot, as if congregations are supposed to change their whole service around to cater to a young adult who may or may not even feel like getting out of bed when Sunday rolls around.

    There are many young adults raised UU though who participate in congregational life and are there regularly.

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