For months, the church's congregation has wrestled with some of the weighty issues of our time: abortion, homosexuality and theological issues having to do with the literal truth of the Bible. Essentially, Pastor Amerman and his congregants felt that the mainstream Lutheran denomination had gotten too liberal on both theological and ethical issues.
Sometimes, Pastor Amerman said yesterday, it had gotten bitter. Feelings had been hurt.
But yesterday's service was designed for forgiveness, he stressed in his final sermon and in a Sunday school class preceding it.
"We've been hurt. We hurt each other. We must learn how to forgive others as God forgave us," he said.
The burning paper was symbolic of forgiveness. Midway through yesterday's hour-long service, Pastor Amerman asked each worshiper, some of whom wept, to write the name of both those who had hurt them and those they had hurt. As the congregation prayed, the slips of paper were lit using lighter fluid and burned in a black charcoal grill outside the church.
"I believe most sides have made their decisions with integrity . . . and with heartache," Pastor Amerman said. "Even though we disagreed, we did it as people who loved the Lord."
Nearly 25 years ago, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America set up Saint Mark as a mission church to minister to Lutherans in the area, particularly military people assigned to nearby Fort Dix and McGuire Air Force Base.
"We still want to do that," said Pastor Thomas Weber, who attended yesterday's church service as a representative of the New Jersey Synod - the local governing body for Lutherans. Pastor Weber said Saint Mark would once again become a mission church, with its 20 members supported heavily by the synod.
Pastor Weber said that, in his 21 years with the New Jersey Synod, this was the first time that a congregation in the state had left and formed a new church.
He said that, nationwide this year, of 6,000 congregations of the Lutheran Church in America only two other churches had splintered and formed new congregations.
Pastor Amerman came to the Pemberton congregation eight years ago and lives in a parsonage on the church's 10 acres. As of today, he becomes the pastor of the Messiah Lutheran Brethren Church and leader of about 160 people who left Saint Mark's to join him.
Pastor Weber explained yesterday that the Lutheran church tolerates disagreement among its members. "We would have preferred that they stay there and talk these matters out," he said.
"We may be left with the property, but he took 160 people. I don't want to begrudge him that," Weber said. He said that Pastor Amerman could have sought a transfer to another denomination through the Synod, rather than leading the
bulk of the congregation away from Saint Mark.
Pastor Amerman said yesterday that his group believes that abortion is acceptable only in rare, life-threatening circumstances, while the mainstream group has a more liberal attitude.
Pastor Amerman said mainstream denominations tend to be too accepting of homosexuality. While his group would minister to homosexuals, he said, the homosexuals must show some desire to repent. On biblical issues, Pastor Amerman's group sees the words of the Bible as the literal truth, as written.
Yesterday, the mood at the church was somber and concerned with both the temporal and the spiritual. A secretary resigned; Pastor Amerman handed over his keys to the church building and Sunday school wing. As part of the ''divorce" agreement, some office equipment was divided between the congregations. The Messiah Lutheran group took six choir robes and a stack of church music.
Pastor Amerman will be allowed to remain at the parsonage until the end of year, unless he and his family find a house to rent earlier.
As of the close of yesterday's communion service, the leaving congregation had not confirmed an informal agreement to hold its 9 a.m. Sunday services at the Magnolia Methodist Church, at Magnolia and New Lisbon Roads.
The remaining Saint Mark congregation appointed a steering committee to consider the church's future.
"My heart is very happy, and my self is a little upset," said David Karch, one of those leaving and a member of the Messiah church council. "When you change anything, there's always a little void, but we'll all get over it."