Let’s Hear it for the Small Congregation!, by Rev Matthew Harrison

I found the following on an small congregation’s (274 baptized) Message from Pastor; further google search produced it on this page on the LCMS.org website, which is indexed on the page Articles by Rev. Matthew Harrison. This looks to be an excellent view of some of his writings!



Let’s Hear it for the Small Congregation!

by Rev. Matthew Harrison,
Executive Director–LCMS Human Care and World Relief


Amid all the hype in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod over the last number of years about “growth,” some important facts about small congregations have been overlooked.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised that—if such a thing were measurable—all the well-meant talk about getting congregations to grow has in many cases impeded the very numerical growth we all want.

What do I mean? I’m afraid that much of the material that we “Synod types” have put out in the church in this regard, while well-intentioned and often very good advice, has disregarded the great blessings which Jesus brings people in the small congregation. When our talk is all about “grow, grow, growth, mega, meta, magnificent,” we run the very strong risk of giving—inadvertently—the small parish the message: You’re bad, you’re sick; you’re backward, your abnormal. Any pastor worth his salt, with a decade or two of experience under his belt, will tell you that one significant factor in whether or not a church grows is how its members view their parish. That was certainly my experience in the parish.

I’d like to put before you a few simple thoughts in order to affirm and build up our small churches. Of the some 6,150 LCMS churches around the nation: 73 percent (4,510, more than three-fourths!) have fewer than 500 members on their roles; 38 percent have fewer than 200 members; 35 percent have between 200 and 500 members. Of those parishes of 200 or fewer members, average attendance is 53. For those between 200 and 500 members, average Sunday attendance is 128. Yet nearly one-third of these small parishes operate schools! That, frankly, is amazing!

Here’s a couple more interesting stats. We know that as a percentage of the congregational budget, small congregations give considerably more to their district and to the Synod. And perhaps as significant as anything, smaller congregations have in many cases significantly better member attendance (48 percent attendance for the 2,363 churches under 200 members).

Over the course of my pastoral service, I served two parishes. (One was well above 500 members; the other somewhat below that number.) I can tell you from experience, the quality of pastoral care in smaller congregations is quite often phenomenal. The LCMS has some of the best-trained clergy in the nation. The vast majority of our pastors and teachers serve parishes with small numbers with “full-scale” commitment. This blessing has marked the existence of our Synod from her earliest days and will continue to mark our existence well into the future. Despite radically changing demographics, many rural parishes live out their lives in Christ with “gusto.”

Are there challenges and areas in which we fall short? Of course. But this little article is about the good things.

More important than anything else is that in these small parishes, Christ Himself, through His blessed Word and Sacrament, dwells to give sinners life and salvation. That is a point C.F.W. Walther loved to drive home when he sensed any devaluation of smaller parishes by anyone in the Synod. Very important to me as executive director for LCMS World Relief and Human Care is that so many small parishes so well approximate the ideal Luther held up for the church, as we all are members of the same body, caring for one another. He spoke about the Lord’s Supper:

Christ said, I am the head, I will first give Myself for you, will make your suffering and misfortune Mine own and bear it for you, that you in your turn may do the same for Me and for one another, have all things in common in Me and with me, and let this sacrament be unto you a sure token of that all, that you may not forget me.

Christ cares for us, gives Himself for us. We in turn give ourselves for the neighbor. This happens nowhere as well, as naturally, and as constantly as in the small parish. Where mistakes are made, we flee to the forgiving waters of baptism, confess our sins, and resolve in faith to begin anew in love, both “laying down our burdens in the midst of the congregation” (Luther) and also finding the burdens of others there to take up. God knows that as we often know well the sins of our neighbors (and they know ours!) in smaller congregations, the need for forgiveness and grace as we work together is all the greater!

We heartily support, thank God for, and affirm our many larger congregations that have been blessed by circumstances, God-given wisdom, demographics and grace to work hard—all which have allowed them to grow to such an extent. But let us always give thanks for the small congregations, which constantly remind us all that the church on earth is truly, and always, a “little flock.”

Come to think of it, the Synod would do best if we had many, many more small congregations!

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord, LCMSsermons.com, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at KNFA.net.


Let’s Hear it for the Small Congregation!, by Rev Matthew Harrison — 24 Comments

  1. Anything we can do to get away from looking at congregations numerically will be a huge step in the right direction for our synod. Actually it will be a step back to our grandfather’s church where the emphasis was not on the number of sheep in the flock, but on the flock itself and what it has gathered around, namely the Means of Grace.

  2. I have to tell you. It is refreshing to hear a perspective that values small congregations for what they are, part of the Body of Christ. Too many times I have heard about how sad, small, and ineffective small congregations are. God bless those small churches! They have much to give and, as was pointed out in the statistic posted above, they give generously.

    Having traveled to many small parishes in the Midwest I can honestly say that many of these churches are a hub of God pleasing activity for the community. It is true there are small churches that are dying. The same is happening to some numerically large congregations. Many smaller churches in smaller communities do have their finger on the pulse of what is happening in their town and they are reaching out with Christ’s love and truth. I have deep respect for what God does through small churches. May the Lord bless and keep them all.

  3. I have only served two congregations as pastor, both of them over 1,500 members. I would not trade either of them in for anything but I must say, I could get really comfortable with the idea that I could visit all my households in a year or two or even three. The parish I currently serve is the best. We have the best worship, the best Lutheran day school, the best elders… but it is frustrating to know that I will never know every member intimately.

    This is a great article that breathes the spirit of Lutheranism. Thanks Norm for finding it and thanks Rev. Harrision for your fine analysis.


  4. Wow, what a breath of fresh air! This means more to me, being in the Wyoming District and in small congregation, than anything else I have heard coming from Synod. For a long time, based upon other Synodical movements and literatures, we have been lead to believe that our smaller churches are dying and in need of revitalization. For the life of me, I could not understand why they (Synod) would ever think that about my church in that way. We have been blessed with a very faithful pastor and a congregation who Communes together, cries together and rejoices together all around the Word and Sacraments.

    Thank you Pr. Harrison for your bold support of our little flock, and thank you Norm for publishing it here!

    Pax Christi,

    Kiley Campbell

  5. Well said. I grew up in a congregation with humble roots. 50-75 in service on Sunday was a normal weekend. Over the 20 years my father served as the Pastor they grew to well over 350-400 in two services on a Sunday. I am not a pastor. I am a vicar. From what I have lived through and what I have seen I tend to favor a smaller parish over a larger one. I think one reason that stands out the strongest is this: I noticed that in a congregation larger than 100-150 on a Sunday, and also congregations with two-or-more services per weekend, there are always small groups that form specifically for the care/study/fellowship that seems to be lost. I think that is a direct result of the Pastor not being able to shepherd the way frightened wayward people desire their shepherds love, care, teaching, etc. Of course, I really have no reference as a pastor since I am a vicar. However, I have been in the church my whole life, watching, observing, helping where I can. The church I am currently serving at as vicar, from what I have seen and heard, thirsts deeply for one service around the sacrament.
    In my humble and unimportant opinion I think the Sacrament of Sacraments is worth a little more reflection. What happens in a larger church with multiple services, which I have noticed seem to turn into separate “congregations” when there is conflict between families or individuals? I think the trend is that they will either switch churches before resolve conflict, or more often, switch services…what of the Sacrament in this case? There are brothers and sisters with open unrepentant sin perhaps who are eating and drinking to their demise, and perhaps the pastor might not know, because the church is too large, or something along those lines…These are of course reflections I have, and are perhaps a little outlandish. We, as a Synod, obviously have other matters to attend to first. However, I appreciate the pathway Pastor Harrison has cleared for this discussion. Thank you, in advance, for any thoughts, corrections, help.

  6. Pastor Rossow,

    with 1500 members I would be interested to know what forms of Divine service you are using. Have you succumbed to the contemporary forms out there or have you proven that that is not as necessary as so many CG folks insist.

    I am always torn between the intimacy of the small congregation and the mandate of The Great Commission. It is clear that we are never to be content with limited numbers yet it is also clear that much of what “invites” large numbers today is outside of Lutheran/biblical form and function. In spite of all the hype of increased numbers using EPIC, Emergent and other “contemporary” forms none of these has the depth and range of Biblical instruction as our liturgical services. So it is that focus on every member delivering the Law and Gospel to friends and neighbors that brings both numbers and doctrinal growth. Small may be comfortable but we were not called to be comfortable. As refreshing as this essay is we cannot become comfortable with small when souls are perishing. It is a hard balance to strike and few parishes large or small have been sucessful at doing it.

  7. @mames #5

    Mames, I know this was directed towards Pr. Rossow, but I want to chime in as well.

    First, where did you learn we are not to be content with limited numbers? Is this Scriptural?

    Growth is not our responsibility but the work of the Holy Spirit. As we live in our various vocations we tell others of the Good News, this is one way we serve our neighbor.

    I am concerned with your statement of “few parishes large or small have been successful at doing it.” This concerns me because it is rife with works-righteousness, saying the perishes have been responsible for winning the souls, when in fact it has been the Holy Spirit’s work that has brought numbers to the church, or has taken them away.

    The responsibility given to the Church is to faithfully proclaim the Good News and administer the Sacraments rightly, this is true evangelism.


  8. mames,

    Since the inroduction of LSB we have learned every liturgy in the book so we have a wide variety of “worship” without using “contemporary” stuff.

    We call our liturgy “authentic” though and not traidtional or contemporary. We sing most of the “contemporary” stuff in LSB and a few others once in while when they fit the pericopes. We also use a lot of new psalm settings (chanted responsively and with the cong. singing the refrains) that have a more modern sound to them.

    In terms of the great commission that you struggle with – I think you have presented false alternatives. We do not ned large churches to grow – we can simply have more small ones. Either way, it is God who gives the growth. He nowhere tells us to worry about that but he tells constantly to be concerned about being faithful.


  9. Pastor Tim Rossow :I could get really comfortable with the idea that I could visit all my households in a year or two or even three.

    Well, you can try. I don’t think it’s that easy. Simply visiting or contacting members in a smaller congregation may end up starting a mass exodus from the church and an organized attempt to depose you from office. At least that’s the trend in the Missouri District of the LCMS. Pr. McCain’s September 2007 Cyberbrethren article was no joke:

    Congregations that refuse to abide by the faithful preaching and teaching of God’s Word, and force a pastor out who is carrying out his ministry faithfully but not according to the whims of the wealthy members in the congregation who want him to marry their fornicating children who refuse to stop living together, who demand he commune their relatives who have long ago abandoned their Lutheran confession, who demand that the pastor stop calling on inactive members because he is irritating them, who insist that the pastor accept as baptismal sponsors people who have no interest in seeing the child raised in the Lutheran faith, who do not want their pastor talking about the differences between church bodies, who never want to hear the Law preached too specifically, who want their pastor to be, more or less, their hired hand, do not deserve another pastor and it is a shame when a church official allows them to receive another one! – Rev. P. T. McCain

  10. Oh, thank you Pastor Harrison!!!! To know & be known by a shepherd of a congregation!!! I have not “known” it, in quite a long time. But…I remember it well. It is the greatest of blessings & gifts for a Pastor to know his flock. On both accounts!

    I am in a very small WELS congregation now, but grew up in a “moderately” large one. That Pastor knew every name, noticed everything, right down to the paleness of illness, to the haircut or change you made. He watched you, knew your “gifts” and made sure he himself, put you in positions, to make use of them, not for himself but for Christ’s Kingdom! Hand picked, for you were “known”.
    Ya know, my attendance, is at an all time low, because of illness/disease(10 mo. now), my current Pastor can’t even remember then names of our family, & my better half serves on 2 committees. Less than 175 mind you.
    To be known, is the greatest gift & blessing a holder of the Divine Office can give one of their sheep. It is remembered, longer than you may think. I pray this man is elected. LCMS has great need of him. We all do.

  11. After reading this excellent article written by Rev. Harrison I happened upon Rev. Beane’s blog http://fatherhollywood.blogspot.com/ and watched some great video about the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Russia. I now have a better appreciation about how small congregations with their humble pastors and parishioners are such a blessing to the Church. The size of a church is not what matters. All that matters is what Christ is doing in the midst of God’s people as they gather around His Word and Sacraments.

  12. Well said! I pray that you are elected as the next President of the LCMS, and that your election will begin the process of returning our church body to scriptural principles.

    I do have to tease you about the numbers in the second sentence of the fourth paragraph. If the number of congregations is as you state, then your calculations are correct, and 73% of our congregations are under 500 members. This is just LESS (not more) than three-fourths.

  13. @mames #6

    Mames; FWIW: the church that I attend has 1300+ members, 650 average weekly attendance. We normally use the 5 services in LSB, and have very conservative services. Nothing contemporary makes it into our church. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the other LCMS churches in town; all of them much smaller than the one that I attend.

  14. rossow-
    Thanks for the insight. What I was getting at was that TGC demands faithfulness to spreading His Word. I am confident that if we are in fact equipping our folks to share the Gospel we will grow as God does His work through the Word. Some of the smaller churches I have been in do not do this and they are dying. So many of the larger churches I have visited do not do this but have instead resorted to extreme contemporary services that lack the richness of our liturgies, disrespect the Pastoral office when Pastors wear jeans and un tucked shirts in an atempt “relate”. I do believe that when we are faithul we wlll grow. ‘Sounds like your parish has grown as ours formerly did, using THE Biblical Acts approach which is now seen as “out of touch with the culture”.

    Small or large is not good if spiritual growth via His word is not occuring resulting in adding and growing saints. I do not mean to say that WE grow the church but we are responsible for spreading His word AND equipping the saints. So often one is sacrificed for the other. Believe me faithfulness to the ACTS model requires a lot of labor of love on the part of the leadership. We are supposed to be in the business of adding and growing saints as privledged instruments in the hands of a loving Father.

  15. @mames #16


    Where in Scripture does it tell us we will grow in numbers if we are faithful at spreading the Word? I am not finding it. What I am finding is we are to remain faithful TO the Word and everything that Christ has commanded us (the Church). The Great Commission was given to the Church, not individual persons because individual persons do not administer the sacraments.

    Think of it this way: Christ was commissioned by the Father to come to us to fulfill the law and make payment for our sins (the wages of sin is death). Now, likewise, Christ has commissioned the Church to continue to bring the forgiveness of sins to all people. This is done by pastors who are called (commissioned) by the Church to fulfill this task of bring the Word to all nations…bringing the Word through preaching and sacraments, not door to door selling.

    In turn, and through our various vocations we proclaim the Good News to those around us, and God willing, they will follow us to Church where they will be added to the number of the Church.

    On the subject of a church “dying”: Who gave you the job to determine whether or not a church is dying? Is a small church dying when the pastor continues to faithfully bring the Word and Sacraments to the congregation even though the numbers decrease for whatever reason? Where is your commission to determine what God does with a particular congregation? Further more, where in Scripture does this determination fall to men? It doesn’t.

    Your statement: “When we are faithful we will grow.” This is pure works righteousness; again, growing is not our job and just because we are faithful does not mean we will grow in numbers. Take the example of Christ. Not one person can claim to be more faithful than Christ and yet His disciples abandoned Him; his followers decreased. Are you going to assert that Christ was not faithful in spreading his Word?

    It is obvious, through your vocabulary, that you tend towards the Church Growth movement, but I say again, no where in Scripture does it tell us to grow the church.

    Colossians 2:16-19
    “16Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. 19He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.”


  16. @Kiley Campbell #17


    I second your thoughts on this. Well said.

    The idea of strength / health found in numbers has led to much handwringing, especially in light of membership trends. If you define success as numeric growth, then faithfulness to the Word of God is irrelevant (just check out the mission statement of the Northwest District).

    In my neck of the woods, kids graduate from high school and leave town to find work or further education. Few return, often only when ready to retire. We’ve brought in adults through catechesis, but only about as many as I’ve buried. We’re a typical small congregation. But the people want to hear the Word. They want to be fed. So the sheep of this little flock come every Lord’s Day and are brought low by the Law and healed through Christ and Him crucified. They receive the Body and Blood given and shed for them on the Cross. They receive absolution. They join with all the company of heaven in singing the Sanctus. They leave prepared to depart in peace, having received full forgiveness of their sins.

    God’s people in this place may not be a great host, but they are faithful. They know we’re only given grace to be here and be fed with the Word by God’s visitation. Those of little or no faith may say we’re dying, but if this is dying, my friends, then tell me – what is living? If we grow, thanks be to God! If we do not, God’s will be done! If it should please our Lord that a congregation closes, thanks be rendered to Him for the means of grace administered in that place and for the salvation of the souls fed there. We do not exist as congregations for our own sake, but for the sake of the preaching of Christ. I have confidence that He will use every congregation according to His purpose and time; not ours. Kyrie Eleison!

  17. I see a lot of talk about growth in numbers.

    Paul’s concern was that his new Christians grow up, to move from “the milk” to “the meat” of the Word. That should be the primary concern of all Pastors, and pewsitters, too.
    People who are interested in their spiritual growth will be warming their seats in church more often, to hear more of the Word and to receive the Sacrament.

    I can remember a time in a country church when everyone who wasn’t sick in bed, or on a [rare!] visit to distant relatives, was in church. If you weren’t, someone knew whether you were sick or traveling!

    It saddens me to see satisfaction with attendance of members under 50%.
    Perhaps the “world” would see something of worth occurring in the church if its baptised members weren’t so prone to be somewhere else on Sunday morning!

  18. I think big is only better in two areas: french fries and diamonds. Hee hee

  19. It is highly unlikely that a faithful, consistent effort to share Law and Gospel will not bear fruit; some you will see, some that will be gathered by others but some level of growth will occur and we should never accept stagnation or no growth IF faitrhfulness is not occuring. It is very rare for growth not occur if we are faithful.

  20. Mames,

    we may OR may not see growth; that is out of our hands. If faithful congregations grow in number, praise be to God. If not, praise be to God. It is His church and He will grow it, not us.

    Remaining faithful to the Doctrines of the Church is our calling, and even that is not of ourselves, but of God’s.

    In ALL things, God’s will be done.


  21. @mames #22

    “It is highly unlikely that a faithful, consistent effort to share Law and Gospel will not bear fruit”

    Bearing fruit does not exclusively equate to growth in numbers as your statement implies. There are other wonderful fruits that are evidence in a congregation that remains faithful to Christ; salvation, a greater sense of community/family, the sharing of each other’s burdens and joys. Limiting the fruit to just growth in numbers is wrong.


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