very old church atop a snowy hill
Reading Time: 9 minutes (Lorenzo Colombo.) A derelict church atop a hill in Monte Tobbio, Italy.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Hi and welcome to a special edition of Roll to Disbelieve! Recently, I noticed something coming up a lot in the commentariat and elsewhere: this news story about Cottage Grove United Methodist Church. Their leaders are taking a really unusual step to try to bring in new blood. They’re gonna do it by throwing out the old blood! Here’s why this strategy is doomed to failure right out of the gate–and why these Christians are desperate enough to try it anyway.

very old church atop a snowy hill
(Lorenzo Colombo.) A derelict church atop a hill in Monte Tobbio, Italy.

Everyone, Meet Cottage Grove United Methodist Church.

Cottage Grove United Methodist Church is, as the name indicates, part of the United Methodist Church (UMC) denomination. Located a bit southeast of St. Paul, Minnesota, it’s one of a two-campus church, each with a reference to trees in its name. Members call these churches “The Grove.” (See endnote about church names these days.)

The UMC is not strictly-speaking evangelical, but they do lean that way in places. Some UMC members even make a good case for there being an “evangelical takeover” going on for them right now. I sure don’t disagree.

Last week, reporter Bob Shaw with Twin Cities Pioneer Press filed a news story about them.

And that story sounds like something right out of The Onion!


As the reporter puts it:

The church wants to attract more young families. The present members, most of them over 60 years old, will be invited to worship somewhere else. A memo recommends that they stay away for two years, then consult the pastor about reapplying.

Officials say the church needs a reset, and reopening the church is the best way to appeal to younger people.

Their plan involves closing the church for a few months this summer, then reopening in November. No physical renovation of the building is planned. The officials plan to keep the same name too. In fact, nothing changes at all with this plan except its vibe and its services. They think when it re-opens it’ll be a “new work,” which is Christianese for a whole new church that just happens to use an old, closed church’s building.

During the downtime, they plan to set up programs and a culture that they hope desperately will attract younger congregants with kids. When the church re-opens, they expect its original congregants to stay away for a year or two.

After that, any interested remaining Boomers can ask the pastor about returning. (Mighty kind of him, eh?) If they’re okay with the church vibe having totally changed to one that’s hip and Millennial or Gen Z enough, then he’ll consent to perhaps maybe consider finding a way to fit them into the new church.

Why Cottage Grove Made This Bees-Headed Decision.

I recently talk[ed] to a 60-something friend of mine who attends an evangelical megachurch that recently hired three new pastors. I asked him if he liked these new congregational leaders. He said, “Yes, I like them, but they don’t seem particularly interested in me. I don’t think I represent the right demographic.”

–As relayed by John Fea

Like almost all non-megachurches in the United States, Cottage Grove is in deep doo-doo. But its pile of doo-doo is way higher than most churches’.

From the very beginning 30 years ago, this church struggled to attract supporters. Since then, it’s done the usual soft-shoe routine that churches have had to perform to stay alive: mergers, layoffs, likely the elimination of programs, and finally switching from paid ministers to laypeople to perform their rituals and services (that means that church members do their own sermons and whatnot). The founder of the church, Jim Baker, stepped down from leadership and is now a lay member (and in an authoritarian group, ZOMG that is a recipe for drama). Apparently he sometimes offers puppetry presentations from the pulpit, like he did when that reporter attended there.

(Years ago, I worked as a puppeteer. Jesus puppetry is the second cringiest and creepiest thing on the planet. Its practitioners rank just above Christian magicians and far below clowns-for-Jesus.)

When the church made its announcement last week, they had finally managed to stabilize their finances, but the writing was still on the wall. The reporter there counted 25 hardy souls still in attendance. Almost every one of them was 60 years old or older. One outlier, a young family with two kids, told him they’d attended this church for years.

Pretty much nobody there sounds happy with this restructuring decision. One old lady got very, very agitated and screamed at the speakers to shut up and let her talk till she was damn well good and done.

How The Situation Gets Worse…

But the matter worsens considerably, as hard as that might be to believe.

The church’s managers hope the older congregants will continue to support the church while it’s closed. That expectation includes performing the volunteer labor they did before! After the announcement was made to them, one member noted:

Afterward, [longtime member and old dude] William Gackstetter said the aging membership has been asked to continue maintaining the church until it reopens without them.

They can’t attend while the building’s closed, but the leaders of it sure hope they’ll continue to pay the staff and mow the lawn.


Just wow.

…And Even Worse.

UMC, as a denomination, faces some big challenges in the years ahead. Not only is this denomination declining in membership at a rapid pace, but they also face a near-schism over LGBT inclusiveness (in utter defiance of Jesus’ totally-divine prediction of his followers’ unity–like any group of Christians really, seriously cares about what Jesus wanted). Their disagreement over how to handle their remaining LGBT members has already split many a church in the denomination.

Since they couldn’t work out what Jesus wanted them to do, they recently held a big huge vote over the issue, which decided the following:

UMC as a whole will begin performing same-sex marriages and allowing LGBT people to hold clergy positions. Meanwhile, UMC bigots will shuffle off into a new denomination: traditionalist Methodists. (See endnotes about that choice of wording.) UMC leaders plan to finalize the separation in May, when they have their big annual jamboree.

Maybe this division weighed on Cottage Grove’s leaders’ minds. I hear rumors that most of this particular church’s members were on the progressive end of the scale. Despite that small positive point, I don’t reckon most UMC leaders are unaware that young adults reject Christianity largely because of the rampant bigotry of so many Christians. For better or for worse, people associate that bigotry more with older Christians than younger ones.

Maybe in trying to channel a younger image, Cottage Grove hopes to shed that association.

…And the Worst Part.

As UMC faces its own decline, so has pretty much every other Christian denomination ever–especially in the United States. Not one reputable survey-house or analyst I have ever seen has given Christians a single hope of regaining their former unequivocal dominance of the United States (or world, really). Hell, nobody even gives Christians much of a chance of stabilizing their downward plunge anytime soon.

These declines seem very firmly tied to age group. Younger people in every generation have less and less desire to purchase what Christian leaders are trying so hard to sell–which is membership in their particular group/flavor of the religion. Now that Christianity is almost entirely optional, Americans are showing exactly how relevant it is to them.

Nowadays, Christian groups can only manage to poach members from each other. With every year’s passing, fewer brand-new customers join any of them.

Only megachurches are really doing well even at poaching lately, too, thanks to the money they can slam down onto the table. That money purchases slick programs and gorgeous campuses and chapels and outbuildings and parking garages and youth-group roller-skating rinks and whatnot–and then it pays for all the staffers required to make all of them work.

But really, any church that can plunge tons of money into programs and nice clubhouses and plenty of paid staff can use the same techniques these megachurches use. It just takes a lot of money to get started…

…As we’ll see in just a moment.

A Cottage Industry of Consultation.

Christian leaders still haven’t engaged fully with the new reality of optional Christianity–and what it means about their religion and their future employment prospects. They still think there’s some magical way to make Christianity relevant that will work to draw in crowds again to their churches. They’re wrong, which hasn’t stopped a veritable ARMY of hucksters hanging out shingles with business names that include words like revitalization and renewal. It’s the newest cottage industry in Christianity! I think it’ll overtake apologetics in profitability, eventually. (Buy stock now!)

If a failing church doesn’t hire an actual consultant to help them revitalize their membership rolls, they often purchase those consultants’ advice. This particular plan smells like the latter.

Cottage Grove hired the 32-year-old Jeremy Peters to re-create them as a brand-new church. Peters refers to himself as a “planting pastor.” In Christianese, church planting involves launching a new church and guiding it to self-sufficiency. He uses big trendy buzzwords like “intergenerational” a lot, too.

The denomination’s leaders, we learn from the initial story, are impressed enough with him to hand over USD$250k so he can put this plan in motion.

And he’s done some impressive spin doctoring work on the criticisms leveled at him lately–check it out. He sounds exactly like an especially-manipulative huckster trying to get out in front of his very own nationwide PR disaster. At the end of all those silencing attempts and ring-around-the-rosie, it sure sounds like the initial story is correct (in the main). He’s trickling and weasel-wording wayyyy too much for it not to be.

Mystery Church Kitchen Nightmares Rescue.

Ultimately, though, doesn’t this whole situation remind you of those “Mystery Diners,” “Bar Rescue,” or “Kitchen Nightmares” reality shows?

YouTube video

I love this video. I re-watch it whenever I need a lift in my mood. Mr. Captain has threatened to self-combust if I do it around him even one more time. Ah, but I got away with it today because “I need to watch it for research! Honest!” 

These shows fascinate me precisely because they remind me of churches so much:

Almost always, the show profiles a business owner who has fallen into certain bad habits. These business owners have a menu that they like, customs they cherish, and a staff willing to put up with their managerial ineptitude. They’ve got a regular clientele who either lack taste buds or possess iron stomachs or have a strong tolerance for absolute-unit levels of weirdness.

YouTube video

I said weirdness and I mean weirdness. (Probably SFW) This happened at an American bistro-style restaurant. On the plus side, after the show filmed she sold the place and went back to teaching belly dancing.

And they really resent snoopy reality-show hosts who come in and try to upset their routines.

I mean, except for “Mystery Diners.” There, the owners are clearly totally in on the joke. Maybe they don’t 100% belong in my little list. But they’re there now and I want to share the video with you, we’ll just pretend they’re on the level.

(Fighting) the Need for Change.

In these shows, the host’s job consists mostly of getting the clients past their paralyzing fear and dread of change.

Whatever they’re doing with their business, it’s got them barely-just-going-bankrupt. But change is always uncertain. Authoritarians fear change even more than most people. I mean, we could talk all day about whether it’s a chicken-or-the-egg scenario going on here (do authoritarians gravitate to authoritarian groups because they fear uncertainty so much? Or do people in these groups acquire that fear through associating with their groups?).

Me, I leave that question to the people better qualified to argue about it. What I do know is that authoritarians fear uncertainty, and in their worldview they do a lot more–and a lot faster–threat assessment than anybody else on humanity’s block. And once they’ve decided that something represents a threat, authoritarians react to it more quickly and more firmly than anyone else.

Uncertainty arouses fundagelicals’ threat-whiskers. Only slamming hard on tradition, rituals, habits, and well-established patterns of behavior and thinking can soothe those whiskers back down again. They’d rather go out of business than change anything they’re currently doing. So the hosts of these shows have their work cut out for them!

Walking Back Divine Approval, Or Not.

In religious groups, these problems only magnify a hundredfold.

See, Christians claim that a god told them to do whatever they’re doing. Typically, they think very hard at the ceiling to make sure their invisible imaginary friend approves of their plans. So it’s really hard for them to change those plans later. It’s hard to walk back divine approval of a plan.

We’ll talk more later on about this fear, rest assured. For now, I’ll just say that when one thinks about this aspect of the Christian psyche generally, it’s remarkable that Cottage Grove even tried to make a big change. But life rarely offers anybody half-credit. They’re destroying a lot of their social capital with existing members, and they’re doing it to try to gain new clientele that are by no means guaranteed to show up at all.

In this way, I see this tiny, tiny little church as a sort of microcosmic representation of Christianity itself.

NEXT UP: LSP tomorrow! Then, we examine how people can (and do!) conceptualize whatever weird religious experiences they had in the light of their deconversions. See you soon!


About church names nowadays: Churches don’t like to sound churchy, these days. After all, Christians of all people know that their brand is hopelessly tainted. So when they come up with names for themselves, they go for something that sounds deep that ends up sounding like a really upscale apartment complex, a weird self-help cult, or a clothing shop catering to Coachella attendees, like “The Summit” or “The Apex” or “Together” or something. One of these days we’ll play the “Church Name, Upscale Apartment Complex, Coachella-Catering Clothes Shop, or Weird Self-Help Cult” game. But isn’t there kind of a lot of overlap in all those things anyway? (Back to the post!)

Why “traditionalist” works well here: Lately, “traditionalist” has begun taking on the meaning of misogynistic, racist, violence-loving bigots who think Jesus totally approves of them using their limited lifetimes to fight tooth and nail against human rights, frighten and exclude people they hate, and try their hardest to bring about WWIII. But watch out for going too far with this one. Though fundagelicals as a whole use it in that way most of the time (see: “traditional marriage”), the Southern Baptist Convention also uses it to differentiate between Calvinist and Arminian-leaning Christians, especially pastors. You know how Calvinists think their god decided at the beginning of the universe who’d go to Heaven and who’d land in Hell and cain’t nobody or nothin’ change his mind? Arminians are sorta their opposite: humans can and do totally make choices that stymie their god’s omnipotent plans. (Back to the post!)

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...