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The Story of Sugar Grove Church (Goshen Indiana)

by Jason Lantzer

The recent story of the California/Nevada Conference and the trials and tribulations that they are putting the Kingsburg Community Church (formerly Kingsburg United Methodist Church) is not a recent development within our denomination. It stretches back to the liberalization of the denominational hierarchy and the decline of the Mainline. And though the Kingsburg congregation is facing an uphill struggle to maintain their Christian witness, they are not without a successfully precedent to guide them.

Sugar Grove Church in Goshen Indiana was founded as a United Brethren congregation in 1849 in rural Elkhart County. The first church was constructed in 1869 and by the turn of the century the congregation had grown large enough to support their own pastor. [Note: For those of you who don't know, the United Brethren were one of two German Methodist denominations that developed in the United States. The other being the Evangelical church. They did not unite with the Methodist Episcopal Church because both groups conducted their services in German]

Around 1930, many within the congregation began to notice that the sound Wesleyan doctrine of the denomination was being challenged in the denominational seminaries. Higher Criticism and other forms of liberal theological ideas were challenging the Biblical principles that were the basis for the United Brethren (and the Methodist Church as well---doctrinally the three branches of Methodism were nearly identical).

In 1946 the United Brethren merged with the Evangelical Church to form the EUB. Almost immediately, the congregation of Sugar Grove noticed with alarm that the new denominational Sunday School literature was devoid of a Biblical orientation and was more concerned with social issues.

Between 1950-1960, the liberalization of the EUB increased. The new denominational literature and hymnals left out all mention of Christ's blood redemption. Sugar Grove and several other local EUB sister congregations were disturbed and jointly switched to another source for Sunday School materials.

This only angered the EUB hierarchy. Over the course of 1960, the denomination held a series of meetings with the three churches (Burr Oak and Solomon Creek being the other two). At these meetings the superintendent for Northern Indiana told the congregations to "stop cramming grandpa's bloody religion down your children's throats. Go back to our EUB literature, and eliminate all reference to the Blood of Christ from your preaching, teaching, and singing, or we will padlock your church doors!" The denomination also declared that "we are now educated and enlightened and have no further need for controversial doctrines such as the Virgin Birth, the Deity of Christ, or the Blood Redemption." The congregations were told that the "blood redemption was for the Jews not for us."

The congregation of Sugar Grove had heard enough. After some prayerful consideration and further consultation with their sister congregations (and with a lawyer) the congregation decided to leave the EUB. They realized that this could mean the loss of all their property and the benefits package for their pastor....but being true to Christ was more important to them. In February 1961, 207 of the congregations 218 members voted to withdrawal from the EUB. They quickly formed an independent, non-denominational church in its place.

At first the EUB attempted to form a new congregation, based upon the 11 members who had not initially withdrawn. This proved to be an impossible task and so the denomination had the church padlocked in July of 1961. The new Sugar Grove congregation met in a nearby elementary school gym. In October, the EUB sued the congregation for the title to the land and buildings.

Sugar Grove's legal council argued in court that since the denomination had refused to help the church financially--even when the building was damaged by a tornado and even though until the doctrinal problems started the congregation had been faithful in sending their assessment--that the denomination had no legal claim to the property. They further asserted that the congregation, not the denomination, had purchased the land and built and maintained the church---not the denomination.

The trial ended with a victory for Sugar Grove in July of 1963. A settlement was reached between the congregation and the EUB in which the congregation kept the parsonage and the church, paid the denomination $30,000 (value less the mortgage) and officially assumed their debt.

Will the Sugar Grove precedent be of any help to the Kingsburg congregation? Are these just two isolated examples, some 35 years apart? Hardly! As recently as December of 1997, the UMC continued the practice of locking a congregation out of its church because of a doctrinal disagreement. [I refer here to the Eyler's Valley Chapel in Thurmont Maryland (the story was picked up by the AP)---EVC was sued by the UMC in June of 1997 because they were meeting in a 140 year old chapel that was originally a United Brethren church. The UB abandoned the building in 1944, and until 1969 it sat vacant. In 1969 EVC started meeting there as a community church.]

The dispute which sparked both the Sugar Grove and Kingsburg congregations decision to leave the Methodist connection is still with us as a denomination. If you read the denomination's doctrine, it is still quite sound. The problem lies with a hierarchy that is more concerned with pleasing the World than proclaiming the Word. It has little respect for the doctrine it is supposed to represent and cringes each time it is taught from the pulpit.

It is interesting that the UMC sanctions church seizures. It is even more interesting that in the Kingsburg case they promised one thing and then did another. How are their actions helping to spread the Gospel of Christ? How is taking control of a church from its congregation and seizing its bank accounts demonstrating Christian principles to the World? How are their actions following the Methodist principle that we, as a denomination, can untie doctrinal liberals and conservatives under one banner because we worship the same God?

It would seem that the California and Nevada Conference officials, who have a track record of neglecting and marganalizing the evangelicals within their conference, are not really interested in those things at all. What they are interested in is power. And as we have been warned time and time again, absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. The EUB missed an opportunity to reform itself when Sugar Grove left (at least 4 other area EUB churches that I am aware of left the denomination after Sugar Grove). For the sake of the UMC, may they profit from the EUB's experience and take action now to rectify their Kingsbury mistake before an exodus begins.

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