Jennifer Brooks
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A plan to save a struggling little church turned into a battle for the ages in Cottage Grove last week.

Maybe you saw the headlines in the Washington Post, or caught the segment on CNN. Maybe you read an angry Facebook post about it.

Maybe you left a one-star review for that church you heard was kicking all its elderly members out into the cold.

“If I could give zero stars I would,” online reviewers wrote. “This church should be ashamed of themselves.”

“Satan has a grip on this church.”

“Like bringing a dog to the pound so you can get a puppy.”

The leadership of the Grove United Methodist Church assured people all week that nobody is setting the elderly adrift on Mississippi ice floes to make space in the pews for younger, cuter families. But there’s a vast gap between what some people say and what others hear.

“No one’s getting kicked out of the church,” the Rev. Dan Wetterstrom repeated to the umpteenth news outlet last week. “We are one church with two sites that is temporarily closing one site in order that we can relaunch.”

Church planting — opening a new church, rebooting one that’s struggling, closing one that can’t get enough bodies through the door — happens all the time, across all denominations.

“There’s a percentage of churches in North America every year that close their doors, that cease to exist, that simply age out,” said church planter Ben Ingebretson, area director for new church development for Dakotas-Minnesota United Methodist Church. “And then there’s a percentage of churches every year in North America that are started.”

But when they tried to repot the church in Cottage Grove, things went horribly, virally haywire.

It all started with a little congregation that was getting smaller and grayer by the year.

On Sundays, about 30 worshipers gathered at the Grove’s southern campus. The community around them was growing fast and changing faster, but not the church. It got smaller and smaller until it could no longer support a pastor of its own. Longtime members led each other in prayer and song.

Most churches have life spans barely longer than the people in the pews.

They bury their founders. The children grow old. The grandchildren drift away. Attendance dwindles. The old church building gets sold and converted into a coffee shop.

Most North American churches don’t make it past the 80- or 100-year mark. Especially in Minnesota, which has been losing churches — and churchgoers — faster than the rest of the nation.

If the congregation was going to survive, it needed to grow. And if it was going to grow, it might have to change.

The Grove — a thousand worshipers spread between the smaller church in Cottage Grove and a larger, growing congregation in nearby Woodbury — decided to reboot the smaller campus.

The plan was to close the Cottage Grove campus while they retooled everything from the church mission to amenities to music.

After a few months, it would reopen, ready to welcome in all those new families who’ve been moving to the southern suburbs lately.

But not the 30 people who’d filled the church with song and prayer all those long, lean years.

Those families, church leaders hoped, would keep worshiping in Woodbury for a year or two. That way, new congregants could settle in without feeling like the new kid at a school where everyone else has been friends since kindergarten.

For some longtime faithful, the message “we welcome the new” felt a lot more like “we have no use for the old.” One family reached out to a local reporter.

Suddenly, name recognition wasn’t the Grove’s biggest problem anymore.

The public perception of their church as a cold, calculating enterprise with no regard for the elders who need them most horrified members of this progressive congregation.

Church leadership is scrambling to reassure the Cottage Grove congregation, and members of the public who have bombarded them with angry calls and e-mails all week.

“Come as you are and you’ll be welcomed,” said Wetterstrom. “Be who you are and you’ll be celebrated.

“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.”

If you want to read up on the church planting project before you leave your next angry Yelp review, you can visit www.theplantingproject.org.

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com 612-673-4008

Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks