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World & Nation

Can an ailing church attract new congregants without alienating the old?

Grove United Methodist Church in Cottage Grove, Minn
Jeremy Peters, the pastor who will lead the relaunch of Grove United Methodist Church in Cottage Grove, Minn., presides over a Sunday service in August.
(Robin Hakari)

When the minister of a small Methodist church in Minnesota laid out plans for a major overhaul — temporarily shuttering the building and then reopening it to target families with young children — he told his followers he sought to establish a thriving intergenerational place of worship.

But that was not how it seemed to many in the church’s aging flock.

Hearing of the plan to close their simple white sanctuary in the sprawling suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul over the summer, and then “plant” a new one led by a 30-something pastor, many feared they were being pushed out.

Their anxiety was not quelled as church leaders urged members of the close-knit congregation — many of whom are over the age of 60 — to attend Sunday services eight miles away on the church’s second campus for at least a year after the new church opens. Some complained of age discrimination. Others accused the minister of departing from biblical teaching, a charge he denies.

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“They’re kicking us out of our church!” said Cheryl Gackstetter, 63, who has attended the Grove United Methodist Church in the rapidly developing city of Cottage Grove for 10 years. “God would never do that. It’s unkind. It’s unchristian.”

The fallout between church leaders and lay members of this Midwestern church lays bare the sort of wrenching decisions that religious institutions across the nation face as they struggle to bring new generations into the fold. While some congregants feel left behind, church leaders insist they do not seek to exclude anyone, but simply want to save an ailing church from extinction.

At heart, the battle involves competing visions of the church. Is it a place to engage in cherished rituals of worship and fellowship or a place to convert new followers of Christ?

As U.S. churches grapple with a sharp decline in attendance — a recent Gallup poll found that the percentage of Americans who report belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque plummeted from 70% in 1999 to 50% in 2018 — many church leaders suggest it cannot be both.

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“Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” said the Rev. Dan Wetterstrom, 59, who leads the two campuses that make up Grove United Methodist Church. “This isn’t going to work if we do what we’ve always done.”

As fewer Americans say they have any religious affiliation, and even those who identify as religious are less likely to attend services, a growing number of churches have adopted a “relaunch” strategy to attract new members. Often, this involves hiring professionals who temporarily turn off the lights — a process known as “going dark” — in order to redesign and rebrand religious facilities for fresh, usually more youthful, target audiences. When reopened, the places of worship often feature updated lighting, projection screens, sound systems and child-care options.

“Relaunches will no doubt continue to cause a stir in many denominations and established churches,” said Greg Wiens, the founder and chief strategist for Healthy Growing Churches, a company that offers church coaching and consulting services, and co-author of “Dying to Restart,” a book that offers practical tips and solutions for ailing churches to successfully die and be reborn. “Our prayer is that it can be done well and with grace.”

In recent days, as the Grove church faced a barrage of criticism on social media after the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that church leaders planned to “usher out gray-haired members,” Wetterstrom pushed back against the idea that older worshipers were no longer welcome.

Existing Cottage Grove members, he noted, have the option of two Sunday services — one traditional and one contemporary — at the larger Woodbury campus.

“Everyone is welcome in this church,” he said. “Our most senior generation are key leaders who are honored and revered in this community. ... I’m encouraging people to discern where is the right place for them.”

After a recent January service at Cottage Grove, some parishioners were in tears as they met Wetterstrom to discuss the plan, which involves shutting the church for three to six months.

“I told him, ‘Right now, God’s not liking you,” congregant Gackstetter said. “You’re going to have to ask for a lot of forgiveness.”

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Still, Wetterstrom insisted the current Cottage Grove congregation does not have long-term viability.

With only about 30 regular worshipers, Methodist leaders no longer fund a minister at Cottage Grove to lead Sunday services. Instead, sermons are presented by lay members. While the congregation organizes potlucks and bake sales, a recent chili cook-off was canceled due to a lack of entries.

Such decline might be expected in less-populated, rural areas. But the city of Cottage Grove has a burgeoning population of 37,000, and the church location — next to Highway 61, an elementary school and popular retail chains — appears primed for young families, church leaders say.

After numerous failed attempts to revitalize — including the introduction of acoustic soul music and puppet shows to augment its traditional sermons and hymns — Wetterstrom said it was time for more radical action.

“We can’t have the exact same community, with just a new pastor,” Wetterstrom said. “It needs to truly have a different look and feel.”

Minnesota’s Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church has budgeted $250,000 for a “planting project” that would pay the new pastor’s salary, purchase new equipment and fund promotions.

Bruce R. Ough, the bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota Area of the United Methodist Church, said the plan for Cottage Grove drew upon a broader relaunch strategy to make the ministry more relevant in the 21st century.

After a 40-year period of steep decline in worship attendance — losing about 1% to 2% of worshipers each year — Minnesota successfully increased attendance last year after following a strategic plan of relaunching churches as well as coaching congregations in reclaiming their mission.

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“We believe we can reach people who have been turned off by the church,” Ough said. “But we have to then have churches that speak to their spirits and awaken within them their spiritual hungers.”

Often, church leaders have a hard time persuading longtime parishioners strongly invested in the church community that they need to make drastic change.

Many longtime members of Cottage Grove, which was founded in 1989, describe the church as a family. Some complain the “relaunch” process is cold and bureaucratic — more akin to opening a new restaurant than a church.

While everyone seemed to agree that the church should reach new people, Ough said, resistance tended to kick in when leaders tried to implement strategies that worked in thriving churches.

“All of a sudden,” he said, “the conversation becomes: ‘We want to reach people, but we don’t want to change.’”

While the struggles come from a sense of personal ownership — seeing the church as their church, some congregants feel they’ve been defrauded or violated — a break can allow existing members to take stock and reimagine the mission, Wiens said.

“If a church closes one week and reopens the next, it causes many more problems,” Wiens said. “It’s better to seriously grieve and let the old church die.”

Still, Wiens added, church leaders should take an active role of helping congregants come to terms with their loss.

“If you walk them through a process, and let them know you understand the history,” he said, “they are much more willing to embrace change.”

Gackstetter, who lives less than a mile from the Cottage Grove church, said the Woodbury campus, which has 400 members, was not at all the same as her intimate church “family,” whose parishioners delivered homemade bread to her door when she first joined and, more recently, took the trouble to check in and offer help when her husband had open-heart surgery.

“I pray that we get our church back,” she said. “We’re not keeping the young people away. I think they’re thinking younger people don’t want to come with the old people. That’s not true.”

Once the controversy passes, Ough said, he hopes that congregants will take the opportunity to think about the courage of sacrifice.

“Jesus talked about dying so that you could live, about being a grain of wheat that needs to go into the ground so that it can sprout again. … That’s what we’re trying to do — actually live the gospel, rather than just attend to the needs of a few people.”


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