Without members of actual congregations, Unitarian Universalism would die. Without members of national UU organizations (like C*UUYAN, to pick a timely example), Unitarian Universalism will be just fine, if somewhat more sedentary in lifestyle.
Let’s lay it all out on the table.1 The movement known as Unitarian Universalism is kept alive by actual people who are actual members of actual congregations. Other facets of the movement contribute to its vitality in their own ways, but their importance pales in comparison to actual members of actual congregations. Let’s call them “congregational Unitarian Universalists.”2
It’s time we start speaking of cultural UUs along the lines of what folks mean by cultural Jews. Example: Jon Stewart’s relationship to Judaism. These are the folks who identify as UU but who do not attend services. Example: graduates of child and youth RE who’ve never returned to congregational life.
Then there are “theoretical Unitarian Universalists.” They’re UUs in the same way I’m an anarchist—I like the idea of it but I have no intention of ever doing anything about it.
There are also “conference UUs.” Example: GA junkies. I’ve picked up a vibe, and I know I’m not the only one, that many conference UUs do not like congregations, or even despise them. Dues-paying members of congregations have every right to resent those conferencers’ hijacking the very movement that their day-to-day commitment to membership sustains.
Let’s throw in “connectional” UUs while we’re at it. These are the folks who are the ligaments and sinews that bind individual congregations to one another, and congregational UUs to others outside their particular congregations. Example: OWL trainers. If “conference UUs” has a sour flavor to it, then “connectional UUs” is more tasty.
All these types of UUs depend on one another, but they especially depend on congregational UUs. If connectional UUs are the ligaments, congregational UUs are the bones.3
Of course folks can be more than one kind of UU simultaneously. But the vast majority of congregational UUs have no connection to these extra-congregational UUs. So what? It’s a small loss compared to the loss extra-congregational UUs choose to experience when they don’t participate in congregational life. Yes, it’s a choice. And, yes, it’s a loss.
Congregations are not perfect, and neither are congregational UUs. But there is so much good that comes from congregational life, things that cannot be matched by camps and conferences and district meetings.
Spirituality outside chosen bonds of like-spirited human communities—outside things like congregations—eventually becomes vapid. The challenges of face-to-face spiritual community are eventually necessary for real live spiritual growth no matter our age or stage. If real live spiritual growth is going to happen anywhere in our movement, it’s got to happen in congregations first.