Resolve, writers on Unitarian Universalist church members, to say: “I will not begin or end my story with Unitarian Universalist jokes.”
Search engines will respond with numbers of such jokes; one of mine turned up 1,625,535 online, for starters. Compare such a log to other denominations of its size and pause to wonder.
Why are there not so many jokes about members of the Church of the Brethren or Adventists? What’s funny about a group that has a large element of unfunny rationalists, heirs of the very serious Enlightenment?
Why do religious folk who are cautious about deriding Catholics, Jews and even (us) unfunny Lutherans throw caution to the breezes when Unitarian Universalists come into focus?
Now, let’s get down to business.
Bob Smietana started off this month’s focus with an article in USA Today. Everyone knows that self-reported church statistics are unreliable, yet one cannot help but notice that from 2000 to 2010 this church grew by 15.8 percent when, in the preconceptions of many observers, it should be declining along with Catholicism, mainline Protestantism, and some portions of what poll-takers classify as evangelical.
Still small when compared to Southern Baptists, Mormons and scores of other religious groups, the UUs, as they often call themselves, are demographically thin – spread across the nation.
Many of them are inspired by the new data and want to grow more.
Hear Lee Barker, president of the Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, down the block from the University of Chicago, a school whose students, though small in number, helped enliven my classes there as recently as the year 2000.
He has said: “We are at a time when the values of our church and the values of our culture are intersecting.”
Other commentators quoted by Smietana show that they know that the church appeals to a niche market, but some believe that the niche is growing.
I’ve heard Christian sermons by UUA preachers, recognizing that a minority, measured in thousands, carry over much of their Christian heritage. And I’ve heard far-out kinds.
Some believe that the UUA will profit from the climate in which atheists, agnostics and other “nones” speak up.
In my doctoral thesis (in 1956!) on “The Uses of Infidelity,” I noted that Unitarians worked to gain or keep respectability by advertising themselves not as Infidels Mild but as Believers Who Are At The Edge But Not Extreme.
It may be that the positive prognosticators in the church are right. Many of the “spiritual but not religious types” welcome community and will find it in UUA churches.
Through the years when, on the road, I was involved with Christian semi-activists, we could always count on Unitarians and Universalists, who merged in 1961, to show up and often ask probing questions and provide good nudges.
It may also be that those who advise that only hard-line religious bodies can thrive in our kind of pluralistic and secular culture over the long haul could be right, and the little growth bubble of UUA churches will soon pop up as potential members find the fare and the commitments too lean.
So, let the deriders deride and theologians of all other stripes dismiss them, but whoever takes the long look at church bodies and parks his or her orthodox theology at the door, should find something to cheer.
George Santayana noted that the strength of religions comes in no small measure from attachment to the “strange” and “idiosyncratic stories” that they tell.
UUs found everyone else’s stories idiosyncratic, and were replied to in kind. But they have their moment now, and merit that moment in the media.
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.