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, so attending services meant an overnight trip to Kansas City, Mo.
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 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. “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 of the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association.
The Rev. James Leach of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte said his congregation was the first in the state in 1947. He estimates the church has roughly 650 adult members and more than 200 children.
Since Leach began leading the church in 2003, he said he’s seen growth in his own congregation and in the region. “At that point, our membership was barely 500, so in that amount of time, there was 20 to 30 percent growth,” he said.
Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church is an offshoot of UUCC, Leach said, and started about 25 years ago. “Piedmont has experienced significant growth; they now have a discussion group meeting in Salisbury. There’s a small congregation in Lake Norman that’s started within the last five years or so.”
“We tend to attract people who are critical thinkers in the best sense of the word, who are looking for a spiritually deep experience that addresses the whole person,” Leach said.
He noted that most people who join the denomination come come from Christian or Jewish families and traditions. “Within the two bounds of those religious expressions, they’re just not finding what they’re looking for.”
Additionally, the denomination’s open and welcoming stance on marriage equality makes it attractive to gays, lesbians and transgender people, Leach said.
Appealing to ‘nones’
Nationwide, 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.
Sue Simarron, congregational life staff member for the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregation’s south east district, said a common misconception is that Unitarian Universalist is a new denomination, especially in the South.
“It’s really not,” she said, noting that one of their churches in Charleston has been established for more than 100 years.
Similarly, Simarron said, many people mistakenly think, “You can believe anything you want (as a Unitarian Universalist). There are principles we stand by as a community.”
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.
Individuals in a group
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 into 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.
Unitarian Universalist adherents in North Carolina grew from 5,181 to 6,514 people. During that same time, the number of congregations statewide grew from 22 to 27.
During those 10 years in Mecklenburg County, congregations grew from two to three.
“The trend toward openness and acceptance and a deep interest in justice and equality benefits a place like this,” Leach said, noting Charlotte is still a “young city where the identity is still fluid. “This place is becoming more open, a more diverse place and a place where a narrow world view and spiritual world view are being called into question, as they should be.”