Matt Harrison’s “Let’s Hear it for the Small Congregation!” by Pr. Rossow

One of the common themes being heard on the convention floor, in the lunchroom and back at the hotels is that small and medium sized congregations need to be supported in new and creative ways in the LCMS. These congregation are the foundation of our synod and are a place of great opportunity and hope; opportunity that is too often overlooked and passed over by our national body.  It is in just these humble settings where families are fed and faith flourishes.

A while back Matt Harrison, nominee for LCMS synodical president, wrote about this in an article titled “Let’s Hear it for the Small Congregation!” The point of the paper is to remind us of things we have forgotten in recent years of emphasis on growing churches.

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.

In the paper Harrison defends the smaller congregation. Here is an example:

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.

The synod in recent years and in some of the decisions during the current convention has shown some bias for larger congregations. Matt Harrison supports small and medium sized congregations. It is one of the many reasons he is a fitting candidate for the office of the presidency of the LCMS.

Our Lord works where, when and how He may.  His will is done, His Body and Blood are offered, and faith in Christ is sustained in congregations large and small. Working to help and encourage the small congregations, providing these brethren help and support to continue this work is often more vital than accolades and awards heaped on the largest and grandest among us.

You can read the entire document either here on the synod’s website or here on Harrison’s mercy blog.

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


Matt Harrison’s “Let’s Hear it for the Small Congregation!” by Pr. Rossow — 10 Comments

  1. Will Pastor Harrison be heard by the delegates as a whole at any point before tomorrow’s election? He’s so impressive to read or hear, but I fear that many have not seen him speak or read his work.

  2. I know of a small congregation in Illinois that needs some help. ABLAZE! wouldn’t help them, because they didn’t want to add a rock’n’roll service.

    Yesterday, I heard President Kieschnick tlak about all the new congregations he hopes to start, yet the synod headed by Kieschnick refuses to help a young, small congregation, just because they prefer to receive Word and Sacrament, to use their hymnals in worship, and are not about turning the chancel into a stage and bringing in a drum set and stack of amps.l THIS IS A SAD COMMENTARY ON THE LCMS! My heart goes out for this congregation, which seeks to reach out to their community, yet don’t fit the non-Lutheran ABLAZE! Profile. I once supported ABLAZE! but now am thoroughly ashamed of it. We need a new president. If there is to be room for congregations that prefer ALL contemporary worship, there should be room for a congregation which does not wish to replace the Divine Service with entertainment and shallow, non-denominational lyrics and the avoidance of genuine Confessional Lutheranism. May God help this small congregation, and others like it.

  3. Old Timey,

    The convention does not have a vehicle for hearing from nominees so Matt Harrison will not get a chance to address the congregation. On the other hand, the incumbant President Kieschnick has had two full days in front of the convention 24/7. This is one of the unfortunate realities of politics in the LCMS but Matt Harrison has been visible on the convention floor all week long and has been very convincing with each delegate he meets.


  4. @Old Time St. Johns #1

    @Pastor Tim Rossow #3

    We should pray that Rev. Harrison will have the opportunity to address the convention sometime after the election for president. That’s soon enough for me.

    On another note, Pr. Rossow, I wish someone would address the chair and ask him to have the parliamentarian address the convention on the uses and misuse of “calling the question.” It is being used to stifle debate–I’ve seen it in the past three conventions, and I see the same faces doing it again. It makes a travesty of meaningful debate. I would hope that you can ask a delegate to do this.


  5. I thank God for Pastor Tim Rossow, and all those here at Brothers of John the Steadfast (BJS), for their dedication to letting a Lutheran voice be heard at a time when many are willing to trade in Lutheranism for some generic, non-denominational Lutheran-flavored religion. There is a difference…A BIG DIFFERENCE! God is using Pastor Rossow and others to challenge the hearts and minds of those in the LCMS and Lutheranism in general to rethink their beliefs, their desires, their hopes, their goals, and their love for the whole body of Christ.

    Small congregations are often faithful congregations. They do not do their regular worship and fellowship and outreach for show: that is between them and their (our) Father. Some would have us believe that the small congregation is the problem, not the prototype. They would feature lifestyles of the famous mega-LCMS churches who have been daring enough to perhaps supress the use of the name ‘Lutheran’, who worship in a style that conforms more with the mainstream of American Evangelicalism, who often preach do-it-yourself piety and moralism sermons too often lacking Christ and Him crucified. They would turn us to look at ourselves and our love for God rather than looking to the cross and empty tomb, and God’s enormous, genuine love for us. Small congregations cannot all provide all the extras that a mega-church provide, yet they are the family of God made up of people gifted in various ways, gathered to learn about God and to recieve His Word and to receive His Body and Blood, and to live out their faith to build up one another and share the Good News of Jesus with a hurt, lost, disfunctional, dying world. They may not have all the resources of a large, sprawling assembly, yet God provides them everything they need. God is at work, even where two or three gather together in His name. We should send them the message that we thank God for what He is doing through them–instead of sending them the message: “You need to change–GET WITH THE PROGRAM!” May God have mercy on the LCMS.

  6. While the “pro” side often calls the question, the vote to call the questions has been rather high (80 to 90 percent in most cases).

    This indicates that a significant number of “con” delegates don’t want to continue the discussion, even if it could serve to reduce the time available for passing more of the BRTFSSGBS resolutions the “con” side supposedly opposes.

    One wonders if the “con” side met prior to the convention to coordinate any strategy.

  7. Dear Pastor Rossow,

    Thanks for this excellent post and observations. There is more to this subject than meets the eye!

    Back when the synod started its program of “revitalizing congregations,” targeted toward small rural and urban congregations (now called “Transforming Congregations Network”), I did a statistical study on big and small congregations.

    My threshold was 800+ average worship attendance, and I just used data from the Lutheran Annuals, in the 2004 and 2009 editions.

    There are only 79 congregations in the LCMS that worship over 800+ a week. 79 congregations, out of 6,158 total congregations, means that this is 1.2% of all congregations in synod. These 1.2% of the total congregational population serve 9.4% of the total baptized population of the LCMS.

    It is simply a fact that these are the congregations, a few in almost every district, that get all the attention, LCEF grants, and “glory.” These are the congregations for which programs are designed, and whose pastors get invited to “Pastoral Leadership Institute,” and other special opportunities. Everyone else is “just along for the ride,” at least this has been the case since the “church growth movement” took hold in the 1980s.

    My study proved that for the period under study, the “800+ a week” group grew in population only 3.6% for the period under study, while the general US population grew by 7.6%. Although I don’t have the data for LCMS, Evangelical scholars have observed (e.g., in Christianity Today) that the growth of their “mega-churches” has not been through conversions, but through transfers of members from small to mega-churches. So we can assume that the same thing is happening in LCMS.

    It is simply wrong to say that the “800+ a week” group are thriving centers of real evangelism, as a group. The statistics to look for there are “adult confirmations.” There may be individual cases of real outreach and conversions, but the statistics I saw for this group don’t support it for the group as a whole.

    What does this mean?

    Essentially, 90% of the members, and 98% of the congregations, of the LCMS are either rural, inner city, small or medium city; or in a suburban region but under 800+ in worship a week, with one or two pastors. These 90/98% fit the pattern of the LCMS in its history. They are the overwhelming norm.

    The question for the day is: Which presidential candidate has a better understanding of 98% of the congregations in the synod, and 90% of its members, due to his childhood, youth, and pastoral experiences?

    Gerald Kieschnick was raised in Houston, one of the biggest metropolitan growth stories in the US, in his lifetime. He served in Beaumont, TX and Biloxi, MS, which are medium cities in a highly populated coastal area. He started a congregation in Georgetown, TX, just at the time that it became reputed to be an excellent place to retire (Sun City, Texas is there now). Kieschnick thus understands and has an affinity for 2% of LCMS congregations, the “800+ a week” group.

    Matthew Harrison was raised in medium-size city Siox City, Iowa. He served in a small rural parish in Westgate, Iowa and an inner city congregation in a blighted neighborhood in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Harrison thus understands and has an affinity for 98% of LCMS congregations.

    Whether these facts of affinity, sympathy, and understanding for congregations, their workers, and members will affect the vote today, remains to be seen. Whoever is elected, will have to learn to understand and care for the needs of the group of congregations for which he has little experience.

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  8. @Martin R. Noland #7

    Martin Noland, you compare and contrast Kieschnick & Harrison’s biographical sketches. You leave out that Gerald Kieschnick has had the opportunity of nine years as synodical president to learn from those with other experiences, even vicariously, and to get it right. How many more years does he need in this position to learn from others–it sure seems he is not learning from those in the real world, and prefers the ivory tower experience of the Purple Palace. Lutheran theology does not allow for a Missouri-Synod vatican with a pope. Our presidents are to be pastors, not arch-bishops, and they are to represent the whole Missouri Synod, not just an elitist segment of this church body. Perhaps it might be better if Gerald Kieschnick further his understanding of the church by moving to a small rural parish or an inner-city congregation in a blighted neighborhood somewhere to serve. Perhaps He could work with those in need in Haiti–working among people who do not need fancy technological toys for their congregations and other over-the-top luxuries, but rather require food, clothing, healthcare, emotional support, and the Good News of Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament. Perhaps Pastor Harrison could further his education by serving in Saint Louis, as a humble synodical president. Our synod needs a change, and this would be a win-win situation!

  9. Now that Pastor Harrison has been elected, I hope there can be some help for the small LCMS church in Northern Illinois referenced above. May God help His church to be faithful, and to help one another in love.

  10. It is interesting to read these posts as to the right size a church should be. Based upon the Bible what ever size church that with Holy Spirit doing increases believers in Christ. That can be small, medium, large or mega size churches. There is not a right size church. However, what ever size the church is its focus needs to be on reaching others for Christ. There is not one church in our synod that in their local community does not have many souls that are not saved, so to say the deographics excuses a church from growing in number, this being based on the Great Commission of our Lord. If a churches focus inward it will eventially die probably a very slow death (I have witnessed two in the last two years). If a churches focus is to reach out to the community that they are in, they will grow. I know of not one community that a church is in are 100% Christian until we reach Heaven. So until we get there it is our responsibility and our thank offering to our Lord to daily talk with others who are not Christian and share the Love of Christ with them through us. So let us quit limiting the Holy Spirit and get out of his way and do our best to fulfil the Great Commission. Size does not matter to God!

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