One part of my final papers involves looking at a lot of religious demographic figures. I was looking at Religion in a Free Market which analyzes the data from a survey of 51,000 U.S. Americans and then figures out what that means for the whole U.S. population. It is helpful in some ways, very unhelpful in others (but that is for another post).
The survey is based on self-identification. And according to the survey, there are about 600,000 Unitarian Universalists in the country (as of 2001). As many of us know, this is a tad more (like about three times more) than our survey of congregations shows. And this got me thinking. I’ve read where a UUA president (I want to say John Buehrens, but it could have been Bill Sinkford – I forget where I read it) commented on such a number and said that it was flattering that 600,000 people would identify as Unitarian Universalist, all those people don’t really understand what we’re about (or what it means to be Unitarian Universalist) because you have to belong to a congregation to be a Unitarian Universalist. I’ve also heard this by some of our ministers – “You can’t just be UU. You have to be active in congregational life and part of a Unitarian Universalist community.” And I see where this is coming from – the idea that we are not just some random collection of liberalish people with no core set of beliefs. We stand for something and we aren’t the catch-all for people who don’t know what else to be.
Yet. Imagine if a Christian church or denomination was like, “If you are not a member of one of our congregations, you do not count as Christian.” Or if a Buddhist group insisted that if you were not a member of one of their Buddhist communities, you were out. To me, Unitarian Universalism is not a club. It is a faith. And, for me, it is about how we live our lives, not if we are a member of a congregation. This does not mean I encourage people not to be members of a congregation. Like with Christianity, I believe that our faith is best lived out in community, but that the core of what it means to be Unitarian Universalism does not mean belonging to a congregation, but means living out the principles of love, justice, kindness, and equality in your everyday life.
So now when people ask how many of us there are, I won’t say 200,000-ish. I’ll say 600,000-ish, realizing that congregations count in many different ways and that many Unitarian Universalists out there – for whatever reason – are not involved in a congregation at the time. And, realize the work that we have to do to make our congregations feel like an essential part to our faith. Not because people “have to join,” but because they want to be part of such healthy and thriving community.