Friday, April 24, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: A Methodist to Their Madness

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

The Cottage Grove location of Minnesota’s Grove United Methodist Church, 30 years old this year, is closing for renovations. But it’s not the building that’s being renovated ... it’s the congregation.

Small, initially financially unstable and told by their denomination that they did not warrant a pastor’s salary, the church first merged with a larger Woodbury church in 2008, then switched to lay ministry a few years ago, and has settled in to a comfortable routine with somewhere between 25 and 35 regular worshipers. That’s not good enough for the Woodbury leadership, who have hired a church-starting specialist with $250,000 from the Methodist’s regional Annual Conference, and are planning to “reset” the Cottage Grove location to appeal to a younger audience — in the name of Christ, of course — and preferably without the thirty members currently meeting there.

How to be Truly New

“For this to be truly new,” says Woodbury’s Dan Wetterstrom, “we can’t have the core group of 30 people.” To get the new atmosphere right in Cottage Grove, the Woodbury leadership is asking the current, older congregation to stay away from their church for as long as two years, and then to get Woodbury leadership’s permission if they wish to return. To add insult to injury, while their church is closed and Wetterstrom and his paid church planter are getting their act together, Cottage Grove congregants have been asked to maintain the church building, mow the lawns and shovel the snow.

Tom: How far away from the New Testament have we gotten here, Immanuel Can? Could we even count the ways?

Immanuel Can: It’s quite breathtaking, isn’t it? We’re about as far from the spirit of Leviticus 19:32, “You shall rise up before the grayheaded and honor the aged,” as we can get.

Tom: No kidding. The more I read about this story, the weirder it gets. I should point out that the moment the story hit the news, Woodbury’s leadership began to deny they ever intended to push out the older Christians in Cottage Grove. Dan Wetterstrom is now telling Christian media, “Everybody is welcome. Our hope is they’re not going anywhere.” So there is that. But if this was all a big misunderstanding, it’s certainly odd that over thirty people all had the same mistaken impression they were being pushed out of their own church by “leaders” who don’t even attend it. If there was indeed an error in communication, it would seem it was on the Woodbury side.

Insult to Injury

And the idea that these folks are either to go nowhere or drive 7 miles (11 km) to Woodbury until 2022 while services geared to younger families are going on every week in their former building in Cottage Grove, then petition a 32-year-old hired church planter in order to be allowed to come back to their own church ... it’s about as insulting a move as I’ve seen in church circles.

IC: I’m afraid it’s just totally typical of our current age. In former times, we looked to people older than us for guidance and wisdom. After all, they had been down the road that every younger person would have to travel — growing up, learning, achieving, finding a place in society, marrying someone, having a family, providing, protecting, sustaining, aging gracefully and eventually, facing death — all of the things every life must pass through. In all such things, our elders led the way for us and gave us insights about what we were going to face. But gradually, over the last century or so, the world has begun to move so quickly and change so much that new kinds of knowledge have constantly been arriving — and in these new forms of knowledge, young people are often more agile in reacting, more quick to understand and apply, than are their elders. So we have now the phenomenon of the little kid who has to explain to grandpa … several times … how to use every feature on his own computer or iPhone. And grandpa looks slow, clueless and incompetent.

So it’s hard for the child not to generalize that experience, and think that old people are just people who have lost their ability to function well. They’re kind of sad and useless, and don’t have any wisdom anyone can use. So why not get them out of the way? What young person would want to be in any institution full of them?

Slow, Clueless and Incompetent

Tom: It’s funny that’s the bit that would grab you about the story. I guess I’m so used to that aspect of our society that I rarely think about it anymore except when it dawns on me — as it does increasingly these days — that I’m getting perilously close to being one of those “slow, clueless and incompetent” seniors. So I expect older people to be chronically underestimated. In the minds of younger generations, they are a burden to be borne rather than an asset to be tapped. When you find yourself in a church full of Q-tips® (and I use that rather offensive expression advisedly, having appropriated it from my father, who was one), the instinct is almost always to think “What’s wrong about this place?” rather than “What’s wrong with the people who aren’t here?”

IC: Yes, that’s true. And there’s some validity to that reaction. The United Methodists aren’t wrong to think that the raising of their average age and the general attrition rate of their membership is a sign of decrepitude. But they’ve mistaken a symptom for the root problem; and consequently, they’re now trying to estrange the only people who retain any belief that the UM are still relevant in favor of those they do not have as members, and really don’t know how to attract.

Calling in a Consultant

Tom: Now, this idea that when you want to attract new people to your church, the thing to do is hire a consultant ... that one has been around for a while. I remember it being big in the 1980s and early ’90s. From where I sit, though, what’s different about this situation is the church merger with Woodbury that took place in 2008 and how that eventually played out for Cottage Grove. So then you have a 30-35 person church functioning on its own, self-sufficient in terms of Bible teaching, but operating as a kind of Woodbury satellite, to the point where Woodbury’s leadership ended up treating the Cottage Grove church building as their own asset, while writing off the existing church members as a liability. Something about that whole arrangement seems very dodgy.

IC: Well, technically, it seems, it’s the denomination’s asset. United Methodist local congregations only hold their buildings “in trust” (their term) for the denominational authorities. So the denomination itself gets to decide how and when its buildings and grounds are used; and if it’s not considered to be “in the denominational interest”, then the local people who have been living as part of that church have no claim to it anymore, no matter how much they may have donated to it, how much work they’ve done for it, or how long they’ve lived as part of that congregation. So if pitching out the old folks looks good to the purposes of the denomination itself, then the local congregants have no legal leg to stand on. They have to go.

Tom: So that would have been part of the 2008 merger agreement then: ceding control of their building to the UM.

IC: But that doesn’t make it right. And it doesn’t make it smart. And it certainly doesn’t make it godly.

The Downside of Denominational Affiliation

Tom: It certainly shows the dangers of hitching your wagon (so to speak) to a denominational authority. These folks were not deriving any benefit from either the denomination or the church in Woodbury they merged with. They were financially stable and pastor-free. But that wasn’t enough for the denominational leadership, who are looking for growth rather than mere stability. One of the linked articles also points out that using lay preachers instead of paying a pastor “created a lot of independence” at Cottage Grove. You and I would view independence under Christ as a plus, but the denomination may have viewed it less favorably.

IC: Independent local congregations. Doesn’t sound like a bad idea to me, Tom. And I’m sure that when the congregants at Cottage Grove first signed on with the UM, they only thought that the larger denominational control was a good thing — maybe better access to resources, or a guarantee of good oversight, or a way of linking up with Christians elsewhere — but it’s that centralized control that now has them out the door, or coming back cap-in-hand in two years, begging to be let into their own place, one that will by that time have been completely redesigned to suit others. And they have no grounds for appeal.

The Purpose of the Church

Tom: This brings up a larger issue, IC, and that is the purpose of the church. Of course we would all agree that the church belongs to Christ and not to men at any level. But to the extent that the church exists for the benefit of men at all, who are its intended beneficiaries? Does the local church exist primarily as a vehicle for evangelizing the unsaved, or do its purposes lie elsewhere?

IC: Well, you’re right, Tom; the only thing the church exists for is Christ. But in terms of our practices as human beings, and in terms of our obligations, what does that mean? First and foremost, it means that the purpose of the local church is to assemble to the person of Christ, and worship together. If it never does another thing, that’s what it should do. And if it doesn’t do that, it’s not a church at all. Now, in worshiping Christ, the local church has several means: the primary one is the Lord’s Supper (“Communion” as it’s sometimes called). Christ said, “Do this; remember me.” So if we don’t, we’re not assembling to Christ, and we have no business to do with each other.

Tom: Fair enough, and I think you’ve hit on the primary purpose of the church there: “Those who worship ... must worship in spirit and truth.” But let’s assume the worship issue is taken care of, or at least that it’s unrelated to what’s happening in Minnesota.

Out with the Old Sheep, In with the New

What I’m trying to get at is this: On what possible biblical basis does any merely human ecclesiastical authority send the existing members of a local church packing in favor of an allegedly greater — and we should add to that purely speculative — number of younger and more desirable unbelievers? How is that in any way to be considered the church’s mandate? Can you picture the Lord putting his twelve disciples on hiatus to see if he could attract a better breed of follower?

IC: If “a better breed of follower” is what the Lord is after, we’re all in trouble. And if a younger breed of follower is all he wants, then we’re all going to age out of our Christianity in short order.

Tom: Well, that’s my point. When churches “renew” like this, there is sometimes the illusion of growth, but it often turns out either temporary or transformative ... in not a good way. This was the case with the 1980s renewal movement among the Plymouth Brethren. It resulted in a bunch of churches that no longer call themselves “brethren” and may as well now be classified as generic evangelical, and some limited measure of fleeting new interest that quickly fizzled out. But whether any particular evangelistic initiative or membership drive peters out or catches on, it seems to me the job of church leadership everywhere is to shepherd the flock God has committed to their care, not chuck the existing flock out of its fold in hope of filling the fold with a more desirable class of sheep.

IC: That is right, I think. The local church is not only not the possession of the world, but not the possession of a denomination, and not even the possession of its local members. It is Christ’s. Nobody else has a right to say who is in it, what it looks like, or where it goes. We are “members of his body”. Who is in, who is out, what they should do, how many there should be, how old they are, and what they do … all that is 100% the Lord’s prerogative. Ours is just the responsibility to figure out how to do what he asked us, with whatever fellow members he’s given us.

Social Justice Convergence

Tom: There is the stench of social justice “convergence” all over this takeover of Cottage Grove. In a letter to the disenfranchised seniors, church leaders said, “we seek to be a safe space where all these [negative] emotions [about the takeover] are welcomed and affirmed”. If that doesn’t sound like post-modern inclusivity bafflegab, I don’t know what does ... except, of course, that in this case the leadership is excluding all the Christians who built the church they are blithely swiping out from under them, and were serving their Lord in it.

IC: The United Methodists have a long history, going back to the turn of the previous century, with first the social gospel and now, of course, with social justice. So you’ve pegged their DNA right. Except in this case, they’ve gotten so enraptured with serving the world that they’ve actually lost any sense of responsibility or care for their own members. That’s interesting … an organization starting out as a bunch of Christians trying to work out their faith in practical, socially-therapeutic ways, and ending up completely losing the sense of being a bunch of Christians. There’s some sort of cautionary tale in there.

Tom: Truly. But what all these assurances of “safe spaces” and “recognition of feelings” boil down to is this: “We hear you that you don’t like this. Unfortunately, hearing is all we’re gonna do. You have said your piece; now please go away. We own your building, and we’re going to do whatever we like with it. Come along if you feel like getting with our program ... assuming we’ll allow you. That’s still to be determined.”

Let this be a warning to Christians who feel like the way to move forward in the work of the Lord is to pair up with organizations that look to be more successful. There is no significant upside in doing so, and plenty of potential downside. There are worse things than being small.

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