Over a "break" during the UUA Growth Consultation, held from May 5 to May 7 near Denver, Colorado, a group of us put our heads together and chewed over the idea that the growth or lack of growth at any given Unitarian Universalist church might have more to do with external factors largely beyond the congregation's control than with what the congregation itself does.
Together we brainstormed a list of "external forces" that have been largely credited with helping a congregation to grow. Here is the list we came up with:
• We have grown because we are located in a religiously and politically conservative area.
• We have grown because we are located in a religiously and politically progressive area.
• We have grown because of our proximity to major higher education institutions.
• We have grown because the population of our metro area is transient.
• We have grown because of demographic and economic growth in our region (new buildings, new developments.)
• We have grown because of suburban sprawl.
• We have grown because of urban gentrification.
• We have grown because a local or national tragedy inspired people to go to church.
• We have grown because we attract people who hold a broad angst about politics and culture.
• We have grown because we have a fantastic location!
• We have grown because we are situated within an area with a culture that promotes church going.
• We have grown because we are situated within an area with a culture that does not promote church going.
• We have grown because we are the solitary UU congregation in a metro area.
• We have grown because there are many strong UU congregations in our metro area.
When we looked at this list and compared these statements with the congregations represented at the Growth Consultation and other growing congregations we knew about, we immediately recognized that these external factors are not causitive.
Some UU churches in major University towns have grown. Others have not. Some UU churches that are far away from major educational institutions have grown. Others have not.
Some UU churches in economically vibrant communities have grown. Others have not. Some UU churches in economically hard-hit areas have grown. Others have not.
For each item on the list above it is possible to point to congregations that have grown and congregations that have not grown. That some of the external factors that we came up with are contradictory indicates that external factors are just not as influential as internal factors.
We concluded that these external factors are not deterministic! What goes on within a congregation determines growth.
[My own opinion: Of all the items on the list above, the only one that I think needs to be carefully examined is the one about the economic vitality of the community in which the church is located. I heard somewhere that zip-code was the greatest predictor of whether a church would grow or not. At the outer limits, I think economic conditions can have the effect of constraining or supporting growth. However, I also believe that an adaptable congregation that is deeply in touch with its community can thrive in spite of external conditions.]
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