The voice of experience belongs to Deirdre Shaw when it comes to attracting young adults to Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations. Three times in ten years she tried to form a Young Adult group in her own congregation. Twice she failed. But the third time she succeeded and now on any given Sunday five to fifteen young adults attend services at the UU Church of Amherst in Williamsville, NY (280 members), and the group's frequent social events attract upwards of twenty people.
The secret? Food, fun, and opportunities for intimate worship with other young people. The group has potlucks, movie and game nights, and a monthly Friday night vespers-type service.
"Visibility is also important," says Shaw, a life-long member of her congregation. When young adult visitors enter the Amherst church on Sunday morning, the greeters automatically hand them over to Shaw, who, at age thirty-three happens to be board chair while still in the 18-35 young adult age group. Her advice: Make sure that visitors know there are other young adults in the congregation. "The Sunday service may be what attracted them," she says, "but they stay because they see other young people like themselves who are helping with the service or serving in other roles." "Visibility is very important," says Shaw. "Young adult visitors want to see faces that look like theirs—people they can network with."
Young adults are in short supply at many UU congregations. Busy starting careers and families, religion is often not a priority. When they do come, it's important to connect with them quickly, says Rev. Donna DiSciullo, director of the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA) Young Adult Network and Campus Ministry office. It's important for a congregation to have not only a Sunday service they can relate to, but also a young adult group for socializing.
DiSciullo notes that young adults often prefer a style of worship that's more intimate and participatory than many UU services. To find out what they like, ask them. Also consider organizing a separate, informal service, perhaps on Friday nights, geared for young adults but open to anyone.
Shaw credited Amherst's coministers, Revs. Carl and Maureen Quinlan Thitchener, with making the young adult group work. "They come to about half our events and even dress up silly for Halloween," she said. "They've said it gives them a way to get to know people who might otherwise just be lurking around the edges."
For Michele Begley, member of the Ubiquitous UUs young adult group at UU Church of Boulder, CO (153), "Having a peer group my own age has kept me involved in the church. It makes me feel more at home to be with people who mirror my experiences." She is on the nominating committee, was chair of the caring committee, and recently helped prepare a Sunday service about generations.
Meg Muckenhoupt, with the young adult group at First Parish in Cambridge, MA (200), cautioned that young adults shouldn't be treated as babysitters nor as a source of strong backs. If you ask them to move tables before a party, make sure you've also asked them to help plan the party. And don't single out one person as the Designated Young Adult, to be on every committee, and then ignore the rest.
Muckenhoupt suggested that older UUs get to know younger members as a first step in making sure they're included in congregational life. She said: "Ask yourself how many individuals you know between the ages of eighteen and thirty who are not your children's friends or your subordinates at work, but who are your equals?"
For information on how your congregation can become more inviting to young adults, contact the UUA’s Young Adult Network and Campus Ministry office.