April 6, 2009

Church Experiment #14: St. John's Unitarian

I must admit, the only previous experience I’ve had with the Unitarian Church is a joke from The Simpsons. Reverend Lovejoy serves Lisa a bowl of “Unitarian ice cream,” and when she points out the bowl is empty, he says, “Exactly!”


Walking into St. John’s Unitarian Universalist Church (www.stjohnsuu.org)—which, at the time, was right down the street from my apartment—I assumed anything goes in a Unitarian Church. Not that it was filled with a bunch of heathens, but that as long as you believe in some type of god, you’re pretty much good to go. Which I knew would play well in that community. The Gaslight District in Clifton is very liberal and incredibly diverse (which I love). Although my first impressions weren’t completely accurate, what I experienced was pretty close to what I expected.

To finish reading about this experience or any of the reflections from my 52 visits, please purchase the full book here.


Connie said...

My experience with the Unitarian church is that you don't even need to believe in God. In fact, the local branch has a significant population of atheists, including one of the ministers.
I 'm Catholic, but joined some friends a few times to visit the Unitarian church. I found it to be pleasantly entertaining but it didn't feel much like a religious event.

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,
Found your blog between week 13 and 14. I have really enjoyed reading your posts. My husband retired from the military after 24 years. I experienced a lot of "new" churches every time we moved. We never found one denomination that would be a sure bet in the next town. We had certain tricks we used in trying to find a church - the first was the drive-by on Sunday morning. Who was going, what were they wearing, and most importantly what time did they get out (shallow, huh?) We could cover a lot of churches the first Sunday without even stepping foot inside. We also sometimes attended two churches in the same morning. Sometimes we had to leave in the middle of a service because it just totally weirded us out. It got more interesting as our kids got older and had an opinion. Who knew that our very white, blond daughter felt most at home in an all black church with a huge gospel choir and a three hour long service?

Keep up the good work. I am looking forward to reading each of your posts.

Ruby Red Slippers said...

Ok-You have now named one church I haven't attended a service at-except a wedding-that was a great overview.
If you want to get in a few services for Easter-ours will be interesting...the plug has been Star Wars...I have no idea why, but there are identical services begining on Good Friday. (I emailed you the web address before, but e-mail me if you want more info.)
We might be pulling a "church experiment" of our own-We are attending our church on Good Friday, but not on Sunday. (Most likely too busy...)
So we have been talking about what to do on Easter Sunday. Our parents churches? A church around the corner? Stay home? Not sure!

don said...


There is a church that VCC gave their old building too on Crestville (I think) called New Life Outreach or something like that. (ask Dave Workman, he would know).
My friend went there a few times and said it was pretty hoppin.


j steg said...

I didn't know Unitarian's had saints. Is St. John supposed to be John Lennon?

DanThoms said...

Namaste, I haven't heard that word since I was in India (coincidentally that's also the only word I know in Hindi.) If you believe that everyone is free to believe whatever they want than what is morality based on, personal opinion.

DanThoms said...

ps. I'm not saying you personally, that's a general question.

bshawise said...

this is/was fred shuttlesworth's church that i was telling you about..

Greater New Light Baptist Church
710 N Fred Shuttlesworth Cir
Cincinnati, OH 45229

Holly said...

Just wandered over from last week's Reverb post. I think your experiment is very interesting. Loved the tag game analogy.

When the woman you met at the beginning of church asked why you were there, did you launch into the whole experiment thing or did you stick with "Just visiting."?

Steve Fuller said...


I mentioned I had never been to a Unitarian Church before and wanted to check one out (which is true). We only had a couple minutes to share and I wanted to be sure to hear her story.

Thanks for reading!

Anonymous said...

One suggestion. . .Zion Global Ministries at the corner of 42 and West Chester Road. www.zionglobalministries.org.

Jamie said...

I think you should attend a service at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day saints. (the mormons). I am mormon, and would love to hear your reaction to our services. I have enjoyed reading about your journey and wish you the best. If you are ever in CT or NYC-- you could come to a service with me -- but I am sure there is one in your area as well.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to read your comments on Eastgate Community Church.


Rohmeo said...

Steve, is Apex Community Church in Dayton out of the realm of possibilities? They are avg. I believe around 3,000 total and growing for their 3 weekend gatherings with a very young base. Straight Scripture-based worship and teaching...it's all about living the Gospel for sure.

Sarah said...

We'll be down there for Easter, but plan to go to the Good Friday service at our home church. CLCDayton.com. You should totally come. :) :)

Rohmeo said...

Steve, another church suggestion as you continue on your journey....have you ever heard of the Acts 29 Network? It's one of the fastest growing church planting organizations (Mark Driscoll is one of the founding leaders). I believe there are 2 of those church plants in the Cincy area, The Oaks Community Church in Middletown and The Passage Church in West Chester. Both are newer smaller plants I would imagine. Instead of a man-centered heirarchy like most denoms or affiliations Acts 29 is support system for resources and some finances concentrating on rock-solid theology, contextualizing the gospel, and being a missionary in your own community. May want to check one of those out.

Anonymous said...

Steve, I love your blog. I think your experiment is awesome. Keep it up, bro.

I think that the statement by the folks that you met was very telling. They were looking for a church that fit into their values. We all do that to a degree. But there is something very illogical about tailoring your belief/relationship in an ultimate being to what you want him to be.

I think that this paradox is something many people see right through, and it is the challenge of faith to answer this. Christians' ability to answer this will determine a lot of our future.

Maybe this is why Islam is growing as fast as it is?

Nick said...

Hey Steve,
Loving your blog, I stumbled across it by accident and have been fascinated by your thoughts.
If ever you crossing the Atlantic and end up in London-town you could always pop into my church - Holy Trinity Brompton (where Alpha started), I'd love to chat to you if you do!

Blessings and looking forward to reading more!

Steve Fuller said...


I have actually been to Apex before. A friend of mine knows their pastor pretty well, and we visited a year or so ago. Seemed like a solid place.

And yes, I have heard of Acts 29. I know a couple of the Oaks people (but not very well). There was also an Acts 29 church that planted in my neighborhood that didn't survive. I always wanted to check that place out, but never got the chance.

Anonymous said...

i have greatly enjoyed your posts concerning the different types of churches that you have visited. I have laughed at several of your observations. You have also picked my interests in some of these denominations. As a Southern Baptist that attends a very traditional church, I am visiting these churches vicariously through your efforts. I look forward to future posts. ( I stumbled upon your blog and read all of the entries in one night. It has been enjoyable reading your insights and observations>)

Denise said...

Your Church Experiment reminds me a bit of Donald Miller's, "Blue Like Jazz". I have had a rough time in recent years with organized religion. Not so much for myself, but because our son was deeply hurt by a youth pastor he was close to. We have encouraged our kids to search for a place that they can worship God and experience a deeper relationship with Jesus. I have sent them both to your blog and to Reverb (which is how I found you) I love the way you both write about your experiences.
Looking forward to your Easter post. Happy searching...

Denise said...

Hi again...should have read your profile before posting the comment. Hope you are encouraged that your blog reminded me of one of your favorite books!

Christina said...

I found myself eager to read your post all week. I attend a very conservative Missionary Baptist Church in which my husband and I are one of the youngest members. Both of us are 45 years old! We have very limited experiences outside of the Baptist denomination. I've attended a Church of Christ, Pentecost, and a Methodist service a couple times in my life, but we've attended one form of Baptist or another in our 26 years of marriage. IMO, most Baptist churches have about the same flavor. :)

I consider myself to be an "observer of others", so this has been so much fun for me.

I can't wait for next week's post!

Amy said...

I don't have any personal experience with the Unitarian church, but I do have several Unitarian friends. I asked one of them what the tree-like thing might have been and he said it might have been a "peace pole." He told me in his congregation, their peace pole represents Unitarianism as a whole, like the cross might represent Christianity (not sure I agree with him, but there you go).

Also, I told him about your observation about their lack of a Jesus, and he says that beliefs about Jesus are extremely varied among Unitarian individuals. Some are athiests, some have Christian leanings, some are quite New-Agey. He says everyone's beliefs are very different, so getting a feel for the beliefs of Unitarians as a group can be difficult.

I love your experiment- keep up the good work! :)

Anonymous said...

You want Jesus...find a Vineyard or Assembly of God Church...many find these denominations "radical" fanatical, ect...but Jesus is Lord and though nothing is perfect....God is King here!

Mindy said...

Wow! I've only read this post so far. Guess I'm starting backwards, but I'm very intrigued and will be reading more. I grew up in a Southern Baptist church, as did all my siblings. There are five of us. For a while each of us was in a different denomination. My parents go to one denomination on Sunday mornings now and another in the evening. I used to have preconceived ideas about certain denominations, but after visiting the churches of my family I found most of my ideas to be wrong. I have also found that sincere worship can be offered in a variety of ways. Much depends on the attitude of the heart and how much we invest of ourself in the act of worship. I'm anxious to read the rest of your experiment. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Steve Fuller said...


Thanks for the info. Very helpful!


Went to an AG church week two and a Vineyeard church week thirteen.

meMonica said...

Wish you'd been at our church on Palm Sunday - we had (in my humble opinion with my limited experience of two churches) a pretty amazing processional. Acolyte, children waving palm branches, members of the dance team, choir, Jesus and the Twelve with a live donkey, and then the minister(s).

On Easter Sunday we have a much more laid back processional - Acolyte, choir, dance team, and minister(s) with lamb in hand. :D

Steve Fuller said...


If you are being serious, that sounds sweet!

Kim said...

I am reading an amazing book called "The Irresistible Revolution: living as an ordinary radical" by Shane Claiborne. He said that "namaste" doesn't really have a true English translation, but that it means "I honor the Holy One that lives within you." If you are a Jesus follower, saying that is an amazing phrase. If you don't follow Jesus specifically but seem to embrace anything anyone else wants to embrace, it almost seems like a cop out.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read all your posts so far, just this one and i think your quest is a very interesting one.

I guess I'm wondering why you need Jesus? I mean, i think he was a great guy and all, and possibly a prophet, but isn't God enough? just curious :-)

Happymainemom said...

Drive on up to Maine and visit New Life Christian Fellowship in Biddeford. We clap, dance, raise the hands, and shout for joy! We have the best worship band in the country (my opinion). Seriously, places in Russia (I think) have requested that our band come out and minister along with the pastor when he goes. Bible believing and preaching church.

Interesting experiment you're doing...I'm looking forward to reading more.


Rohmeo said...

Anonymous, I'm not speaking for Steve but I couldn't help but respond after you asked "Why do you need Jesus". Our need for God can only be met through the person and finished work of Jesus as our Savior and therefore mediator. Though made in his image, that's about as close as we get to God. Mankind and God are incompatible so unlike any other religion that demands some sort of payment through our own sacrifice--the God of the Bible emptied himself by coming down to our level as his Son, Jesus to pay the price through his death on the Cross though he did NO wrong and destroy the gap that is there by his resurrection. I don't want to oversimplify it but we have no access to a perfect holy God without Jesus. That's why genuine believers relish this Easter weekend not as a cultural family holiday but the unbelievable love he showed to all wretched sinners by offering us the gift of GRACE which we don't deserve (eternity with him) and granting us MERCY for what we do deserve (eternity separated from him).


Steve Fuller said...


A short answer to your question:

I believe God and Jesus are one in the same.

Laura said...

Just a curious comment/question:
Why do you feel the need to actually attend a church? Isn't believing in God (the Trinity) by faith enough? He gave us the bible, and it's by faith that we believe... not by anything we "do" or what church we attend. I believe "churches" have fallen so far away from what the bible really teaches - and basically teach that we can design our own "god", one that tickles our ears and justifies our human need to feel good ALL the time - that I no longer attend ANY church - and have no desire to seek one out. I find the truth by reading the bible... and a little help from some "old school" preachers. I don't believe there is anything wrong with a good "fear of the Lord".

meMonica said...

Steve - I was and am very serious. I wish you could have been here for the entire Passion week. We had a Seder Passover with the 12 disciples and Jesus, four guards and a pharisee on Maundy Thursday and on Friday we did a Tenebrae with an interpretative "dance" to Were You There with a monologue by Mary the mother of Jesus and then we walked the body of Jesus from Hampton Christian Church to St. Mark's UMC where we have a tomb that is guarded from Friday night through Sunday morning. Easter Sunrise service tomorrow morning will have a dramatic presentation of Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of Jesus with breakfast to follow before the Easter services where our minister will have a live lamb. We have a LOT that goes on in my home church.

samarahuel said...

I have skipped some of your middle posts for now to add my "request" to the many that seem to have been coming in. Will you or have you attended any Presbyterian/Reformed churches? There are many different ones; Reformed Church of America (RCA), Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), and Presbyterian Church in USA (PCUSA) are the three that I know of by name.

Thank you for doing this experiment. I don't know why I find it so interesting to read about something I hate doing myself (looking for a good church), maybe because reading is much easier than actually doing it! I can relate to the second comment that someone left about being in the military and trying to find a decent church. I'm in Germany and it feels nearly hopeless. For now I'm hoping we can just get connected with some other believers and survive on the spiritual meat that is available via the internet.

Anonymous said...

Supreme Council of the House of Jacob
629 Loveland Miamiville Rd

~*~KIMBERLY~*~ said...


I liked this statement:
"it's good to stop by home base and rest up, get re-energized, and refuel for the next journey."

I totally agree!

Tag, you're it! "poof, I'm off and running; try & catch me if you can"! I love that game "tag".

information_police said...

Hi. I'm glad I stumbled upon this blog. I used to belong to St John's Unitarian Church until I moved out of Cincinnati. To someone who asked, this is the ONLY Unitarian congregation in America named for a saint. The reason is historical - the congregation started out as a liberal German Christian denomination. Over the years it got more and more liberal until it changed affiliation to Unitarian Universalist. They kept the name for historical reasons and also, I think a lot of the members enjoy being different than any other UU congregation.

St John's has an honored tradition in the Cincinnati area for being one of the first religious institutions to be open and welcoming to people of all sexual orientations - which is a big deal in the very conservative confines of greater Cincinnati.

And that "tree like" object in front of the sanctuary is known as a work of art. It was by a fairly prominent sculptor, whose name I've forgotten. It's purpose is like any work of art - it is supposed to be uplifting and to inspire you to think about what it is all about.

I hope to read more of your church going experiences.

Anonymous said...

Steve, you should visit a little ol' country church. It seems like you're sticking pretty close to the city so far.

Karolyn Schalk said...

Hi - I'm the woman you quoted; "We need church etc..." I was raised UU, and I can tell you that it is not the case that anything goes unless you want your brain to explode or you are good ay living a disingenuous life. To illustrate - to covenant with a congregation and affirm the first of the UU seven principles "the inherent worth and dignity of every person" would be an intellectual stretch.

Most UU believe that there was a historical figure named Jesus. Some find more comfort and guidance in his message than others. There are none that I know of who are accepting the divinity of Christ and separating him so much from humanity at large.

I'm glad you came to visit St. John's. Why not visit one of our other Cincinnati area UU churches? We are blessed with 4 in the metropolitan area and others in Oxford, Yellow Springs and Dayton. You might enjoy the great variety of Sunday experience.

And do come back to St. John's when we're not having our pledge Sunday.

Diana said...

I've been a St. John's member for 15 years and it's the only church I've ever felt at home. Its been great for giving my kids a firm foundation for their values along with the encouragement to reflect and choose those values wisely. We do our annual pledge service once a year -- sorry that was the day you visited. Our usual services feature messages from many religious traditions. Our members are Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Earth-based (aka Pagan) Agnostic, Athiest, etc. The common thread is the seven basic principles we believe in.

dixchi said...

I'm surprised that you seem to not
have done any reading on the beliefs of the churches before you
visit them....being a UC prof..seems the services would make
more sense....and also these days
churches are very computer savvy
and have their own websites where
you can find out what the program
is before you attend....that way
the comments about money will
diminish somewhat....this society
is less churchy than it has ever
been before....in your beloved
Clifton, the Grace Lutheran Church
just closed its doors due to no
attendance...not sure that means
we are no longer religious or spiritual....just that we may be
finding more meaningful ways of
satisfying that part of our

Steve Fuller said...


I try to research as little as possible about the churches I visit. That is the whole point. I want to walk in and experience what a first-time visitor would experience. I don't want to know exactly what will happen before I go. What's the point in that?

Anonymous said...

The sculpture you asked about is by the noted Harry Bertoia


and--for what it's worth--is said to be valued in excess of a quarter million dollars.

Anonymous said...

Additional background on the sculpture I should have mentioned: it's called "Joy" and is in the church because Bertoia was a friend of the architect who designed the building. As to the substantial value, I believe that while it was somewhat costly to purchase and install (ca. 1960), it was nowhere near the value today.

Joe Blue said...

In response to Laura: "Why do you feel the need to actually attend a church? Isn't believing in God (the Trinity) by faith enough?"

As important as that is, it isn't really enough. There are many, many passages in the Bible about fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ. For example, the "one another" verses can only be lived out in a community of like-minded believers.

Consider the passages about the "body of Christ", meaning the local church. In fact, "church" isn't a building, though that's how we often use the term, it's simply a group of followers of Jesus.

Notice that Paul's letters in the NT are to churches that he planted in various communities. He didn't instruct them simply to read the Bible on their own (though that was part of it). Much of his letters were about the church as body, it's struggles and joys. He didn't write to individuals about personal spirituality. He wrote to communities about how they should live out scripture in spite of internal challenges and external persecution.

So Biblically, we Christians are called to live in and support a local Body of Christ. Of course, often that isn't easy, most of us struggle with it at various times in our life (I really like my church except when the people in it annoy or disappoint me :) But without fellow believers to discuss scripture with, we can also be easily deceived in our reading of it, taking things to mean what we want rather than what God intended.

I'll leave looking up verses to support my statements above as an exercise for the reader (start with Romans 12 :) Or listen to teachings like the following. Good luck finding and staying with a good community!


rhymeswithplague said...

Steve, I didn't find your blog until January 1, 2010 (yesterday) thanks to a link on one of Ryan Whatzisname's This Is Reverb blogposts (my wife reads him religiously, you should pardon the expression, and I do only occasionally). So I have been reading like mad starting with week #1 because you said up at the top that you are going to be taking this blog down pretty soon and I really, really want to read it before you do, so now, on January 2nd, I am all the way up to week #14, St. John's Unitarian.

I just want to say I am enjoying your experiment a great deal and if you remove the blog before I have read it I will be forced to buy your book when it comes out. For the record, I am 68 years old and have been a Christian since I was 20. Before that I was sent to the Methodist Church by my non-practicing-Jewish mother and my lapsed-Methodist father, where I became president of the Methodist Youth Fellowship and was organist of the church from the time I was 14 and had a perfect attendance pin with several extra bars attached for all the years I never missed Sunday School that was so long I could have tripped on it on the way up to the altar to receive the communion elements (I'm kidding about the length of the pin) and the whole time I didn't know Jesus. As an adult I have been mostly Baptist and non-denominational and Pentecostal, but enough about me.

I decided to put this comment here (a) in case you remove the blog before I get very much further and (b) I laughed out loud at your Unitarian joke and wanted to tell you my Unitarian joke. I don't know very much about them either, but I do know that the Ku Klux Klan once went down to the Unitarian Church and burned a question mark on their lawn.

Okay, I repent in sackcloth and ashes and will now return to reading more of your excellent blog.

Bob Brague

Sally said...

I had always heard that "Namaste" means something more like: "The light in me honors the light in you." Awesome!

So Kim, your "copout" comment was extremely frustrating to me. It has to do with love and respect for others. It has absolutely nothing...repeat NOTHING...to do with whether you worship Jesus.

Sally said...

Steve, I have almost finished reading your blog. I has been interesting but also frustrating to me.

I do not attend a church but have a very intense belief in a God spirit/energy. I think that Jesus was probably very enlightened but that Church leaders over the ages have used Jesus and his message to control and use people. I am turned off by any sort of fear mongering and Christians who think their way is the only way. It is so arrogant and ignorant...in my opinion of course. God is so much more.

Missionaries mean to do good but often they go in and arrogantly mess with cultures that are doing fine without Christianity. They meddled with all the colonies aroud the world. They meddled with the American Indians. They meddled with Aboriginies and they continue to meddle around the world, robbing people and families of their heritage and culture. I find their spirit of charity is always attached to the ultimate goal of converting the heathen soul.

Your comments about church without Jesus confuses me. I cannot remember exactly what you said but it was something like you personally needed Jesus to be a good person. You should know that not everyone feels ths way. Alot of people like myself feel completely turned off by the whole "Jesus as your personal savior" bit. A church that is truly respectful of many beliefs sounds like a breath of fresh air. "There are many paths to the same place."

Kim said...

Sally, love and respsect for others has EVERYTHING to do with Jesus. That IS Jesus.

Steve Fuller said...


I don't think I said that. At least, not in those words. If I did, what I was probably trying to communicate is this:

I am not 100% sure about anything. I believe there is a God, but there is no guarantee. It is a belief based on faith, not certainty.

I follow Jesus based on faith and experience. In my life, a relationship with Jesus has affected my life. It has made be a better person. (Not perfect, just better.) I don't have that same experience with Buddha, or Muhammad, or L. Ron Hubbard, or a general spirituality.

So, when I tell my story to others, I am going to focus on Jesus. I am going to give him credit. And I am going to suggest him to others.

If I drive a Chevy, and it has been an amazing car for many years, I'm not going to recommend a Ford. Fords may be great, but I'm going to focus on what has worked for me.

There may be many paths to the same place. I don't know that for sure. Until I do, I have a responsibility to share what has worked for me.

People can be "good" without Jesus. I know many people who fall into that category. And I know lots of "bad" people who claim to follow Jesus. But I have a responsibility to share what has helped make my life better.

Does that make sense?

Jim Nicholas said...

Additional information about the name of the Bertoia sculpture:

Bertoia rarely named one of his works. He was at the dedication of this sculpture. At that event he was asked the name of the sculpture. He said it did not have a name, 'but if you want to call it something, call it "Joy"'.

Jim Nicholas