Projection of future membership of any organization is very risky, and yet it must be done soon before we can move forward with the design of our buildings. Straight-line projections based on past experience may work reasonably well for short times if all of the factors which create the change are each moving in a consistent way. Unfortunately, those factors are generally unknown and probably unknowable even for accurately collectible data.
Trying to predict the number of people who will occupy a building built in ten years located on the edge of a small city like Bend, Oregon, that is far from other cities contains the problem somewhat, because there are fewer unknowns. The population of the area within reasonable driving times to the building is approximately 100,000. The estimate is based on population and a maximum commute time of 40 minutes each way. If the building is designed for 400 people maximum occupancy that would mean that only 1 person in 250 (100,000/400=250) would need to come to the building.
Our UU concern would be, is one person in 250 in our local area interested in our worldly philosophy? Personally my feeling is that half of all local people would be interested and the question becomes why don’t more people come to our services. Our present church always has visitors to our Sunday services and whenever I mention the UU church to people I meet in other situations they often say that have visited the UU.
The United States itself was organized by the founding fathers who were greatly influenced by thinking well within the general ideas of UU. Most people are unaware of how important a small group of Scotsmen, some of them important Unitarians, The Lunar Society, was to our nation’s founders’ fundamental way of thinking. This tiny group has had great influence on our national culture and upon the culture of the Unitarians to this day. This style of philosophy, openly questing for deeper rational understanding underlying the growing edge of the modern world, should be popular here in the US. Why are not more people declared Unitarians when it is so in agreement with the fundamental American way of life?
There is a concept called strange attractor that seems applicable when thinking about our philosophy and religion. Something unseen keeps attracting new people, bringing them close and then letting them float away, perhaps to return again. There is also a strange repeller, which drives people away as well as attracting them. That is probably because our professed views don’t generate sustained beliefs in some sort of verities, and most people seem to need clear and fixed answers to the ultimate existential questions. UU doesn’t supply them, but it does support every individual’s quest for ultimate answers, especially personal answers to their personal problems. There is an acceptance that there may be no ultimate answers, or at least no answers that most people are willing to tolerate.
So, for us it comes back to the question of how many people do we build our church to hold. Is it a few, who want to be part of a great liberal tradition of questing after the unattainable, or do we want to expand our population by tightening up a bit what we profess so that it is more comfortable to more people? It seems it will be our choice after the building and its wonderful grounds are more fully developed to fit our professed beliefs to our need to fill the facilities. The people are out there, and it becomes our task to adapt our programs and buildings to give as much to our community as possible.
Our building should have the feeling that people feel this is their home, their spiritual home, and that it is the living edge between their human needs and the abyss of the unknown provided by nature.