See more of the story

HENDRICKS, Minn. - Jay Nelson steered his car past Lake Hendricks, past giant windmills and soybean fields, across the South Dakota border that abuts his town, and up a gravel lane.

Here stands the idyllic country church where Nelson was raised: Singsaas Church, founded in 1874 by America's first Norwegian Lutheran minister and now on the National Register of Historic Places. The adjacent cemetery is the final resting place for 870 people, including a Civil War soldier. "I know all of them," Nelson joked.

The former deacon is no longer welcome here, though. As Nelson walked the length of the cemetery, the 51-year-old was filled not with nostalgia but with sadness about losing his church home, which is now nondenominational. He was also filled with fear.

In the past few years, a conservative, fundamentalist pastor has taken over the church and divided this lakeside town of about 600 people. Some say Pastor Jason Hartung executed a "hostile takeover" and "hijacked" the historic congregation; Hartung has referred to people like Nelson as enemies of the church, and Nelson and four others have been kicked out of the congregation. Meanwhile, the church has grown under Hartung; Former members say the church used to pull in 40 to 60 people on Sundays; current attendees say they see upwards of 100. There are lawsuits and countersuits, hurt feelings and split families, and a cemetery association whose finances — some $200,000 in a bank account — are in dispute.

The country church controversy illuminates a broader divide between Christians who are unwilling to mingle politics and religion, and fundamentalists who see politics and religion as inextricably intertwined.

It culminated this summer during the annual cemetery association meeting. Men with concealed weapons were posted at the church entrance as security while a vote took place; dissenters — the church's old guard — were afraid to enter and instead held their own vote outside. The sheriff came after someone was seen carrying an AR-15 rifle inside.

"To see [the church] devolve into something with no integrity at all — it's the most dire sense of sadness someone can experience," Nelson said. "The integrity of being born and raised here stays with people ... Now it's a place where the pastor encourages carrying guns to fend off pretend enemies."

The roots of the divide, some former congregants say, stem from the pastor strongly advocating conservative political stances: against gay marriage, for the Second Amendment, and against current American government leaders, whom he calls tyrants. He encourages parishioners to openly carry firearms in church. He displayed a straight pride sign during gay pride month in June saying, "Identity Is God Determined, Marriage Is God Defined." Some who've left the church call it hateful rhetoric, but Hartung says pastors must take such strong stances — and that spreading "the truth" isn't hate but the very definition of love.

Hartung declined interview requests, but his views were on display at a recent worship service, where he struck unabashedly nationalist tones in a 40-minute sermon, dense with quotes from scripture and titled "Hell is Hotter for Some." God's strongest judgment is reserved for those who know God's word but deny it, he said.

A parishioner recited part of the U.S. Constitution, a regular occurrence in the church. Hartung spoke of Americans' responsibility to uphold the Judeo-Christian belief system underpinning the Constitution.

"People say I'm too political. No, I'm not!" Hartung preached. "How about you have a little conversation with Jesus Christ? … He created government. He created the institution."

"We have a responsibility," he continued, "to go out and do politically what we're supposed to be doing: Stand on the truth of God's word."

A few miles from where Hartung was preaching, banners on Hendricks' Main Street display the Norwegian flag, reading "Velkommen." The signs nod to the town's founders, who emigrated from Singsås, a tiny village in Norway with a church similar to the one outside Hendricks. The town is a place where, when the owner of a beloved café was injured in a car accident, a volunteer staff ran the restaurant until she returned.

The church controversy began in 2018, when a previous pastor left. Hartung was part of a rotating cast of fill-in pastors and eventually became Singsaas' full-time pastor. In 2019, the Singsaas congregation changed its constitution — although dissenters say the changes did not abide by the rules of the original constitution, and are therefore null. Some stopped attending at that point.

Said Mark Wilmes, managing editor of three area newspapers: "The problem is a microcosm of the entire country right now. A saddening decline in civility in general and an inability to compromise. I don't know how it's going to get better."

Underlying the controversy is the cemetery association. A few decades ago, members of the congregation formed the association — separate from the church — to ensure control of the cemetery stayed with descendants of those buried there. That means people can be members of the cemetery association but not active in the church. Another issue, according to 81-year-old Jerry Nolz, who has attended the church for nearly 60 years, is this: There are 33 acres of adjacent tillable land that belong to the cemetery association, worth $200,000 to $300,000 by some estimates.

"The cemetery owns the church, but the pastor wants the church to own the cemetery," Nolz said. "That's the bottom line."

For the church's old guard, there's a simple solution: Hartung and his followers should leave Singsaas alone, form their own church with their own funds and their own building, and Singsaas' old guard could re-start their congregation.

The cemetery association dispute has gone to court, with a hearing scheduled in South Dakota circuit court next week.

Nolz is of two minds about Hartung. On one hand, he said Hartung, who asked Nolz to resign as church treasurer, "runs that church as a big business."

On the other hand, "he can preach the word so well," Nolz said. "Membership's increasing. He's a charismatic person. These new people, they just follow Pastor Jason to the hilt. But my goodness, the past members — the whole foundation of the church is really on the wayside."

One woman who used to attend, Marlene Kjelden, now calls it a right-wing cult obsessed with culture-war topics like homosexuality and COVID masks: "People in town call him Pinocchio the cult leader," she said. "It's like he's erasing Singsaas' history."

Some people on both sides of this controversy declined to comment, citing tense emotions, hurt feelings or a mistrust of media.

Dave Norgaard, Hartung's father-in-law and a frequent Singsaas attendee, said the church was flooded with "hateful" comments calling them bigots and homophobes after the straight pride flag was posted online. He said Hartung has talked with other pastors who've also had political struggles with parishioners who "don't take the Bible at its word anymore."

"He's got a lot of people in that church who have his back no matter what," Norgaard said. "It's just that he's sincere. They're finding something, him preaching from the Bible in the way he preaches, that they've never heard before."

In an email to the Star Tribune, Hartung wrote that there is "no benefit on behalf of the church to have further conversation about something most people have made up their minds about while disregarding facts," and he said only a few people want to "stir the pot."

"A church is not about what [it] was in the past — it is about if it is functioning in Biblical obedience to the Word of God right now!" Hartung wrote in a text message. "Singsaas Church is not a dead, iconic country church — it is alive, and on 'fire for God'!"

For Nelson, the Singsaas controversy comes down to this: No one is winning; some are just losing less than others.

"We're living in a politically divided world where there's a sense of moral superiority on both sides — on all sides," he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the age of the church in Singsås, Norway.