Friday, February 10, 2006


I've seen talk of UU megachurches. First, let it be clear that there ain't none. Not at this time. The largest UU congregation last year (haven't seen figures for this year, yet) was First Unitarian Society of Madison, at just about 1400 members.

"Megachurch" is often defined as starting at 2000.

But I've seen a couple conversations around the web about the idea. And I spent a big part of a couple days talking with a friend about the idea of starting one.

Today, an AP article cited in my local paper caught my eye. It's talking about Protestant megachurches, and how they're still growing. They've doubled in number in the last five years. Average attendance is up.
"The main thing we work really hard at is having a good program for every age group," .... "We want the affluent to feel welcome and the hardworking, labor person, living payday to payday, to feel as welcome as anyone else."

There's nothing in that which a UU congregation shouldn't want to achieve.
Well-stated goals for growth, including orientation classes for new members, and a slew of programming for many demographics were a pattern for megachurches in the study. They also commonly have contemporary worship services with electric guitars and drums and frequent use of overhead projectors during multiple services throughout the week.

Does your congregation have a well-stated goal for growth? Mine's worked at this... and I don't think I can say that it does. Oh, people are open, even enthusiastic, for growth. But the key point was a goal. I'll bet that if you asked our members privately, you'd hear that they envision anywhere from maybe... a membership of 200 to 550 in the next several years.

Programming? How's yours? Ours is a work in progress, with significant ideas... but it's damned thin on the ground right now. It's certainly not designed with a wide range of demographics in mind. I'm not even sure that it's designed with demographics in mind at all. It's still in the "If we offer this, will they come?" (I hold myself as accountable as anyone for that; it's a weakness).

Contemporary worship services? We're starting to break out on contemporary, I think. You? But throughout the week? Nah. Sunday morning. With a poorly advertised, weakly attended Vespers service one evening a month. Overhead projectors? Egad, no. It's pretty forward that we have a house band that is playing live rock. Guitar--not electric. Drums, check.
Their emphasis on evangelism, propelled mostly by word of mouth from enthused members, has been a constant, said researcher Dave Travis with Leadership Network.

Ouch. UU evangelism. Funny, the Universalists, in particular, had arich tradition there. We bobbled that somewhere....

About those megachurches;
... one-third reported they were founded 60 years ago or more. It also countered the notion that they are all independent congregations: 66 percent report belonging to a denomination — although most downplay this aspect in their church names and programming.

Interesting, no?
56 percent of megachurches said they have tried to be more multiethnic and 19 percent of their attendance is not from the majority race of the congregation.

I've yet to see a really good argument for why there can't be UU megachurches.

Some of our most noted clergy have, in the past, preached to what were very large congregations for the time. I think that there's still a message there today that could be preached to large (for today) congregations.


Update: On a closely related topic--reaching out to young adults--see this.


Jess said...

Hi Ogre, welcome to the fold! It's always good to see fresh voices on line talking about these issues. I'm glad you found my "Best of UU" page to be worth a link, too.

I'm assuming you've read up on some of the "Pathways" debacle - how NOT to start a UU mega church. Check out this page of documents from the recent UUA Board of Trustees meeting for a couple of rather illuminating pieces.

My problem with mega churches is that they try to be everything to everyone, which no church can truly be. I prefer a mid-sized UU church with enough diversity to offer many different kinds of programs, but also remaining a managable size so that you can still feel that you know most of the congregation. To my mind, once a church grows to about 600 members, it's time to look at where those members live geographically in consideration of building a second congregation, and on from there.

That also gives people in a given area more choices of where to go to church - here in Chicago we've got a good number of choices and can pick a community that is more compatible with how we like to worship than another might be.

ogre said...

Hi Jess,

I've read some of what there is about the Pathways debacle, particularly the two letters from Davidson Loehr and Thom Belote. Ouch. Still, if lessons are actually learned and the mistakes not repeated... I suppose it's got some value.

I'm not entirely sold on the idea of megachurches. But that might (might) be like saying I'm not sold on horseless carriages. Things change. Then again, there's Betamax....

Mind you, I don't disagree; I think I'm more comfortable in a mid-sized UU congregation (which is one reason I'm pouring much of my life at the moment into growing ours into that. At 167, we're just barely there, and not really reaping the benefits of the size, while having started to feel the loss of what one had at around ~100.

But my mind's open on the subject.

I think that the idea that you can know most of the congregation at 500 members is illusory. My experience is that at 150, deeply involved, I started noticing that there were people who appeared to be members... or at least very well established not-yet-members whom I simply didn't know at all. And I was on our Search Committee at the time. But illusions can be comforting....

Small group ministry seems to go a very long way to solving part of the concern; while you don't know everyone (or recognize you don't...), you do feel the very close familiarity and intimacy that a small congregation used to be the only way to get, really. And the folks you know have overlapping spheres of familiarity, so at a couple removes, you are in touch with everyone.

A megachurch probably really only adds another step to that.

I'm not arguing for a megachurch, per se. But I think that there's reason for us to explore it, and to see if the idea's viable--and valuable--to our movement.

In So Cal, things have gotten expensive. Seeding new congregations won't be cheap and easy. Our barely mid-size congregation is the only one within about a half-hour's drive--so there are certainly options that aren't so far away. But they're about the same size, or a little larger, right now. However, in the area that we serve--the area that's not really closer to one of the other congregations, there are about 450,000 people.

Our congregation could thus be expected to reach 450, easily--without even really penetrating any deeper than normal.

It'd be cheaper -- meaning more money available for programs and social justice, etc. -- if we were to reach 900 to simply expand what we have; do three services... and probably some worship service on some day other than Sunday, too.

The cost of building a new congregation is going to affect the options. Technology will. So may other insights into how we can operate.

It's a subject I think is worth encouraging experimenting with; it might succeed, and even in failing, I think we'd find some useful insights and lessons. But I don't think it's the way to go. Just a way among many....

Ron Stevens said...

Ogre, Jess...
I don't think we necessarily have to accept other peoples' definitions of what a megachurch is (any more than what a "true Christian" is). I was a member of All Souls in Tulsa before moving to SC and considered that to be pretty much a megachurch. Maybe a UU church really doesn't need to grow beyond, say, 1500 members to "do everything it can." Just a thought. Nice blog by the way, Ogre!

ScottMGS said...

Hey, Ogre,

I remember that during our El Paso sabbatical one thing that came up was that maybe a UU mega church would have to be started pretty much from scratch.

In an established congregation there would be too much history and a diversity of opinion on whether such a radical change was necessary or good. Such big changes would, no doubt, drive a lot of the old guard away.

A lot of NIMBY-type feelings are possible, too, of course, as people would fear that a new UU mega church in the vicinity would cramp their growth plans if successful. (It might be the opposite, though.)

ScottMGS said...

I had a further thought while reading your first post: What if a UU mega church was really a confluence of fellowships working together with mutual support and property in common but each with its own goals, traditions, etc. I know that something similar also came up in El Paso: YoUUth "raves", Sunday Service(s), Family nights, Men's Fellowship, Friday evening sabbath, monthly Full Moon services, etc.

One of the ways that my church has been described is a community of communities. One of the down-sides is that, sometimes, there is too little cross-communitee communication, coordination, and respect. Also, some sub-communities see themselves as, or feel they are perceived as second-class. That would continue to be a concern and would have to be actively addressed.

chutney said...

What if a UU mega church was really a confluence of fellowships working together with mutual support and property in common but each with its own goals, traditions, etc.

Bingo. Only think I can add to that is that they'd be overlapping fellowship.

ogre said...

Oh. I see, a sort of... co-op church for fellowships.


Not so much all things to all people as all the things all the people might want. A UU superstore church. A religious Ikea.

Ok; I'll stop.

ScottMGS said...

Maybe more like how, before the Civil War, "The United States of America" was a reference to multiple states and, after, was a reference to a single entity.

My (fairly large) church really seems to be one big thing but some subgroups seem to feel disenfranchised, on the outside. I'm sure that would be exacerbated in a megachurch or multi-fellowship environment unless it was handled explicitly (and even then...).

ogre said...


Would "overlapping fellowship" be akin to the whole small group ministry model, on a larger scale?

I'd envision the small groups as an integral part of this, anyway. But if specific sets of people met at certain times, and effectively were sub-congregations...