We Are Not Better II: Retaining Our UU Youth

I have been asked a lot of follow-up questions about my last post entitled “We are Not Better.” Melissa asked me the following question, and I wrote her a novel of a response that probably deserves it’s own post, so here it is.

Melissa writes: Can you speak to how the subtle or not so subtle messages of “better” and “not better” may be impacting retention of young (second generation, perhaps?) Unitarian Universalists?

All Religions WheelThis is a really important question that everyone has been talking about in my circles for the 15 years I have been an adult hanging around the UUA. We know that our retention rate stinks, right? 10% of kids who grow up UU remain UU and we are all dying to know why our churches hemorrhage kids so we speculate a lot about why.

I think it’s a really complicated subject, and I have attacked it from many different angles because there just are a lot of different angles.

I think a lot of things impact retention of young Unitarian Universalists, not the least of which is the culture that impacts all Mainline Protestant churches in the United States. The Church is quickly losing its status as the voice of human religion and spirituality.

This isn’t Unitarian Universalism’s problem alone, nor is it our fault. I think this problem/opportunity in American religion right now (the loss of our cultural status) very largely impacts UUism. It impacts UUism because UU churches used to be the place where you went because it was the only alternative–-because there was nowhere else to go on Sunday. Now there is somewhere else to go! It’s called Sorella’s – the best brunch place in all of Jamaica Plain, MA – for delicious ginger bread pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream following your kid’s soccer game.

Church-going used to be seen as normative and “what one had to do to be a good person,” and so all boats rose together, including ours’. But now church-going is counter-cultural, especially where we live in the Northeast. Now we have to give our children, youth and adults reasons to choose church over other things they could be doing, and that’s a hard task for us.

Many have posited that Unitarian Universalists have a hard time, like all liberal mainline churches, compelling people to choose us over pancakes for the same reason why we have trouble retaining our youth. We churches in the mainline ask very little of our members, and the overwhelming message children receive is that you can “be good” without (God, church, religious community), you fill in the blank. So I think churches like ours ironically contribute to our own demise.

And then there’s this issue of hypocrisy.

We keep hearing that the Christian Church is dying because of hypocrisy, right? Millennials are done with church forever because we all know “those” Christian churches that claim to want to follow Christ and tell us to “love our neighbor,” and then they turn around and have very loud and public fights about who is and who isn’t our “neighbor.” Like the poor United Methodist Church that is being torn apart right now on the gay marriage issue, for instance.

We all know that the younger generations just think that’s all a load of baloney sauce, and so they are leaving church in droves. They can see the hypocrisy dripping from it all like syrup on their gingerbread pancakes they are choosing to eat instead of going to church.

Then when you add in the liberal church’s very human tendency toward our own brand of hypocrisy, we have our very own recipe for disaffected youth. Our hypocrisy comes in when we start to self-congratulate ourselves for being the “better” choice: the less oppressive, less offensive, more justice-oriented choice.

There are many people who say and think that the reason why we don’t retain our young people is because we haven’t given them the message that we are the “better” choice. That we haven’t cheer-leaded for our own faith enough. That we’ve equated all the world’s religions to the point that it doesn’t matter what religion they choose when they grow. I used to be one of those people, truthfully, and I think this is true in the sense that we don’t do the best job at giving our kids a religious narrative and symbols to use. You know this, because I say it all the time.

But in addition to handing down a sacred text, a theology, and some symbols to engage, I think we would do better retaining youth and adults if we were a little more humble. If we didn’t scoff at the religion of our ancestors so much, or the religion of other people so much. (See my post “Children Will Listen” for more of my thoughts on this subject.) Because overwhelmingly what I find is that people (especially our own kids) can sniff out hypocrisy in churches really, really fast.

Just the other day I was over at a colleague’s house with our spouses, and we were voicing frustration about other people who were driving us crazy. My 7-year-old daughter whispered in my ear the following: “Mommy, Jesus said to love your enemies. You’re a minister now.” I rolled my eyes and said, “Oh good GOD, who told you that?” She’s right of course. Kids are so, so good at telling us the truth. So is Jesus.

AND if we say we are a liberal religion that honors all paths to Truth, and then a visitor comes in and asks for a prayer, and we scoff and say “we don’t do that supernatural mumbo-jumbo here,” (and don’t think that doesn’t happen in UU churches because I’ve heard that story too many times) we are falsely advertising. People have to figure out the orthodoxy of our church after they get here by saying or needing the “wrong” thing, rather than just reading our creeds, beliefs, etc. on our website. We need to recognize, with humility, that we are not better than any other church, nor are we less orthodox. And we need to find freedom and forgiveness for ourselves in that.

THIS IS THE AWESOME THING ABOUT BEING HUMAN! We aren’t God! We get to mess up all the time and then ask for forgiveness, and then get it, overflowing, back in our laps. But we also need to say it out loud so our kids know that we see our own tendency to fail to live up to our ideals. We are human just like everyone else, and we create in-groups and out-groups and cultural norms, and “right belief” and “wrong belief” just like any other group of humans. The trouble happens when we self-righteously advertise something we can’t actually deliver.

I think retaining our youth starts with being honest about who we are. And our beautiful, fallible human enterprise of a religion blossoms with that honesty, as well. Now go and be good humans. ‘Cause that’s what Jesus would do (according to my self-righteous daughter, anyway).

2 thoughts on “We Are Not Better II: Retaining Our UU Youth”

  1. I pretty much reject your theory. To a teenager, all adults are hypocrites, and that was just as true when the UU youth movement was thriving as it is today. Sure, we shouldn’t be hypocrites, but if the goal is to inspire youth to remain UU, then there are things that we can actually do to make that happen, rather than just wax philosophically. The UUA has the ability to provide structure and resources for youth, and, until a few years ago, they did that. Now they don’t. What is that, if not a smoking gun?

    As a lifelong UU, there are a list of reasons that I can (and do) articulate as to why Unitarian Universalism is my church. But there’s one compelling reason — the UU church saved my life. Perhaps not literally, but in many, many ways. Because I was a geeky 13 year old kid from a broken home with very little self-confidence, growing up goy (that’s not a typo) in a 95% Jewish town (Brookline, Mass), when my parents sent me to UU camp at Ferry Beach. And then I joined Liberal Religious Youth (LRY), the precursor to YRUU which is the pre-cursor to the almost nothing that we offer youth today.

    LRY was relevant to an outcast teen like me. It was empowering. It allowed me to build skills at an early age that have fueled my successful career. LRY, unlike YRUU or any other church’s youth program, was youth autonomous, meaning that we, the teenagers, ran the organization, from the four person steering committee in Boston to the regional directors across the country to the leaders of the local groups. Adults served primarily as chaperones, being there to show their faces if some other adult wondered what the kids were up to.

    Did LRY’s lack of adult control and supervision allow some youth to do inappropriate things, like smoke marijuana and engage in sexual behavior? Yes. But the odds that those kids wouldn’t have been doing drugs and having sex without LRY are slim to zero. I didn’t do drugs, and I didn’t lose my virginity until after high school. And that probably wouldn’t have been the case if I hadn’t had LRY to boost my self-esteem and give me a fulfilling adolescence. I wasn’t hanging out behind the school smoking weed because I was home designing flyers for LRY conferences. I wasn’t seeking to escape my boring life because my life was anything but boring. And LRY provided me with a spiritual and socially conscious peer group had helped me formulate my lifelong views on God and our purpose on this planet, which has fueled my career working for causes that help people out of poverty and disadvantageous conditions.

    My son was born when I was 43, and now he’s 14. The local UU church youth groups meet on Sunday mornings and resemble school classes, with adults lecturing and leading the children in projects. Because there is no longer a national youth group, there are no conferences and ways to get involved beyond the local level. Because their is no youth leadership component, he has no opportunity to build the types of skills that I built and then funneled into my work. He sees these kids on Sunday only — there are no conferences that allow the strong community to grow, the one that saved my young life.

    To suggest that the UUA and its membership are doing the types of things that inspired me to remain a UU and raise my family in the church is just ridiculous. We’re dumping our kids in a classroom while we attend services. We used to do so much more.

  2. I think humility is important and hypocrisy leads us away from our core message every time. But we *are*different* and I think we should be celebrating that in church every Sunday. And I’m not talking about the Purposes and Principals since any liberal religion can hold those most dear. What makes UUs *different* is that *we* are the source of authority in religious matters. The individual is the ultimate source for their own beliefs tested and shared in community and we worship together in celebration of that. The danger is we may congratulate ourselves instead of working on the tireless task of rethinking and refining our spiritual path. That’s where I see hypocrisy stemming from. We need to keep our eyes on the spirit and not on ourselves even though the source for spiritual authority is ourselves and each other.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top