Unitarian Universatists See Opportunity for Growth

Article excerpt

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, Missouri, 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 are positive about organized religion but 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 that 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 on the staff of 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. …

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