Tennessee trend piece hits the mark

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It’s a simple thing, really.

One of the mantras of GetReligion is that journalists should give people of faith the opportunity to explain — in their own words — what they believe.

In a recent trend piece on Unitarian Universalists, Godbeat pro Bob Smietana of The Tennessean in Nashville did a nice job of that, and I wanted to make note of it.

The top of Smietana’s 1,200-word news-feature:

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, where the nearest Unitarian Universalist congregation was.

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

“It’s just a 10-minute drive away,” he said.

De Lee is one of a growing number of local Unitarian Universalists, a faith that’s found growing appeal in recent years. From 2000 to 2010, the denomination grew by 15.8 percent in Middle Tennessee and by 20.8 percent statewide, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.

While they remain rare in Tennessee — with about 3,000 adherents statewide — Unitarian Universalists believe their open-minded faith has a bright future as an alternative to more exclusive brands of religion.

Here’s what I liked about this piece: The Tennessean nailed the statistical angle (with specific numbers attributed to a trusted source) and the expert source component (the newspaper provided relevant analysis by an author who has studied liberal spiritual groups). And, just as I started to grumble to myself, “Yeah, but what do they believe?” Smietana hit that crucial aspect of the story with flair.

To wit:

The Rev. Gail Seavey, the minister at First Unitarian Universalist, 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. Conscience, rather than a creed, guides their spiritual life. Ethical living matters more than correct theology.

“We are the church of the open mind, the loving heart and the helping hand,” Seavey said. “We always try to pull those things together.”

That belief in the individual choice in faith can been seen in a practice known as water communion. In most 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 bunch of individuals finding our own path — but we are doing it as a group,” said De Lee.

Whether or not one shares the beliefs of the Unitarian Universalists, the reporter does his job by allowing the adherents to describe their beliefs in easy-to-understand terms.

It’s a simple thing, really.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jerry

    Nice story – thanks for highlighting it.

    One interesting fact from that story was the the Unitarian Universalist church has been growing. That makes this story’s coverage an important part of the complex picture of how religion is changing in America.

  • Dave

    As a Unitarian Universalist, I appreciate you bringing attention to this piece.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      What did you think of the story, Dave?

  • bob

    It’s awfully easy to report on the subject because there’s so very little to report ON. When a religious group has some actual teachings it gets dicier. If there’s no rules in a game and no score you don’t need any umpires, and very few people pay attention to it. They don’t even call it a game. It doesn’t get on the sports pages. Like this doesn’t get on a religion page too often. There’s nothing to “get” here.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    A national version of this story has been published by USA Today with a few more stats and sources. I like that the new version adds a critic (read: different perspective), although I wish that his criticism had been fleshed out a little more. It’s pretty vague:

    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 Unitarians Unitarians are growing.

    Coppenger said he’s sure that those inclusive groups are made up of
    nice people who would be good neighbor.

    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.

  • The Emerson Analyst

    “It’s a simple thing, really.”

    That “fluff piece” on Unitarian Universalism, which reads much like a paid “advertorial” produced by the UUA’s marketing department, was a bit *too* “simple” in more than one sense of the word. . . Indeed it can be reasonably described as simplistic.

    Here is the comment that I posted in response to it on The Washington Post site -

    This article about the alleged growth of Unitarian Universalism in America is highly misleading. Membership in the Unitarian Universalist Association has actually been quite stagnant since the merger of the Unitarians and Universalists in 1961 and, when seen as a percentage of the overall population, Unitarian Universalism is actually losing ground on the membership front. Most ironically, current UUA President Rev. Peter Morales quite truthfully and accurately described Unitarian Universalism as “a tiny, declining, fringe religion” is his “stump speech” announcing his candidacy for president of the UUA in 2008. Sadly, U*Uism is every bit as much “a tiny, declining, fringe religion” today as it was four years ago when Rev. Morales uttered that unflattering but realistic assessment of what some U*Us call “The U*U Movement”.

    How can The Washington Post claim that the “Number of Unitarian Universalists grew nationally by 15.8% from 2000 to 2010″ when official UUA statistics claim a total of 216,931 UUs in 2000 and 221,367 in 2009? It should be noted that those UUA membership figures include RE enrollments aka “UU Sunday School” children. Adult UU membership was just under 165,000 in 2009. UUA RE enrollments show a steady decline since the 2002-2003 “church year”, going from a high of 63,080 in 2003 to 56,683 in 2009. A loss of over 6000 children attending UU RE.

    In fact these official UUA membership statistics contain the “sad but True” revelation that, in terms of “Membership & RE Enrollments Combined”, there are actually fewer Unitarian Universalists today than there were over 50 years ago in 1961 when the American Unitarian Association merged with the Universalist Church. . .

    As they say, “read ‘em and weep” for UUA President Rev. Peter Morales’ “tiny, declining, fringe religion.”

    1961 – Adult members: 151,557 RE enrollments: 77,546 Combined: 229,103

    2009 – Adult members: 164,684 RE enrollments: 56,683 Combined: 221,367

    Yes, over a period of 48 years, between 1961 and 2009, Unitarian Universalism “grew” by a whopping 13,000 adult members, a “less than impressive” growth rate that averages out at only 271 additional adult U*Us per annum. Yet, during the same 48 years, “UU Sunday School” enrollments declined by almost 21,000 children. What do these “discouraging” UUA statistics bode for the future of the Unitarian Universalist “fringe religion” in America? So much for this misleading article’s greatly exaggerated rumors about the all but non-existent “growth” of Unitarian Universalism.


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