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Unity Church Growth

In order to comprehend the current proliferation of Unity churches, it is important to understand why Unity churches were formed in the first place. Anyone with knowledge of the original intentions of the Fillmores would find it ironic that the organization they formed as an addition or alternative to organized religion is now enmeshed in the very bureaucracy they attempted to avoid. Charles Fillmore's contempt for organized religion is evident in his writing: "The true church of Christ is never organized upon the earth, because the minute that man organizes religion, he ceases to be guided wholly by the free Spirit of truth, and to that extent he falls away from the true church" (Fillmore, 1965, pp 101- 102). The dilemma for Fillmore was how to allow people to be individually guided by the "free Spirit of truth" while setting limits on the teachings of the movement.

Although the creation of churches was not intended, it was an inevitable step in the development of a growing religious movement, according to the theories of two early sociologists, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. The development of churches began informally as groups of people gathered under the name of Unity to study spiritual teachings. Rather than simply read Unity publications in the privacy of their own home, people were drawn together to discuss and celebrate their common faith. According to Durkheim (1915), it is this need for collective reinforcement of beliefs which leads to the creation of churches.

Although Unity was originally intended as a partner of traditional Christianity, collective reinforcement of Unity ideals was not possible within the historic church because of the difference in beliefs. This is shown by the pamphlet What's Wrong with Unity School of Christianity by Louis T. Talbot (1956), who was the chancellor of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. He writes: "While they steadfastly maintain that you may continue to be a Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian or a member of any other denomination, and still belong to them, the fact is that those who go into Unity very deeply abandon their orthodox churches " (p. 8). The mystical philosophy of Unity may be accepted by mystical Christian orders or sects, which recognize the divine in the believer, but, traditionally, this form of Christianity has been mainly ascetic and therefore not conducive to collective reinforcement.

One method of collective reinforcement is through what Durkheim calls effervescent experiences, or experiences which make a person loose their sense of self and feel connected to a larger whole. In Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Durkheim (1915) provides examples of the dances and rituals of early tribes that whipped participants into such a frenzy that they did things of which they were not normally capable. Because these experiences are so powerful, Durkheim argues that individuals attribute this effervescent force to something outside themselves: a god. In Unity this effervescence is attributed to a god, but it is a god which is within the believer as well as outside. In a description of a Unity service, Bach (1982) provides an example of how Unity uses effervescence to experience the God within. The affirmations, which are repeated aloud by everyone, lead to a feeling of corporate worship. Furthermore, the entire service is focused not on the worship of God, but the worship of the individual's oneness with God.

The opening affirmation at this service was: I am here by divine appointment and God makes straight my way.

The minister presented it as if it were a prime text straight out of the gospel according to Unity, which it was. We repeated it. We dwelt upon it in silence, and by that time the mood was one of sincere and deep reflection, and empathy was firmly established. . . .

I cannot help contrasting this experience with the customary practice in the traditional churches and in my own pastorate experience. We of the 'historic' faith open our worship with a processional, a choir rendition .... We sing the Gloria and pray the Lord's Prayer, but somehow we fail to reach the person in the pew with the thrilling reminder that at this moment we are one with God in a very special close encounter. (p. 161)

When we close our eyes and say: I am here by divine appointment and God makes straight my way, we arouse these qualities within ourselves, in others, and in the world in which we live. (p. 165)

Billy also provides an example of how effervescence can affect religious decisions. He went to a retreat at Unity Village because his wife wanted to go, but the experience of intense collective worship was so powerful for him that he decided that he would become a member of his hometown Unity church. He describes his experience this way:

We lived in Munich, Germany for six years. . . . The six years we were there we went all over western Europe. I've been in monasteries. I've been in Notre Dame. I've been in churches, cathedrals, some of them with riches that you can't imagine: solid gold altars, priceless paintings, tapestries and on and on. None of those places gave me the Godly feeling that I got here in this place. I mean that from the bottom of my heart. I'm glad I saw them (cathedrals). They were nice to look at, but they were more of a church attraction than a church. This place is truly, truly Godly to me. I would have missed that if I hadn't signed up for this. . . . I really feel good about the things that have happened to me.

In Unity's early years, the need for collective reinforcement was met through small gatherings of people. As these groups became larger and more numerous, various leaders and members began studying under the auspices of Unity topics like spiritualism or astrology, which were not approved of by Unity leaders. In order to retain the original intentions of the founders, the leaders of the movement had to create increasing limitations on what could be taught in the name of Unity. This process of institutionalization of religion is the result of what Weber (1922) calls the bureaucratization of charisma, which begins when groups begin to form around a particular leader or philosophy.

The establishment of a religious congregational community provides the strongest stimulus, though not the only one, for the development of even the substantive content of the priestly doctrine, since the existence of a religious congregation creates the specific importance of dogmas. Once a religious community has become established it feels a need to set itself apart from alien competing doctrines and to maintain its superiority in propaganda, (p. 70)

Weber's theory states that once a belief system is in place, an increasingly more bureaucratic hierarchy is developed to enforce the dogma. Although the Fillmores did not want to create a creed or rigid dogma, as outlined in Chapter II, a basic belief system for Unity eventually was outlined, with an essential component of that doctrine being an understanding that individuals were free to agree or disagree. Interestingly, it was the bureaucratic formation of the Association of Unity Churches in 1966 which preceded the most significant growth in the number of churches in Unity's history. It is clear then, that the institutional growth of the church movement was not simply the result of seekers haphazardly "discovering" the church, but was the result of effort and marketing on the part of the Association. When the Association was formed, there were about 220 churches and satellite ministries internationally. In 1984, when the Association gathered to write a long-range plan, Unity had 440 churches, satellite ministries and informal study groups. They set a goal to double that number in ten years. They reached that goal in just over eight years, and by the end of 1996 the number had grown to almost 1,000. Glenn Mosley, the executive director of the Association, said the growth was nurtured by the Association's extension of consulting services to meet needs of individual churches. First, they have used the skills of marketing and public relations to make churches more visible in the community. Second, the Association assists churches in developing programs which will meet the specific needs of the church's community (Mosley, 1996).

Although Unity has historically shied away from evangelism, Mosley wrote a pamphlet which attempts to change the traditional edict of "Thou shalt not proselytize" and encourages people to share Unity with their friends.

If we encourage our students to think or to use phrases such as, "Well, when my friend evolves to a point of receptivity, he will find Unity on his own," we may only be trying to avoid proselytizing. I know because I've been there. However, I now believe that this view is analogous to the man who walks by a burning house in the middle of the night, knowing that there are people sleeping inside, but excuses his non-involvement by saying, "Oh well, when it gets hot enough inside that house, they'll wake up and save themselves." We have bent over backwards so far to avoid proselytizing that in many instances it has caused us to fall down entirely (Mosley, n.d., p. 3).

Despite efforts to avoid the bureaucracy of institutionalized churches, Unity's need for collective reinforcement of belief, as well as its efforts to distinguish Unity doctrine from other philosophies, originally caused the movement's leaders to bureaucratize the movement's charisma. Although there are organizational dilemmas which accompany this hierarchy, this process was necessary for Unity to grow as a church movement.

© 1997, Rebecca Gittrich Whitecotton
All rights reserved by the author.
Reprinted with permission.