”Cottage Grove church to usher out gray-haired members in effort to attract more young parishioners.”
So read the headline of a major metro newspaper a few weeks back. Apparently regional denominational officials had requested that older members of a dwindling congregation vacate their beloved-but-dying church, relocating to the other worship site of this merged congregation. This would allow the denomination to use the Cottage Grove location as a new start that might attract younger members. When the new congregation had been established for awhile, these older members would be invited back.
Any of us who have moved from one church family to another, for whatever reasons, can identify readily with the displaced Cottage Grove folks. I know their feelings instinctively, perhaps including some residual sorrow that may still dogs seniors’ sense of mission.
This personal history helps me understand the outpouring of feelings that have come from this story. Some commentators have tut-tutted and finger-wagged at the denomination about what appears to be blatant ageism. They have railed against this seeming injustice, correctly pointing out the value of older adults for the life of the church and for the spread of the Gospel. “Old people as victims” seems to be the emotional sub-heading for this story.
The church officials’ approach may suggest a different account. Trying to shepherd precious resources—and after several other attempts at revitalizing this congregation and its partnered church nearby—the denominational leaders decided to try the more difficult process of restarting the congregation. The present Cottage Grove congregants were invited to their yoked partner close by, and assured that pastoral care would be available for them. Their spiritual needs and opportunities would continue, albeit in a different location. Another heading—something like “Old people as care-receivers”—might characterize that tale.
I can imagine yet another narrative. This one might be headlined “Old people as renewers”. Because the members from the Cottage Grove location were known as a capable, close-knit and caring group, these good folks could decide to integrate fully into the life of their partnered congregation en masse. They could take all of their collective assets—including their verve, experience and wisdom—and apply them to the ministries of this new place. Freed from the weight of maintaining the previous building and invited to put their faith to work in a different setting, the Cottage Grove church members might kindle new fires and new energy. They could be instrumental in keeping alive this congregation’s responsibilities and opportunities among older adults—a growing demographic in that part of the country. Instead of withering spiritually—feeling neglected or dishonored—they could seize this change as another way of participating in the work of the Spirit.
With that perspective in mind, this story sounds more like a win-win tale. The denomination gets to try a new approach to congregational vitality. With some of their cobwebs cleaned out, these older adults can discover a new spirit, a new vocation. The new opportunities could give them new energy, new friends, new surroundings by which they could carry out their lifelong callings. In that case, a followup article’s banner could read, “Old people as enthused leaders.”
These possibilities sing a hopeful song to me: That under the seemingly sad headlines about congregational decline are incredibly rich and joyful stories yet to be written.
New headlines for a new day!
For a balanced report detailing the background and ramifications of this decision, see https://www.mprnews.org/story/2020/01/31/controversial-cottage-grove-church-one-of-many-hitting-restart