What to call a UU non-church.
November 2, 2011 6:49 PM   Subscribe

What do you call a Unitarian Universalist church when you don't want to call it a church?

So listen.

I was talking to a friend who, like me, recently started going to a Unitarian Universalist church, and we have a problem. Both raging agnostics who want nothing to do with Christianity, we are having a hard time telling people what we do on Sundays. Sometimes avoiding the question is out of the question. But the building where we go and talk about the goodness of humanity and shit? It's a big, old, stone-and-stained-glass, bell-in-a-steeple, churchy-type church. Except without the God. And the service? 11 AM, person up front with candles and a fancy robe. Just no Jesus.

What should we tell people so they don't think we're Christians, but without insulting Christians by immediately following any mention of church with "BUT THANK GOD I'M NOT A CHRISTIAN. WAIT. SCRATCH THE GOD PART"? Technically it's not a fellowship. Is it our "congregation?" My friends said she has talked to other UUs who have a similar problem. Minister calls it a church and enjoys reclaiming Christian terminology. Advice?
posted by sarling to Religion & Philosophy (38 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
When I was a UU everyone - and this includes the agnostics and atheists - called it a church. Anything else just draws attention to your own anxiety over the issue. You could call it a meeting but I have a feeling that, depending on where you are, people may think you're a Quaker.

(Also, the UUA doesn't reject Christianity any more than they reject Buddhism or Islam or secular humanism. I hope this doesn't trouble you, because I can just about guarantee there are people in your congregation who consider themselves Christian.)
posted by SMPA at 7:00 PM on November 2, 2011 [9 favorites]

If it's important that people not think you're Christian, you could preface the word "church" with "Unitarian Universalist" or "UU," which, I think, are still unfamiliar enough to the average person that it would be more likely to spark a question rather than an assumption.
posted by mittens at 7:00 PM on November 2, 2011

Congregation is what many UUs use who dislike the term "Church" Also "Fellowship" is another choice.
posted by JPD at 7:01 PM on November 2, 2011

The word "church" applied to a body of believers in, e.g. the Bible is often translating the Greek word "ekklesia" which just means "assembly". Surely your UU congregation is an assembly.
posted by Jahaza at 7:02 PM on November 2, 2011

How about, "On Sundays, I go to Unitarian Universalist services."
posted by argonauta at 7:02 PM on November 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

Which is to say I think you should just use the word "church." You won't offend Christians (well, sane ones anyways).

As for not having anything to do with Christianity, to the point of excluding using the word church, well, you won't be able to go on Sunday, have a minister, attend the historically linked UU denomination, etc. The links in our culture are deep and they're deep in the UUA.
posted by Jahaza at 7:04 PM on November 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

A gathering of UUs?
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:13 PM on November 2, 2011

Other non-Christian religions use the word "church." It sounds like you associate the term with Christianity -- other people may or may not. I think "congregation" sounds just as Christian-y as "church." I'd probably go with "I attend Unitarian Universalist services." They'll get that you beliefs vary from other denominations and probably either say "okay" or "what's that" so be prepared to discuss your beliefs if you are trying to make it clear you aren't attending a typical Christian church.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:15 PM on November 2, 2011

It can also be a meeting house.
posted by scruss at 7:27 PM on November 2, 2011

Growing up UU, we went to a fellowship, because it wasn't big enough to have a minister.

Like MonkeyToes mentioned, gathering could serve your purposes, right?
posted by umbĂș at 7:28 PM on November 2, 2011

This is sometimes an issue for the youngish people in my UU church, too (myself included). I just tend to call it church, because that's what it is. My particular church has the word "church" in the name. We're not a fellowship. We're not a congregation (well, we are, but not in title). The other UU church in town calls itself a congregation.

Sooooo...you could go with fellowship or congregation. But those both still tend to have a Christian ring to them. I think calling it a church but prefacing it with "Unitarian Universalist" or "UU" is probably your best bet.

I feel for you, though. When I first started going to a UU church it was weird trying to explain to my friends why I -- who typically identifies as either agnostic or atheist -- would go to church. Now they all more or less understand what it is that I do on Sunday mornings, but it was tricky to explain for the first few months.

Of course, some people still get confused. My fiance's mother only recently realized that we aren't fundamentalist Christians and that a UU church isn't necessarily a Christian church.
posted by asnider at 7:28 PM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

I used to struggle with this too, until I decided I didn't give a shit if anyone drew any conclusions or made any judgments about me, and just started calling it church.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 7:31 PM on November 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

If the subject's troubling you this much, maybe skip mentioning going to services entirely - that on Sundays, you just have a standing date with this friend?
posted by Iris Gambol at 7:34 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: HOLY CONTROVERSY!

To clarify: I'm being flip. "Raging" agnosticism is necessarily somewhat of a joke. (P.S. Thanks, John Cohen. You are charitable!)

Of course there are Christians at my church - loads! And of course UU comes from a Christian tradition. I love tradition! Who doesn't? I'm not interested in rejecting Christians, (or anyone except LogicalDash) (being humorous there!) but would rather not mislead people into thinking I am one. My friend, meanwhile, was Jewish until she became Unitarian, and she is particularly touchy about mentioning her "church" to old friends, because she still considers herself mostly Jewish. (Let's not debate if one can be such. She's not here right now.)

While the place is surely an assembly in the old Greek sense of the word, the modern word has undeniable connotations.

I like "meeting". "Gathering" isn't bad... but I think the majority of you are onto something with the UU preface tacked onto "service" or "church". (Probably "service" would be better for my friend.) Like I said, and you all said, it's a VERY churchy place and activity.

P.S. I particularly appreciate the UUs who've chimed in with their own experiences. Glad to hear it's at least crossed your mind.
posted by sarling at 7:37 PM on November 2, 2011

You attend UU services? You belong to a UU congregation (if you are a member of a congregation)? You have UU fellowship on Sundays? You go to the UU church?
posted by unknowncommand at 7:44 PM on November 2, 2011

You could call it a club. I refer to any gathering I don't want to disclose the topic of "going to roleplaying club" or "a craft fair". I'm sure there's an appropriately spiritual, yet non-christian adjective you could apply to "club" to make it work if you so chose.
posted by Tesseractive at 7:44 PM on November 2, 2011

Wouldn't people who are asking you what you were up to on the weekend, that you would feel like you had to give a specific answer to, already know you aren't a Christian?

I think that there's really no "unloaded" term for what you are doing that isn't going to suggest that you are at least religious to other people. Fellowship, services, fellowship, gathering... And the ones that aren't so bad, like meeting, will just invite more questions. (AA?) I feel like this is just a hole being dug deeper and deeper. I'd either say that you and your friend have a "Sunday morning thing" or be prepared to say "I go to a Universalist Church," and then if necessary following it with "but I'm not Christian, just... interested?" (I'm sorry, I'm not actually sure why you attend.) Some people who don't have any religious interest whatsoever do attend church - I used to be one of them. But I never actually explained myself to anyone.
posted by sm1tten at 7:48 PM on November 2, 2011

It's a congregation.
posted by availablelight at 8:18 PM on November 2, 2011

I've spent a lot of time in UU churches and honestly, most people call it a church. I'm not sure what you're trying to achieve by not calling it church, but surely whatever that goal is can be achieved more directly.
posted by Miko at 8:20 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Congregation" refers to the group. "Service" refers to the event of showing up at a particular time to do something together as a group. " Church" usually refers to the larger institution, but of course when you say "we went to church" you really mean "we went to the Sunday service at X Church."

I dunno, you could just pick one. They are fungible enough terms. But since your chosen denomination is universalist, recognizing many paths to truth and excluding no one from experiences of the sacred, I think you might give some consideration to understanding that your congregation is not about drawing distinctions and spelling your specific beliefs out for other people to accept or reject, but to engage in a shared quest for truth and understanding. If people misunderstand you, how important is that? IF people then ask what church you attend, how difficult is it to say "UU?"
posted by Miko at 8:28 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The UU congregation I belonged to in CA referred to it as "Fellowship". The one I currently belong to refers to itself as "Society". But I just call it "hippie church" mostly, as in,

"So do you guys go to church?"

"Yeah, we're Unitarian Universalist."

"[blank look]"

"Hippie church."

"Oh! Cool!"
posted by padraigin at 8:29 PM on November 2, 2011 [14 favorites]

There are a number of UU congregations that are not fellowships as defined by the the UUA (e.g. the have a settled minister) who, largely for the kinds of reasons you describe, choose to call themselves fellowships anyway. They just ignore the UUA's definition and, in turn, the UUA ignores that they ignore the definition. UUs are very civil in this respect.

Personally, I would say "services" as suggested above in your situation. Or, alternatively, I would recognize that while I might have some issues with some Christians and/or some Christian theology, there are things of use which have sprung from that tradition and just use "church" and let the chips fall where they may. But, then again, that's me. (Which reminds me of a "How many UUs does it take to change a lightbulb?" joke in which the answer is "There are many paths to illumination, only some of which are lightbulbs. We invite you to choose a form of illumination and write a short poem, story, or lecture about it for presentation at our Lightbulb Celebration Service.")

Anyway, good luck and enjoy your churc... congre... services.
posted by driley at 10:19 PM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Agreeing with padraigin. I'm somewhere between Pagan and "eclectic/agnostic" on the spectrum and horribly worried that someone might think I'm off to the Sunday morning Hatred of Everyone Different From Me. So I refer to it as Hippie Church.

As in "Wait, you're going to church?"

"Yeah, but it's Hippie Church. We sing a bunch of Cat Stevens songs and talk about how to be better humans. It's probably good for me."

It's worked pretty well for me so far.
posted by troublewithwolves at 10:38 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

You know, there's a fair number of non-Christian organizations with "church" in their name. I'm talking, like, hippie-ass pagans and Buddhists and Anton LaVey-style satanists and all kinds of people who are, if anything, even less Christian than you.

It's totally cool if you find the word "church" distasteful. (I vote for "meeting" in that case, FWIW.) But you at least shouldn't feel dishonest about using it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:00 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ironically "hippie church" is why I have not been back since I graduated from High School. It rolls up pretty neatly what I dislike about it. I've always thought the retention rate amongst the children of the crowd that joined in the 70's and 80's. Certainly none of my friends who I went to RE with and still keep in touch with are members - even those few with RE aged kids. And that's a pretty big number - probably 10% of my high school were UUs, and we are all still pretty friendly.

So to keep it on topic - yeah I actually find "Hippy Church" problematic.
posted by JPD at 5:26 AM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

When talking to folks who don't know what UU is, if I'm not in the mood to explain I call my parents' UU Fellowship "spiritual debate club." Your mileage may vary, of course--my parents go to a congregation that suits that description really well.
posted by snorkmaiden at 6:06 AM on November 3, 2011

I just call it going to church, myself. Maybe you could call it going to coffee hour? Thats the old joke, that half go for services and half go for coffee hour.

JPD also hits on my main issue with attending a UU church, it kinda sucks being the only person in their 20s. With recently moving though, I've attended First Church in Madison which is absolutely huge and does not have this problem.
posted by graxe at 6:22 AM on November 3, 2011

For your friend, I also have known many people who label themselves (humorously) as Jewnitarians. That might take some explaining to the general public though. If it helps any, I've yet to find a quick concise way to explain UUs to the masses.
posted by graxe at 6:29 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Culturally Jewish" works as well I think.
posted by JPD at 6:37 AM on November 3, 2011

I attended a UU church growing up in NJ in the 80s that met the descriptor "hippie church," and I didn't really like it that much. Today, in New England, I sometimes attend UU church with my partner because it's hard to find meetings of my own denomination, and it's pretty close. In New England, UU is distinctly not hippie church. The buildings often date to the early 1800s, the structure is traditional, the old hymns as well as the new are sung, and the liturgy is pretty formal. It seems like in New England people are generally a lot more comfortable calling the UU meetings "church" because they look like a duck and walk like a duck and, indeed, are a scion of mainline Christianity even with the transformed ontology and even though they participate in all the tropes and practices of modern-day Unitarian Universalism. So it could really depend on the nature of your particular institution whether or not "church" really feels like the applicable term.
posted by Miko at 7:08 AM on November 3, 2011

You go to "services" on Sunday Morning. Do you really need to be more specific?
posted by caddis at 7:13 AM on November 3, 2011

As a fallen UUer more post-punk than hippy in my heart of hearts, I'm with JPD. And Miko's right, UU looks very different from the East coast to the West coast and the states in between, so the descriptor would make more sense in some places than others. It would be more appropriate on the West coast than in New England, for example.
posted by umbĂș at 7:17 AM on November 3, 2011

At coffee hour in the UU place I sometimes attend, folks refer to that place, which has stained-glass windows and a pulpit/lectern thing up front, and where they sometimes sing hymnlike songs from a book followed by a person making some kind of mellow inspiring or insightful speech, as "a church beyond belief." They're mostly older and highly educated and sure of themselves, and don't seem to care what they call it or what anyone thinks about that.
They call this activity "going to church."
I don't go very often myself, and share your minor squeamishness about the terminology, but I try to follow their lead on this.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 7:43 AM on November 3, 2011

The North Jersey UU church I attended as a child called itself the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, but that was crazy awkward in conversation so we just called it "church."
posted by workerant at 7:48 AM on November 3, 2011

So to keep it on topic - yeah I actually find "Hippy Church" problematic.

I know this is a bit of a derail, so feel free to MeMail me instead of replying here, but: why? Is it the connotations of this nickname that you dislike or the actual way that services are run in the more "hippie-ish" UU churches?
posted by asnider at 8:00 AM on November 3, 2011

Ethical Humanist Society.
posted by vitabellosi at 9:02 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like "services" for your situation because that word is used also for Jewish services.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:58 AM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I belong to the Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (mouthful!) and refer to it as 'church' or 'service'.
posted by Twicketface at 11:53 AM on November 3, 2011

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