Lutherans Foster Growth, Integration of Megachurches

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is the fifth largest denomination in North America with nearly five million members and over 10,000 churches. However, of those churches, only 110 have more than 750 members, and ELCA-related congregations make-up only a fraction of the nation’s 1,200 megachurches.

These figures may now change with the help of a new ministry position established specifically for “large membership congregations” within the Lutheran church.

"Every synod has large congregations. It is a matter of context,” the Rev. Mark A. Grorud, ELCA director of relationships with large churches, told the ELCA Conference of Bishops during their Sept. 29-Oct. 3 gathering in Chicago. “I see my ministry as a ministry to each synod and to the whole church, wherever I may be of assistance to you in your synod and ministry."

Grorud, who said his job can be described simply as “connection” and “advocacy,” implored the denomination’s 65 bishops to visit large churches and pay more attention to this “different” segment of the church.

"They constitute an important segment of our church," Grorud said, according to ELCA news. "We can learn from large congregations. They are not perfect; they are not all great stewards. But many of them are, and they have the potential to share ideas and great enthusiasm with the church as whole.”

Grorud also told bishops that in the past six months in his new role, he personally visited 74 congregations and invited the senior pastors and staff of all 110 large-membership congregations to a series of retreats in January and February. He said these retreats, eight of which are being planned, are aimed at building relationships, sharing ministry and ideas and discussing issues.

In that light, Grorud explained that large churches have much to offer to the denomination, if only they can feel more “connected.”

These congregations are a tremendous resource to the church, with innovations in worship, education, outreach, social ministries and global ministry among other subjects, he said, according to ELCA.

However, large congregations are more conservative than others and they often feel more isolated and disconnected from the wider church. For example, many of these large churches expressed withheld their mission support funds to the denomination when it began to consider allowing the ordination of homosexual pastors and blessing of same-sex unions.

These large churches also have great concerns regarding the future of the ELCA and that its membership dropped below 5 million baptized members in the last year. They say the ELCA “must find a focus and a sense of vision” and are worried about the future leadership issues and transition issues facing the church.

At the same time, Grorud said senior pastors respect the jobs bishops perform and understand many of the difficulties a bishop faces.

Therefore since bishops and senior pastors share similar concerns Grorud said they should plan regular meetings and personal visits to actively engage the hidden talents within the church.

Following Grorud’s presentation, ELCA’s presiding bishop Mark S. Hanson, said having a person who fosters the growth of large membership congregations is “significant” for the denomination.

"This is about deepening relationships," he said, according to ELCA news. "This is something we need to be doing and Mark (Grorud) is the person to do it."