Total adult membership in UUA member congregations as reported by those congregations this year is 156k. In a total US resident population of 310 million, that's not very much. No wonder we're turning into such size queens.
Buried in Skinner's article is a quote from the Rev. Harlan Limpert, the UUA’s VP for Ministries and Congregational Support:
When you look at the congregations that are growing, it’s neither urban nor suburban, big or small, it’s all size congregations. What we know is there is a real desire and need for what we offer, but we have to offer it in a way that’s accessible to people.Liberal Religion Gets Loud, naturally enough as a blog written by a Contemporary Music and Worship Director, interprets that as referring in significant part to worship style - and, more specifically, music style in worship. But I'm not so sure.
We frequently are regaled with lamentations concerning our dismal ability to retain the children who grow up in our RE programs. Would newly minted UU adults stick around when they are otherwise insufficiently impressed to do so were we to install a rock band to perform in Sunday worship? I think we are a long ways from finding out. But we do know that there are frequently much more significant disconnects between our young people's sense of UU identity and experience in RE and what they encounter in "adult" worship than just differences in style. If we blame the music, we've probably got tunnel vision.
And we hear all the stories about visitors who come through our doors and feel like they are in a funeral parlor. Well, maybe not quite that bad. But the widespread assumption seems to be that all these many people need from us in order to be impelled to latch onto us like anchor worms on a host fish is a change in music styles. Our message is just what these people are looking for, but the medium of our worship needs to be tuned to their channel. Sorry. I'm not - well, I don't think I am - buying it (as if I need to toss any more metaphors into that salad bowl).
Now I have not the slightest opposition to worship styles evolving, incorporating ways of interacting aesthetically that come into the body of a congregation as the mix of members changes over time. And I have absolutely nothing against having multiple worship services, each in a different style that better fulfills the aesthetic needs of a portion of the membership. But think about it. Changing worship styles in the hope of attracting someone who isn't here yet? How is that not crass commercialism? Still, let me step back from that unbecoming accusation because it doesn't accomplish anything other than making me grind my teeth. Instead, let's consider for a moment what brings people to us who are really looking for something we offer as opposed to those who stick their nose in the door out of curiosity or because they were dragged there by a friend.
I think perhaps we need to rid ourselves of the notion that people come to us through the primary proselyting device of our worship. Because of a combination of the non-credal nature of our faith and the liturgical flexibility of many of our congregations, a hypothetical visitor could attend for a long time without figuring out what we are about simply from our worship. And maybe some visitors don't care in the least about learning what we are really about. No one learns everything there is to know, and what people do learn they learn gradually. But why do people care enough to go through this gradual exposure and learning process?
Maybe I'm wrong, but I like to think that worship is not primarily or essentially a tool for evangelism but for forming and celebrating the community that already is. It is by coming to know us in the world that people discover we have something that would add value to their own experience of life. Sure we need to brush up on our elevator speeches, but those speeches have to do with what UUism is in our lives, not in the abstract. The life is the draw. Not the information. And people who encounter us in our acts of social service and advocacy will first experience us as people who are motivated by our faith to help make the world a better place together with those most in need of our joining our strengths with theirs. People might easily not see very much of what we have in that area by visiting our services. They will see it day by day in the world.
We can make our message "accessible to people," in Limpert's words, only by living it. In public. Day by day. Anything else is mere marketing of, well, something other than our message.
We win people to what we win them with.