If Unitarian-Universalists were serious about growth, part 2

More insights from sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke: discussing a new religious movement trying to break onto the scene, they note that “the only ones who joined were those whose interpersonal attachments to members overbalanced their attachments to nonmembers. In part this is because, as noted in Proposition 22, social networks make religious beliefs plausible and new social networks thereby make new religious beliefs plausible.  In addition, social networks also reward people for conforming–in this case by converting.  In effect, conversion is seldom about seeking or embracing an ideology; it is about bringing one’s religious behavior into alignment with that of one’s friends and family members.”

In other words, people frequently switch into a different religion when they come to have more friends and family members inside that religion than in the one they currently belong to.  This effect is related to distance, not just absolute numbers: when a person comes to have more local friends in a group, even though they may have a large number of friends and/or family who live much further away and are not part of the group, such a person is ripe for recruitment.

There are two implications for growth-minded UUs: first, radical hospitality that genuinely embraces newcomers and enfolds them into the community is likely to work as a strategy for increasing and strengthening the local congregation.  Second, one’s own family and friends are the best possible potential future UUs.  “Witnessing” to such folks in an appropriate manner can often pay off in terms of likelihood over time that they too will come into Unitarian-Universalism.  The first implication relates to a charge often heard from UU pulpits; it is unclear precisely how often it is carried into action.  The second implication is one rarely heard as a strong suggestion; personal aversion to religious evangelism (despite the fact that UUism is utterly unlike more dogmatic recruitment-oriented faiths and “witnessing” would never take the form of the more insistent and divisive strategies sometimes found in such religions) seems to prevent the robust attempt of this proven strategy.

Quote is from Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000: 117.



Filed under Book Notes, Unitarian-Universalism

3 responses to “If Unitarian-Universalists were serious about growth, part 2

  1. Isn’t it possible that current congregants HAVE been witnessing to their friends and family, and those F&F still didn’t join because they just didn’t like the message? (or lack thereof) When you consider that neither U of the precursers to UU were ever very popular, either, it seems likely to me that we’re a niche religion, and are unlikely to see huge amounts of growth regardless.

    • Transient and Permanent

      It’s possible, but I don’t think it’s very likely. UUs on the whole don’t appear to put much effort into inviting their peers and family into the fold. Naturally, exceptions exist. And, naturally, many people won’t find the message of interest. But statistically speaking (and Stark and Finke are all about statistics), UUism would be growing much faster if this strategy were systemically applied.

      • I wonder how the statistics were figured. Most new religious movements are variations of existing ones, with the same attractions- new interpretations of scripture, etc. UU is different from most; do you think the same dynamics apply to both a new traditional Christian church and a creedless faith?

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