Home » Future of Faith » A Bridge to Nowhere – Part B #FoF

A Bridge to Nowhere – Part B #FoF

Posted by Carey McDonald // November 5th 2013 // Future of Faith, Issues and Trends // 5 comments

Continuity… and Growth

Cherry Ripening Succession.

We know that part of the problem has been the segregation of youth programs in the past few decades, a dynamic identified in the 2007 UUA Youth Consultation.[1] Left to our own devices in the name of “youth empowerment,” generations of active UU youth developed our own subculture, and later found adult life in congregations to be so different from our experience as youth that we had little interest in participating.

Though it is inherently difficult to get better information on the reasons for those who have left our churches, it is clear that the divergence between the “downstairs” youth group groove and the “upstairs” corporate worship of the congregation is at the heart of it. The free-form organization, intimate and informal worship style, and kinetic, creative expression of faith have a deep impression on the teenagers that participate. Our youth programs in UU faith communities often succeed in making profound spiritual connections with our youth, but because they are siloed off from the rest of congregational life (youth groups often meet during the Sunday morning worship, and have little contact with congregational leaders), there is no pathway between this experience and the reality of weekly life as an adult in a typical UU church. That weekly reality can seem stuffy, boring, bureaucratic and spiritually unfulfilling. Adult members, the vast majority of whom did not grow up UU’s, often bring spiritual wounds with them to our congregations that can stifle more creative or impassioned outlets of religious expression. Despite the fact that the cognitive and hormonal context of adolescent development is a key contributor to the intensity of the youth group experience, these critiques levied by our youth have a ring of truth.

On its face, this pattern for UU’s is different from the ones seen among young Christians in the United States who leave their churches. The criticisms these former Christians most commonly cite as reasons for leaving their churches are an anti-science bias, a judgmental approach (especially towards sexuality), theological rigidity and close-mindedness.[2] These all seem to be pitfalls that UU congregations, who embrace each individual’s free and responsible search for truth, teach Our Whole Lives sexuality education and offer Coming of Age programs that include authoring one’s own statement of belief, would seem to avoid. Yet regardless of the specifics, both Christian and UU youth seem to be rejecting the institutional feel of a faith that does not value their priorities or embrace their leadership when it might lead away from business as usual.

I suspect that the answers to 1) how we could keep our raised UU’s within the faith family and 2) how might effectively connect with the Millennialnones” will both lead us to the same place, which is a frank appraisal of the value generated by our current religious communities. These two groups are clearly demographically similar: young, predominantly (but less so every year) white, liberal, educated and middle- or professional-class.[3]

For our parents’ generation, the move away from church was temporary; Baby Boomers (born 1945-1965) found themselves returning to church when they had kids, a development which is clearly reflected in the rise of our official membership and religious education enrollment figures in the 1990’s. Today we have to ask whether my generation will be another group of boomerang church-goers, and I do not see much evidence that will be the case.  Declining churches are the ones most likely to have no young adults (25% of them, compared to 17% for stagnant or growing congregations).[4] My generation is also more likely to postpone or decline altogether getting married and having children, making the boomerang possibility even less likely.[5]

So, what if the Millennial Generation does not have as many children or get married as often, rendering useless the rites that have traditionally brought us closer to religious institutions, and on top of that is not much interested in belonging to a church in the first place? What if, among those who would have found our congregations twenty or thirty years ago, there is little desire for permanent religious affiliation? Are there opportunities to offer the same affirmation provided through traditional sacraments through new rituals that speak to the challenges of our generation? What is the new niche that Unitarian Universalism would fill? It is an important question if we want to live up to our self-declared potential of being the “religion of our time.”

[1] 2007 Youth Min Consultation

About the Author

Carey is the Chief Operating Officer for the UUA.
5 Responses to “A Bridge to Nowhere – Part B #FoF”
  1. Rev. Renee Ruchotzke says:

    This is a thought-provoking series, Carey!

    • Carey McDonald says:

      Thanks, Renee! I’m hoping it sparks some conversation, this post in particular. I hear a lot of people repeating the same things over and over, but I’d love to see the conversation broadened and deepened.

  2. Ron Robinson says:

    Thanks. Yes, that “religion OF our time” might even be a big part of the holdback; better to be religion in, but not of, our time/world” to paraphrase scripture; being of our time has us bound up with modernity for example or the dna of when a congregation starts; theologically knowing what time we are in is vital but we also need to know i think how we stand outside of it to so we can re-incarnate when cultures change around us; what is our timeless mission in other words?

  3. Hazel Gabe says:

    I recently wrote something about this and was liked to this post through a conversation.

    As someone who was a youth leader at the time of the 2007 UUA “Consultation” I can say it was a deeply traumatizing and horrifying experience.

    Their end result of ending youth programs and support for YRUU was hugely problematic and ended an institution that had predated Unitarian Universalism

    It’s not true that youth left to their own devices in a silo came up with their own subculture. That subculture is essential to the faith itself. If you look at the history, that subculture actually predates the faith. LRY was formed before Unitarianism and Universalism joined as a religion. And many aspects of the youth subculture were already formed at that time, as any conversation with an LRYer will tell you. The joining of the Unitarian and Universalist youth movements into LRY happened before the merger of the two religions. And Youth Council was ahead of its time in listening to minority voices and doing anti-oppression/anti-racism work, much of which has now, ten years later, entered the wider discourse in society. So I think UU youth culture is at the forefront of practising Unitarianism, and to discount it as a subculture does it a disservice. I urge you to read the work of Sharon Hwang Colligan and others.

    I see the UUA as having seen that there was a disconnect through their consultation, but moved to eradicate youth culture and assimilate youth into congregational life. Instead, they should have listened and learned from the youth, and brought more of youth culture into the congregational life. What they did was a deep disservice to their children. Many youth were scarred by their actions and will likely never return to the denomination.

    • Bart Frost says:


      Many former leaders also experienced the consultation process as traumatizing and I’m sorry that it happened the way that it did.

      What Carey is pointing to in this essay is that we have two different cultures within our congregations. We have children and youth in religious education classes and we have adults in worship. With exceptions, we’ve done a pretty poor job of merging children and youth into the worship experience. Worship is taught and caught, but when we allow our children and youth to opt out, when they come back as young adults the worship experience is a mostly foreign one. Furthermore, I would argue that our congregational polity makes it difficult to know what kind of experience one will have at any given UU church. Will it be like my old church or will it be different?

      We could go into the rabbit hole about LRY and YRUU, but it’s important to note that both movements suffered from the cultural positives and negatives of their respective era.

      What is important now is that we recognize today’s youth, tomorrow’s youth, are not yesterday’s youth. We must remember that cultures progress and digress, evolve and devolve. Our responsibility as adults that work with youth is not to create the experience we had for them, but to help them find their own experience and culture within frameworks of Unitarian Universalist identity and theology while also maintaining safety and boundaries.

      Thank you for your comment and I’m sorry that you were hurt by the previous administration.

      Bart Frost
      Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries

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