Why the Fellowship Movement will never come back

Following on yesterday’s post, we can talk about the Fellowship Movement with either praise or scorn, but either way, it will not come back. We have to understand what it was, good and bad, before deciding what we want. (Or what some of us want: I’m not suggesting Unitarian Universalists need to act as a united front with one missions policy.)

So, we can have something today that draws upon the lessons of the Fellowship Movement, but it’ll come with its own rewards and challenges. We do not live in the demographic world of the 1940s to 1960s. Anything we learn from those days needs to be translated for today.

Let’s count out the obvious differences. Can you think of others?

  1. We do not have a culture that defaults to church membership.
  2. Indeed suspicion of religion is at all time high, and despite our rhetoric of how different we are, we are still a religious institution to anyone criticizes religion.
  3. We don’t have a mass exodus to newly developed suburbs.
  4. There are a few areas where there is no liberal religious congregation. (But many are underserved.)
  5. We do not have a shortage of ministers.
  6. Women, who more likely worked at home in the Fellowship Movement era, and so may have been available for the volunteer roles necessary to run fellowships, are now more likely to work out of the home.
  7. Opportunities for social service in secular settings are more robust now they were in the Fellowship Movement era.
  8. The Internet makes it easier to connect with communities of religious liberals without actually having to be physically present.

By Scott Wells

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


  1. Absolutely true on all counts with regards to why the fellowship movement will not come again. But I wonder if we have been too dismissive of religious community without benefit of clergy. I wonder if there is not a niche for less structured, non-staffed groups, with no real estate; who physically gather to do a 2 or 3 things that the participants deeply value doing as a group (choose from: service, study, spiritual practices, worship of various kinds, etc.). A bit of an echo of house churches, Quaker worship groups, or Jewish havurah.

    I think there are still strong needs/desires for specific elements of religious community; without the burden of staffing, upkeep of property, and complex committee structures. Not exactly a rejection of organized religion, but a desire for only minimally organized religion with resources focused on a small number of things deemed to be of very high importance to the group.

  2. I have to agree. The last point you make about the internet and how it enables us to access benefits of religious organizations without being physically present. I think we need to take this one seriously. You clearly are on-board with that from what I read. It seems we have to have ways to help people forge a more meaningful sense of affiliation- help them compose a UU identity within a “virtual” context. In conceiving of such access points and paths to affiliation we must go beyond Church of the Larger Fellowship. CLF is great and has stepped up to the digital plate in many ways but it is born out of the fellowship movement and in some ways existed to support the vitality of those communities and their individual members.

  3. Good points, but not necessarily conclusive. Early retirees are currently filling roles formerly held by work-at-home women (abetted by underpaid servants or abundant labor-saving devices): when their money runs out, that will be a new problem. I’m not sure suburbs have anything to do with it, in terms of their geography, probably, again, more that they had the discretionary income, and — as you rightly point out — the cultural inclination to spend it on religion.

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