Two Danvilles, two Monroes and no church

A map by request. Here is where all those metropolitan areas without Unitarian Universalist congregations are. The usual caveats apply, but note how most are east of the population fall-off line around Interstate highway 35; these are not lost in the desert. Funny how there are two cities each named Danville (Illinois and Virginia) and Monroe (Louisiana and Michigan) on the list. Less is funny is that they’re on the list at all.

And even if Unitarian Universalists did exist like a mineral (at 6.6 parts per 10,000), there’s no reason why there wouldn’t be a medium-sized church in metro Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Why isn’t there one, or rather, why isn’t there help for the people of that and other cities?

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By Scott Wells

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


  1. Cape Girardeau MO has a UU congregation. It is “emerging.” I don’t know its membership, but it has been in existence for more than five years.

    And Danville IL, known in IL as being predominantly working-class (with all that stereotypically implies), is just a 40 minute drive from Champaign IL, where there is a UU congregation, whose premises are in amongst the buildings of the University of Illinois.

  2. On your list of cities is Anderson, Indiana – Muncie’s twin sister on the west side of Interstate 69 (each city sits entirely on opposite sides of the highway). Muncie has a medium sized, historically Universalist UU church. Anderson had an almost identical Universalist church that disappeared right after World War 1. Alot of Universalist churches vanished around that time. It makes me wonder about flu pandemic disruptions. Also, the Anderson church did not have a family of wealthy patrons. The Muncie church had most of the Ball family, of Ball canning jar fame.

    Fast forward to recent years. Anderson is a tough nut to crack, and is the international headquarters of the Church of God Anderson. The economy there nearly collapsed years ago, with the massive withdrawal of General Motors from local factories which now sit mostly vacant.

    But there is also little competition from other liberal churches. One Quaker meeting that is not very functional, and an eccentric Unity church. The local UCC church went right-wing and withdrew. The local Episcopal church is very divided, and lost some members to an evangelical schismatic group.

    But the job of extension ministry in Anderson has mostly been dumped on the District. I once sat on the district Extension Committee, which spent alot of time thinking about Anderson. But here is what happened…

    (1) The committee spent most of its time trying to articulate a perfect policy for how, when, where, and why to plant new churches. It was hard to move the conversation towards action, when there was such a fixation on perfecting the concept and policy before any action could be taken.

    (2) The committee had almost no funding to accomplish anything. Which left us with a shoestring budget that was not very empowering.

    (3) Linked to #2, most of the committee had bought into the doctrine that the only valid new church starts needed to be larger new church starts (which are expensive to get moving). Fellowship style new church starts were largely dismissed as a waste of time. But fellowship style new starts were all we really could afford to get started.

    Why are we not looking at starting congregations in many of these metropolitan areas? Because there is often something problematic about some of these cities; and because the ministry of church extension has been completely dumped on the Districts, which lack the funding and the vision to do anything beyond dreaming about church planting.

  3. Thanks Paul. I’ll have to see why the Cape Girardeau congregation didn’t show; the list includes emerging congregations. But boy do I pity the liberal religionists of Danville then — 40 minutes is not an inconsiderable haul, but its setting must make it seem a world away.

  4. I can add something to what Derek said about Anderson, Indiana. Anderson is only ten minutes drive from the Oaklandon UU church. (an Indianapolis suburb) In fact, in terms of ease of access, both the Muncie and Oaklandon churches are more accessible to Anderson than parts of Indianapolis are to the half dozen Indianapolis UU churches. I’d wager a lot of the points on your map are in the same situation.

  5. Scott,

    The 6.6 UU members per 10,000 population probably assumes a uniform distribution of UU members throughout the country.

    I just looked at the Shreveport metropolitan area population numbers on Wikipedia from the 2000 census (562,910). Based on 6.6 UU per 10,000 people, we should expect a 371 member UU congregation in Shreveport (or two or more smaller congregations that total up to that number).

    The actual number for the Shreveport congregation from the UUA web site is 136 members — We’re 63% smaller than the 6.6 per 10,000 numbers would suggest. Average Sunday attendance is around 70 members (not counting the RE enrollment).

    Assuming that a hypothetical Monroe LA congregation is facing the same problems that the Shreveport congregation is facing, they would have about 71 members based on the 2000 census numbers and the 63% smaller factor. Average Sunday attendance I’m guessing would be about half of the membership figure — 35 perhaps??

    Given these demographics, one could expect to sustain a small lay-led fellowship. But planting lay-led fellowships is something that has gone out of fashion in the UUA.

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