Shocking Truths for Declining UU Congregations

The following is a guest post from the Rev. Dr. Matt Tittle, minister of Central Unitarian Church in Paramus, NJ. Matt is the author of “Taking Back Faith: Heretical Thoughts for a New Century” (iUniverse, 2006); “Harvest the Power: Developing Lay Leadership” (UUA Tapestry of Faith, 2009); and “Bless All Who Serve: Sources of Hope, Courage, and Faith for Military Personnel and Their Families” (Skinner House, 2010).  More content from Matt including his blog and podcasts may be found at

Kicking Habits: Welcome Relief for Addicted Churches” by Thomas Bandy
Book Review by Rev. Dr. Matt Tittle we approach our 50th Anniversary, the Unitarian Universalist Association is embarking on several new growth initiatives.  Maybe we’ve finally noticed that we are the same size as we were fifty years ago, which is very small relative to other mainline faith communities, including those who have been shrinking drastically for decades. Several research studies over the past few years have confirmed that the religious landscape of the U.S. is changing to being more welcoming, more pluralistic, more accepting of others. You’d think UU congregations would be bursting at the seams! But mostly we aren’t.

From my perspective, the primary reason Unitarian Universalism hasn’t thrived is that our focus is too insular and focused on the individual. If we want to make a difference in the world we have to focus on the world. But we are too often addicted to our own habits and ways of being.

I imagine most UUs haven’t heard of evangelical church consultant, Thomas Bandy, but anyone in a leadership position in a UU congregation should read his book, “Kicking Habits: Welcome Relief for Addicted Churches.” Bandy’s bottom line is a shift from church members being enrolled, informed, nominated, supervised, and kept with a goal of serving the church system; to being changed, gifted, called, equipped, and sent to make a difference in the world. This is a shift from serving out of obligation to serving out of passion; from focusing on running the church to focusing on a viable mission in the world; from being addicted to being healthy congregations.

Bandy notes that thriving congregations are doing four primary things:

  • Increasing the participation of the public in church life.
  • Deepening the spirituality of adults, both in the church and the community.
  • Multiplying opportunities for discipleship (serving and following a mission).
  • Maximizing the impact of the gospel (good news) on the world.

Unitarian Universalism has so much good news to share, but we tend to hide our light under a bushel basket, just as we hide our church buildings in the woods. Even Thoreau eventually left his cabin in the woods! Bandy challenges congregations with 30 “shocking truths” about addicted congregations. He also offers 30 corresponding “positive discoveries” that can help congregations kick the habit!

Some of his shocking truths include:

  1. The youth are not the future of your church!
  2. It doesn’t matter what people “know” following the worship service!
  3. Church membership is unimportant!
  4. More volunteers to fill all the vacancies won’t rescue the church!
  5. Debt freedom always leads to church decline!
  6. Mission units (aka “committees”) don’t need to report to the church Board!
  7. Church insiders are least able to discern future mission!

Heresy indeed in most congregations! He offers the following corresponding positive discoveries:

  1. Transformed adults (18-40) are the future of the church.
  2. What matters most is how people feel following the worship service.
  3. Participation in any aspect of congregational life and mission is everything.
  4. Core disciples, who in turn make more disciples, expand God’s realm.
  5. Sound debt management is the key to thriving church development.
  6. Mission units must connect weekly with a worship experience.
  7. People on the fringe of church life are key to discerning the future.

I can attest both to the fact that UU congregations have a difficult time with these ideas, and that when we implement them, we do indeed thrive. Bandy hits the nail on the head when he says that declining churches are all about belonging to an institution (which our own UUA has called “the meaning of membership”) and that a thriving church system is all about changing lives and reinventing itself.

I know which church I want to be a part of!

Proceeds from Amazon affiliate links in this post support my book fund. See what else I’m reading.
~ Peter

12 thoughts on “Shocking Truths for Declining UU Congregations

  1. “The youth are not the future of your church!… Transformed adults (18-40) are the future of the church.”

    This may be true, but are we really resigning ourselves to this? In my opinion, this is only true because we are terribly at retaining, ministering to, and providing ongoing support for youth and young adults. We can say that the future of the church is transforming adults, but this is deeply troubling to me. We should not be giving up on UU children/youth raised in the faith – many of us love the hell out of UUism but are deeply disappointed by its unwillingness to minister to us!

    1. I don’t think the claim is that churches (UU or otherwise) shouldn’t minister to youth. It’s that building a youth ministry will not automatically build a vibrant church. Remember, youth become adults. Youth (despite what I thought when I was that age) is a temporary condition. Having a community of youngish (18-40) adults means having people who are energetic and open to new things. Not having read the book, I can imagine that having a strong cohort in that age group provides a solid core around which to build other programs (e.g. a strong youth program).

    2. Heather, “The youth are not the future of your church!” is an absolutely true statement — for a given local congregation. Many (generally the majority of) youth move away from the local area once they become adults, so it is clear that they are not the future of a given local congregation.

      You are making a larger argument — that the youth are the future of the denomination. Which is what Chris is getting at when he says, “18-40 is exactly the contingent that is most likely to have grown up UU.”

      I’ll be curious to read the book. My sense is that the parents of youth are an importnat part of the future of the (local) church.

    3. The youth are both our future and our today–but they are only our future to the extent that they become transformed adults. Youth and young adults must go through their own process to claim this faith as their own and then live into it. As a UU raised young adult I had to go through my own process to claim myself as UU and to find my own passion (not my parents’ passion). We can do a MUCH better job of building bridges and not cliffs and supporting young adults through this, but each generation must arrive at their own commitments…My question is whether the programs/processes that create transformed adults of come-outers are the same that can transform born-inners. My gut says that the come-outers settle for less than what we can really do and the born-inners are demanding more from us–and that more will serve the come-outers as well.

    4. Just for clarification’s sake here, for obvious reasons, Rev. Matt gave the short form of selected items from the list of positive discoveries offered by Bandy. The complete version adds another sentence: “Adults who are changed, gifted, called, and equipped will take care of the kids – and everything else!” There was never any suggestion that kids are expendable, just that the way to take care of them is by paying attention to the transformation of 18-to-40-year-olds.

      Is Bandy right? I don’t know.

    5. I find this article on traits that lead to church growth very helpful. UUBC (beloved community) of Savannah GA is working to grow, and we are constantly stressing our mission, “working for justice, celebrating diversity.”

  2. I’ve heard numerous times something like “The youth [or children] are not the future of the church — they are the church of today.” I take this to mean that children and youth should be valued and included for what they contribute to the life and ministry of the congregation right now, not as if they are seeds to be tended and we have to wait for the harvest.

  3. When I read a statement like “Transformed adults (18-40) are the future of the church”, I cannot help but to think of the 8 or 9 Members of my church aged 50-65, all in leaders who are actively working against the work I’m doing. [The 50-65 crowd are all in leadership positions in the church.] They are proud of their efforts to keep things the way they are, and they enjoy shutting down some of the positive discoveries listed above.

    [Comment correction inserted by Peter]

  4. RE: Mission units must connect weekly with a worship experience.

    Are mission units aka committees/teams? Is this saying that our leaders must/should attend church weekly? I’m not sure what the message here is. I do know that many of our congregation’s leaders attend very infrequently, and it is a problem. They don’t seem very “interested,” I guess. And people can’t find them to connect with their team.

  5. What Bandy says in more depth in the book is that obsessing about youth or focusing too hard on youth programming as a solution to ending decline will in fact accelerate decline. It amounts to scapegoating youth programs by making them the panacea.. This is not unique to UU congregations. He also says that the 18-40 somethings are the key to creating good youth programming as well os other vibrant programming. Find a vibrant group of committed young adults involved St all levels and you will find a thriving congregation. If they are disaffected, you’ve found a declining congregation. I can attest to this phenomena in my own experience.

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