Unitarian Universalists see chance for growth in growth of secularism

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For Nathan De Lee, going to church as a kid was an ordeal. De Lee, a Unitarian … Continued

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For Nathan De Lee, going to church as a kid was an ordeal.

De Lee, a Unitarian Universalist, grew up in rural Kansas, where members of his faith were few and far between. Attending services meant an overnight trip to Kansas City, Mo., where the nearest Unitarian Universalist congregation was.

Today, getting to church is easy for De Lee, an astronomer at Vanderbilt University. He’s a regular in the choir on Sundays at First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, which has a congregation of about 500.

De Lee is one of a growing number of Unitarian Universalists, a group of people who believe in organized religion but are skeptical about doctrine. The denomination grew nationally by 15.8 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.

Although they remain small in total numbers with about 211,000 adherents nationwide, Unitarians believe their open-minded faith has a bright future as an alternative to more exclusive brands of religion.

They might be right, said Diana Butler Bass, author of “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.” Bass, who has studied thriving progressive churches, said Unitarian Universalists can fill a niche in conservative religious cultures such as the Bible Belt.

“I think there is a role for these kinds of more open and liberal spiritual groups,” Bass said. “They provide a nice countercultural community.”

The denomination, which started in New England, has been growing more in the South than in other parts of the country, said Rachel Walden, a public witness specialist from the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association.

The church hopes to appeal to the rising number of “nones” — those with no specific religious identity. A recent poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that about one in five Americans falls into that category.

Lee Barker, president of Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, said Unitarian Universalists are in the right place at the right time.

“We are at a time when the values of our church and the values of our culture are intersecting,” said Barker, who is a Unitarian minister. “I don’t see that going away any time soon.”

Gail Seavey, minister at First Unitarian Universalist in Nashville, said some of her more conservative neighbors aren’t sure what to make of her faith. Some think that inclusive means anything goes — but that’s not the case, she said.

Instead of a common theology, Unitarian Universalists have a set of common values. They believe in the worth and dignity of every human being, she said.

That belief in the individual choice in faith can be seen in a Unitarian practice known as water communion. In most other churches, communion bread and wine start in a common vessel and then are passed out to church members. In water communion, everyone starts with a cup of water and pours it in a common bowl.

“We are a bunch of individuals finding our own path — but we are doing it as a group,” De Lee said.

In Tennessee, Unitarians grew by 20.8 percent from 2000 to 2010. During the same time frame, they grew by 22 percent in Georgia and by 42.5 percent in Colorado.

Anthony David, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, which has about 1,000 members, says that Unitarians would rather be kind than right.

“In our tradition, you get to be wrong,” he said. “God is big. God is magnificent. You can’t tell me that we know everything there is to know about God yet.”

First Universalist Church of Denver, where Sunday attendance has increased by 10 percent a year for the past three years, uses an approach called “passive evangelism” to reach newcomers.

That means helping people with their spiritual journey, not on persuading them to become Unitarians, said Kirk Loadman-Copeland, the church’s senior minister.

“People come and they are compelled by what they experience, so they come back,” he said.

Mark Coppenger, professor of Christian apologetics and director of the Nashville campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said he wasn’t surprised to hear that Unitarian Universalists are growing.

Coppenger said he’s sure that those inclusive groups are made up of nice people who would be good neighbors. Even so, their take on faith is wrong, he said.

“Just because you are drawing a crowd doesn’t mean you are saying something that is true,” he said.

(Bob Smietana also reports for The Tennessean in Nashville.)

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  • thrugraceiamsaved

    Ah.. this breaks my heart. As a Christian, I hate it when other Christians act in a way that is “Close-minded” and “Conservative” and which makes people say things like “In our church, you get to be wrong.”

    But the fact is, not everyone who says they are Christian IS Christian. In fact, There are many people in this world who look like Christians on the outside, but aren’t. I used to be one of those people. I was raised in the church by two parents who completely loved the Lord. I knew everything about the bible and could tell you what it said from front to back. I told everyone I believed it, including myself. But I didn’t. In my heart of hearts, I didn’t believe a single word. And as time went on my disbelief became less and less subtle, to the point where I was eventually consciously struggling with doubt and teetering on the verge of atheism. When I wasn’t struggling with disbelief, I was struggling with questions like, “Do I have enough faith?” and, “Am I following all the rules correctly? Is there some detail I missed that’s going to make God unhappy with me or send me to hell?” And in addition to that, I was sad, lonely and depressed all the time. Yes, depressed. And I couldn’t figure out why.

    Things took a turn for the worst last summer: I developed OCD. It

    was the most terrifying thing I have ever experienced. Let me

    try to explain it to you. It started with thoughts in my head, thoughts that I absolutely could not control. I wasn’t hearing voices. It was my own voice, but I could not control what it said. It said horrible things and disgusting things about God. If I had been in control, I would have called it blasphemy. The fact that I had thought those things was terrifying to me, and it made me so afraid. I knew I was going to hell. That was certain to me. And the voice, my voice, told me there was nothing I could do about it. That I was disgusting. That God hated me and I had screwed up so bad that he wouldn’t save me. Not that he couldn’t, but that he wouldn’t. I couldn’t control my fear. It was like when you have a song stuck in your head and you can’t get it out no matter what you do, except that the music is guilt and the melody is terror. I didn’t believe in God, but somehow I believed he hated me and I believed I was doomed to hell. I didn’t believe in God, but I said to myself, “If there is a God, and he really loves me, and he really is everything he says he is, maybe he can save me from this

    nightmare.” Every waking moment was spent reading my bible and singing praises on my guitar to a God I didn’t know. For the first time in my life, I could honestly say that I was seeking God with all of my heart, all of my soul, and all of my strength. I was desperate for him.

    This went on for a month.

    Then it came time for camp. It’s a church camp. I remember on the first night, the pastor, named Whitney, prayed over our camp. One of the things she asked was that He would keep Satan far away from us that week. I remember my load

  • thrugraceiamsaved

    lightening slightly. It was still there, but it wasn’t quite so difficult. I could breathe. The first day we talked about sin. We talked about how subtle and powerful it can be. How we take something beautiful and wonderful that God intended as a gift and abuse it and twist it until it becomes something it was never intended to be. And once we’ve opened the door like that Satan waltzes in and binds us in chains that only God can break. It’s how you start with food and end with obesity*. It’s how you start with sex and end with prostitution. How you can start with beauty and end with an eating disorder. It’s how you can start with love and end with hatred. It’s how you start with fun and end with YOLO. Sin makes us slaves. We made some charts about that. We also outlined our bodies and drew in the worst characteristics we could think of.

    We talked about how bad they were. What horrible people they were. Whitney also gave us some plastic bags. She told us that our sin was like dirt. You can try to cover it up with nail polish but the paint will crack. You can try to wash it off, but it will only make mud when it’s mixed with water. She told us that whenever we remembered a time when we screwed up or a sin we struggle with, we were to stop whatever we were doing, get some dirt, and put it into our bag.

    The next day, we talked about those people we had made again. We talked about how bad they were. (To get an idea check out Romans 3:9-18. niv.scripturetext.com/romans/3.htm They were based on those verses.) She asked us how they could get to heaven, and someone responded, “If they turn their lives around and stop sinning.” And Whitney

    said, “No!” and I heard her almost cry, “Not one of these people is going to hell, because they’ve accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.”

    And the voice, my own voice, my own thoughts, said, “It’s too bad you blew it. That doesn’t apply to you anymore. Blasphemy is the unforgivable sin.” I grew deeper into dispair.

    Later Whitney told us our dirt represented our sin. The only way to get rid of it was to give it up to God. Then she pulled out a large plastic tub and said, “If you are ready to give it up to God, come put it in this tub. But only if you’re ready.”

    And then there was silence. We stared at her. She stared at us. I stared at my dirt. My own voice was saying it was pointless. I was disgusting and worthless. There was no way God could forgive me. Don’t even bother.

    Then something happened. Suddenly, this feeling came over me. it was a feeling of perfect love, perfect joy, perfect peace. It wasn’t a part of me. It was seperate from me and I was still afraid and depressed. This feeling spoke to me. I

    didn’t hear a voice or anything, but I knew what it was saying.

    It said, “Go pour out your dirt. You are forgiven.”

    I look

  • Kenmore

    I’ve been a Unitarian for the past 25 years. No one has ever asked me what I believe. No one has ever TOLD me what to believe. Instead I have listened to suggestions of things to think about. I have experienced wonderful opportunities that have made me a happier human being. I’ve been told about wonderful books I would never have read. I am better informed about social action and the environment. I have learned to respect all, especially those I disagree with. Being a UU has made me a better mother, wife, daughter and friend.

    To anyone who is seeking answers on their own terms I say go, sit and listen. Each congregation is a little different but there are common threads. Respect, acceptance, and peace. Just to name a few.

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