Demographically challenged

There’s been a high-profile effort in the last couple of years to make the membership of UU congregations “more diverse”. Here’s an interesting master’s thesis that looks at the sociology of religious congregation demographics and “multi-racial” membership. Others Like Me: What Constitutes a “Uniracial” Congregation and How do they Affect Attitude and Action? (Jared Maier, Baylor Univ.)

Of particular interest, to me, were the table on p. 22 and the analysis on p. 25, looking at “uni-racial” congregations as a function of many variables, including congregation size.

A congregation with less than 100 in regular attendance (this is around the average UU size) is three times more likely to be uniracial than one with over 300 weekly worshipers. Since our average congregation size is around 100, that should give us pause as we consider the push towards diversity. There is a big difference between being the only “outsider” among 40 people and among 400.

There are a lot of cultural factors that may be involved (read the thesis for an overview), but I think it comes down to “do I feel comfortable here?”

What makes people feel comfortable? Seeing others with whom they identify. Feeling like they’re being spoken to directly. Engaging in activities that seem meaningful and welcoming. Hearing music that conveys depth, comfort and joy. That’s my list, anyway.

Some encouraging observations: The more education members have, the more likely it is that the congregation is multi-racial. That fits well with our demographics. Likewise, the higher the average income, the more likely a congregation is to be integrated. That fits us, too. (pp. 21-23)

On the downside, we qualify as “Mainline Protestants” in most schemes, which puts us in the lowest group for integration. The source of that situation is thought to be the traditionalism of those denominations. Most integrated are Catholics and Evangelicals. Who’s growing the most? Evangelicals, the non-denominational non-traditionalists.

And, of course, this blog’s main focus is examining our traditions and advocating to revise the ones that have no purpose (other than making long-time members comfortable with familiarity).

Just saying “we’re open to everyone” isn’t going to make it happen. We have to start acting open to everyone, and that means examining the basically invisible (to us) cultural environment we worship in.

So, I’d say we as UUs have some strengths and some weaknesses, demographically, if we’re looking to change our congregations to reflect the communities they’re in. But it’s clear that the more tradition-bound a congregation is, the more likely it is to be uniracial. If we think 17th-century German organ tunes are perfectly suited to worship, and James Brown is perfectly unsuited, we will get exactly the membership we’re advertising for.


About liberalreligiongetsloud

Contemporary Music and Worship Director (retired), First Unitarian, Albuquerque NM
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5 Responses to Demographically challenged

  1. Paul Oakley says:

    In counterpoint, I have offered this reflection:

    But on a side note, just out of curiosity since you have several times made negative reference to (16th-century) German organ music, what are you referring to specifically?

    It wasn’t until the 17th century that the range of sounds we generally expect from pipe organs came into existence or wide use. And JS Bach (1685-1750), the great Baroque organist and composer, was only ~15 years old at the turn of the 18th century. Are you referring to the Lutheran hymns penned by Martin Luther (1483-1546)? Whence the animus? Or, alternately, why choose that as the icon for cultural irrelevancy present in the UU setting today?

  2. Good questions, Paul! I commented on your post to address the specific topics you brought up there.

    Re: centuries. Oops. 1600s = 17th century (although we do have “A Mighty Fortress” in Singing the Living Tradition). A slip of the fingers. I corrected the post – thanks for catching that.

    Re: animus against. Although I think those hymns are obsolete, I am using them as an icon for antiquated worship practice. Actually, I like Renaissance and Baroque music a lot, and spent 15 years playing it in performing groups. But I came to the realization that, while it’s a lot of fun to play, it’s not as much fun for most people to listen to. It gets back to cultural disjuncture. Shakespeare wrote brilliant stuff, too, but you have to have an annotated edition just to get past the language and archaic references. For most people today, Buxtehude is the equivalent of “hoisted by his own petard”, a witty reference in his day which is impenetrable in ours. To expect people to make that kind of effort to get through to your message is to turn away people who should be joining your congregation.

    If we were to open the doors of the sanctuary one Sunday and everything familiar was swept away forever by something new and incomprehensible, I would expect many people to be rightly upset.

    Examining what works for the future does not require jettisoning the past. The two have always lived side by side in the rest of the world, while “mainline Protestant” worship style remained mostly immune to the gradual shift in “outside” culture for decades or even centuries. If you cling to that, at some distant point you end up with a mass in Latin, prayers in 9th-century Arabic or Sanskrit – in other words, ossified ritual that no longer conveys the essence of the faith without enormous intellectual investment on the part of the would-be faithful. No, we’re not there yet, but that’s the direction we’re pointed. So why not correct course now, before we dwindle away to nothing?

    And finally, now that I look back at my posts, I see that I have not already counted the number of 17th-century German hymn tunes here. That observation is in an as yet unpublished draft post. I’ll get right on it.

    In the meantime, I invite you to guess what percentage of the first 100 hymns in SLT fall into that category. No peeking, now – guess!

  3. Paul Oakley says:

    What! No peeking? That means I’ll have to guess outright since I have no clue. So, hmmm, here goes: I’m gonna guess 8%. Now I’m gonna go check…

    Thanks for your responses, both here and on my blog!

  4. curlykidz says:

    I’ve said many times that there is a big difference between telling people they are welcome, making them feel welcome, and making them feel at home. My multiracial, not upper middle class income, rhythm loving family has always felt welcome at UU congregations, but we have not always felt at home.

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