The Black Sheep

Unitarian minister Joel Miller finds out it's hard to lead the wrong kind of church in southwest Jefferson County

So Miller was out of work, and he made his wife a proposition: He wanted to start a family, and he offered to stay home with the baby if she continued working. She agreed.

A few years later, when Miller took his son to a play group in a Fremont, California, library, a mother sitting beside him asked Miller what he did for a living. "When I said, 'I'm trained as a minister,' the conversation stopped and all the women stared at me. Another woman asked what kind of minister, and when I said Unitarian Universalist, they gasped," Miller recalls with a grin. "I thought, 'Oh, I'm in trouble now.' You see, evangelical ministers there were known for cruising play groups for new converts."

As it turned out, the women had been stunned because a dozen families in their neighborhood had wanted to start a Unitarian Universalist church.They formed the Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Church, the first Unitarian church started in northern California in forty years. Unitarian churches, which pride themselves on their acceptance--and even encouragement--of doubt, had for decades been questioning their very existence. "It was a time when Unitarians doubted the validity of religion in general, including our own, and we didn't have the inspiration to start more churches. Our struggle was that we were very sure of what we didn't believe in, but we were never sure what we believed in," Miller says.

Unitarians don't believe in the holy Trinity. Instead, they believe in one God who sent Jesus to teach people how to lead their lives; they do not believe Jesus was divine or that he should be worshiped. Unitarians don't follow any creeds, and they respect all religions. In 1961 they merged with the Universalists, who hold similar beliefs.

Because the Mission Peak Church had humble beginnings--starting with only 25 members--it didn't bring in enough money to employ Miller as a full-time minister. When the company his wife worked for started losing money, Miller asked leaders in the church's Boston headquarters to match him with a church that could pay him. They offered him positions in Texas and Colorado. "I chose Colorado because of what the congregation wanted, which was someone who likes children, who is passionate about Unitarian Universalism and who would talk about what we believe in, not what we don't believe in," Miller says. "That was the clincher."

So in February 1993, Miller and his family moved to Colorado. Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church was housed in what was then a daycare center. It's easy to miss the church, a tiny brown wood-and-brick structure with no cross on top.

New tan-colored townhouses twice its size are popping up next door. Miller's church is located just east of Wadsworth Boulevard, in a residential area past a covenant-controlled row of nondescript gray condos squeezed between Builder's Square and Wal-Mart. On almost every block, a cross pierces the sky. There are 48 churches in this unincorporated enclave of southwest Jefferson County, and at least half of them are evangelical.

"When I moved here, I knew it was suburbia--our biggest competition on Sunday mornings isn't another church, it's the [Southwest Plaza] mall," Miller says. "But I didn't know it had such a strong representation of conservative evangelical Christians."

Miller's bookshelves are lined with plays by Euripides, Aristophanes and Shakespeare--they're left over from his performing arts high school in Columbus. There's also Cosmos, by Carl Sagan, The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, a biography of Colin Powell, a pile of Scientific American magazines and a smattering of religious titles on doubt and faith. After Miller opened up to his congregation--and they, in turn, confided in him--he knew he had found a group of kindred spirits in his new church, which is now made up of eighty adults and eighty children. But he would quickly learn that he was still very much alone.

It's Sunday at the mammoth, white Foothills Bible Church. Sunlight peeks through tiny purple- and yellow-paned windows. A 22-person choir belts out tunes of praise for Jesus while a drummer, a pianist and two musicians playing electric guitars accompany them. Five small microphones dangling from the high ceiling pick up each voice. A man in the choir's front row raises his right hand, tilts back his head and closes his eyes, lost in the rapture of the moment.

Foothills Bible Church, one of the largest and fastest-growing evangelical churches in the area, runs like a well-oiled machine. Volunteers are in their places, ready to direct kids to their Sunday school classes. Maps guide first-time visitors to their destinations. Upstairs, ushers help people find seats in the packed sanctuary. Two large screens display song lyrics and Bible verses. The congregation, which used to meet in a smaller building on Belleview Avenue and Simms Street, moved to its current 38-acre, $6.7 million site on C-470 and Bowles Avenue in September 1997. Since then, membership has grown by 20 percent, with more than 2,200 people attending the church's three Sunday services. Last year the church collected $1.9 million in revenues.

Pastor Bill Oudemolen reaches the podium with a skip in his step. He jokes about a brand of wheat bread called Ezekiel 4:9, then dives into a sermon on chapter eight of Ezekiel, which describes how God's chosen people worshiped other gods. Oudemolen is dressed in a dark three-button, double-breasted suit, his hair styled in its usual bouffant. Oudemolen reads from a book in which a pastor was quoted as saying, "There are many ways to the top of the mountain."

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