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The story was sensational. A small, struggling congregation of some 30 elderly attendees is scheduled to close this summer, only to relaunch in the fall with a new, young pastor, new décor, and a new worship style, but without its aging members. Pioneer Press reported that church leaders at the Grove United Methodist Church (UMC) had asked elderly members not to participate in the relaunch and to worship elsewhere for two years before “reapplying” for membership. Accusations of age discrimination followed. Major media picked up the story, painting it as a case of youth-obsessed culture run amok.
The truth is more complicated, but also more sobering.
The Grove boasts two suburban St. Paul, Minn., campuses: the small Cottage Grove congregation, and a large, prosperous Woodbury congregation 15 minutes to the north. The two congregations merged in 2008, but for the past seven years the Cottage Grove campus has been unable to support its own minister. Members of the congregation plan services, provide music, and take turns preaching sermons. Despite past revitalization efforts, the Cottage Grove campus has remained stagnant.
The planned relaunch is designed to attract younger families and to forge an intergenerational ministry. Leaders have asked Cottage Grove members to worship at the Woodbury campus for 15-18 months so the relaunch can “take.” The leaders clarified no current member will be excluded from the relaunch. They are being asked—not commanded—to give it a chance to succeed.
But it won’t.
In June 2019 the Minnesota Conference of the UMC voted to reject a Biblical view of human sexuality, marriage, and Christian ministry in order to support “the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people in the life of the church.” In a Jan. 5, 2020, sermon, Grove Associate Pastor Kelly Lamon stated that the leaders of the Grove “stand in solidarity” with the decision of the Minnesota Conference.
Theologically liberal Methodists already repudiate substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection of the dead, and the plain Biblical witness to the necessity of repentance and the certainty of eternal punishment apart from faith in Jesus Christ. Their current repudiation of Biblical morality further untethers the Grove from historic Christianity.
In a brief survey of 12 weeks of sermons, including messages from pastors of the Grove and the bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota area, I found not a single reference to repentance, conviction, guilt, law, commandment, the holiness of God, judgment, atonement, or God’s wrath against sin.
One sermon mentioned sin, but did so while suggesting that Christians too often use light and darkness as metaphors for good and evil, and that by doing so we promote racism against dark-skinned persons. No sermons mentioned eternal life, reconciliation with God, the necessity of forgiveness, obedience, or the cost of discipleship.
The leaders of the Grove might succeed in relaunching the Cottage Grove campus. They might fill the sanctuary with young people. But ultimately they will fail, for they appear committed to withholding the words of eternal life from those who attend.