Friday, May 23, 2008

Let's Hear it for the Small Congregation!, by Rev. Matt Harrison

Photo of small church
Pastor Matt Harrison is the Executive Director for LCMS World Relief and Human Care. In this article, also available on his LCMS page, he offers encouragement for the small parish. Reproduced with permission.

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!


a bit tired said...

Sitting here in my office after six months into this call with one elder who wants me to commune the father of one of my SS teaches who is baptist (and she's not sure about infant baptism herself),(oh and with a brother pastor in the circuit who told him that LCMS pastors really don't believe all that closed communion stuff - its not our grandfather's church anymore) with a retired pastor who would like his job back, with a bunch of women who came from the ELCA who wish this church was ELCA and had a lady pastor, and a church officer who thinks the church revolves around him, and another who thinks the altar/pulpit can serve as his personal stage...

I'd love to have a small church out in the country of faithful folks who want to center around Word and Sacrament and tell others about the grace we have in Jesus. But then I guess they will have to settle for lay minsters and whatever they can scrape together since Synod's Concordia plans are pricing pastors out of business.

I'm just a bit tired these days.

And then there is my district...the LCMS...our leadership... sigh...

I remember a prof telling me as long as the LCMS was Christ centered, relying on Scripture alone, and focused on Word and Sacrament ministry we would be the focus of the devil's attack. I wonder... if the devil has time for a vacation these days.

Anonymous said...

Peter said...

As one who currently pastors a small congregation (and whose previous call was to two small congregations), I was uplifted by Harrison's article. He spoke a few years back at our district pastor's conference; he had a glowing enthusiasm for missions in Africa and Germany (plus a lot of other places).

Here's another uplifing example of what a small congregation can do: About a year ago we needed to have our organ repaired. It was estimated to cost a little over $4000 for the part and labor. I asked the members to prayerfully consider donating money for the repair. Some were skeptical that we could raise the money. In three months we had raised all the money, plus extra for future tuning and minor repairs for the organ!