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Comparing Congregational Attendance

I have just seen some fascinating research information that compares Unitarian Universalist congregations to “mainline” Protestant and “evangelical” congregations. The data compare attendance (as opposed to membership) over the last decade.

Briefly, the study finds that UU congregations are doing better than evangelical churches and a lot better than mainline churches. The study found that in 2010, 49 percent of UU congregations reported an increase of 10 percent or more in attendance over the previous five years. That compares with only 22 percent of mainline churches and 46 percent of evangelical churches. Here is how it looks in a graph:

This is particularly impressive for a couple of reasons. First, this comes during a decade that has been hard on religious institutions. The overall number of people at worship in the U. S. has been in decline and churches are less financially stable than a decade ago. Second, most people consider us more like mainline churches than like evangelical churches. The fact that we are doing so much better than the mainline churches is striking.

There is a second measure in the research that I find equally fascinating. When asked if the volunteers at a congregation are the same people, the same with some new people, or include “lots of new volunteers,” UU congregations show more new volunteers than others. Here is a chart that shows the differences:

This speaks to enthusiasm in our congregations and a sense of shared ministry. This is truly exciting and gratifying.

Of course, these data raise a lot of questions for us as well. If so many of our congregations (half) show an increase of 10 percent or more in attendance, shouldn’t our membership numbers be up as well? I don’t have the data before me (I am traveling), but I don’t think that half our congregations show a 10 percent increase in membership. And, of course, we must ask why so many of our congregations do not show an increase.

Perhaps most of all, these data suggest, as I have long felt from direct experience in the parish and from lots of other data, that Unitarian Universalism has lots of potential. I also think these data reinforce the conclusion that people want an alternative to what they see as staid, old style religion. Some opt for evangelical religion, and that gets lots and lots of attention in the media. However, evangelical religion is not growing in America and has not been growing for a generation. Lots of other research shows this. These data show that our congregations are more vital than evangelical churches.

Our challenge, as always, is to be the progressive alternative. When we do that well—with passion and energy—people will join us. These data are both signs of hope and a challenge to us all. There is much here to ponder.

By the way, we have recently done a survey of members of our congregations. In future blog posts I will be exploring what we say about ourselves.

Permanent link to this article: http://president.blogs.uua.org/ministry/comparing-congregational-attendance/