Our Methodist colleagues in Minnesota made national news this week as they made the difficult decision to close and relaunch the Cottage Grove campus of the Woodbury United Methodist Church. The decision, which left the church’s older members feeling disenfranchised, highlights the challenges confronting countless churches across North America.  

The Cottage Grove church has been in decline for years. A merger with Woodbury United Methodist and a concentrated effort to revitalize the church did not achieve the hoped-for results. Currently only 30+ members, mostly senior adults, gather for lay-lead worship services each week.  Will Willimon professor of Christian ministry at Duke Divinity School and a bishop in the United Methodist Church was blunt in his assessment, “I’ve been in that situation, and you hate to see a church die,” he said. “But this church is dying. You look at a human gathering where the median age is 70, and you do the math.” As a part of the restart, the newly installed campus pastor invited any member who wished to join the launch team. Others are asked to worship at the Woodbury campus for twelve to fifteen months while the church establishes a new DNA and a new identity.  Those members who do not feel able to make the commute feel abandoned and cast aside. I do not envy the gut wrenching choices this church has had to face, and I pass no judgment on the decisions they made. As I continue to reflect on their journey, I offer the following thoughts to others who may be working to help their congregations survive and thrive.

  1. Remember the purpose of worship (and continually remind everyone of it).  Worship and liturgy (whatever form it takes) is the work of the people; it is our offering to God.  When meeting the needs of those in attendance becomes our primary focus, we drift into consumerism and lose sight of the true reason we gather. 
  2. Work for both/and not either/or.  Think creatively about ways that long-term members can continue to worship and care for one another while the church is re-visioning. In the book of Acts, when the Hellenist widows were being neglected, the community selected seven Spirit-filled believers to care for them while other leaders continued other work. Are there ways your church can your church achieve both/and?
  3. Value the contributions long-term members bring to the table. Honor the wisdom of your matriarchs and patriarchs and encourage them to bring their gifts and experience to the new efforts. A number of years ago our church welcomed a large number of Burmese refugees. To help them worship more fully, a part of each service – music, scripture reading, or a litany- was offered only in an indigenous language. This change was disconcerting to some, but our ninety-nine  year old matriarch commented, “I don’t understand what they are saying, but God does, and that’s what matters in worship.”  Long-term members like this can bring a wonderful perspective and model flexibility to those who are later adapters 
  4. Realize that multi-generational worship has much to offer our divided world. Back in 2011, Chris Gambill wrote, “..disconnect between generations hurts the church’s ministry. At the simple level, we do the larger world and the kingdom harm because we are not helping people cross barriers. It runs counter to our mission.”  Most of us no longer live near our extended families, and we are guilty of age isolation in our congregations.  Pair long-term members with children to lead prayers, read Scripture, and usher during worship services. Outside of worship, offer multi-generational retreats and Sunday School classes, service projects, and opportunities for fellowship. Provide space   for people of different generations to share their stories, their worldviews, and their faith journeys. Breaking down generational barriers will help everyone develop the skills to do the same in other relationships in other places.
  5. Find support for the journey.  We live in challenging days for the church, and leading a declining congregation can be discouraging and isolating. Connect with a coach, a peer group, or your denominational body to journey with you.

Tracy Hartman
Tracy was a member of the first class of M. Div. students at BTSR and won the Miller Award for Academic Achievement upon her graduation in 1995. Her graduate work at Union included ground-breaking research into the relationship between parish setting and preaching style for women pastors. Dr. Hartman teaches preaching and directs the seminary’s Supervised Ministry and Doctor of Ministry programs. She is the author of Letting the Other Speak: Proclaiming the Stories of Biblical Women and co-author of New Proclamation Commentary. Dr. Hartman is active in Baptist life and has served as staff member and interim pastor to several Virginia churches. She enjoys preaching throughout the region. She is a coach for CHC.