MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
Today, Reverend Sun Myung Moon held one of the signature events of his controversial Unification Church. He married some 14,000 people in Seoul, South Korea and another 43,000 worldwide by satellite. But the mass wedding comes at a difficult time for the church. Reverend Moon is now 90 years old, and membership in the U.S. has dwindled.
As NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, that has church leaders trying to connect with a new generation.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: It's after 9:00 on a Friday night at the Unification Church seminary in upstate New York. The air is electric as more than 100 church members in their late teens and early 20s, opened the first of many workshops on Unification marriage.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #1: Here we go, eight days a week.
(Singing) Ooh I need your love, babe, guess you know it's true.
HAGERTY: Men are on one side of the room, women on the other. Matched or engaged couples sit at the back. According to church doctrine, these are blessed children. That is, born without original sin because their parents were married by Reverend Moon, whom they consider the Messiah.
One of them is Roderick Miller, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania who's going to Harvard Law School next year. He's not dating anyone, his church doesn't allow it, which he believes is the key to a successful marriage.
Mr. RODERICK MILLER: I'm not really interested in random flings with, you know, different girls. Ultimately, what I want is a happy and successful family and a loving relationship with somebody, you know, with whom I can share my life.
HAGERTY: He says it worked for his parents. They were matched by Reverend Moon in a mass blessing ceremony in 1979, and they adore each other.
Roderick won't be married by Reverend Moon. Recently, the church began allowing parents to match their children. But he says the church's emphasis on commitment, no matter what, is the same.
Mr. MILLER: And I think that commitment to commitment the idea of commitment in relationships into creating really strong, ideal families has certainly benefited me enormously, tremendously beyond words.
HAGERTY: So you'd like a marriage like theirs.
Mr. MILLER: Absolutely. That's the end game.
Mr. PHILLIP SCHANKER (Director, Blessed Family Department, Unification Church): We're not here this weekend to talk about a whole bunch of church rules. We're here to talk about what's meaningful.
HAGERTY: During the marriage workshop, Family Department Director Phillip Schanker lays out the road map to a happy Unification marriage. The roadmap was drawn by Sun Myung Moon who says that Jesus appeared to him when Moon was a poor Korean teenager and told him to finish Jesus' mission: To raise a perfect family as a model for the world.
Moon brought his message to the U.S. in the 1960s, inspiring an army of young people to drop out of college, live in vans and fundraise for the church. In its heyday, the church drew national headlines for conducting mass weddings and dabbling in conservative politics.
Over breakfast, young believers wear this history as a badge of honor. Sure, they know their church is viewed as a cult and loath the term Moonie. They know their parents were ostracized and some deprogrammed for following their Korean Messiah. But Renee Martinez says they had to.
Ms. RENEE MARTINEZ: Basically, I mean, when the movement was first starting, Reverend Moon was, you know, he's a revolutionary. It was just so different in the hippie era, you know, when people were talking about free love and our church comes around and we talk about abstinence. It was so different. So, of course, our parents had so many different oppositions. They had to be radical.
BLOCK: But the church has a different plan for the second generation. Josh Schanker - Phillip's son - says today the church wants college valedictorians, not dropouts and wants his generation to fit into society, not fight it.
Mr. JOSH SCHANKER: I mean, I want to be very wealthy and be very successful and, you know, have a good education. I think the thing that's so similar to me and my parents' dreams, like, is to create a beautiful, beautiful family and to raise children with good character and with good relationships with their family.
HAGERTY: Now, no one knows how many Unificationists there are worldwide. Here in the U.S., estimates range from 15,000 to 25,000. But the numbers have dropped since the 1970s, in part because many blessed children have left the fold - people such as D.F. Spratt, a graduate student in Maryland, who asked that her full name not be used.
She worries that the stigma of being once associated with the church could affect her career. Spratt says the pressure of being blessed and so different from her peers, drove her away, though with trepidation.
Ms. D.F. SPRATT: Back then, it was like, if you left the church, you fell off the face of the earth. It's the worst thing in the world you can do. One person even told us at Sunday school once, blessed children who fall out of the church go to a box underneath of hell.
HAGERTY: Now the church wants to win these people back. How to do that? Well, Phillip Schanker says the first step is to acknowledge the excesses of the past.
Mr. P. SCHANKER: Although we talk universal love and the value of the family, we sacrificed our families to the extreme.
HAGERTY: By going on missions for years at a time, fundraising for the church, foregoing their education, Schanker says the church has turned 180 degrees.
Mr. P. SCHANKER: My oldest son is in Harvard Med School. I've got two other sons on full scholarships. That's definitely what we've encouraged them to do. And we hope that they can not only make Unificationism great, but contribute to the world.
HAGERTY: In this, the church is taking a page from another new religious movement - the Mormons who are growing by leaps and bounds - in part because of their economic success. And for its style, the church seems to be looking to yet another model: the megachurch.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #2: Good morning, brothers and sisters. Welcome to Lovin' Life Ministries.
HAGERTY: Twelve hundred people leap to their feet. They fill the huge ballroom of the Manhattan Center in New York City on this Sunday morning.
Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) I tell you right now, all I want you to know...
HAGERTY: They wave their arms and cheer the band, then hush as the lights fall. Slowly, a single light comes up to reveal a woman behind a podium.
(Soundbite of applause)
Dr. IN JIN MOON (Unification Church): How is everybody this Sunday morning? Good. So happy to see you once again.
HAGERTY: In Jin Moon speaks without notes for 40 minutes. She's the 44-year-old daughter of Sun Myung Moon and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. When her father appointed her to head the U.S. church 18 months ago, she focused on one simple goal: To win back the young people.
Dr. MOON: Well...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. MOON: ...it's been quite challenging.
HAGERTY: In her first interview with a reporter since taking over the church, she tells NPR that the Asian church leaders were upset that a woman was selected to run the American church. Then they balked at her vision: A national church, which she calls Lovin' Life, based in New York City. She replaced the old holy songs with rock and roll, fluorescent lighting with concert lighting and a giant video screen.
Dr. MOON: I think a lot of the leaders wanted to put an end to Lovin' Life after the first couple weeks, but we just kept at it.
HAGERTY: In Jin Moon did so because she faces a problem that plagues even established churches: How to transmit the passion of a convert to a child who merely inherits the faith?
Dr. MOON: We never had a conversion experience. We never made that decision.
HAGERTY: So she did what the evangelicals do. She used music and technology to spark spiritual experiences in young people. She says it's working.
Dr. MOON: Some have called it electricity running through my body, feeling of warmth, just feeling as if they're engulfed in total love. For those kids who come and have that conversion experience, then their movement and their belief system becomes theirs.
HAGERTY: Since In Jin Moon took over, weekly attendance has nearly doubled. The question is: Can these bells and whistles woo back former members? For her part, D.F. Spratt says no, there's nothing missing in her present life.
Ms. SPRATT: So if I felt like there was a void and I needed to fill it, maybe that would help, but I don't.
HAGERTY: But the church hopes that as it adopts an American style in finding your mate and worshipping in church, the second generation will carry the Unification Church into the mainstream.
(Soundbite of song, "Don't Stop")
Unidentified People: (Singing) Don't stop thinking about tomorrow.
HAGERTY: Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
(Soundbite of song, "Don't Stop")
Unidentified People: (Singing) We'll be here better than before. Yesterday's gone. Yesterday's gone. Don't stop thinking about tomorrow. Don't stop. It'll soon be here. Will be here better than before. Yesterday's gone. Yesterday's gone. Don't you look back.
Unidentified Man #4: Here we go.
Unidentified People: (Singing) Ooh, don't you look back. Ooh...