Continuity... and Growth
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. 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. 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 Millennial “nones” 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.
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). My generation is also more likely to postpone or decline altogether getting married and having children, making the boomerang possibility even less likely.
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.”
 2007 Youth Min Consultation  https://www.barna.org/barna-update/teens-nextgen/528-six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church#.UevrIT6bghI; Also, You Lost Me by David Kinnaman.  http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx#who  FACT 2005 http://www.uua.org/documents/congservices/fact/05_ya_report.pdf  http://www.marketplace.org/topics/world/twenty-somethings-taking-longer-reach-adulthood