Friday, February 05, 2010

Growth and Decline

Peter Whitman, in a letter to The Inquirer, has worked out some numbers for Unitarian membership in the UK. I'm not quite sure how he's done it, perhaps it's not difficult if you want to delve through Annual Reports, but I'm glad he has. Once again, I want to know why such numbers are not publically available and discussed at the Annual Meetings.

Here's the numbers:

2005: 3952
2006: 3754
2007: 3711
2008: 3642

These are membership numbers for every Unitarian church in Britain. The numbers are dropping by about 100 people a year. If we follow the graph down we will be extinct in 35 years. Seeing as I am due to retire in 38 years this is certainly somewhat worrying. And of course these kind of statistics rarely behave quite so linearly, so it's much more likely that we'd be looking at extinction in something closer to 20 years.

I'm convinced this would be a fascinating study for a religious studies academic: what does a dying denomination look like? How does it behave? Part of me approaches these figures with such morbid fascination.

Right now it's amazing to me how much denial there is. It's amazing that it takes a lone individual to simply give us these figures. I think there needs to be a frank acknowledgement that if things carry on as they are we will be dead in 20 years.

This leads to a very simple conclusion: whatever the next twenty years will hold, it will certainly hold change. The only question that remains is: what kind of change will it be?

Will the change be one of death and decline or life and growth? Or will it be the death of something and the birth of something different? Or the birth of all kinds of different things?

If there is anything of beauty, truth and goodness in Unitarianism worth preserving then it is the primary responsibility of its leaders to be agents of change.


Blogger Robin Edgar said...

:Once again, I want to know why such numbers are not publically available and discussed at the Annual Meetings.

Because they are embarrassing?

:what does a dying denomination look like? How does it behave?

Corpse-cold Unitarians?

Literally. . .

How many of those lost members were lost as a result of death due to an aging demographic of Unitarianism in the U.K. to say nothing of elsewhere in the U*U World?

:It's amazing that it takes a lone individual to simply give us these figures.

I've been doing my bit on this side of the pond. Just Google - Unitarian Universalist membership statistics

:If there is anything of beauty, truth and goodness in Unitarianism worth preserving then it is the primary responsibility of its leaders to be agents of change.


1:18 pm  
Anonymous Tim said...

What depressing figures. If there's any consolation, the dip by 200 between 2005 and 2006 hasn't been as great since.

I think if we are to be realistic, the Unitarian movement will experience more net decline and the closure of a number of local churches of the next decade. There are many in the movement who will say they want growth, and they will even applaud your eloquent and challenging sermons, Stephen, yet ultimately they will make excuses for their lack of action in bringing about change and growth among their peer group.

I do believe a rebirth is just beginning to take place, but I think we still need to find our feet as a Unitarian movement. Yet further navel gazing mustn't stop us from putting creative ideas into practice and inviting others to experience our unique movement.

6:25 pm  
Blogger Rev. Andy said...

I'm not convinced that denial is the right word.

As an alien in this land, I observe that we place as our highest value 'don't upset anyone.' Change invariably upsets someone - usually a lot of people at once!

The change we need is too dramatic for existing leadership to really get a grip on.

And also, the movement is heterogeneous and so is the response. There are congregations...

1 - that know they're dying and know they can't do anything about it because they're too old, too small, and/or too poor. So, they settle down to die calmly and quietly (as I would do if given an absolutely certain terminal diagnosis!)

2 - there are congregations that are viable and don't really care about growing. They recognize that bringing in new people would be uncomfortable and - lacking any sense that welcoming new people into a healing community is a moral imperative - they aim for maintenance.

3 - there are congregations that are growing nicely. They keep doing what they're doing. The other two types of congregations don't want to know about it! It would only make them feel uncomfortable... and we don't do uncomfortable.

PS: I've just created my new blog, Throw Yourself Like Seed

10:46 am  
Anonymous NUFer said...

The figures are lower than I expected but they don't surprise me ; neither does the secrecy about them- after all it's not going to encourage the 'faithful remnant' greatly to know they are possibly the last of the line.
Even more revealing would be the age profile of those counted and the age profile of the ministry - the average in both cases I reckon must be over 55. Also how many new Unitarian congregations have been planted in new(no previous existing congregation) areas since 1975 ? Why is there no Unitarian presence in any of the 'new towns' like Harlow or Milton Keynes ? Why does the sole Unitarian congregation in one of our largest cities with two universities nearby only attract an average congregation of 21 each week ? A small movement like ours needs a 'big' leader, in my opinion, not a part-time EC and administrative General Secretary, if it is to make an impact. Sadly I think that the movement enjoys speaking to itself far more than it does to the wider community and I don't see any signs on the horizon at the moment that that will change.

10:58 am  
Blogger Robin Edgar said...

"Yet further navel gazing mustn't stop us from putting creative ideas into practice and inviting others to experience our unique movement."

Speaking of which I dare say that Stephen should seriously consider reestablishing his "The Church Of the Lager Fellowship" outreach in pubs. I am up for a pint or two the next time I'm in England if he does. :-)

4:43 pm  
Blogger Modern Girl said...

The numbers are actually going up in Canada, at about 4% per year. Perhaps it's just due to migration?

10:16 pm  
Blogger Unitalian said...

I'm with the re-birth wave. My old church in London has grown from 6 to 60 in five years. There's great demand out there, it's just about how you meet it. Unitarianism has a tremendous opportunity to do so.... yet i visited one church in the North (no names) where there were three old ladies and a very dull sermon that was almost high church (sung Lord's Prayer). When I spoke afterwards about my own church, one of the old ladies whispered, oh wouldn't it be good to have that here...

There needs to be a recognition by the powers that be that decline is not "inevitable".

I strongly believe that a genuine answer could be missionaries - develop a programme of young american missionaries to be hosted by the British churches and plant the seeds of rebirth.

There's a real dynamic movement in America and I am sure they would be up for it.

And yes, I know it would mean change, it would mean difference; horrors it might mean more universalism and an American accent -but is death preferable? To sell off those lovely churches and deprive future generations of a spiritual home because the "old guard" is more comfortable with decline...? People HAVE NOT got less religious - religion has simply not adjusted to their spiritual needs!

Phew. Glad I've got that off my chest!

9:09 am  
Blogger Yewtree said...

I would like to see UK Unitarians getting involved in the Standing on the side of love campaign, organised by the Unitarian Universalist Association. It's a campaign to highlight issues of inequality (immigration, LGBT etc) and has resources for congregations (worship packs etc). It also has posters and social networking all set up. Apart from being a very important issue, it would also be an excellent way to promote growth and establish "clear blue water" between us and other denominations. I joined the Unitarians because we are inclusive of LGBT people (at least in principle -- not always the case in practice, I gather), not because of the format of the services (though I do love singing hymns as well, as it happens).

Many people have complained about the hymn sandwich format in the letters page of the Inquirer. I don't think it's the hymn sandwich that is the problem. I have delivered some pretty hard-hitting stuff through the medium of the hymn sandwich -- it is the quality of the content that counts, not the structure. My rule of thumb is that if you're going to say something that some people might consider weird, then use the hymn sandwich, and if you're going to tinker with the structure, then say something that most people can cope with. Also, we already have the brilliant, fantastic, excellent engagement group model - why not roll that out to more congregations? It works really really well. I know this because I have arrived at a similar model for running groups after years of trial and error, and if only I had had the engagement group model handed to me on a plate, things would have been so much easier! I am all for experimentation in services, by the way, but I honestly don't think it is the main issue here.

To me the problem of growth, or lack of it, is that we don't stand up on a regular basis and make pronouncements about our principles in the public arena. That's why a press officer would be a good idea. I know it is difficult to get access to the microphone, but still...

For instance, Newington Green and Islington's stance on the issue of same-sex weddings has drawn lots more people to their congregation and attracted press attention. It's also the right thing to do. They are also holding a Marriage Equality Day.

Our position on issues like religious freedom, LGBT issues, same-sex weddings, tolerance and reason is what sets us apart from other Protestant traditions (not to mention that we don't believe in vicarious atonement or the Trinity or revelation) -- let's publicise that.

4:46 pm  
Blogger Rev. Andy said...

Hi all,

I've just posted my response to this discussion on my new blog, Throw Yourself Like Seed. In essence, I say we need to stop focusing on ourselves and self-interest. We need to recognize our greater mission and get behind it.


12:25 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, I have read the letter where these figures were posted.

I understand they are the GA quota figures. Each congregation pays a fixed amount per member/regular attender. Therefore, this is the number returned across the congregations for the year.

I believe it is a very good and realistic figure to show the current state of the membership/attendance and how it is changing over time.

The upshot is these figures also reflect on the income of the GA.

i.e. this number * the current quota in force for that year = £income

The congregations may be under-reporting a little because of the current economic situation.

I know we have returned an absolutely regular attender figure i.e. the minimum. In other years we may have rounded up a bit.

2:12 pm  
Anonymous a said...

We aren't dying. But then my congregation is in Andy's group 3. Some decline in numbers is probably demographic related - there is a general decline in church going and it's age related. That's going to continue for about another 10-15 years I should think.

I've noticed lot of new people who are in their 40s and 50s. That's a good thing, they've easily got 30+ years to give.

The basic idea has got to be that if there is a need or desire for us, then we will continue to exist. If there is no need or desire, then we shouldn't be in existence at all.

11:13 pm  
Blogger Guy B said...

I'm in the happy position of chairing the Newington Green congregation at the moment, and being part of a growth success story. Clearly decline is not inevitable, because it's not universal. And in the latest Kensington Unitarians newsletter which I received yesterday they also record increasing numbers at their services every year since 2004, with average Sunday attendance increasing from 21 to 37 in 2009. Small numbers still, but a clear trend of growth.

I think change is in one sense easy because it is simply up to each congregation. But if the congregation doesn't have the energy, will, or sheer existential desperation to change, then mortality being what it is, over time members will die, and congregations will die out.

At a national level the Unitarian movement does seem unable effectivly to address this overall decline. While I'm happy to give my support and encouragement to those involved in promoting change nationally, my energies are devoted to my own congregation. Like Unitalian, I have visited other Unitarian congregations when in other parts of the UK, and I am always happy to talk about what we do at Newington Green. Similarly, I hope that others will visit us when they are in London, and share their own experiences with us.

9:49 am  

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