By: Christa Meland
Planting a church isn’t easy in the best of times. Planting a church during a global pandemic? Well, that’s an entirely different kind of challenge.
Just ask Rev. Jeremy Peters, who was appointed to the Cottage Grove area in 2019. He was tasked with re-launching a new location of The Grove UMC within a building that was then housing a dwindling longtime congregation. The plan was to spend 18 months gathering people and building momentum and launch worship in 2020. But when COVID-19 shut everything down, Peters found himself in uncharted territory.
“I thrive on creativity and yet I found myself saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,’” he explained.
In partnership with Revs. Dan Wetterstrom and Kelly Lamon, who serve at The Grove’s primary campus in Woodbury, Peters focused in on two things: getting clear on the church’s mission, vision, and values, and meeting the needs of the community, trusting that God was already at work and there was a place for the church to participate.
The Grove’s motivating vision is “growing goodness.” And its motto: “Come as you are; you’ll be welcomed. Be who you are; you’ll be celebrated. Explore where you are; you’ll be encouraged.” Wetterstrom said a common refrain among families in both Woodbury and Cottage Grove is that they want to help grow good kids. Within the church, there are believers and doubters, seekers and skeptics, but what they have in common is they’re committed to growing goodness and expanding the circle of inclusion.
“We’re not the best preachers in this area,” he said. “We don’t have the best music program. We don’t have the best media or children’s or student programming. But what we do have is a very clear sense of what our mission, vision, and values are...That creates an identity for us. It gives us a niche. There are people who are hungry to find that kind of faith community.”
With this strong sense of identity, The Grove partnered with community organizations in 2020 and opened its Cottage Grove space for free meals to be prepared there and then delivered to people facing food insecurity. Additionally, after hearing about the isolation young families were experiencing as the pandemic dragged on, the Cottage Grove location started offering preschool playtime on Friday mornings. It became very popular and helped community members get to know the church.
On Jan. 2, 2022, the Cottage Grove campus had its launch Sunday, and it now averages about 70 people each week.
“It’s really been encouraging and exciting to see how many first-time resident visitors we get every single week that have found this location and have found a church that speaks to their deepest needs, that shares the good news of God’s love with them in Jesus Christ,” said Wetterstrom, who noted that the Minnesota Annual Conference’s support of The Grove has been instrumental.
Those showing up say they’re excited about being part of a fresh, vibrant expression of church—which is exactly what the Cottage Grove location aims to provide. Peters describes the worship experience as modern—meaning music is more contemporary and there are participatory elements, like an interactive “worship wall” in back of the sanctuary that changes with each new worship series. Both locations of The Grove also offer small groups, or “growth groups,” around topics like racial healing, inclusion, and making sense of the Bible.
Community partnerships have continued to be vitally important. The church works with the school next door to meet the needs of students and teachers, and offers a monthly “Saturday supper club” that provides drive-up meals to about 50 community members in need, no questions asked.
Peters recalls a recent event at the Cottage Grove location that drew lots of kids and families. An older member who was part of the former congregation that met there said, “I never could have imagined this, but this is amazing.”
What’s next? One of Peters’ realizations is that there is no finish line. “We need to constantly be thinking about welcoming the people arriving next,” he said. He’s committed to getting church-goers plugged into opportunities to grow goodness both within and outside of the church, and he frequently encourages them to invite others in their spheres of influence.
As he looks ahead, Peters is focused on both sustainability and multiplication. “What does it look like for us to welcome the people arriving next? For us to become fully formed followers of Jesus that are growing goodness in our communities?” he said. “We want to be a thriving part of this community.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church