They Came From Other Churches

A new survey gives a picture of Unitarian Universalism as a growing movement of (mostly) humanist seekers.

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"We have a chuckle over those figures," said Hurley. The huge gap between actual members and self-identified members was attributed by Hurley partly to the individualistic legacy of New England transcendentalism. "They may consider themselves UUs but do not see that it is necessary to belong," Hurley said. Former UUA president John Buehrens, who completed eight years in office this year, pointed to some trends that contribute to the drifting away of members as well as to the replenishment of congregations. "We have a very high rate of mobility--some 15 percent of UUs change their address each year," Buehrens said in an e-mail interview. "Our young people also tend to `marry out,"' he said. "They often are more adaptable about the religious nurture of children than their more religiously conservative spouses." (Indeed, the 1997 UUA survey and Casebolt's poll also found that current members rarely cited "religious education for children" as a reason they joined a UU congregation.)

Nevertheless, a concerted effort to appeal to high school youths and young adults has apparently paid off "During the past decade the number of high school youth in our congregations increased fivefold, and the number of young adults increased sixfold," said Buehrens, who this fall is a visiting professor at the UUA's Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, the number of high school youths increased and the UUA transformed "a large number of lay-led fellowships into congregations with professional ministry," Buehrens said. From 1993 to 1997, congregations sponsoring campus groups went from 19 to 135, and the growth has continued, he said.

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Buehrens was skeptical about surveys showing only 10 percent of members being born-and-bred UUs. Among young adults, he said, roughly one-third were "raised UU." And the percentage of New England church members whose parents were in Unitarian or Universalist congregations would be much higher than 10 percent, most observers say.

Nevertheless, the denomination-run survey in 1997, to which 8,100 members responded, tallied 9.9 percent who said they were "lifelong members" in answering one question and, to another question on what influenced them to join the UUA, 10.4 percent said, "I was born into UUism."

So, just what is "UUism," the denomination's unusual umbrella term? Though critics usually look upon the UUA as a union of unbelief and uncertainty, the church body's Web site upholds a belief that "personal experience, conscience and reason should be the final authorities in religion." Since "human understanding of life and death, the world and its mysteries, is never final," the association endorses the "free search for truth," or more precisely, "unfolding truths" over time. Underlying its actions is the belief "that ethical living is the supreme witness of religion."

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