I am going off schedule to respond to this post by UUA president, Peter Morales, in which he talks about the number of Americans, especially young adults, who do not identify with a particular religious group. These people are spoken of by religious groups as “Nones”, for the common reply on surveys about which religion they identify with.
I am a Young Adult, according to the UUA categorization. I shall be for a another year and some months. I admit that I, as a parent in a stable relationship, am not typical of what the UUA is targeting with their category, but they define it only by age.
I am also an agnostic. Were I not a UU, and had I know idea (or the wrong idea, still) what UU was, I would likely be one of the Nones. I used the term “pagan” for quite some time, and it still fits as well as it ever has, but it is not really a very good label, as it is generally too broad and doesn’t link one with any actual tradition or organization. On any survey that asked for an affiliation, I would likely put “none”.
But, I was looking. I wanted a community that would support my search for truth. I wanted to be part of other people’s search, as well. Early in my 20s, I sought that in a Unitarian Univeralist congregation. It was the only one within 30 minutes of where I lived at the time, and it was not a very good fit. They were too humanist, and it felt to me like there was little searching going on, with the majority of the membership being on the other side of middle-aged.
I sought the congregation out again when I had children, to see if things had changed. They had, indeed, and I was very pleased to see it. It still wasn’t perfect for me, but it was still not quite right for me, though this time through no real fault.
The key thing to take away from this story is: I was looking. I kept looking. I was seeking something that Unitarian Universalism ultimately provides.
Not all people are. We can’t focus our efforts on trying to lure people to our cause by modifying the cause to suit them. We can’t worry about how to bring people into a religious community when those people aren’t looking for a community. We shouldn’t change who we are in order to gain market share.
I am a member of a small religion. It is a religion that has a lot to offer the world, but it is a young religion that hasn’t quite got its message in order. I am alright with all of these things, because it has created a community where I am loved for who I am, but I am not merely accepted; I am challenged to be better and to do more. Not forced. Not pressured. Challenged by people who became my friends, learned who I was and what I was capable of, and challenge me to be my best, while supporting me (as little as necessary) spiritually, emotionally, and on more than one occasion, financially. They encourage me on a free, but responsible, search. And that is what I was looking for. I love being a part of that.
I am not alone.
But I know plenty of Nones. Young Adults who know who we are. They’ve seen the Belief.Net quiz. They’ve read up on the web. Many have even visited, some frequently. They don’t join because we don’t have what they are looking for. Maybe it is just the local congregation. Maybe it is the whole movement. There are lots of reasons, but we aren’t a good fit for everyone. That’s part of being a liberal religion: accepting that people have different needs. We are not in a position to meet them all.
How can we honestly change that? First off, if you want to reach a new demographic, you have to do things differently. If you want to do that without loosing current members, it means starting new programs, embracing new ways of organizing, and maybe even new congregations with that demographic in mind. You want to reach Hispanics? You might consider Spanish language services. If you want to reach Young Adults, follow their lead and rethink your organizational structure to create better networking opportunities.
Still, there are people we cannot reach. We should not try to change to accommodate people who don’t want a religious community. One Facebook commenter said that he wanted swearing in services, and advised us to “Stop being so f-ing square and we’ll show up.”
These aren’t people who will feel at home in our congregations. They aren’t people we would feel comfortable having. We should welcome them to our events. We should invite them to social action. We should include them where they are comfortable. We should not try to change so that they feel more comfortable, because that would require us to further dilute our spiritual message of unity, love, and justice. It would require that we cease to be a religious community. Too many congregations have already gone that route, in my opinion, and we should be trying to work against the trend.
In short, most of the Nones are Nones by choice. I am sure there are a percentage that we can reach, by offering them a different congregational experience. We might have to be satisfied with more, smaller congregations, or with offering new services within current congregations. In reality, though, what is going to allow the UUA to grow is offering a powerful, consistent, and transformative message to those who are seeking religious community, but are dissatisfied with what they have found. We cannot be all things to all people; can we please focus on being something that we already claim? Let’s truly become A Religion for Our Time.