I received a email this morning from Terasa Cooley, Director for Congregational Life for the UUA, forwarding an email from Harlan Limpert, UUA VP for Ministries & Congregational Support, reporting on growth in the denomination. As you’ll see, “growth” isn’t exactly the correct word since our Association of Congregations has actually declined in four important areas: number of congregations, adult membership, religious education registration, and average Sunday attendance. Here are the “highlights” from the report.

UUA growth highlights from the past year:

  • The number of congregations has declined from 1,048 to 1,046 in the past year. Since 2002 the number of congregations has increased from 1,041 to 1,046.
  • Adult membership has declined 1,400 from 164,196 to 162,796 in the past year, or 0.9%. This is the second consecutive year of decline.
  • Religious education registration has declined 1,175 from 55,846 to 54,671, or 2.1%. This is the fourth consecutive year of decline.
  • Average Sunday attendance has declined 1,539 from 102,232 to 100,693, or 0.2%. This is the first year of decline.

National growth highlights from the past year:

  • Conservative churches like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists tend to be increasing in membership (4.37% and 4.31% respectively) while liberal churches like the United Church of Christ tend to be decreasing in membership (-2.83%).
  • The direction of membership growth or decline remains stable, meaning churches that have been growing in recent years continue to grow and those that are declining continue to decline.

Note: The chart does not include megachurches, which do not report membership changes to the National Council of Churches.

And for those of you who are more visually inclined, here’s a chart from National Council of Churches Yearbook:

Denomination Growth from 2011 National Council of Churches Yearbook

Denomination Growth from 2011 National Council of Churches Yearbook

So, what does this all mean? Simple: I believe we’ve joined our mainline Protestant cousins in an inevitable and perpetual state of decline. And the bottom line is that continuing to “do” church the way we always have is a guaranteed way to hasten that decline. Only those UU congregations that are willing to rethink everything they do (worship, social justice, religious education, etc.) will have a chance of surviving. Those who rethink everything and actually make some significant changes in the way things are done may have a chance of thriving. You can find more of my musings on this topic here and here.

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