Making Unitarian Universalism STICKY

Not too long ago Amy and I went to a cafe intent on coming up with a new strategy for helping Unitarian Universalists talk about our faith.  We were inspired to do so by  Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point.  Reading it we realized that Unitarian Universalism hasn’t met the three criteria Gladwell identifies for a product, service or idea to spread from a small group of passionate supporters, for it to “tip” and go viral.

Did you hear that UU growth fans?   There is a reason why our message isn’t spreading.

Gladwell states that for something to reach a point where it “tips” the following three criteria must be met:

  1. The right context
  2. A passionate group of supporters
  3. An ideas that is what Gladwell calls “sticky”.


Look at the world today. In my opinion, the context for sharing Unitarian Universalism couldn’t get any better. The world is ready for our our message. Criteria number one? Check!

Next is a passionate group of supporters. Gladwell calls this the Law of the Few. Tipping doesn’t require millions of people. A small number will do just fine. We have thousands and thousands of people ready, willing and even trying to share our faith. Criteria number two? Check!

The world is ready. We have passionate people trying to share our faith. Why on Earth are we so slow to grow? What’s missing? This is where the third criteria comes in, stickiness.

This my friends is the problem. As the average UU explains it,  Unitarian Universalism is not sticky at all.  From a scale ranging from Sweet Delicious Honey to a Cinder Block, its the cinder block.

And that’s our block…


What does stickiness mean? Simple. For an idea to spread you have to be able remember it long enough to accurately share it with someone else. Sticky ideas are easy to remember and share person after person after person. According to Gladwell if you can’t remember what someone tells you you will never change your behavior or buy their product or go to see the movie they recommended.  And certainly not visit their church.

Criteria number three? Yikes!!!

Explaining our faith is often like a brutal version of the game telephone. You know the game. You put a bunch of people in a circle and whisper something in the ear of the first person. They whisper it – as best they can remember – to the next. And on and on it goes.

If there is any complexity to the phrase or story shared, by the time it goes through the chain of people something very different comes out the other end.  In real situations, if it is complex it doesn’t get passed at all.  And that’s where we’ve been.

If you set up a game of telephone with non-UUs and tested out the various elevator speeches developed by our members,  how far do you think the average one would travel?  Two people? Three?  Maybe five at best?

How many people with no knowledge of our faith could YOUR explanation survive before degrading?   But imagine… Imagine what would happen if we could overcome this lack of stickiness.  Think what would happen in we suddenly met all three of Gladwell’s criteria?

What if the average UU could say with confidence that Unitarian Universalism is a really long name, but its really easy to explain.   Everything else we’ve talked about growth wise, yes. All that needs to happen.  But in terms of our message spreading,  we need to all get to the “its really easy to explain” zone.

A faith that is easy to explain and share – can you imagine the impact that would have?  Imagine if EVERYONE  UNDERSTOOD what Unitarian Universalism is?  Huge.

Back to the cafe…

Amy and I talked about the average NON-STICK explanation of Unitarian Universalism. We came to the conclusion that far too often people try and pack too much into their explanations.  They also try and explain why we have such a long name.  I’ve heard people try and explain the Christian origins of the names Unitarian and Universalism, follow up with a disclaimer that we’re not really very Christian, well some, and then try and go on to explain what our congregations are like now.

We need to lead with the now.  What is Unitarian Universalism about today?  That’s what people need to hear.  That’s the “oh my gosh Unitarian Universalism is exactly what I’m looking for!” idea…

About ten cups of coffee into our session Amy and I decided we need to confront the UU-NON-STICK problem not by changing the name, but re-framing or re-branding what  Unitarian Universalism for the 21st century.

It is time for us to share with the world, not our history, not a disclaimer that we’re not this or that, but hope. And this hope is no longer about the unity of God or the universal nature of salvation.

Today our message, the Unitarian Universalist message, is about people with diverse beliefs coming together and living lives of meaning and purpose based on shared values AND (big and) taking action to address the issues of our time, again guided by our values.

The UUA’s recent capital campaign had the slogan, “Now is the Time.” We think now IS the time for our faith. But all the marketing campaigns in the world won’t help us grow if the we can’t get our name, our message and the idea of Unitarian Universalism to stick.

Stickiness is the difference between starting to grow a wee-tiny-bit again and growing in a whole new way, a new magnitude of growth. That’s what I’m looking for.

Fortunately we don’t need a lot of money to change how we talk, just intention. Together Amy and I offer you our simple way to explain  Unitarian Universalism.  It might not be perfect, but it is designed to stick.  If it does and people come to visit they can grab a history brochure.


To explain Unitarian Universalism all you need to do is remember the name of our faith. The rest is in there.  The message is the name, the name is the message.

Unitarian Universalism

What’s at the root of Unitarian?  Unite. What does that mean in a 21st century UU context? In what ways do our congregations Unite?
We bring diverse people together.

The root in Universalism?  Universal. What does that mean in a 21st century UU context? What is universal about our congregations or faith? I think it is our values.  We bring diverse people together around shared Universal values.

We bring diverse people together around shared Universal values.

Now you spring this on somebody and they are going to have questions. That’s cool… Answer the questions.

What people?
What values?
And why?

You put our core in the message we are trying to spread – the starting point of the telephone game.  Then answer the questions. Then elaborate. Short, sweet, sticky.

By infusing our explanations of our faith and the name Unitarian Universalism with meaning, we can make it easier for our members, friends, and their friends to tell others about our faith. Amy and I think that this explanation is sticky.  When I’ve guest preached on this topic and shared it I’ve had people repeat it again and again in coffee hour.  Last month I preached at a congregation with two services and during the fellowship in between people were explaining it to those attending the second service.

So how are we doing?  Do we meet Malcolm Gladwell’s criteria?

  1. The perfect context – check.
  2. A group of passionate supporters – check.
  3. A faith that is easy to explain and share – check?

Amy and I  invite you to try this.  Teach it.  Preach it.  Share it however you like.   If you do, come back to the UU Growth Blog and share your experience.

Together we can try it out and see if it sticks…

Listen to MP3 of a recent sermon sharing this approach to talking about our faith.
“Unitarian Universalism Unleashed – Our Tipping Point” MP3
Recorded November, 15, 2009  Westminster Unitarian Church, East Greenwich, RI.
25 Minutes with Opening Words

9 thoughts on “Making Unitarian Universalism STICKY

  1. Peter and Amy, what you’ve articulated is a great approach to the elevator speech: easy to express, makes sense, ties to our name. And it plants seeds for further discussion.

    When asked about Unitarian Universalism, I have found myself going down the path you describe: the history, footnotes, fine print, blah, blah, blah.

    Your suggestion is clear and concise and appealing. Thanks!

  2. Thank you for your insights so clearly and concisely written about such an important issue facing UUs today.

    I have witnessed passionate support for the growth of Unitarian Universalism in the world AND passionate support by some to maintain the current size, structure and composition of their congregation, or perhaps more accurately, how their needs are currently being met by being members of the congregation.

    This “AND” brings stuckness.

    If the former passion is for our universal values and the latter passion is for our universal human needs, and we can find a way to truly live both our values AND meet each others’ needs, we would unite at least two vital, universal dimensions of being, and I believe, unleash an incredible passion to grow our religious denomination AND our congregations in size, number and diversity.

    This “AND” brings more stickiness.

    However, I perceive another stickiness we need in the “uni” word you did not mention: UNITY. By this I mean not only the unity of diverse people and beliefs, but also the unity of all of the dimensions of being.

    Discovering myself to be an integral, free thinking UU mystic with a heart and hands, I perceive a real felt difference in the possibilities for “a faith which brings diverse people together around shared universal values” and “a faith which transcends, includes and unifies people around the higest universal truths, principles and values and the deepest needs of all beings.”

    A core statement answering “What is Unitarian Universalism?” such as this may not be true in very many quarters in the UU world, but it is my deepest hope that we will evolve as faith in this direction. I suspect we may be one of the very few faiths, if not the only one, which truly could evolve beyond the modern and post-modern views to become integral, and even more complex.

    A last thought and question about complexity and simplicity.

    For the purpose of communicating in our current world, smplicity, if not also brevity, is perhaps essential. (For those who have read this far, feel free to lol!) If we simplify our UU message and do bring more people to our doors, I believe the question still remains: How do we help them to “stick,” within the context of a very real complexity we are stretched to live in our embrace of diversity?

    Thank you for the platform to share some thoughts, for your work on behalf of us all, and for sharing it with us!

  3. Peter,
    I heard you speak at EG and since then have been hoping you would share your remarks. Thanks. My concern with your concise statement is how does it identify us as a religious organization, a church. Or do you feel we turn some people off by considering ourselves a religious gathering.

    1. Hi Carolyn,

      I am very proud of our being a religion. I have found that many people over look us because they assume we are just one more religious organization and collection of churches like all the rest. I don’t highlight our being religious in this brief intro statement because in the contexts where I at least use it, that is already understood. That or it is the next question. In this short statement are the idea that I personally think we need to be sharing. The points people miss or don’t get. If this is shared I think we can have all of the other very important conversations, do the education, and so on.

  4. Amen, amen and amen to that!

    How coincidental that I come across your blog. I was in a bookstore today and stumbled over that book, “the tipping point”.

    It’s the stickiness we need definitely.

    I am one of those who tends to attempt to explain down to the minutia about our religion. Perhaps something like little video would be more effective.

  5. Some of us may be long-winded — I’m inclined to be terse…

    When I simplify the seven principles and combine them, I get:
    * Freedom, Democracy, and Respect.
    * Note the handy acronym: FDR

    Then I notice what’s missing:
    * Abundant Love, from the Universalist tradition.

    Giving these four principles works as an elevator speech, even if you’re going up only one floor in a very fast elevator.
    * Details can follow, time and interest permitting.

  6. Thanks for this blog, there’s some really good stuff here.

    I do like the idea of doing Chinese whispers with our elevator speeches as a way to test their effectiveness, I might try that one time.

    But in general I’m not convinced that a lack of pithy explanations is what is keeping us back. I think that faith is about calling people to a comprehensive way of life, and if our lives truly witness to the values we espouse then we would be attractive to many. If we are involved in the messiness of the world, and display a spiritual maturity and joyfulness, then our lives will preach more loudly than our lips.

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