After a small church in the suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul shuts its doors in June, some of the members, who are almost all older than 60, are worried about where their funerals will be held. When it reopens perhaps a year later, the traditional hymns could be missing and a new pastor will be almost three decades younger.
One 70-year-old member called the church leaders’ decision to fold in order to start a new congregation “age discrimination.”
A United Methodist church in Minnesota has put the spotlight on widespread generational challenges across the county, with many leaders trying to attract younger people without alienating the elderly members who are the backbone of their dwindling congregations.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press recently suggested in a headline that the Cottage Grove church will “usher out gray-haired members in effort to attract more young parishioners.” But the Rev. Dan Wetterstrom, its head pastor, said Tuesday that allegations of age discrimination unfairly represented the strategy for a church that has been on the decline for two decades.
“No one is being asked to leave the church,” said Wetterstrom, 59. “People are disappointed that the service is being canceled.”
After some members complained about the leadership’s vote to shutter the Cottage Grove church, leaders said Tuesday they never asked members to leave, but they did say the church will reopen with some changes to its look and feel.
“It felt like they were targeting us even though they didn’t put an age number on it,” said William Gackstetter, 70, who lives about four blocks from the church.
The church’s building there is prime real estate because it sits across the street from an Aldi and down the street from Target, he said, and he is worried the church will be shut down permanently and turned into apartments, like other shuttered churches across the country.
No church immune
Even the United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the country, is not immune to the declining membership numbers affecting other churches across the country in recent decades. Efforts to revitalize the existing congregation have not worked, Wetterstrom said.
The Cottage Grove-based church, which began in an elementary school in 1989, averaged 29 weekly worshipers last year. The founding pastor, Jim Baker, did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.
Wetterstrom oversees the Cottage Grove location as part of the two-location Grove United Methodist Church, where he has been head pastor for 13 years. The second location of the church in Woodbury attracts about 400 worshipers on a weekly basis and is about a 15-minute drive from the Cottage Grove location.
The decision to shut its doors was not because it was financially struggling, Wetterstrom said. Cottage Grove is one of the faster-growing areas in Minnesota, he said, and Minnesota’s Annual Conference decided to pour in $250,000 to shut that location and replant a congregation. A new pastor, Jeremy Peters, 32, will meet with members of the community and invite them to small group gatherings before it starts services again in the fall.
It can be challenging for pastors to convince older parishioners that taking more dramatic measures to close the generation gap is valuable, said Jason Byassee, a professor at the Vancouver School of Theology who has served as a Methodist pastor in North Carolina. “The attitude can be, ‘We give the money, don’t change a thing,’” he said. “That’s not church, that’s a club.”
When the Cottage Grove location opens again in the fall, it will include a different look and feel, Wetterstrom said. It currently includes hymns and a traditional choir, for instance, but the new music — which has caused generational strife across denominations — has not been determined yet. (The Grove Church is already part of the progressive wing of the larger United Methodist Church and is not part of a nationwide denominational split over same-sex marriage.)
And congregations are growing older as younger people are less likely to identify as religious. In 1998, 29%t of the average congregation was over 60 years old, said Mark Chaves, a sociologist at Duke University who studies congregations in America.
In 2012, that percentage was 37%, and he said recent data suggests that the percentage has continued to climb.
Churches have tried to solve a larger problem of decline by merging congregations, but it rarely works, said Chaves, the sociologist. About 1% of churches in the United States close every year.
“Organizations of all sorts have a kind of inertia, and it can be difficult to make changes,” he said, “so it’s easier to start another one than try to modify an existing one.”
Gackstetter’s daughter Stella Knapp, 34, who sometimes attends the church with her family, said members were afraid of where their funerals might be held during the transition and that it was not accommodating to the congregation of mostly elderly people.
“There’s a lady who walks to church with a walker with oxygen,” Knapp said. “How is she going to get to the Woodbury campus?”
Knapp gave The Washington Post notes from a Dec. 12 meeting in which pastor Wetterstrom wrote that members were asked to be “silent partners in the Planting Project through prayer, community expertise and support services.” The notes do not suggest that elderly members were specifically targeted in those remarks, or that members were asked to “reapply” to return to Cottage Grove, as the Pioneer Press wrote.
But members who did not join the new church’s planting team were encouraged to step aside and temporarily attend the Woodbury location, which is about eight miles away, before transitioning back to the Cottage Grove location after 15 to 18 months.
The strategy is part of a relaunch effort that has been successful in other parts of the region, said Bruce Ough, who is the Methodist bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota region and provides oversight to congregations like the Grove. Minnesota has had a steep decline in worship attendance, but the state saw some modest growth starting in 2018, he said.
“This is about trying to live into what people all the time criticize us for not doing: make the church relevant and find innovative ways to reach the persons who claim to be spiritual but not religious because the settings they walk to that are religious don’t awaken their spirit,” Ough said.
He said that for many communities with younger populations or different ethnicities, leaders might need to adjust long-standing traditions.
“We haven’t rejected anyone because of age,” he said. “What I do encounter from time to time is people who turn it into ageism because even though they say they want to reach young people, they’re reluctant to make changes that are necessary.”
The Pew Research Center in 2014 found that nearly 4% of Americans identify with the Methodist wing of Protestant churches. Baby boomers make up 38% of the denomination, compared with 13% of millennials.