In yesterday’s post, I suggested that there is no “mother lode of churchgoers somewhere out there just waiting to call themselves Unitarian Universalists,” which begs the following question (at least for me): Just how is this movement going to sustain itself, let alone grow? There are a lot of folk who believe that there are more than enough potential UUs coming through our congregations’ doors every Sunday to keep our movement alive. But as Daniel Aleshire has noted [PDF], contemporary “culture has moved congregations further from the center of public life than they have ever been.” If that, indeed, is the case, then we should expect that fewer and fewer people will be actively seeking out congregations to be part of. So even if we have an abundance of visitors today, we can’t count on them being there tomorrow.

Besides, turning visitors into members isn’t exactly our strong suit. If it were, we probably could have managed more than the meager 1% growth rate we’ve been so proud of (a growth rate that has actually disappeared in the last couple of years). As I mentioned yesterday, there are plenty of resources out there to help congregations attract and retain members, if they’re so inclined. But the challenge for me, as a UUA staff member working for the Prairie Star District and the MidAmerica region, is to see if there are things a denomination and its middle judicatories can do to encourage growth. Obviously, I’m not the only person thinking about this. For example, our Presbyterian cousins (who are, I believe, suffering the sharpest decline of all mainline Protestant denominations), have compiled a list of what growing churches do. Here are the broad categories they group congregational strategies into:

  • Strong churches welcome new people
  • Strong churches encourage participation
  • Strong churches offer meaningful worship experiences
  • Strong churches help people grow spiritually
  • Strong churches commit to a positive future

They go on to say that

research also says denominations and local judicatories using the following strategies help congregations grow in numbers and ministry effectiveness:

  1. Take action and set policies to help congregations undertake the above steps.
  2. Start new churches.

Now, I’m always looking for research that corroborates information I’ve found elsewhere, and these tidbits from the Presbyterian’s U. S. Congregations survey bear a striking resemblance to something else I quoted yesterday, George Bullard’s “Judicatories Working Hard Vs. Working Smart.” Bullard says that smart judicatories focus on four congregational movements:

  1. Congregational multiplication movements
  2. Faithful, effective, and innovative congregational movements
  3. Congregational transformation movements
  4. Congregational support movements

And the first two of these seem to line up nicely with the two strategies named by U. S. Congregations. Take Bullard’s second focus, for example, “Faithful, effective, and innovative congregational movements”:

Really smart judicatories are seeking to help the top twenty percent of their congregations, who are already pursuing a spiritual strategic journey, to recognize sustainable habits that empower them to continue to soar as congregations.

What better description of  “sustainable habits that empower them to continue to soar as congregations” than those five strategies of growing churches from the U. S. Congregations survey quoted above? Bullard says that middle judicatories should be spending 25% of their time encouraging these practices in those top 20% of congregations.

But even more enlightening (and perhaps damning for Unitarian Universalists), is what’s implied by the first point in Bullard’s list: smart judicatories focus 25% of their time and resources on “congregational multiplication movements.” This is, I believe, the solution to the rather intractable difficulty suggested by the U. S. Congregations’ survey: that denominations and local judicatories “help congregations grow in numbers and ministry effectiveness” by starting new congregations. This is an intractable difficulty because, to be honest, when has the UUA and its middle judicatories ever been particularly successful at starting new congregations?

Not since the “fellowship movement.” A movement that targeted “growing college communities [that] were especially fertile ground for planting the Unitarian religious flag.” I mention this because Bullard suggests a different target group for “congregational multiplication movements”:

The focus of new congregations is on preChristian, unchurched, underchurched, and dechurched persons, rather than transplanted members of churches of their denomination who need to be reclaimed.

And rather, I might add, than the politically and religiously liberal academics the fellowship movement appealed to. And that’s really my point. The only experience we’ve had starting new churches on even a moderate scale has been forming new fellowships after World War II, and not much since then. (The old “extension” program, by the way, was basically about bringing ministerial leadership to some of those lay-led fellowships that were founded in the middle of the 20th century.)

If starting new congregations is one of the two main strategies denominations and middle judicatories need to employ in order to grow, then we’d better get started. And Bullard’s “congregational multiplication movements” may be the best way to go. But if that’s true, then we need to figure out ways to help our congregations expand their base and attract the unchurched, underchurched, and dechurched. Is this even possible?