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Why Liberal Churches Are Growing

General Assembly 2007 Event 3036

'Habits of Highly Effective Congregations' could well have been the title of this workshop. The Reverend Dr. Terasa Cooley presented an important and fascinating study of the characteristics of growing congregations based in part on national surveys of congregations by Faith Communities Today (FACT), as well as her own and other's research. Some of the attributes are obvious but others are surprising with important ramifications on how Unitarian Universalists minister to their communities. The results also challenge our stereotypes about conservative mega-churches.

Rev. Cooley is currently the District Executive of the Massachusetts Bay District. She received her Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School , and her Doctor of Ministry from Hartford Seminary.

There is a basic assumption that growth is an indication that a congregation or church is effectively ministering to their community. Congregations do not grow because they need more pledging units. Growth occurs on a spiritual basis, not a practical one. "Congregations grow because they believe in the mission of their congregation and of Unitarian Universalism. Personal growth leads to congregational growth," said Rev. Cooley.

The Unitarian Universalist (UU) membership statistics are a rude awakening. While 630,000 people self-identified as UUs in 2001 as compared with 502,000 in 1990, the number of members belonging to UU societies declined from 282,000 to 218,000 from 1968 to 2001. This represents an aggregate decline of 7 percent. Less than 2 percent of UU congregations account for 24 percent of the growth in the denomination. "This means that about 20 congregations are doing significant growth for us," commented Rev. Cooley, "But 30 percent have shrunk by 10 percent or more in the last decade."

Congregations that establish a good balance between "I," "we," and a "larger vision" are the ones that grow. "I" honors the individual, "we" deals with how we stay connected in the face of challenges and conflicts, and the "larger vision" addresses the ministries that the congregation is dedicated to, issues that are larger than the congregation itself. Rev Cooley asked "How does each of the groups within the congregation serve the larger mission? Who are you in your community?" She continued "I have worked with congregations that spent enormous amounts of time and energy polling their congregation but they never once looked at the surrounding communities….What does that say? It says, 'it's all about us'."

How do UUs compare to other denominations? Over the same time period, Presbyterians have declined 50.1%, Methodists declined 52%, UCC declined of 60% while Evangelicals have grown by 50% or more. The most conservative churches are growing and the most liberal churches are growing. "Churches that try to please everyone are losing membership," said Rev. Cooley.

Some of the findings are unexpected, with ramifications on how UUs minister to their communities. Based on the results, "one of the indicators of a dying congregation is that people identify themselves as a 'close family'. People don't need a substitute family," said Rev. Cooley. "A close family tends to exclude newcomers."

The more allied with a denomination, the less likely they are to grow. "They loosely affiliate," said Rev. Cooley. "People don't care about denomination. They care about getting good preaching and good programs." Churches and congregations that are growing typically do not have the denomination as part of their name. "What I think we need to take out of this is, what are we communicating to the public when we say 'Unitarian Universalist Congregation of …'?" Rev. Cooley asked. She answered her own question, saying "What that says is 'we are this UU church that only serves this group'. For example, 'Pathways' or 'Church of the Living Spirit' are great names. Anything that says to people what we are about that does not require insider information. Anything that does not require an assumption about what Unitarian Universalism is."

Personal growth equals congregational growth. "We're not talking about growth in numbers. We are talking about growth in spirit, growth in our souls" she said. "It's not important that we grew 12.2 percent, but it is important that everyone who comes to our congregation finds a source a spiritual sustenance. And when we do that, we will grow."

We need to provide lessons for daily living. We have many preconceptions about conservative mega-churches. The research says that people come to evangelical churches because of relevance to daily living. "Most of them don't need Jesus to be a part of that. I'm not saying that Jesus is not important to them, or that Jesus couldn't be important to UUs. But if you listen to the sermons on these mega-church channels, they are about lessons for daily living. And they use the Bible to help support them. And if we spoke to that same need, with or without scripture, we would be able to gain some of those people who are going to those churches."

We also need to risk being intrusive. "I have yet to meet a UU congregation that is too intrusive. It just doesn't happen. So I hear people say, 'I don't want to be rushed by greeters', people can just come in and sit and listen and wait, and it takes them six months or six years to decide that they want to become, say, a Friend. We don't want to invite them too much because that would be too 'intrusive'," said Rev. Cooley. "But I'm not talking about assaulting people when the come in the door. What people want is to be listened to. Asking questions is what leads to connections, not having an elevator speech. Not 'why' questions. Not 'Why are you here today?' but 'What are you looking for in a religious community,' is an inviting question."

Meeting people where they are and creating opportunities for personal growth are other essential ideas that came out of the FACT study. The more programs you have for personal growth, such as twelve step groups, support groups, adult spiritual learning, etc., the more a congregation is going to grow. "I'm not talking about UU history. I am talking about truly engaging opportunities for personal growth" Rev Cooley emphasized. "Offer classes off campus at community centers for 'Ethics for daily living' or 'Parenting in multicultural families'."

Congregations often fear growth, but they can gain a great deal, including volunteers who are more motivated for working, members who are more motivated for giving, less burden for the leaders, and more influence in their community. The FACT study is a wealth of information on the characteristics of effective ministries and should be required reading for all congregational leaders.

Reported by Dean Goddette; edited by Pat Emery.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Wednesday, June 22, 2011.

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