A few years ago, BarnaBooks put out a book titled The Rabbit and the Elephant: Why Small Is the New Big for Today’s Church.
The premise of the book: If you put two elephants in a room together and close the door, in three years you may get one baby elephant. Put two rabbits in a room for three years and you better watch out when you open the door. There’s the potential for just over 100,000 rabbits.
And then there’s the issue of history. Historically, the church’s growth has looked much more like rabbit reproduction than elephant reproduction. Early Christianity spread by the increase of new, small churches across the land.
No one should know a history like this better than Methodists, whose circuit riding preachers spread the faith across England and the United States by establishing new churches everywhere they went. It’s telling that when Methodist preachers met with their district superintendents in those early days, they were to report how many churches they had started. Now, they must meet with their district superintendents to receive permission to start a new church. What a change in roles and assumptions!
I come across a lot of people who agree with the premise of The Rabbit and the Elephant. I get the sense that more and more people in the Western Church are coming to see the “strategic advantage” of spreading like rabbits.
Not just a different strategy, a different organism
What I’m not sure is taken into account: rabbits and elephants are different organisms altogether.
An elephant can’t survive if it’s the size of a rabbit. Baby elephants are ~260 pounds at birth. We see that mentality plenty in the church: “You need at least 75 people for critical mass to start a new church.”
And a rabbit’s health isn’t measured by becoming the size of an elephant. What do you call a 15-pound rabbit? Obese.
The difference between rabbits and elephants isn’t just size, but the very makeup of their internal systems. The same is true of rabbit churches and elephant churches. A typical American elephant church will spend about 50% on staffing, 20% on debt and property expenses, and the other 30% on programs, missions, and denominational dues (give or take 10% on each item). Though they all differ, elephant church staff/leadership structures are relatively predictable: senior pastor, discipleship, missions, music, age-level ministries, and administration.
Look at the budget and leadership structures of the early churches and the early Methodist movement, and I bet you’ll find a significantly different internal system.
What are America’s small churches? Rabbits or little elephants?
Most of America’s churches are relatively small. The mega church isn’t the norm. So you might say that most of our churches are more like rabbits. I don’t think they are, though. I think most of our churches are very little elephants. In fact, they might be such small elephants that their odds of long-term survival are pretty slim.
Look at our little churches and you’ll see budget allocations that are roughly the same as the big ones, though they may be skewed because the churches are too small to handle the needs of a typical elephant structure. Look at their leadership structures and you’ll see something quite a bit like those elephant churches, though three people may be filling all of the positions, and some (e.g., youth ministry) may be future goals rather than present realities.
Look at our little churches’ aspirations, and you’ll see a little elephant mindset. If they could, they would become full-grown elephants, with a 50-person choir and the VBS that everyone in town wants to come to. They go to conferences at jumbo elephant churches to learn how to do things like them. Their denominational leadership sets elephant-like goals for them (i.e. growth = success).
Can an elephant give birth to rabbits?
You see, I think a lot of people in the American Church see the strategic advantage to rabbit-like multiplication.* But they’re still elephants. They think like elephants, they act like elephants, and their “success” is judged on elephant scales.
Which leads to my question: can an elephant give birth to rabbits? I’m dubious. I think it’s as likely for God to create a rabbit ex nihilo as it is for God to bring forth a rabbit from the womb of an elephant.
I know I’ve more clearly defined/identified an elephant church than a rabbit church. I’ll save further definition of the rabbit church, and my reasons for preferring its nature, for the comments or a later post.
I’ll close with a great quote from “Messages from the Chinese Church: An Army of Worms” [pdf]:
It will not be an army of elephants that marches into nations like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran with the gospel, trampling down the strongholds. Sometimes it seems as if a lot of mission effort consists of “elephant” plans – huge and grandiose strategies for overwhelming the devil’s strongholds and making him surrender his captives. But it is easy for border guards to detect an elephant entering the country! It makes a lot of noise and is impossible to hide. Elephants are easy to catch because they move slowly and are so visible. This seems to be how much mission work is conducted today. (Please understand we are talking in generalities here, for we know many of the Lord’s people from all around the world have faithfully been
laboring in these difficult nations for years. God bless them!)
While an elephant cannot advance into sensitive areas, little worms and ants can go anywhere. They can go into temples, mosques and even into king’s palaces.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Agree, disagree, want to ask a question?
* Although let’s acknowledge that elephant-style growth — two elephant churches create a baby elephant every three years — would be breathtaking compared to current rates of new church plants. The reason we’re not seeing even elephant-like growth: giving birth to a 260-pound baby elephant is no easy task. And it requires a healthy elephant to begin with.