33 New Things: Attend A Service At a Universal Unitarian Church

This is the blog post where I talk about my relationship with organized religion and faith.

Despite attending church almost every Sunday for the first 19 years of my life, Christianity has never particularly resonated with me.  I spent my time in church mentally organizing my closet, mumbling along to hymns and making origami out of the bulletin. As I got older, I actually gave some thought to religion as I’d been raised to understand it and why it didn’t work for me. (I’m obviously not saying that you need to hold similar views of organized religion or Christianity.  We all have our own struggles and questions – these just happen to be mine)

* I didn’t like the idea of doing good things in order to get into heaven or to please an omnipotent being.
  Shouldn’t we just do good things because it’s the right thing to do?  And because, as part of Team Human, we should help each other out?

* I didn’t like the fact that many religions exclude people based on their gender or sexual orientation.

* I found many of the stories in the bible scary, weird, offensive or just generally unrelatable. Women turning into pillars of salt?  Children being sacrificedMenstruating women being untouchable?  I realize that many people view bible stories as just that – stories, meant to illustrate larger, more important issues like trust, modesty and selflessness.  But I, personally, found other pieces of literature to cover said issues in a way that worked better for me.

* There are so many interesting, engaging, lovely religions in the world – had I really been born into the one that was right for me? 

* I am not someone particularly prone to religious moments – and the few that I’ve had did not occur in a church.  They occurred on the salt flats of Bolivia, in a refugee camp in Nepal, on the lake where I was raised, on a yoga mat in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Not in a house of worship.

I first heard about the Universal Unitarian church while reading through a bio of one of my favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut.  We can all acknowledge K.V. to be an excellent writer and wonderful human being – so if it’s good enough for him, it’s probably good enough for me.

After assembling a ‘church outfit’ Mom Von would be proud of (no flip flops!) I popped into Unity Church which is just a few blocks from my flat.  I emotionally steeled myself for people trying to hug me, talk to me about my ‘faith journey’ or invite me to join in a dance honoring the goddess of the harvest (all of which would have made me turn inside out) but, thankfully, all I had to do was stick on a name tag.

I wandered into the sanctuary and was immediately thrilled.  No cross, no stained glass windows – just blond wood and open space and light.  The readings came from Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt.  The songs were from Tom Petty and Peter Gabriel.  The ‘sermon’ was about the effects cheap labor, meritocracy and inherent worth, delivered by a former journalist.  The offering went to a local non-profit that supported mental health assistance for under-served communities.  The entire experience made sense to me in a way that church has never made sense before. 

During my first years at college, I engaged in many of those painfully overwrought, deep-and-meaningful debates with Christian friends.  I’d ask them about the lack of female priests or the church’s position on homosexuality or Adam and Eve vs. evolution.  My (incredibly smart) roommate finally said “Church is a place where I go once a week and think about my life.  I think about the choices I’ve made and if I’m proud of those choices and if I’m proud of the person I’m becoming.  I send good thoughts towards people who need them and I actively try to be a better person.”

I love that idea.  Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all spent one hour a week reflecting on our choices?  I’m not sure I’ll join Unity church or go every Sunday (and I’ll still melt into the floor if you use the words ‘faith journey’ with me) but I think I’m one step closer to finding something that works for me.

Do you consider yourself religious?  How do you feel about church and faith? 

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  1. Camels & Chocolate

    OMG, same! I spent every Sunday and Wednesday at a Southern Baptist church growing up, and once I got toward the end of my high school years, I began to eschew organized religion entirely and kind of figured I'd eventually find my way back…so far, that has yet to happen. And if it ever does, you can be sure it will be in a much more open, loving, nonjudgmental denomination than that in which I was raised.

  2. Raquel

    Very thoughtful and well written, Sarah!

    I was raised without a fixed religion, though my family in Switzerland are deeply Roman Catholic. I'm inclined to feel the same way as you – my spiritual moments happen on the beach or in banana plantations in Costa Rica.

    I would definitely be interested in attending a service like that, just for the experience!

  3. SnapandPrint

    I feel the same about religion.

    My family were in a strict Nazarene church that even frowned on watching movies and dancing. I went punk in my teens and was instantly accused of being in a cult. That baffled me because I still attended church.

    This led to me questioning (more than I already had) organized religion and how it treats people who are different: in looks, religion, race, gender. It led me away form attending church and I have never looked back, not even in sadness.

    My idea of religion is just living a life without harming or doing ill to others. I have had my most religious like experiences on my own, in places that inspired me in it's natural beauty. Not in a pew at a church being judged harshly by people who have tons of emotional baggage that they are trying to "fix" using religion/God.

    I also not sure that any one religion is the right one and it disturbs me that there are people who think others are going to hell just because they do not follow the same religion as they do. Sadly, my mum is one of those people thanks to her heavy involvement in her church.

    Thanks so much for posting the blog. It helped me to know I am not alone in just not feeling organized religion and thatthere are others who have the same thought about religion as I do.

  4. cheezyk

    Let me first say that I am a Christian who was raised in and still regularly attends a non-denominational church.

    That said, I continually find it amazing that so many "christians" believe:

    – it's okay to be judgmental about other peoples' lifestyles (Jesus himself sat with a tax collector, ate with a prostitute, hugged a leper and showed many other examples of love and acceptance of those not accepted by society)

    – that God can only be found within four walls (there is NOTHING in the bible to lead you to this conclusion and I know hundreds of people with personal experiences that occurred in just as many different places)

    – that crosses, statues, candles and all the other paraphernalia are anything other than objects (the bible clearly calls all of these things false idols)

    Thank you for posting such a clear, well though post on this topic – too many people on both sides of the camp are simply argumentative and derogatory and that doesn't help anyone to live a happy life.

  5. kirkaug

    "Wouldn't the world be a better place if we all spent one hour a week reflecting on our choices?"

    Yes, or hopefully, much more than that. I just do not find a church setting to be the best place for me to do that. Usually I can reflect better with some good ole alone time. It's like prayer, without the supernatural bend. Some might call it meditation.

  6. LadyDomestic

    First, let me say, I have the same thoughts about "christianity". I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness and attended "meetings" three days a week and would go door to door once a week. I tried to convince myself it was what I wanted but no matter what I did it never felt "right". I hated the limitations, one BIG one was you were not allowed to be friends with those outside the church because they were deemed "bad association". I'm not saying you aren't allowed to talk to those around you, I'm saying you aren't allowed to spend time out of school with friends or work or anything that you are not obligated to do. As time went on I decided that Universal Unitarian was right for me! I have yet to attend a meeting but I hope to in the future.

    Church really put a bad taste in my mouth & during the 17 years I did attend church I dreaded every moment of it. I felt forced and trapped, not a good feeling and honestly it pushed me away from even the THOUGHT of religion because it was forced upon me by my friends and family.

    As a possible future parent I feel that pushing a religion on a child is only going to make a barrier between you & your child's relationship. Give children the option to develop their own opinion of what they are put on this planet for!

    I have many friends who are religious and I praise them for being passionate about what they believe in. But, it still is not right for me. It is so refreshing to see someone speak freely about touchy topics like this! Bravo sista & keep it up!


  7. Julie

    I, like LadyDomestic, was born and raised a Jehova's Witness. Lucky for me, my parents were totally cool and let me lead a "normal" life (as in, I had more friends from school than from religion and so on).

    My dad went through a phase where he found out that a "brother" was scamming some "sisters" and decided to leave the religion for a while. My mum was, and still is, a fierce member of the congregation. She's the one who made my sister and I continue.

    From a young age I knew that going door to door wasn't my thing, so I stopped going at age 11. My mum gave in once I started throwing tantrums and skipping that part of the service with some friends.

    My sister had some problems with a boyfriend she had (he began stalking her and threatened to kill himself if she left him), so she decided to leave the religion.

    NOTE: These two persons are the exception to the JW's philosophy. I've met countless of kind people than bad people in that religion.

    A few years later I did too, I no longer liked what the meetings were about. I didn't agree with a lot of things they said about technology and life.

    My dad went back when he retired from his job and he is very happy. He is a very active member, but knows how to distinguish from fanatism and practical advice. I keep to heart all the values and morals I was raised with, but I don't think that I will ever go back to that.

    I also went to Catholic school, my parents were very keen on giving my sister and I a good education and they enrolled us in private school. I was forced to attend mass and take Catholic Faith classes during 12 years.

    My school is part of the Legion of Christ and it was run by Consagrate Women (they're like nuns for the LEgion of Christ). They were super extreme and used to tell me that because we weren't Catholic, that we would burn to hell.

    I did have a nice relationship with the priest there, he was the one who got me to skip mass and Catholic events during my senior year in high school. He also counseled me when I decided to leave the JW's and I will forever be grateful for that.

    I don't think I'll be going back to organized religion. I like a lot of teachings from many religions and I like to apply them all to my everyday life. I do plan to raise my children with the same values and morals that I was raised and if they decide to get into a certain religion I will support them as my parents did I when I decided to leave the JWs.

    Sorry about the novel length comment, I just have a lot to say on this subject :).

  8. Bex

    Fantastically written. I was raised Unitarian by parents who still regularly attend UU services. I don't go very often anymore – not because I disagree with any of the teachings, but just because I usually work on Sundays and when I don't I love sleep – but I still really value the principles and feel so lucky to have been brought up in such an open minded, intellectual and supportive community.

    I have had so many negative encounters with self-proclaimed super-Christians. I by no means think that all Christians are bad/crazy/brain-washed/etc. but even my first hand experiences with such Christians has lead me to question the ideals of Christianity. I find that nearly every religion, Christianity included, has some valuable teachings and ideas, but I haven't yet found one that 100% represents everything that I believe and support.

    I love your roommate's evaluation of what a church-going experience should be, and I think that ANY church you attend should offer that kind of opportunity for reflection and self evaluation, but I know that this is far from reality. As an adult, I have attended several other churches as an adult – Catholic, Baptist, Nazarene, Jewish – and found that no other group offered me with the chance to be myself without judgement, much less offer me the chance to question and learn and grow with my own beliefs without serious judgment. I have always returned to the Unitarian faith when I feel like I need a church community.

  9. Amy --- Just A Titch

    I have so many complex feelings about religion, many of them similar to what you've described here. I miss church desperately, something that's hard for most people I hang out with to understand. I've tried yoga and a variety of other things that should fill that role, but I miss having that time every week. This makes me want to go back and check it out. Great post, friend!

  10. Maddison Snook

    I am a committed Christian (not just a nominal one). I was raised in a Christian family, although my beliefs have grown to be very different from that of my family. I continue to be part of a church, and my faith is extremely important to me.

    I respect what you have to say though! I must say that I think that Christianity is so so so poorly represented by a lot of people. (Props to cheezyk who posted before me with some good points).

    Interesting post. Thanks for addressing the topic so respectfully. Looking forward to reading the discussion in the comments =).

  11. Amanda

    I am a Christian and have been the majority of my life. Went to a private school (in a Baptist church) for 4 years and attended church regularly until I was 17. I guess I'm one of those people who say they are "spiritual but not religious", even though I identify more with the Christian religion than anything else. This could just be b/c I was raised in it.

    Like cheezyk, some beliefs of Christianity amaze me, since Jesus clearly talks about love being the best thing ever. Jesus also had a lot of talks with God out in nature, not in a building. Most of my moments weren't/aren't in church either.

    I read in a book once that there is one God but many different pathways to that God (or Goddess if one prefers). That's how I view all religions – different ways, same end. Even if I come across someone who doesn't believe in a higher power, I won't tell them they are wrong. For all I know, I could be wrong. I am not all knowing.

    I try to live a life of love and respect, being kind and helping those in need. It's just the right thing to do, religion or no religion.

    Excellent post, as always. Good luck figuring out what works for you. 🙂

  12. j.lowe

    Great post. This has been the year that I've seriously rethought and given a huge overhaul to my religious identity. In as short a story I can make it: I was in a fundamentalist Christian religion for 10 years, and it's only this past year that I finally got out of my church. The deprogramming of all of my thinking is the hard part.

    I am looking for a new church to attend. It's coincidental that you bring up the unitarian church. That's one of the first churches on my list to explore. I need to deprogram myself of the many erroneous and dogmatic rules I learned. For me, I think the best way to accomplish this is to start exploring different ways of identifying as Christian and being very open to saying yes to life (without falling into another cult-like movement). I'm not sure if I'm looking for a revival of faith (I tend to describe myself as a Christian agnostic now) so much as to see something totally different.

    I really liked each of the points you brought up about what you didn't like about church and what you think faith should be about. I also really liked your roommate's quote. I totally agree with you and your old roommate. I'm hopeful that I'll find what I'm looking for, whether it's a more liberal branch of Christianity committed to social justice or something else altogether.

    It's scary, leaving behind what's familiar, but this world is so full of possibilities.

  13. poet

    I have felt very similar about church / organized Christianity after I grew out of my simple childhood faith and recovered from an über-pious phase during my teens! Your experience at the Unitarian church sounds great, though.

  14. Hs

    I was raised in the fundamental southern Church of Christ and had to leave at 17. Just too narrow and hateful for me. (yes – they really think they are the ONLY people going to heaven)

    Fast forward more than a decade and a friend introduced me to Unity. I have gone to Unity or similar New thought churches (like Religious Science) for a decade since. Unitarian Universalist is similar – I've found that it has more of a political/social foundation while the others are more spiritual and how you can create your reality through your thoughts.

    I could never go back to the old ways of thinking now that I've found something so refreshing and hopeful.

  15. Little redhead

    In Belgium we have nowhere near as many different churches as you have in the States, I've never even heard of most of those sidebranches of Christianity. Not many people here are religious anymore too. Only in a very vague way. I agree with what you say about the bible, I also find it to be very cruel, narrow-minded and many of the stories are absolutely horrible. God does not come off as being very forgiven. I don't really want to be an atheist, as I feel having some sort of belief is a nice aspect of life, but I haven't really been able to find anything that suits me well either. I dislike how most religions are very patriarchal and have no regard for women, and how people who are different from the masses or simply believe in something else are deemed sinful.
    As there are so few options here I doubt I'll find something that suits me!

  16. Venus Aeterno

    Wow I feel like you took words from my head and wrote them down. I was also raised in a Christian family and never understood the value of organized religion and felt as alone and outcast at church as I did anywhere else and have had much more eye opening and communal feelings in "secular" surroundings. I think the Christian religion works for a lot of people and I respect that, but it is not for me. This Unity Church idea seems very interesting. I probably will not join it or anything but maybe I will check out a service someday.

  17. Claire

    "There are so many interesting, engaging, lovely religions in the world – had I really been born into the one that was right for me?"

    This is exactly what I struggle with. Thank you so much, Sarah. I have no complaint with the idea of practicing an organized religion, for I do believe that some people need that type of structure around which to build their lives. But who's to say that THIS religion is "more right" than THAT one?

    Upon sharing these thoughts with my mom, who raised us all to be devout Catholics, she smiled compassionately and said, "That's a great question. And you'll probably be working out the answer for several years to come."

  18. Samantha

    Well for me I grew up a Methodist and am now in the process of taking refuge to become a Tibetan Buddhist. Growing up I was very into Christianity, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that it wasn't for me and I was only practicing it for my family. My journey to becoming a Buddhist especially of the Tibetan persuasion was a road that has taken me on a 15 year journey. It just fit and when I look back at my life I can see the little things that popped up in my life that really foretold where my religious would land.

    What clicked for me was that my faith wasn't confined to the walls of the monastery. The tools that I am give make me strive to think and see things differently, push me as a person, and give me the tools to handle the ups and downs for life in a way that they resinated with me.

    As for religion as a whole I believe that there are many paths to enlightenment and each person needs to find the way for themselves.

  19. Kelsi

    After years of feeling oppressed by people in organized religion, I became a Christian. To me, Christianity is not about a set of man-made rules to follow in order to "be good" and get into heaven.

    For me, it means to live like Christ as much as possible. Christ loved all people and did not judge them. He spoke to them all; he didn't care if someone was a Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, ill or healthy, a king or a prostitute. He even forgave the men who nailed him to the cross AS THEY DID IT. (I don't think I could ever do that!)

    Today, my opinion is that he wouldn't care if a person was straight or gay, fat or thin, famous or destitute… he would still talk to everyone, listen to everyone, and not pass judgment. He encouraged a way of life of living well and loving others well. THAT is what I think Christianity is about, and the meaning gets lost in the stereotypes of a few extremists and a barrage of ridiculous rules.

  20. margosita

    My parents weren't religious and as a kid I ended up attending church with friends. So for a while I went to a Wednesday evening Bible study with a friend and then went to a UU church with my best friend. I definitely felt included in the UU community, and taken seriously. So I did a lot of youth things at that church, and as part of our Religious Education we attended services at other places of worship. I've thought about attending a church, again, if only because otherwise I'm relatively indifferent to spiritual thoughts at this point in my life.

  21. resolute twig

    Great post. I have had similar issues with organized religion and have also found the Unitarian church to be my favorite one. I think its helpful to have a place to go to be reminded to think about spiritual things and make sure I am happy with my current direction. But its great to have that place be a place that feels accepting and loving and positive. 🙂

  22. Kristen

    team human. i love that. i grew up mormon and had a very similar experience – trying out a universal unitarian church is now on my list of new things to try, too!

  23. Allysh223

    Sarah, based on what you said re: Team Human I cannot recommend enough Greg Epstein's book "Good Without God: What a Billion Non-religious People Do Believe".

    Aside from being highly informative and inspiring, it was SO awesome to read a positive take on atheism/agnosticism/non-belief.

    I was raised Episcopalian but for me personally, have come to decide that the question of god is not relevant to my life. I believe in having a positive, good, productive life in which I help contribute to the world and lessen the suffering of others because I know what it's like to be human and because I believe this is the only life we get. I value custom and tradition and find plenty of non-religious ways to celebrate both. And that's enough for me.

  24. Maven

    Hi–I just popped over from Already Pretty and was tickled to see an order of service that I recognized right at the top of the page here. I'm one of the professional soloists in the choir at Unity and I've been there 12 years!–and this after I thought I'd never take another church gig (most mid-level classical singers have church gigs). It's a pretty dang right-on place, and the UU church is the ONLY one in the country (the world??) offering an age appropriate comprehensive sexuality education curriculum for middle schoolers, which I think is incredibly cool. Anyway, it's been a great place for me, and I hope you stop back sometime once the regular programming kicks in two weeks from now. We do have a pretty kick-ass choir, if I do say so myself.

  25. Ellie Di

    The thoughts I have on this topic have been brewing for so long that I don't think I can put them all into a comment or even a blog post of my own. But I wanted to drop you a note to say I'm very proud of you for sharing your thoughts – it's a brave thing to share your spirituality on the internet. And I also wanted to give you big internet hugs for re-investigating being down with God – another hard and brave thing. Should you ever want to dish about religion, you know where to find me. <3

  26. The Curious Cat

    Sounds like my kind of church! I'm not religious but I share similar sentiments to you. I'd definitely say I'm spiritual and believe in life's wonder…often thought it would be nice to take out more time to think about this…once I'm more settled somewhere maybe I shall…xxx

  27. Kristie

    I was born into and raised in the Mormon Church. I still attend regularly and my husband and I were just married in one of our temples. I love my church. I don't feel pressure to be good because that's what we need to do to go to heaven. I feel like The Church has ingrained in me an inner want and desire to do what is right, no matter what. When I have a moral dilemma, it always comes down to my conscience. I feel at home at church and I love it's teachings of love and happiness. I wish you luck in your journey finding that!

  28. Rachael

    I looooooooooove UU. They are what a church should mean, in my opinion. I used to attend the Pasadena UU with friends, but have been unable to since they moved (I don't drive and none of my family is interested) I wish I had discovered UU in high school so maybe I'd have been more involved now. I am otherwise fairly disgusted by most religions.

  29. Anonymous

    "I didn't like the idea of doing good things in order to get into heaven or to please an omnipotent being."

    I just would like to say that it's a common misconception that Christians have to do good works to get to Heaven. That is absolutely not true. You only have to believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior for salvation.

  30. Kristie

    @ Anonymous: As a Mormon, I am a full Christian and we do not believe you just have to believe in Jesus Christ to get to Heaven. You do have to be a good person and do good things in my opinion.

  31. Jill Browning

    Thanks for this. Raised Lutheran and quickly rejected it as soon as I left home. Finding God in my own way now, but struggling with how to teach God to my 2 year old…

  32. Erin

    oh I agree. I felt very comfortable there. I'm not tied to any religion, but I liked the service I attended.

  33. auntykaryn

    I know I'm a little late to the party, but I wanted to share my views. I am a Christian,and I attend weekly meetings. I am very much like many of you. I can have spiritual moments when I'm laying in a field looking at the stars, or when I'm praying beside my bed. I have friends from all walks of life, and I love them all equally. Christianity is about tolerance and love. However, I don't love people because my religion tells me to. I love them because they need to be loved. Some people find a church, some a cause, and some people just want to enjoy the life they've been given. I try to do all three…with varying degrees of success. 😉

  34. amanda

    Welcome to your first UU experience. I have been attending UU services for a number of years and it is the first place I have ever felt "home" in a spiritual sense. I love the sense of community, social justice and love that just oozes from every cover of the place! I hope you keep coming back — I am sure the group would be well served by your involvement!

  35. RobMaster

    As a lifelong UU, I am intrigued by the discussion this wonderful post has kicked off. Thought I'd offer up some info about Unitarian Universalism.

    First, it IS a branch of Christianity, not an alternative. We seek to be informed by the teachings of Christ, among many others. The somewhat trite formulation is that we are interested in the religion OF Christ rather than the one about Christ. A cruder way to put it is that we are interested in his ideas, not his parlor tricks.

    We do not have a creed, or "belief test", by which to include some and exclude others from our community or from Heaven. Hence "universalist". We tend to find traditional notions of Heaven as some kid of exclusive country club to be both petty and beside the point.

    We tend to believe that our lives have meaning, need to have meaning, but that meaning is not just given to us on a silver platter. Meaning has to be sought, found, earned, lost again and recovered differently, endlessly. We alone are responsible for the meaning in our lives.

    UU's don't claim to have the answers, but being part of "team human" means certain questions are still important enough to ponder together with others, not just in isolation from everyone else:

    What is our responsibility to others? What does it mean to be alive and have to die? How should use our limited time? How do we respond to the good and bad things that happen to us and to others?

    These are questions you don't escape just because you say you're not religious or, conversely, because you belong to a faith that claims to have all the answers down pat.

    Religion is not necessarily just a set of beliefs about unknowable things. It is the act of coming together with others to ponder "ultimate questions" and share our progress, and to be grateful together.

    Not speaking for other UU's, here's a last thought:

    When Jesus said " the kingdom of heaven is at hand", he was not saying that heaven, some other place you go after you die that was formerly off limits, was about to be opened by an act of sacrifice or magic. His message was more simple and elegant: that it is within our grasp to create heaven, here on Earth, in THIS life. All we have to do is treat each other decently. All that stands between us and that heaven is the collective decision of many individuals to make it happen.

    I go to the UU church to be reminded to lift my eyes up from my day to day life to other important things. By listening to thoughtful sermons and participating in occasional discussions, I refocus my attention away from myself to the larger life of humanity. I go there because I need to be reminded repeatedly to do my small part in bringing about the kingdom of heaven.

  36. Allison

    Hmmmmm…. Although raised Catholic, I've really stayed away from religion in the past ten years or so. They way you described the Unitarian church actually makes me want to (maybe) attend. My biggest difficulty with church (and this is a basic one), is even accepting the idea of a God. I really want to find a church where I can discuss, and not just be told… They're hard to find…

  37. Taylor

    I grew up going to church with both sides of my family – one Southern Baptist, one Evangelical.

    I am now, at 22, a proud new member of a Unitarian Universalist and I love it.

    That quote by your roommate is WONDERFUL. 🙂

  38. freelance writer

    It was nice to read thank so much!

  39. acne

    I go to the UU church to be reminded to lift my eyes up from my day to day life to other important things

  40. Anonymous

    You are my thought twin when it comes to religion, based on the points you gave. I love that you're exploring the world on your own terms.

  41. ashley

    I've been toying with the idea of attending a UU service for quite a while. I would most clearly identify myself as an atheist but have been looking for a community that shares the values of service, justice, and acceptance. I may attend the same church you went to as I live in the same neighborhood as Unity Church!

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