It’s an autumn Sunday in the sunlit sanctuary of Harmony, a Unitarian Universalist congregation north of Cincinnati, and co-president Lindsey Sodano is singing an acoustic version of “This Is Why We Fight” by the indie-rock band The Decemberists. It’s a fitting soundtrack for the week’s topic: “Sweet Revenge.” Drawing from sources as diverse as the Bible, Les Miserables, and The Princess Bride, with images and video snippets flashing on the projection screen behind her, Sodano challenges the congregation to consider whether the concept of “turning the other cheek” is actually contrary to UU principles that call for social justice.
“I think turning the other cheek in almost all situations is terrible advice,” she says. “There’s a holiness in standing up for yourself or standing up for others.”
Then the congregation breaks into small groups for twenty to twenty-five minutes of discussion, longer than the sermon itself. “Your justice is another person’s aggression, and the cycle continues,” Mike Dunsmore tells his group.
“I see turning the other cheek and justice as going hand in hand. I look at it as finding the way to the highest good,” says Karen Morgan.
The vibrant weekly discussions are just one of the reasons why members say they love this new, thriving, lay-led congregation. In only four short years, Harmony has gone from seven founding families who met in each other’s living rooms to a community of around 150 people. Its rapid growth is one of the reasons the Unitarian Universalist Association has named Harmony a “Breakthrough Congregation.” What also distinguishes Harmony is that it “paid attention to lay leadership development from the very beginning, had a clear sense of mission from the start, and has a significantly younger demographic than other UU congregations,” says the Rev. Tandi Rogers, growth strategies specialist for the UUA. Seventy-five percent of Harmony’s adult members have children who are in third grade or younger.
Located in the small town of Landen, Ohio, Harmony also stands out in the local landscape of Christian mega-churches.
“This area is primarily made up of young families, but it tends to be a very religiously conservative town,” says Sodano, one of the founding members. “The religiously liberal parents (and there are several!) are looking for a way to counter the theology the kids are exposed to on the bus and at the playground. When they come to Harmony, they find a church that’s brimming with parents and kids who all share similar needs. Our inclusion of children in the life of the community and the strong religious education program draw these families.”
That includes Sue Sivertson, who is now the membership director. “I came once and said, ‘I’m in,’” she recalls. “My kids have a safe place to think differently, to think deeply.”
Founding member and worship director Rob Rogan credits Harmony’s success to its fresh approach from the beginning. The founders didn’t look around at other local UU congregations for a working model that they could tweak. “We really started it from the ground up, and I think that led us down an incredibly different path,” Rogan says.
One-hundred percent volunteer-run, Harmony tries to be strategic about its offerings. “Harmony was created by busy families, for busy families,” says co-president Kathy Dunsmore, another founding member. “We understand that our members do not have time for committee meetings and extra groups and classes. Everything we have done keeps that in mind.”
One of the church’s most unique features is its “AABB” format, which means that each service is repeated two weeks in a row. “This allows everyone two chances to attend the service on different weeks while limiting the demands on our volunteers,” Kathy Dunsmore explains. Members love the schedule, and a few even attend other churches on off weeks, though most enjoy the down time twice a month.
“It’s just nice to have two Sundays a month to completely commit yourself to the service and then to have the other two Sundays as family time,” Sivertson says.
Fourteen members regularly contribute sermons, which are usually ten- to fifteen-minute multimedia presentations that follow a certain format: a spiritual aspect, a “take-away” message, a link to the UUA Principles, and pop culture references. Harmony’s board frequently surveys its membership and adjusts services based on feedback. Survey responses make it clear: Members relish the weekly discussions and consider them an integral part of Harmony’s spirit.
“I have attended other UU congregations but really didn’t know the people like I know the people at Harmony,” Kathy Dunsmore says. “At Harmony, I can tell you who is an atheist, theist, or even Christian. I can tell you what people struggle with, what they feel is the nature of being, and what is important to them. This sense of connection and acceptance is what makes Harmony different. This level of intimacy in a group is what people are craving, especially in our area.”
Sodano calls Harmony “the un-church.” “Many of our leadership positions are held by people who either didn’t grow up going to church, or who were forced to attend as children and thought it was boring,” she says. “We’ve set up Harmony to be a place for ‘religious outsiders’ to feel welcome. You won’t hear words like ‘liturgy,’ ‘processional,’ ‘offering,’ or ‘hymnal’ here—those kinds of phrases and practices that make those new to religious community feel left out or confused. Our sermons and music tend to be contemporary, vibrant, and fun, and we don’t take ourselves too seriously.” Visitors are often surprised when they’re offered a cup of coffee as soon as they walk into the service, but it just adds to Harmony’s low-key, friendly atmosphere.
Harmony’s biggest challenge: keeping up with its growth. The community has continued to outgrow its space and recently settled into a building sublet from a local United Church of Christ congregation. Harmony’s previous homes have included a Ramada Hotel conference room, a bookstore, a synagogue, and a former Universalist church that dates back to 1835.
UU churches with about the same number of adult members as Harmony would typically have perhaps a dozen children in RE, Sodano notes. By contrast, Harmony’s RE classes include more than seventy children, making its child-to-adult member ratio one of the highest in the UUA.
“This has been a challenge all along because it means we need far more meeting space than a church with our number of pledging units would typically need,” Sodano says. “We need space for all these kids in the sanctuary and then classrooms for them, too.”
Raising enough funds to afford such a space is also a challenge, especially because young families in the congregation may not have much to give. Harmony doesn’t pass around a collection plate on Sundays—the community’s leaders don’t like the idea of interrupting a time for spiritual reflection with an overt call for cash, and most members contribute via pledges anyway. Members are expected to give back in other ways, however. Harmony operates on a co-op model and asks members to sign a contract committing to volunteer.
Harmony’s adults are also passionate about putting kids at the forefront. Children join the adults for the first part of every service and eagerly line up for the “children’s check-in,” when they share their weekly joys and sorrows with the rest of the congregation. “You hand the microphone to the kids, and you never know what they’re going to say,” Rogan says with a smile.
Harmony also took a different approach with its Religious Exploration Advancement Program, which it created from scratch. Divided into classes titled “Seedling,” “Apple,” “Oak,” and “Sequoia,” Harmony’s youth graduate from one level to the next after completing certain modules. Each child is recognized during the service and given a special sticker for their name tag after advancing to a new step. “It’s based partly on the way kids move through martial arts programs, but with less kicking,” Sodano says. “It’s pretty rigorous because we’ve found that our kids respond well to having a challenge and working hard to meet a goal. When kids are absent due to a sports game or illness or whatever, they will often ask [for] the lesson plan so they can make up the work.”
The youth also stay busy with Harmony’s social justice program, known as Children for Others, which has worked for diverse causes, including the local food pantry, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the malaria prevention campaign Nothing But Nets.
“None of us went into this expecting Harmony to grow into what it is,” Kathy Dunsmore says. “But we did expect to be a community that volunteered, a community that raised our children to think and question. The fact that this community has changed people’s lives is our biggest accomplishment.”
1.8.14: Earlier versions of this story stated the congregation has grown to about 150 members. Although the congregation includes that many people, including children, its formal membership is currently reported at 49.