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Church Culture

Church’s “Relaunch” Raises Claims of Age Discrimination

A local paper’s story about one small, dying Methodist church’s plans to “relaunch” itself has caused a ruckus, spawning headlines and debates about a religious generational divide across the country. 

Bob Shaw, a reporter at Minnesota’s St. Paul Pioneer Press, started it all with his Jan. 18 article about nearby Grove United Methodist Church in Cottage Grove: “Best path to a younger flock? Church asks older members to worship elsewhere.” 

The article described angry members’ responses to the church’s plans to close in June and reopen later in the year with a goal of attracting newer and younger members, including families. 

“This is totally wrong,” one member complained. “They are discriminating against us because of our age.” 

That member’s husband went further: “This whole plan makes me sick. I believe it’s evil.” 

More articles ensued before the church’s pastor objected, adding valuable nuance, in a CNN article headlined: “A church made headlines for allegedly asking older members to leave. But the reality is more complicated.” 

Dan Wetterstrom, the church’s lead pastor, told CNN the claims of discrimination aren’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 in the Jan. 22 article. 

The Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey did a similar story: “A church allegedly asked older members to leave. Leaders say that didn’t actually happen. 

Change Needed 

Grove United Methodist clearly needed to do something. Fewer than 30 people were attending weekly services when the relaunch was first announced last year. 

As CNN’s Harmeet Kaur reported: “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. 

Unless something changes, we are nearing the end, said Pastor Wetterstrom. 

Methodist officials decided to quit paying for a minister at the church seven years ago. 

Ever since, lay ministers have pitched in, but according to Bob Shaw’s original story, the church’s Jan. 12 service—where debates about the relaunch plan stirred strong emotions—the service featured a 6-year-old recorded sermon and a puppet show. 

Since the current UMC structure was formed in 1968, the U.S. church has lost millions of members, but remains the country’s second largest Protestant denomination after the Southern Baptists. At the same time international congregations have grown.  

The U.S. church has also been split by decades-long debates about whether they should baptize and ordain gays, lesbians, and others. 

At the denomination’s General Conference in May, delegates will vote on a new Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through SeparationIf the Protocol passes, progressives would remain in the United Methodist Church, while more traditionalist congregations would leave to form a new denomination. 

Grove United Methodist isn’t alone in its struggles, and other UMC congregations are undergoing similar relaunches, but without all the negative publicity. 

First United Methodist Church Missouri City is undergoing church structure and ministry relaunch,’” says the website for this Texas church. 

Windborne United Methodist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina is undergoing a similar rebirth process: “We are currently in the process of relaunching our church and will be gathering on Sunday mornings at 10am, where we will observe Scripture and Sacrament. 

Vineyard United Methodist Church in Hutchinson, Minnesota has already completed the process, reopening its doors last October. 

“Our main focus is to attract more members,” said one member. “We had the gift of money, we decided we had to use that money to make a statement and put it out there or within a handful of years we’re going to have to close the doors. Our committee decided to go for it, give it our best shot and see what we can do.” 

Grove United Methodist’s Pastor Wetterstrom still has similar hopes for Grove United Methodist. 

“Our dream is to create a thriving intergenerational church, and the relaunch is the method in which we are seeking to do that,” he told CNN. 

And the church’s website still affirms its openness to people of all races, sexual orientations, and ages:  We honor the sacred worth and dignity of persons of every age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical and mental capacity, education, economic, and marital status. 

Steve Rabey

Steve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He and his wife Lois live in Colorado.