Rowboat in the Woods: the role of Humanism in a Secular Future

This talk by Rev. David Breeden was part of the "Serving the Non-Religious" session at the 2015 UUA General Assembly in Portland, OR on Friday, June 26. David is the senior minister of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis which has, "A heritage of forward-thinking humanism at home in the here and now". In this talk, David discusses the changing religious landscape of the FUS neighborhood, and by extension the country at large, then suggests how Unitarian Universalist congregations are going to need to adjust their programming and their thinking to thrive in the new reality.

Listen to the Presentation

[A special thank you to Adam Gonnerman for creating the video version of this presentation.]

Slides and Transcript

Perhaps Walt Whitman said it best a long time ago: “Unscrew the locks from the doors! / Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs.”
You’ve read the Pew results. You’ve heard arguments about what they mean. The data says that one-quarter of Americans who would at one time have been expected to identify as Christian—that are “tradition Christians”— . . . now don’t identify as such.
Perhaps business entrepreneur Seth Godin best summarizes the conundrum for mainline Protestant congregations:
“You are yelling at people who think they have a problem that you can't solve . . .”
Well, frankly, I’m very skeptical that institutional religions CAN solve the problems that most Americans face today. 
People are voting with their feet, and I’m not inclined toward making the patriarchal assumption that they’re all merely confused children and that some thinking about religion would do them good.
I don’t think traditional religions have much more to offer than some bells, candles, buildings, and some interesting texts. That’s the way it has been for me for a long time . . . 
I know that by saying that, I’m in danger of walking into the trap of saying that religions should be consumerist, should make the customer happy. 
To which I say, that’s the way religion does now and has always functioned in the United States . . .
Pew says it, as does the Barna Group, a research group funded by churches on the more conservative end of the spectrum, estimates that more than 1/3—37 percent—of Americans are, what they call, “post-Christian.” 
Again, let’s entertain this thought: What if that 37 percent of Americans are NOT confused about their best interests? What if they are best served by leaving traditional religions behind?
Let’s face it: it was humanism, not religion, that brought same-sex marriage to the United States. It was humanism that won the victory recently when the voters of Ireland—a country that Irish writer James Joyce described as “priest ridden”—when voters approved same-sex marriage. 
Humanism won. Roman Catholicism lost. 
What if the Church is wrong and the people voting with their consciences and their feet are right? 
Call it consumerist. Or give people credit for realizing that their need for meaning and purpose is not met within conventional religious structures.
I blog about such matters . . . 
and here is a response that I got in the comment section.  
Frankly, many of us are having to work more days and more hours to keep our families financially afloat . 
Dressing for church on Sunday morning feels like a 7-day work week: more obligations (more projects, more financial obligation, more "to do" lists. ) 
I fear that many churches have been caught up in the capitalization tide like health and academic institutions; feeling a powerful need for fancy buildings, while losing sight of the primary humane mission.  :)
Now, this woman is addressing two very different issues, one a matter of programming, and one a matter of a much deeper institutional problem. 
Is this woman a candidate for Unitarian Universalism IF we can get the time right for services, or has she left the organized religion building entirely because institutions have stopped serving her needs and began to serve only their own?
Which leads to my central question for today: 
Is the congregational model a rowboat in the woods? 
A rowboat in the woods. Yes, once there was water; now, there’s not. 
You see, with a good deal of effort, you can keep rowing a rowboat in the woods. 
It will keep going. 
In addition, we know that there are bays and creeks and streams still out there where a rowboat is a very fine mode of transportation . . . 
Rowboats are very fine. But is the congregational model now a rowboat in the woods in many locations and situations?
Further, even when the rowboat is still in water—can it stay afloat? Studies say that it takes eight Gen Xers and Millennials to make up the financial giving of one Boomer. Does your congregation have a plan for growing that much over the next ten to twenty years? If not, you have a problem. 
That question is the existential one that congregations, especially ones with old buildings, need to look at; and it’s the question newer groups need to ask when the question of building or buying a building comes up—is that building and the assumptions about how congregations function an outmoded form?
Are you buying yourself a rowboat in the woods?
Each group has to figure that out for themselves. I’ll go into detail about the situation of First U in Minneapolis to perhaps get your thoughts going. 
First, FUS is an institution.
We have an eight million dollar building
with three million dollars worth of deferred maintenance. 
Here’s our situation: 
First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis has 450 adult members and gets about a dozen new visitors per week. 
The building sits on a hill overlooking the Walker Art Gallery—an internationally known contemporary art museum—and we are near the Gallery’s sculpture garden, where Claus Olderberg’s “Spoon Bridge and Cherry” draws millions of visitors per year—it is the number one tourist attraction in the Twin Cities. 
Our building is in a high-rent district where condos sell in the neighborhood of a million dollars apiece. Not a month goes by that we do not get an offer on our building. 
That’s the challenge of the building. 
Then there’s the competition. Now, I realize that all congregations have different competition—the South or the West or the East are not like the Midwest. Each congregation has to assess its own situation. But here’s the one my congregation faces: 
Jay Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, hosts services at a nearby bowling alley bar. He performs weddings for same-sex couples underneath that spoon and cherry you just saw. And he is an evangelical Christian. 
Note this tour poster. His fellow traveler is, as he notes, a “comedian and lesbian.” Evangelical Christianity is not what it used to be!
Liberal Christianity—often touted as the rejuvenated future of Unitarian Universalism—is not in short supply in the Twin Cities. 
This church, for example, is affiliated with the American Baptists and ELCA Lutherans, and you will notice that they claim to use traditions also from Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and the “free churches.” 
Their slogan, on the right hand side of the slide, is “You should come, it’s not that bad.” They have a house rock band and a recording studio. 
Notice their claim: “You may occasionally be led to suspend your intellect. But you will not be required to sacrifice it.”   (Sounds positively UU, doesn’t it?)
That’s the competition. In terms of the institution I direct, Christianity Lite and Theism Lite is a saturated market. And a market saturated by groups that can do a vastly better job at it than we can—they speak the language, they know the songs. 
Take for example the United Methodist Church right across the street from First Unitarian Society. They have an endowment of 13 million dollars. We have an endowment of 1.2.
They have four services on Sunday morning, ranging from traditional to . . .
Well . . .  their 8:30am service occurs in an art gallery and sports a jazz band. They invite people to ask “questions, sing their joy, to dance and laugh, and to create prayer that grounds all in the goodness of Creation.” (No: interpretive dance is not just for UUs any more!)
By the way: those of a theological bent will notice that the “goodness of Creation” is NOT part of the Methodist creed. The new normal for our liberal religious competition is that they do not adhere to the creeds that have defined their traditions—they’ve heard of the “spiritual but not religious” as well and they are changing their programming accordingly. 
In other words, many liberal Christian congregations have become creed-less. 
(UUism is not unique in that.)
I have breakfast with the minister of this congregation once a month. Recently he said, “Oh, sure, that early service is Unitarian!” They know what they’re doing . . .
Their 11:15 service is based on the Iona Community of Scotland. If you’re not familiar, the Iona tradition is part of Celtic Christianity and focuses on immediate experience of the sacred and especially on social justice.
For those of you not familiar with Kurt Willems, he’s a contemporary Christian theologian. What he has to say sounds a lot like Unitarian Universalism: 
“Being a community of inclusion means that matters of theological opinion (non-essentials) are trumped by the great commandment: love.” You will notice that the sentence is grammatically ambiguous—are all matters of theological opinion “non-essential” or are there some essential ones? At least in this sentence, Kurt Willems is not saying . . . 
That’s the competition for my congregation from the liberal Christians: all of these institutions and ministers have read the Pew research handwriting on the wall and found traditional Christian doctrine wanting. 
And they are willing and able to do something about that . . . 
And then there’s us, the UUs. Take a look at this—a mission statement I found randomly on the web:  “Guided by UUA principles and purposes, our mission is to live in harmony with each other and nature, and to act with peace, compassion, and justice for all.”
Now . . . tell me . . . which of the Christian congregations I’ve shown you would disagree with that? That’s not a mission statement. That’s baby food, and the liberal Christians that I’ve shown you will chew that church up and spit it out. 
It’s time that UU congregations wake up and consider what existentialist philosopher Albert Camus pointed out as the first question of philosophy: “Why not commit suicide?” 
Camus suggested that each of us ask ourselves that question in the mirror when we get up each day. 
UU congregations need to ask a similar question: “Why not close our doors?” 
“What are we doing that others are not?” 
Are we peddling a liberalized, open-minded, form of theism that’s open to the currents of American culture with yoga and mindfulness and what-have-you thrown in for good measure? 
Well . . . so are lots of other churches—and as the numbers of available bodies drop—as everybody fights to grew that congregation to eight times its Boomer-era size—traditional UUism will not win. The Mainline denominations are going to keep shifting their message—and ignoring their creeds—to get warm bodies into the pews. Some will remain rowboats, despite the hard rowing in the woods; some of them are going to figure out another method of propulsion . . . 
We—all the leaders in UU congregations—do well to ask ourselves: “Why not shut the doors and go home?” We need to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask: “Why are we asking that single parent to pony up to pay for a building and a staff?”
What is she getting in return?
One solution to this problem, I propose, is for UU congregations to stop attempting to out-do Christian congregations on the field of liberal theism I propose the we look to our “usable past” and find something Christian churches aren’t going to do. 
Unitarian Universalism has something in its skill set that Christian traditions do not: Humanism. 
I am a “missional preacher” as the saying goes nowadays. 
My mission is spreading the the good news of Humanism in our secularizing world—to that one quarter of the population who have left organized religion. And I for one don’t think they should go back. 
When I discovered agnosticism and atheism, forty years ago, I joined about one percent of the population. Now, atheists and agnostics make up nearly eight percent of the US population. Small. But growing . . . exponentially.
There is at last a critical mass of people prepared to see reality as human knowledge shows it to be rather than as human fantasy would like it to be. This is the humanist moment. 
When we consider who our potential new members are at First Unitarian Society, we think not of those looking for a vague sense of past Christian tradition, not those running from religion’s more traditional forms, but for those who have no religious background at all . . . a growing number of Americans. 
What is Humanism, by the way? It needs to be defined. Here’s my definition: 
Humanism is an evidence-based value system dedicated to freedom of thought and promoting the well-being of the planet and all living things.
Simon Sinek is an author in the crowded field of management theory (perhaps you’ve seen his excellent TED Talk). 
Sinek insists—and it makes sense to me—that successful businesses start with “why.” In his phrase, “It’s not what you do, it’s why you do it. “
I think that’s a good question to ask, and the answer to the question is your . . . mission.
The “Why”—First Unitarian Society is a beacon of free thought for the Twin Cities and and the world.”
The “How” is offering intellectual and emotional experiences that inspire congregants toward greater meaning and purpose in their lives and in the world. 
The “What” is Humanist Assemblies, liberal religious education for children and adults, community, and social justice opportunities.  
I am deeply convinced that Jesus would most likely say nowadays, “those who seek to save their building shall lose it, but those who have a mission shall have everlasting coffee hours.”
What can Humanism do that conventional UU congregations often don’t do?
Carey Nieuwhof, minister and author of, put it this way:
• There is a crisis of meaning, not information.
• There is a crisis of connection, not followers.
• There is a crisis of direction, not options.
That gets at our usable past: Humanism. And our core values: freeing the mind and saving the world. 
What is the “theology” of Humanism? 
In 1837—the year after arriving back from his fateful journey on HMS Beagle— Charles Darwin (1809-1882) wrote in his notebook,
If we choose to let conjecture run wild, then animals, our fellow brethren in pain, diseases, death, suffering and famine—our slaves in the most laborious works, our companions in our amusements—they may partake our origin in one common ancestor—we may be all netted together.
Humanists “choose to let conjecture run wild.” Science has shown, and we know that “we are all netted together” in the “interdependent web of all existence.”
We are obligated to act on this knowledge. 
The usable past of UUism is Humanism. 
How does a Humanist assembly differ from a traditional UU service?
The answer is one of focus. Conventional UUism posits that there is truth in many if not all religious traditions. 
Humanists see religions as meaningful products of human artifice but think that these older interpretive systems do not function as well in the realm of truth or utility as contemporary scholarships, medicine, and science. (Religions are also rowboats in the woods.)
After that, the rest is details: such as reaching out with programming in places other than our building.
And using our building for purposes other than only Sunday morning gatherings. 
In other words, if you find yourself with a rowboat in the woods, find some people to help you carry it out . . . don’t be asking those single parents to support a building they didn’t build and that they seldom have time or energy to come to. 
We offer some of our space free of charge to help out other non-profits that have missions aligned with ours,
such as
the Minnesota state advocacy network, Minnesota UU Social Justice Alliance and 
Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
In addition, we partner with other groups that have missions that align with our own . . .
We house an experimental K-12 school. (They pay rent!)
We host activities of our local Humanistic Jewish group . . .
and Sunday Assemblies, the “atheist church” that has gotten a lot of press. We consider this our second service—and we don’t even have to plan it!
We also house a kirtan group—for Hindu chanting . . .
the Secular Buddhists . . .
some activities of the Minnesota Atheists . . .
and the Humanists of Minnesota.
I’m trying to get the “Secret Stoics of Minneapolis” to begin meeting in our building . . . 
and we have been working with the Black Freethinkers of Minnesota on joint social justice projects.
It’s a no-brainer that we host Secular Organizations for Sobriety,
that we work with United Coalition of Reason—we will be housing the Minneapolis Chapter,
and Couples in Transition, a support group for couples facing gender transition. 
All these are groups that are too small to own buildings, but they can pay rent and  our building functions as a hub for liberal religious activity in downtown Minneapolis.
As the birthplace of congregational humanism in the Unitarian tradition, First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis has a mission; and all Humanists have that mission: freeing the mind and saving the world. Creating a community where no snake oil is sold . . .
The numbers are the numbers. Unitarian Universalists can scramble along with other liberal mainline denominations for the last remaining people who like to hear “god language,” or we can meet the needs of a small but expanding group of people . . . those done with religion but interested in free thinking; in community; in finding meaning and purpose; and in concerted, focused social action. 
Sure, that very well may mean, 
Unscrewing the locks from the doors!
Unscrewing the doors themselves from their jambs!
But . . . well that’s what Humanism is all about . . . 
doing what it takes to free the human mind and save the world . . .


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Rev. Dr. David Breeden is the social media manager of the UU Humanist Association, serves as Chair of the Education Committee of the American Humanist Association, and is Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society, Minneapolis. David has a Master of Fine Arts in poetry from The Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, with additional study in writing and Buddhism at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. He also has a Master of Divinity degree from Meadville Lombard Theological School. He blogs at He tweets at @dbreeden.


Thanks for posting this. I loved the presentation at GA, but the lighting wasn't great and some of the slides were difficult to see.