Before I became a DTS student, my wife and I were members of Bethany Bible Church in Phoenix, AZ. That large church powerfully impacted us. After graduating, we landed in a small church. It wasn’t long before I, the new pastor, began to try to “fix” things—which meant making it like our former church. “Fixing” this small church proved impossible with fewer people and resources. I didn’t know then that a small church’s under-resourced youth group can have just as much influence. Its worship services can be as glorifying and edifying; its outreach can be as effective. In my ecclesiology class at DTS, we studied Acts 2 and learned about believers who met in homes, prayed, fellowshiped, studied the Bible, gave, evangelized, and worshiped—all practices continued today by small and large churches.
Many new DTS grads will serve in small churches. More than half of churches in the US average fewer than a hundred regular attenders. Most pastors never serve congregations larger than 150. My wife and I have served for more than thirty years in a ministry focusing on small churches, seeing their beauty and value time and again. Small churches are rich repositories for godly leaders, and a church’s effectiveness depends on its leaders. What does good leadership look like in small churches? The Bible gives us a sterling example: Colossae.
Once-thriving Colossae had declined in population when a new road bypassed the city—so much that shortly before Paul wrote to the Colossians, the Greek geographer Strabo referred to it as a “small town.” The church met in Philemon’s home (Phlm 1:2); it was small.
Paul begins his letter to the Colossians with only commendations—for their faithfulness and fruitfulness and for their healthy and loving relationships. Paul is thankful for them. He crafts words about the preeminence of Christ, perhaps the most eloquent in all his letters. He knew, as many small-church pastors know, that preparing a message for a few listeners demands as much careful, hard work as a message for hundreds. Paul doesn’t see this church as second-rate. There’s no hint of, “If only you could be like the big church in Jerusalem.” They don’t have a spacious campus, a large budget, multiple services, or a pastor with thousands of followers, but these things didn’t seem to matter.
Paul saves his highest praise for the Colossians’ leader, Epaphras. He was like a lot of small-church leaders, as described by Donald McCullough: “We would do well to remember that the church, for the most part, is nourished by unknown pastors who stay at it, day by day, in ordinary congregations of sinners who, by grace and prodding, are being slowly cajoled into sainthood.” (i)
Paul says Epaphras was the one from whom the Colossians had “learned” the qualities highlighted in the opening words of his letter. Paul affectionately calls Epaphras “beloved” and a “fellow servant” (1:7 ESV)—an equal. And still more, Epaphras is “a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf” (1:7). It’s a beautiful compliment that hints at the “Well done, good and faithful servant” that we all long to hear from our Lord someday.
In my own life, I think about moving, years ago, to Corn, Oklahoma (population 500), and inviting well-known preacher and author Warren Wiersbe to speak at our church. Warren’s ministry seemed so much bigger than mine, but he never looked down on where God had placed me. No, he treated me like a fellow servant—an attitude we should all model in our friendships with fellow ministers.
What does Epaphras-like leadership look like in small-church ministry today? Colossians suggests at least five qualities to cultivate. Faithful discipler. Paul says these believers had “learned” from Epaphras (1:7), using the word derived from “discipled.” The discipleship ministry of The Navigators teaches from the “2:7 Series®” training curriculum, named for Colossians 2:7. The large, international ministry of The Navigators draws inspiration from the exemplary character of a first-century small church! Consider the advantage a small church has in discipling. Can a pastor effectively disciple church members without knowing their names or spending time with them?
Faithful servant. Paul says Epaphras was a “servant” leader (1:7; 4:12). Leaders in small churches have ample opportunities to exhibit this quality—when cleaning the church, mowing the lawn, taking the sick to doctors, and providing meals for people. Quietly doing such tasks reveals a servant’s heart.
Faithful prayer warrior. Paul says Epaphras was “always struggling on your behalf in his prayers” (4:12). The word means agonizing; it’s used of our Lord’s praying in the garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:44). Leadership in small churches requires consistent, agonizing prayers.
Faithful worker. Paul says Epaphras “has worked hard for you” (4:13). He labored diligently in an obscure place. Faithfulness to the work of small-church ministry may seem to go unnoticed, but the work is just as impactful to the lives of others as larger churches.
Faithful to sound doctrine. The Colossians were wrestling with Christology. Evidently, Epaphras was so concerned about protecting his church from error that he traveled 1,200 miles to Rome for counsel from Paul (1:7; 4:12). This generated enormous respect in Paul. Sound doctrine must be preached within all churches, no matter how small.
All these qualities highlight a prominent theme throughout Colossians: fullness, completeness, maturity. Are you a leader in a small church? Be inspired by Epaphras’s dedication to his small church! A small-church pastor might wonder, “How can our church with so few people and resources produce complete Christians?” Our church in Brewster, Nebraska, had only 600 people living within a thirty-mile radius. Was there no hope for that congregation to become mature? Colossians assures us otherwise! Our churches in Nebraska and Oklahoma adopted Colossians 1:28 (NET) as their theme: “We proclaim him . . . so that we may present every person mature in Christ.” We put these words on our signs and in our publicity materials. This verse stated our purpose and goal. We believed we had as much potential as any church to progress toward Christian maturity.
The small church is the total package; it’s the right size to fulfill all that God wants the church to be and do. Small churches are not small children waiting to grow to a certain size before becoming all they should be or accomplishing all they can. Of all the places Paul wrote, it is to a small church that he says maturity in Christ is attainable. Always remember: the words found in the book of Colossians were written to a house church in a small town!
i Donald W. McCullough, “The Army of the Anonymous,” ChristianToday.com, November 8, 1993, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1993/november-8/from-senior-editors-army-of-anonymous.html.
About the Contributors
Ron Klassen is director emeritus of RHMA (Rural Home Missionary Association). He also serves as an adjunct faculty member at DTS, teaching master’s and doctoral classes for present and future rural and small-town pastors. He is the author of Maximize! Leveraging the Strengths of Your Small Church