It started as a local news story. An article in a Minnesota newspaper reported over the weekend that a church asked older parishioners to leave in an effort to attract younger families. As outrage and accusations of age discrimination grew, the story was picked up by more and more news outlets.© Courtesy Kelly Lamon/Grove United Methodist Church Grove United Methodist Church in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, is temporarily closing in June with plans to relaunch later in the year. Church leaders say the move is intended to attract new members.
But like most stories, the reality is not so simple.
At issue is a plan to revitalize the Grove United Methodist Church in Cottage Grove, a suburb of St. Paul and one of the church's two locations.
The Cottage Grove campus is home to a small, tight-knit community, where members of the congregation lead their own sermons and sing traditional hymns.
But for more than a decade, the campus has struggled to attract new members, particularly younger people, despite Cottage Grove being one of the fastest growing cities in Minnesota. About 30 people worship there weekly and for it to survive, church leaders say things have to change.
The church is planning a relaunch
So in December, Dan Wetterstrom, the lead pastor of Grove United Methodist Church, announced that come June, the Cottage Grove location would be temporarily closing its doors. The campus would reopen later in the year, under the leadership of Jeremy Peters -- a 32-year-old pastor who had experience in developing community relationships and new worship styles.
Wetterstrom's notes from that meeting were emailed to congregants who weren't able to attend, he said, and the news was met with a lot of emotion.
"Our folks love their campus. They are devoted to each other," Wetterstrom said. "When I shared that news, they were hurt and they were deeply disappointed. Some were surprised, and out of that came a lot of hard feelings."
For 70-year-old Bill Gackstetter, who has been a member of the congregation for about 10 years, the message was that only young families were wanted. He said the note he received said that the campus would be "going dark" and its current parishioners, many of whom are older, were "no longer allowed to go there."
"I just couldn't believe it," he told CNN.
CNN has so far been unable to reach other parishioners at the Cottage Grove campus, but as some told the Pioneer Press, the new changes have made members feel like they will soon be unwelcome.
"If it happened, I wouldn't come here any more," 34-year-old Stella Knapp, who attends the church with her family, told the newspaper.
"The past few weeks have seen confusion, anxiety and anger," Ron Purcell said as he opened a service on January 12, the paper reported.
Older members weren't asked to leave, pastor says
Wetterstrom insists the assertion that older congregants were asked to leave simply isn't true.
"They were requested to move to an alternative worship for 15 to 18 months during this transition time but they were never asked to stay away for two years," he said.
The revitalized Cottage Grove campus will be inclusive and open to "anyone and everyone who wants to be a part of it," Wetterstrom said. But church leaders have a specific mission in mind, and they want the new community to be made up of those who feel a calling to do that work. Because of that, he said the new community may not be the best fit for everyone.
That mission is to "make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." Church leaders are inviting everyone in the congregation to be serve on the transition team, Wetterstrom said. He said they are also working to connect the current Cottage Grove congregation to the Woodbury campus and help them continue to worship as a group in another location after the building closes.
"Our dream is to create a thriving intergenerational church, and the relaunch is the method in which we are seeking to do that," Wetterstrom said.
The relaunch -- a process many Christian churches refer to as replanting -- comes as the United Methodist Church denomination as a whole is aging. Baby boomers make up 38% of the church's members, while millennials consist of just 13%, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
The denomination is struggling to hold on to younger members raised in the church and to attract new ones, a problem not specific to the United Methodist Church. Adults under 40 are less likely to identify with any religion than older adults, Pew data shows, and the age gap is most common in predominately Christian countries.