Developmentally Challenged?

There has been a lot of discussion about the nature and character of Unitarian Universalism recently, including our theology (does it need help?), numbers, and so on.  Rev. Manish Mishra has this to say in the recent edition of the Journal of Liberal Religion, entitled Developmentally Challenged: Understanding Unitarian Universalism’s Lack of Mass Appeal:

Link: Journal of Liberal Religion.

Unitarian Universalists (UUs) are frequently heard mulling over the question of why our religious denomination continues to be so small. While the rate of growth of Unitarian Universalism has been respectful over the past decade, even outpacing the rate of growth of more mainstream denominations, relative to the size of the U.S. population Unitarian Universalism, with its approximately 220,000 adherents,1 struggles with attracting the type of numerical following that it has aspired to. Folk-wisdom about the reasons for this lack of mass appeal abound within the denomination: “we haven’t done enough in getting our message out,” “our growth strategies have been misguided and ineffectual,” or “our form of religion requires too much work, it isn’t for everybody.” This last possibility may contain a kernel of truth. It is, indeed, possible that Unitarian Universalism isn’t for everybody, and there perhaps might be very good reasons why that is the case. Robert Kegan’s theory of human development and James Fowler’s theory of faith development may help shed light on this possibility


2 responses to “Developmentally Challenged?

  1. Mishra’s article is pretty problematic in a number of ways.

    First, Mishra does not base his analysis of the purported developmental stage of Unitarian Universalism on actual surveys of people, which is contrary to any research I’ve ever seen in developmental stage theory. Second, Mishra draws his developmental stage theory from a mix of the developmental stage theories of James Fowler and Robert Kegan; this is problematic since Kegan states that his developmental stage theory (as outlined in “The Evolving Self”) represents a critque and corrective of Fowler, especially around the issues raised by Carol Gilligan’s feminist critique of Lawrence Kohlberg, on whom Fowler bases his theory. Third, Mishra fails to take into account Gabriel Moran’s critiques of Fowler, and of developmental stage theory in general as applied to religion, where Moran asserts that significant portions of religious experience are not explainable in terms of developmental stage theory.

    A deeper problem with Mishra’s article is that he is probably looking in the wrong place. Sociological research has uncovered a number of reasons why Unitarian Universalism has remained so small, including: a style of worship linked to certain socio-economic class; the so-called “fertility gap” where mainstream Protestant churches have a far lower birth rate than evangelical Christian churches resulting in a decades-long membership slide; the way size of congregations affects the potential for growth (I’d be happy to provide citations for anyone who is curious to know more).

    In short, Mishra’s article is not based in serious field research and uses questionable theory; and, more to the point, what he so laboriously explains by way of developmental stage theory is more easily (and more defensibly) explained by existing sociological research.

    Worst of all, the article reads as an apologetic for excluding certain persons from Unitarian Unviersalism. I’m sure Mishra didn’t intend this, but the fact remains that his article can be used to keep people out of our churches.

  2. Dan:

    Thanks for your critique of Mishra’s article. I’ve also found it to be deeply problematic especially in relation to the last point you raise.

    Another problem that I see with the article is that Mishra commits the cardinal sin of most UUs. He seems to believe that religion is largely a matter of reason. It seems to me that most people belong to a religious community for a lot of reasons that have little to do with what they think. In fact, while a lot of people in my church come there because they like the intellectual atmosphere there are a lot who come there primarily for the community.

    Finally, I’m really not that familiar with much of the Faith Development stuff but what I’ve seen of it leads me to wonder if there aren’t a lot of assumptions about class and education buried within it. Many of the more profound spiritual people I’ve known have had little in the way of formal education and have worked blue collar jobs.



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