Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The death of a church. . .

North Heights Lutheran, the one-time megachurch of Arden Hills, has run out of prayers.  The church is shutting down, the apparent victim of a civil war that has split it apart.  After 70 years of weekly worship, the church’s last service was Sunday, March 13. . . North Heights once had Sunday attendance of 3,400 at two church locations. But attendance has fallen recently to several hundred — not enough to keep the church afloat.

The church was founded in 1946 at a 450-seat church in Roseville. By 1985, it had blossomed into one of Minnesota’s first mega-churches. Its 43-acre campus in Arden Hills held a 1,350-capacity sanctuary and several chapels, as well as a basketball and racquetball courts. But amid declining membership and income, officials laid off half of the church’s 88-person staff in June and closed the original church in Roseville in July. The reaction was furious. About two-thirds of the congregation left and began to worship separately at the AmericInn Hotels & Suites in Mounds View. That group, called the Bondservants, holds two services every Sunday for about 1,000 worshippers.

Some will try to frame this as a sexism (Mindy Bak, the interim senior pastor, is after all female).  Some will try to frame this as a life span issue (70 years is the average life span of a congregation, some say).  Some will try to frame this as a personal issue (the wrong person and the wrong time).  However you may be tempted to explain this congregational death, it bears some attention because we have seen many congregations in many denominations as well as non-denominational mega churches decline simply because of the problem of transferring leadership from one person to another.  Mega churches are more typically a reflection of the leader or founder.  We watched as the vast operations developed by the likes of Oral Roberts, Robert Schuller, and a host of others fall apart when the organization must transition to another leader.  Often it becomes an extension of internal family conflict.  Sometimes it comes as the movement which birthed the congregation begins its own decline (the charismatic movement, in this case).

Morris George Cornell Vaagenes came to North Heights in 1961 and ushered in a charismatic renewal.  Morris was introduced to the baptism and gifts of the Holy Spirit. Searching for answers, he went to his Bible and examined Scripture in search of validation for what he thought he experienced in current times, after which he experienced an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that changed his life and the future of those he served.  During his nearly forty years tenure, North Heights Lutheran Church grew from 500 to 10,000 members, from one building to two large campuses. Now it is all shut down, having found it impossible to effectively transfer the leadership when Vaagenes left but the seeds of its demise were sowed long before.  The Lutheran Charismatic Movement is no longer the headline making movement it was.  Without the sustaining force of the movement and with the cracks in the congregation, it was only a matter of time before North Heights would begin its downward spiral to its death. No mega church is immune from what happened at North Heights.  Every congregation that attracts big numbers can find its membership and support easy to pack up stakes and leave for greener pastures. 

Another Lutheran mega congregation with roots in the ELCA, once known as Community Church of Joy, has merged with an Assembly of God congregation, Dream City Church.  The merger will eliminate any denominational affiliation.  Walt Kallestad, the leader of Community Church of Joy, will be a member of the merged group but have no leadership responsibility.  The Joy facility will become a satellite called Dream City Joy Campus.  It seems that transitioning this parish from Kallestad's leadership was judged best accomplished by becoming part of another mega church.  While this move is heralded as a great opportunity to break down denominational barriers, it is also a prime example of how personality and style are more important to a typical mega church than doctrine and substance.


Kirk Skeptic said...

All too pat and a bit too smug: while Pr P's observations are all true, I'm much more worried about our relatively tiny Lutheran churches circling the drain over equally personal and stylistic contentions, and where Lutheran doctrine is mere words in dusty unread books. Megachurches have no monopoly on "how personality and style are more important...than doctrine and substance."

Anonymous said...

It looks like North Heights Lutheran Church will not close after all: