We know that religion is changing in America, but in those changes there’s a hidden trend. Did you know that what attracts people to a congregation or religious community and what keeps them there are different things? What attracts people is the opportunity for meaning-making, and what retains them as members is the community and friendships they build. People don’t come because they are in search of friends or a community, per se, they come looking for spiritual deepening for themselves and their family and only then may they find a community which enriches the meaning-based experience and makes them want to come back.
This is clearly demonstrated through research. In his book “American Grace,” sociologist Robert Putnam digs through mountains of data to identify some key trends in American religious practice. Here’s a quote from his book: “Americans may select their congregations primarily because of theology and worship, but the social investment made within that congregation appears to be what keeps them there.” (pg 174).
You can see this dynamic at play within Unitarian Universalism, most recently in the multicultural ministries Sharing Project. This survey of UUs from marginalized groups (gender identity, race, ability, etc.) asked why respondents first decided to attend their congregation and then why they continued to attend. The top response for the decision to attend was “I wanted to deepen my spiritual life,” and the top response for staying was “I love the community of people”(page 15, or the 23rd page of the PDF).
Ok, you say, fascinating point, but what am I supposed to do about it? Simple: when you talk about what your congregation offers, think “join our cause” instead of “join our club.” Show what your congregation does, how it helps people live better lives and make a better world, instead of only talking about what a great community you offer. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a congregation say “all are welcome” (including UU, UCC, Catholic, even conservative evangelical!), well, I’d have a lot of dollars but no idea what I would be welcome to spend them on. It’s great that you’re not turning people away, but what are you actually offering them? Seriously, “all are welcome” at the movie theater, but I’m still not going to the movies unless I know what’s playing.
The key to successful outreach amid the changing religious landscape, particularly with the unaffiliated or Spiritual But Not Religious sets, will likely be to speak to why people would want to show up in the first place, not just what can keep them there year after year. Describe what we offer for learning, yearning and working for our values. We can’t assume people are already looking for a church on Sunday mornings, because in fact we’re competing for their time and attention against sleeping in, talking a walk, soccer practice, Facebook and brunch. We have to focus on what we DO as UUs, not just who we are.
To help you think “cause” over “club,” check out the values of the UU brand identity – boldness, compassion, reverence – that are geared towards the most active and authentic spiritual elements of our faith. They’re a departure from the pastoral, supportive, caring community connection values that we’ve often described in the past, but they’re well-positioned to help you get to the heart of our faith movement’s drive to advance our values in the world.
Carey McDonald is the UUA Director of Outreach, total data geek and trend-spotter, as seen in his presentation Future of Faith.