When discussing the implications Unity has for mainline churches, an important caveat must be made regarding the free market nature of religion in the United States. The Unity philosophy obviously is not attractive to everyone, or the movement would be much larger than it is. Rather, Unity succeeds on its own scale because it meets the needs of a specific group of people. The lesson for mainline churches, then, is not to become more like Unity, but to find a niche in the religious marketplace and meet the needs of those spiritual seekers. Because they are so large, most mainline churches aim to be all-inclusive and to be all things to all people. By limiting their scope to several distinct subgroups rather than the population as a whole, mainline churches would have a better chance of doing an excellent job of reaching a few people rather than doing an adequate job of reaching everyone. Perhaps it is by narrowing the appeal of each church that those churches will become more vibrant, energetic and better able to meet the needs of its constituents.
With that caveat, churches who wish to reach out to the subgroup of Americans who are attracted to Unity can do several things. First, they can appeal to the experiential nature of religion which is so important to mystics. Mainline churches can place more emphasis on the personal experience of God by showing people how to get in touch with God through prayer and meditation, and by collectively reinforcing mystical notions in group worship. For example, in all my experience in the Methodist and Catholic churches, I was never once encouraged to experience God. I learned stories about God. I prayed to God. I worshipped God. But no one ever told me that I could feel God. I had to find that for myself. Because personal experience is the most believable authority for 43 percent of Americans (Princeton Religion Research Center, 1993), a church which helps people experience God will gain authority because it is able to facilitate that connection.
Second, mainline churches can emphasize the practicality and pragmatism of their philosophies. The people in this research were strongly attracted to Unity because it helps them through daily dilemmas in addition to giving a higher meaning to their lives. A church that helps people learn how to discipline their children, how to comfort a sick person, or even how to be patient in traffic may be more helpful to some people than a church which does not apply its philosophy to daily life.
Third, mainline churches can recognize American individualism and implement their own version of Unity's doctrine of individual choice. Although not even all Unity ministers have perfected this, it is possible to present a strong, convincing and confident religious argument and at the same time leave the listener feeling like he or she is free to accept or reject it without judgment from the church. This open and accepting attitude, in combination with a strong teaching, may lead to more people actually hearing the message because they aren't offended by its exclusivity. Of course, if the church's philosophy includes a belief that its teachings are the only way to God, the doctrine of individual choice could not be implemented effectively.
Fourth, mainline churches can incorporate some of the beliefs of Unity and New Thought into their doctrines. For example, the success of Norman Vincent Peale shows how the New Thought message can be carried into mainstream orthodox Christianity. Braden (1963) explains how Peale "has succeeded in weaving into an otherwise unobjectionably Christian orthodox framework some of the basic New Thought ideas and has wholeheartedly adopted some New Thought aims and especially techniques" (p. 387). However, because many of Unity's beliefs are viewed as questionable if not heretical by traditional denominations, the mainline churches cannot adopt them and remain mainline. Such debatable ideas as Unity's interpretation of the Christ spirit within each person could not be recognized as valid within many mainline churches without calling into question central theological tenets of the faith.
Of course, these suggestions cannot and should not be applied to every church, because the religious marketplace includes a wide variety of religious subgroups who are shopping for answers to different needs. It is possible, however, that some of Unity's beliefs and practices would meet the needs of religious seekers in other denominations.
© 1997, Rebecca Gittrich Whitecotton
All rights reserved by the author.
Reprinted with permission.