Do UU customs undercut new church growth? That’s a big question, so I hope my readers will excuse me thinking out loud. (I reserve the right to retract any statement later.) First, I’m not talking about a resistance to evangelism, real or imagined, but systems that discourage new churches from growing to their full potential. This line of thought comes from
some comments after the Opening Ceremony at the UUA General Assembly. At that service/meeting, the churches that joined the UUA in the past year are formally welcomed. This year’s crop was slight, with few members each. A quick review of their certified memberships showed each new congregation had a membership in the 30s or 40s. Going back a few more years — I looked as far as 1999 — you do find a smattering of memberships over a hundred, and a few more between sixty and ninety-nine, but far too many are in the 30s and 40s, with some even smaller and a couple which seem
to have disbanded. Why is this?
I have to think that the minimum number of members for a congregation to be a member of the UUA has to play a
factor. It currently stands at thirty, so I’m thinking that a congregation hits thirty members and joins the UUA as soon as possible. The problem is that thirty is a periously small size for a church to launch with. I’m basing that opinion on a Southern Baptist study cited by Aubrey Malphurs in his Planting Growing Churches for the 21st Century (Baker Books) suggesting that new churches that have more than fifty members at the time of their launch have a better chance of surviving and thriving than those that have fifty members. So, perhaps, the thirty-member Unitarian Universalist new start is too small at birth.
But can’t a far-thinking UU new start “delay its birth”? Two factors discourage this. First, and I would want to review past Annual Program Fund (APF) Honor Society lists before taking this too far, a new start has to pay a full “fair share” to the APF to be admitted, but once admitted there is no mechanism to mandate this level of giving. (Though it should be noted that the proportion of APF Honor Societies is going up.)
There would seem to be an incentive to join the UUA as small as possible. Second, and perhaps more damaging to the future of the Association is the creeping rhetoric that a church doesn’t really exist until it joins the UUA. When you hear what should be called “Association Sunday” or “Affiliation Sunday” called “Charter Sunday” you can’t help but assume that membership in the UUA is ontologically essential for these young (and vulnerable) congregations. Belonging (to the UUA) becomes the church’s mission.
A dose of congregational polity memory might be helpful here.
Prematurely stunted churches help nobody, and I hope we’re big enough to recognize habits that make them.