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Guess Who's Coming to Worship?

General Assembly 2009 Event 3028

Presenters: Rev Marlin Lavanhar and Bishop Carlton Pearson.

"My point is not to get you to say hallelujah," Rev. Marlin Lavanhar told his congregation at All Souls Unitarian in Tulsa in June 2008. "It’s to see if you have room in your heart, and in your church, for those who do."
He wasn't asking a rhetorical question.

African-American Pentecostal Bishop Carlton Pearson and what remained of his New Dimensions ministry were looking for a home and Rev. Lavanhar wanted to offer them one. At first it was just sharing the building during the summer, when All Souls usually cuts down to one service. The 11:30 a.m. slot would be open, so why not let New Dimensions use it?

That began a process that, by the end of the summer, led to Pearson suggesting that his congregants stay on at All Souls after he left Tulsa to begin a new ministry in Chicago. "I felt this man (Lavanhar) could pastor and love our people, and that his church would be a safe harbor," said Pearson.

Lavanhar and Pearson told their story to an enthusiastic audience Friday night in a session called "Guess Who's Coming to Worship?"

Pearson's Heresy

New Dimensions was once a 6,000-member megachurch in Tulsa and Carlton Pearson was a star of the Pentecostal movement. He had his own TV show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, preached at megachurches around the country, and sat on the Board of Regents of Oral Roberts University.

But in 2001, his study of the Bible and his relationship with God led Pearson somewhere he never expected: he stopped believing in hell. "How could I reconcile a customized torture chamber—which many people call hell—and a loving God whose mercy, we're taught, endures forever?"

Now, Pearson calls his theology "the gospel of inclusion" (which is also the title of his book). But Lavanhar describes him as a classic Universalist—for good reasons. Like John Murray and many of the early Universalists, Pearson came to believe that Jesus' sacrifice had saved not just those who believed in him, but the entire world. Like Hosea Ballou, he wondered if God had ever been angry with us at all. "Jesus didn't come to protect us from God," Pearson said Friday, "but to reconnect us to God."

His subsequent rejection by the Pentecostal community and by much of his congregation was chronicled in a 2005 episode of This American Life called "Heretics." He lost his TV show, his attendance and offerings plummeted, and New Dimensions lost its spacious building. The church's homeless remnant met in an Episcopal church until All Souls invited them in.

"I used to drive past this church for almost forty years in Tulsa and try to cast the Devil out of it," Pearson said. "I ended up getting cast into it."

"We don't do that."

More challenging for Tulsa's Unitarian Universalists (UUs) than Pearson's Christian theology was his Pentecostal worship style. He may have abandoned hell, but no new revelation had told him or his New Dimensions parishioners to start worshipping like upscale, white New Englanders. Instead of a calming prelude, 30 minutes of high-energy praise-and-worship music set the stage for a New Dimensions service. Meanwhile, those who attended the 10 o'clock UU service were having coffee hour.

"The members were coming out of that first service," said Lavanhar, "but before they could even get out the door and shake the minister's hand, the drum sets started going and the keyboards and people were singing and raising their hands and yelling 'hallelujah'."

Some felt that they were getting (literally) drummed out of their own church. But others found themselves attracted to the new style and stayed to join in. Pearson found that about half his audience were starting to be white UUs.

By the end of the summer, Pearson's assistant minister was dying of cancer and he had no one other than Lavanhar to hand his ministry off to. On Pearson's recommendation, many of his members joined All Souls and enrolled their children in the religious education program. It looked like a merger and some All Souls members wondered why there hadn't been a congregational vote. "Did we vote when you joined the church?" Lavanhar asked them.

As things are now arranged, All Souls' first service is virtually unchanged and both of its services have the same sermon and intellectual content. But the second service begins with a somewhat shorter praise-and-worship lead-in, has New Dimensions music (led by the New Dimensions music director), and follows cultural norms closer to the Pentecostal model.

"As you can imagine," Lavanhar recalled, "some of our traditional members are saying, 'Well, we don't do that.' And I say, 'Why don't we? Is there a reason why we couldn't raise our hands?' ...It's not our norm, but there's nothing about who we are or our values that says we can't."

Is Tulsa a model?

Unitarian Universalist churches, Lavanhar said, "have a corner on a very small slice of the NPR listening audience." He worries that UUism might become so parochial that it dies out. But Tulsa's second service attracts a different, younger, more racially diverse set of people, who come both for the spirit of the service and the message of Unitarian Universalism.

"The question," he asks, "is: are we willing to open up the culture of our churches, the style of our worship, in ways that will attract a different demographic? And what I think we've shown in Tulsa is that we can do that. It works. You can have a very lively music culture that's born out of even the Pentecostal charismatic culture, and have Unitarian values and Unitarian tradition being taught at the same time. And I think that's wonderful."

Reported by Doug Muder; edited by Dana Dwinell-Yardley.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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