Will Unitarian Universalism exist?

I’m a little late to the game with this, I realize, but it took me a few weeks to process this article, which is, well, not particularly rosy about the future of Unitarian Universalism.

I have a few bones to pick with this. It’s not a terribly sympathetic treatment of UUism, and it seems to base some rather large conclusions on one service at one church on one Sunday (I’m tempted to take the opposite tack and point out that every service at each of our churches needs to be really good, but that’s for another post). But it brings up an interesting point.

So, will Unitarian Universalism exist in 50 (or 100, or 1,000) years?

Given that I’m a candidate for the UU ministry, you might expect my answer to be a resounding “yes.” But I’m not so sure. Our numbers—it had been a very modest trend upward, the last couple years have had modest losses—aren’t especially promising. We’ve never been a large faith, but we’re a smaller and smaller part of American culture every year, it seems.

I see signs for hope here and there. There are churches that are doing very well, some of our witness and outreach efforts are having considerable success. And I wouldn’t be getting into UU ministry if I didn’t believe we have a shot at a promising future.

The bigger picture

There’s a larger question to wrestle with here: what would be lost if UUism ceased to exist? And what does cease to exist mean? Does that mean there is no UUA, no organizational structure, remaining? Or that no religious communities claim the names “Unitarian” or “Universalist” anymore? That might be a big loss, but it isn’t everything.

Denominations come and go. They merge and split. Names change. The Unitarian minister Theodore Parker spoke about this in a sermon regarding the “permanent and transient” in Christianity. The rituals, the forms, the groups change; the message stays the same. In other words, liberal religion isn’t going anywhere. There have always been people who questioned the orthodox line, who believed in a wider faith. That isn’t going to change. Whether the UUA, or UU churches, or any of us are still a part of that in the future is anyone’s guess.

Now someone will take this as an attack on our association. I think the UUA and our churches are important institutions, and since I work for both of them, I should know this as much as anyone. My point here is that doom and gloom predictions about the future of our faith tradition miss the point. The message will live on, even if its form changes.

Our mission is to follow that message, whatever form it wills us to take. We can do no less.

2 Responses to “Will Unitarian Universalism exist?”
  1. Emily says:

    I’ll need to read more about exactly how the wording is implemented, but I’ve always (for the last year) taken issue with UU-ism described as a “denomination.” We definitely have roots in Christianity (as well as Judaism and the wisdom from other faiths and humanist philosophy), but we’re not a sect of Christianity. Belief in or worship of Christ shows up nowhere in our seven principles. I am paying special attention lately in my own UU congregation to why people are members, what’s important to them in a church, why guests come, and why they choose to stay or to never come back. Defining what we are is an ongoing process which is more difficult for UU churches than it has been for other (Christian) churches I’ve belonged to in the past *because* it is such a religiously liberal faith. I’ll go read your source article now and reflect on it more. And then take it to committees and talk about it and intellectualize it some more, as is the UU way ;-).

  2. Christian says:

    So, I usually don’t get into this, but you’ve brought something up. I often use the world “denomination” to refer to UUism. “Faith tradition” might be better, though I think that’s awkward sometimes. And some folks get weirdly jumpy and scream that we’re an association, not some denomination that tells you what to believe and how to act and I don’t even know what else.

    I usually think people need to just calm down and worry a lot less about labels. But as long we’re on this, I’ll try to explain/defend my use of denomination. There’s this definition: “a religious organization whose congregations are united in their adherence to its beliefs and practices,” which would certainly seem to apply. But then, some people say a denomination is a subset of a larger religious faith, which gets to what you’re going toward: that we’re not a subset of Christianity (or any other faith). I might argue against you on that. We are rooted in Christianity, and our worldview, our style of worship, our understanding of our communities (ecclesiology, as they say), is still in that framework, even if we don’t recognize it. We focus on how we are different from “those Christian churches” rather than how very much we are alike. And then there’s the historical argument: UUs (and U’s and U’s before that) thought of themselves as Christian for the vast majority of our history. It’s a very recent phenomena (certainly less than a century, and in most cases rather less than that) for it to be otherwise.

    Also, appealing to the seven principles is troublesome, I think. You know what else (besides Jesus, as you noted) isn’t mentioned in there? “Religion,” “faith,” “love,” “life,” and “worship,” to give a few examples. I think the principles, which were designed for the bylaws, are a poor platform for describing our faith, a sort of lowest-common-denominator/ode to mid-20th century liberal ideals.

    This reply was a little more serious than I intended. 🙂 Thanks for your comment, and I’d love to hear more.

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