Let’s Hear it for the Small Congregation!

Found at LCMS.org.


By Rev. Matthew Harrison,
President–The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod

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, almost 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 are 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 President of the LCMS 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!



Here’s information on the National Rural and Small Town conference available on LCMS.org. Registration for this conference closes Sept 15th, so register now!


The LCMS National Rural and Small Town Mission Conference will address the blessings and challenges facing rural and small town congregations today as well as encourage those congregations and their leaders in cultivating healthy churches that are eager to bear witness to Christ to those around them, show mercy to the suffering in their communities and to encourage a robust life together with their fellow members.

Participants also will be able to choose from breakout session topics including youth and family ministry, funding and stewardship, rural resources, and many others of concern to rural and small town congregations. While there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, participants will be encouraged and filled with hope as they see new opportunities for engaging their communities. Plenty of fellowship and discussion time will be offered for all those who have been placed in this unique mission field.

The conference is sponsored by LCMS Rural and Small Town Mission, which provides training and resources aimed at helping rural and small town congregations assess community needs and search for opportunities to engage their communities through acts of witness and mercy.

Conference Details

Date: Nov. 1-3, 2012
Conference location: King’s Pointe Resort,
Storm Lake, Iowa
Registration: Registration Form
Cost: $200
Schedule: click here
Registration deadline: Sept. 15, 2012
More information: click here


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Learn more about LCMS Rural and Small Town Mission

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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! — 21 Comments

  1. This is an interesting article and I am joyed to see a conference on rural and small congregations in my old “hometown” stomping grounds of Storm Lake, IA. Growing up, my home congregation was St. Johns in Galva, IA, about 18 miles away and my extended family attends Zion just 5 miles NE of Storm Lake. Blessings on a wonderful conference to those folks who attend. Kings Point is a neat place and so is the town of Storm Lake.

    While I do NOT know numbers for sure, I suspect given anecdotal evidence in our congregation, that small congregations in the WELS (of which I am a member now) also give outstanding support in comparison to their size for the benefit of synod.

  2. As President Harrison’s statistics tell us, the small
    parish is not going away anytime soon. The real
    challenge is to make them economically vibrant so
    they can support a parish pastor. Many of these
    small parishes are continually calling candidates
    from our two seminaries. The pastor fresh out of
    the sem will stay for 4 to 5 years and then move
    on so he can better support his family.

  3. I think there are serious benefits to a smaller congregation though that are often overlooked. Pres. Harrison mentions some of them.

  4. I think that these are some very true and encouraging thoughts.

    I do think, however, that there may be more to be done by small congregations than they sometimes realize.

    I worked for my district for a number of years. It was not unusual to drive to a meeting in a town unknown to me of around 500 to 1500 people. You know the kind–a square half mile or so. When I stopped into some of the few gas stations in the area and asked where St. John’s or Faith [pseudo names of course] Lutheran church was located, it was not unusual to have the attendant say nicely “I’ve never heard of it.” Now, these rural stone churches are hard to miss!

    So, not as a criticism, but as an encouragement to small churches in rural areas–There is a field ripe for harvest around you, and a community in which to be involved. I hope you are diligently seeking it out. They need you.

  5. @sue wilson #6

    I suspect that quite often many of these churches ARE known, just not by their official name. It may be known as Pastor So-and-So’s church. Or the German Lutheran church. Or the Lutheran church with a school. Or the one that Arnold and Gert attend. Or the one out past the lake. Or the brick church down by the Post Office.

    Where I grew up, we had one Roman Catholic church in town — we just called it the Catholic church. We had two Lutheran churches — one was the Wisconsin Synod church, the other we called the ALC church. We knew the churches, just not by their proper names. We knew the pastors. We knew who belonged to them. We even went to them, for weddings and funerals and such. You might say we knew them so well we didn’t bother with the name!

  6. the comment of “we need more smaller churches” is interesting. Yes we need smaller churches planted in communities that are without the gospel. We certainly don’t “need” to have our existing congregations become increasingly smaller. @ 7…obviously I can only speak for our congregation in Old Towne Orange, CA and you’d be hard pressed to find people either living in Old Towne or having a business in the area who doesn’t know St. John’s Lutheran Church. My sense is that identification has nothing to do with size, but with behavior and mission.

  7. As the pastor of a small mission congregation, I found Pr. Harrison’s comments quite encouraging. In 25 plus years of ministry, a bulk of it in the ELCA, this is the first time that I have read a church official write positively in regards regarding small congregations and given the ‘church growth’ mentality, we only hear: ‘bigger is better”. I heard from a reliable source several years back relating that the local ELCA bishop referred to the local small congregations as “floating logs”. Pr. Harrison wrote positively in terms of the Ministry of Christ’s Church.

  8. Dear BJS BLoggers,

    The “Tim” in comment #9 has identified himself as the Rev. Timothy M. Klinkenberg. He often posts as “TK.” His predecessor was the Rev. Norbert C. Oesch, the founder of the “Pastoral Leadership Institute.” “Tim” can explain what PLI is all about; I don’t want to be accused of mispresenting them or their intentions.

    “Tim” is senior pastor of a congregation of 4,822 members, Saint John, Orange, CA. It pretty much takes up a whole city block and is in a dominant position in downtown Orange. You literally cannot miss his church building complex if you drive around downtown Orange.

    His congregation is one out of three LCMS mega-churches (my definition, over 800 members on a Sunday) in the Pacific Southwest District, the average attendance beting 1910 on a Sunday. So when you put close to 2,000 people in a compact downtown area on a Sunday, everyone notices.

    His metropolitan area, Greater LA, (US Stats) saw a 4.12% increase in population for 2000-07, for a 2007 total population of 12.8 million. I don’t know current stats.

    So when “Tim” says size doesn’t matter . . . well, you can judge that for yourself.

    Still, I am glad we have large congregations like Saint Johns, because they can do things none of the rest of us can.

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  9. when you realize that 1st century Christians met
    in their homes for Sunday Worship, then you
    know they had small “churches.” It has been
    estimated that only 40 to 50 people could fit
    into one of those homes.

    Small is nothing new to the Christian Church
    as far as attendance is concerned.

  10. i am a little church(no great cathedral)
    far from the splendor and squalor of hurrying cities
    -i do not worry if briefer days grow briefest,
    i am not sorry when sun and rain make april

    my life is the life of the reaper and the sower;
    my prayers are prayers of earth’s own clumsily striving
    (finding and losing and laughing and crying)children
    whose any sadness or joy is my grief or my gladness

    around me surges a miracle of unceasing
    birth and glory and death and resurrection:
    over my sleeping self float flaming symbols
    of hope,and i wake to a perfect patience of mountains

    i am a little church(far from the frantic
    world with its rapture and anguish)at peace with nature
    -i do not worry if longer nights grow longest;
    i am not sorry when silence becomes singing

    winter by spring,i lift my diminutive spire to
    merciful Him Whose only now is forever:
    standing erect in the deathless truth of His presence
    (welcoming humbly His light and proudly His darkness)

    ~e.e. cummings

  11. @Martin R. Noland #11
    Still, I am glad we have large congregations like Saint Johns,
    because they can do things none of the rest of us can.

    Like lead us into the swamps of PLI, CG, TCN, Willowcreek?
    And into corrupting our seminaries with “business methods”?
    Norbert Oesch & friends have a lot to answer for, or so I’ve been told. 🙁

    Thanks indeed for the rest of that story!

    I’d like to park “Tim” for a few years in a century old church building, occupancy about 85, attendance about 35, average age 50-60, in a town of perhaps 600. If he made something of that I might believe that “size doesn’t matter”.

    A couple of Pastors in succession have, nevertheless, made something of that, over 25 years, in every way except the size of the town, (but they aren’t the “Tims” of this world).

    The church seats about 200 now due to transepts modeled on
    the historic building. I was down there a few weeks ago
    when they dedicated a little pipe organ.
    [What they had 25 years ago was a motor assisted “pump” organ.
    Then they got an electronic keyboard to accompany the choir, then
    a small electric organ, then….]

    Now they are laying foundations for a new parish hall. 🙂
    Some will regret seeing the old one removed, but it’s time….

  12. Wow, how interesting, so because St Johns is a large congregation I am painted with the same color of red as the old boys. More of the story is needed as well. My father planted two LCMS Congregations in the Phoenix Area in the 60s and served a congregation in Flagstaff. In Flagstaff we had about 100 people attending in Sunday. When the mission subsidy from the district wouldn’t arrive in summer months we used to collect aluminum cans at rest stops to buy hot dogs for dinner. My point is that Each size congregation has its challenges. As a mission pastor my father trained our entire congregation to go door to door and meet the people in the area. We did that canvassing a couple times a year. Simply because a congregation is smaller doesn’t mean it’s weak. Each of us needs to look graciously on others and their call to ministry. It may come as a shock, but at gatherings of pastors that I attend, we rarely if ever speak in condescension about smaller congregations. I’d be interested to hear how the others speak. Peace

  13. Dear BJS Bloggers,

    Questions have been asked about what large congregations can do that small congregations can’t do, or can’t do as well. This is a busy Friday for me, so I can only mention a few things.

    1) Large congregations have, by definition, lots of members of various ages. That means that they have potentially an army of volunteers to do all sort of things. Small congregations, depending on their composition, may have a handful of volunteers, and they are often used to the max already in just keeping things running.

    2) Large congregations have, usually, a larger pool of non-fixed assets, and a larger income stream, which allows them greater flexibility in projects and programs and charitable works. Small congregations, usually, are just paying the bills; they may have a couple of large fixed assets (big old church building) that are not really usable as a financial tool.

    3) Large congregations can assist small, struggling congregations. In the Northern Illinois District, when I was there (1984-2001), there was a program I think called “Linkage.” Big suburban congregations were encouraged to “link up” with struggling, small urban congregations in the city of Chicago and old Cook County suburbs. The big ones supplied volunteer labor, helped with volunteers for food pantries, gave some financial support, etc., etc.

    This not only gave material assistance to the small congregations, but also was a great encouragement to them – to the point that some of those small congregations have survived the downturn of the neighborhood and rebuilt. Dale Meyer mentions First Immanuel Lutheran Church on Ashland in his recent editorial in Concordia Journal, as a case of survival and rebuilding.

    4) Large congregations can sponsor circuit or multi-circuit activities in their facilities for which the small congregations usually don’t have the space.

    5) Large congregations can sponsor conferences, with invitations to the general public, and actually draw crowds in because they are visible and know how to do P.R. This can have important impact on communities.

    – – – – – –

    I can’t speak for other bloggers, but I evaluate every man on his own merits. I certainly don’t evaluate a pastor, or church officer, on the fact that he holds a certain office or is a pastor of a certain congregation.

    In a pastor, the main thing I look for is loyalty to Jesus and His Word, and secondarily, loyalty to the Lutheran Confessions and the doctrinal parts of the LCMS Constitution. Those are the things that pastors make solemn pledges to uphold, so it is not being “picky” or finicky to evaluate them on these bases. It is that to which all of our church-workers should hold each other accountable.

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  14. @Martin R. Noland #19
    In a pastor, the main thing I look for is loyalty to Jesus and His Word, and secondarily, loyalty to the Lutheran Confessions and the doctrinal parts of the LCMS Constitution. Those are the things that pastors make solemn pledges to uphold, so it is not being “picky” or finicky to evaluate them on these bases. It is that to which all of our church-workers should hold each other accountable.

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland


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