Unitarian Universalists have a small-church religion

I was excited to see an article about a “dinner church” in Brooklyn passed around last week. St. Lydia’s is a new model (good) and makes careful use of a “micro-space” (another blog post, that) in a high-rent area (also good) but then founding pastor Emily M. D. Scott said something that made me stop short.

Not just small church, but micro-church, in reference to her church, a “gathering of 30 or so folks.” To be fair, the undefined term micro-church attracted me to the article since in the current resource-poor Unitarian Universalist mission climate, I’m looking for models that can be bootstraped. (One of the reasons I’ve looked over the fence at unprogramed Quakers and various Eastern Orthodox groups.)

Gott im Himmel. If an attendance of thirty makes a micro-church, what does that make Unitarian Universalists? A fellowship with a large proportion of small congregations, that’s what.

Using most recent data, 199 United States congregations have an average attendance of 30 or fewer. That’s 246 at 35 or fewer, and 294 at 40 or fewer. And that doesn’t even count the 27 congregations that report no attendance, but have fewer than 50 members. So I think it’s fair to say that at least a quarter of all United States Unitarian Universalist congregations are “micro” by the scale above. And while we talk about large congregations — and these are much larger than “micro” — there is only one (First Unitarian, Portland, Oregon) that reports a Sunday attendance of more than 1,000. Our large isn’t others’ large.

And since new congregations these days (no grand pulpiteers handy) start small, I think we need to own that experience and use it to encourage new congregations, no matter their setting or how big they eventually end up. A part of the mission long-game is to build church-planting talent.

And While you’re at it, consider donating to the UUA’s newest member congregation, Original Blessing, about the same size and also in Brooklyn. Their $30k crowdfunding appeal just ended with more than $15k in donations with the last $15k donated on the last day, but there’s always their website…

By Scott Wells

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


  1. Having done ministry with both micro and large congregations, I so resonate and support supporting our small ones. So I am amening micros for their potential for deep personal work and pastoral caring.. And from
    my experience authentic public witness. Makes me want to hang in and start anew here.

  2. This is an interesting phenomenon. I am sure good ministry and wonderful worship can and does happen in such micro-churches. A question continues to be–is there a future for paid, professional ministers (M.Div, loans, wanting to pay bills) in a micro or small congregation model, or are we already on the way, at a smart pace, to: tent-making ministries, well off partners who pay the bills, lay-led groups and/or hobby ministers? Why would anyone else invest the time and money in a seminary education?

  3. It’s probably worth noting that one of the few times the UUA tried to create a “mega-church” out of thin air (OK, out of a million dollars)
    it didn’t work out that way.
    Once UUA financial support was withdrawn it shrank until the past couple of years where it’s maintained a slowly growing membership and attendance both of about 40-45.

  4. Steve,

    Tent making congregational ministers are part of our tradition (on the Unitarian side the teacher, on the Universalist side more vairety of workers and enterprenuers who supported themselves and built up small churches. The notion of the professional minister (as contrasted with the calling, the vocation, etc.) is actually new, an innovation. The social basis for the “professional minister” was the automobile suburb. And Universalism and Unitarian congregationalism go back to a time of farms and towns.

  5. So I think the term “hobby minister” is a way of diminishing a vital way of being a minister. And returning to some vision of the ministry of all believers is important for the Church in the decades ahead.

  6. I think there’s a difference. I stopped attending a (non-UU, if it matters) church precisely because the semi-retired pastor treated his charge as a hobby, when the church needed someone far more engaged. But (I suspect) the church leadership saw his efforts as a bargain.

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