When I read the March 2014 UUWorld article "Emerging, alternative groups at UUA's growing edge" something didn't sit right with me, but I've not had the time to put my finger on it. Something about the "more than 50 'emerging' UU congregations across the country" framed as a positive accomplishment and not a mixed blessing or an ambiguous outcome. I needed to review my notes.
First, church building is hard and often thankless. So, if you were involved in an emerging congregation that later submerged, thank you for taking the risk and making the effort. Take courage from the ministry you made, understanding you may never know the secret and special good it brought to someone.
But not all is going to plan, and that the trickle of new congregations dribbling towards zero says something's wrong. Are the emerging congregations just dying on the vine, or is a bumper crop in the works? Or something else?
First, I went back to the list of emerging churches I gleaned in 2005. There were 33 then. What happened to them?
- 8 were admitted to the Unitarian Universalist Association and still exist.
- Of these, 2 now have fewer than 30 members, meaning they would be ineligible to join today.
- The largest has 69 members, the second largest has 52.
- 9 disbanded or have an unknown fate
- Of these, 1 may have been a duplicate; it was very close to another emerging congregation.
- 16 are still classified "emerging".
Sixteen seems high to me, if an emerging congregation is "one that has not yet been accepted into the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) for membership." That was December 2005, so the congregations are minimally eight and a half years old. A congregation's birthing and development phase isn't set in stone, but it does have a limit and in eight and a half years it's surely has been past. This means that we don't have emerging congregations, just very small ones. At this point, a radically larger congregation would come from a re-launch, a difficult process needing resources equal to or greater than starting one. More and more of what happens now will not lead to substantially larger churches. The church's culture has been established. (Some newer emerging congregations grew faster earlier, and these are the conventional "successes." But they are few.)
And so what? Unitarian Universalism skews to small congregations. So some will be smaller that others. It's only a fundamental problem if
- a small congregation pre-empts further church development in the same area. Really, a problem with any congregation, however large, but tiny fellowships "sitting on the franchise" is a part of Unitarian Universalist lore, so it deserves mention, and
- the goal of mission is add members to the Unitarian Universalist Association. There are different, good reasons for an active mission, but joining the UUA shouldn't be the goal, but rather the means for better common work. I don't think anyone is saying that, but it would be easy to infer that goal from the literature. It is, after all, an agreed-upon desirable outcome.
But there needs to be revision of our missology. Because if this is what we are relying on to bring new blood into our Association, it won't be enough for us to thrive.