Congregational Decline

There are a number of characteristics of a Unitarian congregation, and one of them is small numbers and another is a very top heavy age range. I write as someone who has seen a small congregation grow again, attracting in people who themselves are also well into retirement age. Clearly this is an important ministry and not everything in our rather shallow media culture should be the preserve of the young, where even the middle aged never mind the elderly seem to be marginalised. In congregations the older members are satisfied with what is offered and even invite their friends who may find everything congenial.

Nevertheless there is a price to pay in terms of the styles and varieties of what is on offer: the contradiction that an apparently liberal and progressive Church provides quite conservative forms of worship week after week, where some of the more experimental, expressive and even intellectual approaches to worship take place only occasionally, if at all.

The age range issue is important. In the 1980's I was involved in sociological research which showed that people did not in any significant number return to church when older. Rather, the decline has been like a moving conveyor belt. The young adults stopped going, their children did not go to Sunday School, and none of these returned. The older people attending were those who had a lifetime of churchgoing. So in the above example it is like the 65 year olds invited their 65 year old friends, and when 75 they invite 75 year old friends. There is of course a range there, and some change, but eventually this process diminishes to nothing viable. Already recruitment of new people into Unitarian churches, even with a faith story within them, seems random and haphazard.

I want to draw an extreme contrast, with a liberal movement elsewhere. There is the post-evangelical alternative worship movement, disowned by card carrying evangelicals. I have called it liberal charismatic. The dance culture multimedia experience may attract younger people but this is not about religious simulation as a trap to get people to sign on the dotted line. Instead it uses the idea of incarnational theology (that everything material expresses the holy), and the Kingdom (building towards Peace and Happiness). Worshippers are seen as discovering as individuals whilst participating and meeting others. Rituals are re-thought: this movement uses multimedia, dance, discussion, space; communion might be more like having a meal, and there is experimentation with the still usable old as well as adding the new. Not only are these worshippers on the move, but so is the God or image of God generated consistent with postmodernity, and what it all means is open to their discussions. Image joins words and the fast moving is accompanied by the chill out.

This is happening in and around mainstream Christianity, and already has a history. It is not happening in Unitarianism. What might be the equivalent?

Like in the mainstream, some of this shift at least may have to take place in addition to existing congregational arrangements, to come inside when they are at a point of collapse. It would need more a sense of development and generating gatherings in regional settings, perhaps using weekends away, or at events. To some extent the more creative and daring in worship and words happens like this already, but there is much to learn. Different from the mainstream, the pluralist form can use more of the different faith symbols and a wider variety of religious-artistic and multimedia resources, and link with the different open-type exploratory faith groups. There are now many diverse networks of religious liberals and radicals who do cross boundaries: Christians, Buddhists, Pagans and Humanists as well as the drifting searchers. There are those who are socially excluded (eg for sexual orientation). Unitarians can help make some contacts and bring folks together. It can use its resources of people and buildings and venues to develop new freer forms of creative liberal worship amongst these diverse people.

If Unitarianism for this age is going to use a viable ministry and system, perhaps it needs to be more regional, gathering, educating and organising: more flexible and moving and less congregationalist and fixed. Otherwise the point will come where it will exhaust itself in its own static forms, where some assets will collapse and others become redundant, and this while creative changes are happening elsewhere. Does Unitarianism need to collapse as it is before it can respond, or can it adapt and change?


Adrian Worsfold

Submitted to The Inquirer late 2003 but not published