Previous Attempts to Grow UU on a Big Scale
Last time, I talked about the Catch-22 of Small Congregations. This post, we’ll look at 3 previous attempts to grow UU on a big scale.
Our church website’s very first entry for our history, is this– 1895: Rev. Quillen Shinn first arrives in Houston. Next entry– 1899: Rev. Shinn stays for two weeks. Third entry– 1907: Rev. Shinn dies.
The Rev. Quillen Shinn was an evangelist for Universalism in the early 20th century. He would get billboards & flyers put up in towns just before he came to visit. He would reserve a space– whatever was available– a home, church, or store. There, he would preach Universalism– that we are all already saved. And he’d explain how to form a new congregation.
Then he’d leave town, and come back periodically to check on things. Some called him the greatest Universalist evangelist– ever. Others called him the Grasshopper Missionary because he moved so quickly from place to place.
“Although most of the groups Shinn started failed to survive for long, a number did.”
So, starting congregations like ours back in the early 20 th century was pretty hit or miss– and truth be told– mostly “miss.”
Within 50 years, a new strategy was developed. It was called the Fellowship Movement. The idea was to start new congregations without ministers, to try and catch up with the post-war America population boom. The program was wildly successful. Between 1948 & 1958– in just 10 years! Some 323 fellowships had been organized. They had 12,500 members, 75% of whom were new to Unitarianism.
Can you imagine adding 12,500 new UUs in 10 years? That’s like the entire UU population of Missouri, Illinois, and Wisconsin combined.
Most of these congregations however, never got any bigger. Eventually, the Fellowship Movement ran out of steam & money. And Unitarian Universalism has not grown much since then. In fact, last year, we shrank a little.
We had Quillen Shinn on horseback. We had the fellowship movement. Now, we move ahead, 40 years later.
At the dawn of the 21st century, came the idea to start a large UU congregation from scratch. Maybe we could have the first UU mega-church. A mega-church is one that has over 2,000 members. In the Dallas area, a local UU endowment fund purchased land for a new church.
“A few generous and visionary UU families (in the area) gave a million dollar grant to lease office space and hire five full-time staff members.”
The main idea was to start a new congregation– AND– have it Get Big Fast. Why not fully staff as if you were already a large church? Maybe then you could grow from 0 to 600 members in three years.
That was the original plan. They were going to delay regular Sunday services until they thought they could get 300 on a Sunday. But time passed & they decided not to wait. There first service had 140 people attend– but “many of the people attending that first worship service were well wishers from other UU churches.”
The church’s 2012 numbers are 93 adults, and the original staff– is gone.
- Quillen Shinn rode horseback all over the country trying to get Universalist congregations started. Many were started, but few survived.
- The fellowship movement did start a lot of small Unitarian congregations. But very few got out of the small church box.
- The million dollar idea of Get Big Fast did not work out as planned.
Except for the Fellowship Movement– there hasn’t been any successful strategy to grow Unitarian Universalism. And those fellowships– with very few exceptions– have been caged in by the Catch-22 that affects them. I talk about the small church Catch-22 in a previous post.
Next, what if we took some of those fellowships and merged them to take advantage of creative collaboration and an economy of scale?