Can an elephant give birth to rabbits?

rabbit - elephantA 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.


11 thoughts on “Can an elephant give birth to rabbits?

  1. Interesting thoughts, Teddy. I appreciate your time in putting them together.

    A couple of real life things, as I have been thinking about this concept for the past three years of my life and especially over the past week or so as I led a seminar at the School of Congregational Development around Missional Communities.

    While I appreciate the idea that two rabbits in a room will become 10,000 rabbits in three years, this doesn’t necessarily translate to the church. Intentional missional work, even to build a small church, is slow. It’s all about relationships, and if our goal is reach people who don’t currently have a relationship with Jesus, it will not happen quickly. This means that it might take three years to birth a rabbit.

    Unfortunately, this rate of speed isn’t financially sustainable in our contexts. It simply doesn’t work with our ways of funding, etc.

    My experience has been one where I have attempted to partner with God in creating something from nothing. We have been able to have an impact in the lives of people, but it hasn’t happened as quickly as we would have liked. Our attempt at intentional, missional work will likely bear fruit, but it is a fruit that takes years to come into reality.

    Can an elephant give birth to a rabbit? I think that we must begin to think in that way. How can micro-missional communities become intentional parts of large churches and large church plants? If a large growing church decides to plant, how can we add in a micro-missional DNA that see the value of small and large?

    If we want to do this, our metrics must change. Missional Communities, as I understand and lead them, must focus on giving people space to live out God’s mission in the community. Recently I had a couple approach me and talk about starting a new missional community, but to do so, they needed to have brunch at a local coffeeshop on Sunday mornings so that they can reach the people God has called them to reach. Are we willing to sacrifice Sunday morning attendance if we know that people are living out mission in intentional ways the rest of the week?

    Thanks for your thoughts on this!

    1. Hi Matt,

      Thanks for these thoughts. You certainly have a unique vantage point to discuss these things. As I mentioned to Christy below, I don’t think the rabbit analogy is helpful if taken to its full extent. I don’t expect to go from 2 churches to 100,000 in three years. But I do believe starting new, small communities has a lot of advantages over starting and sustaining elephant-sized communities. The resource need is far less, the expectation of members and their participation can be far greater…

      I agree with you about intentional missional work being about relationships. I’m curious about your thoughts about the times and places where the church spread more rapidly across small communities of believers. What made the context of, say, early Methodist days in America, or many parts of present-day Africa, conducive to quick growth — even though relationship was surely important in those times and places, too?

      And could you say more about financial sustainability and “our ways of funding”? I’d be interested to hear more of what you mean here.

      1. Thanks for your response, Teddy. This is a good conversation.

        A couple of years ago I talked to the Director of the New Thing Network which is planting churches at an incredible rate. Eric shared with me that they fund two different types of churches…High and Low Yield was their terminology, I think. Basically they think that churches that attempt to plant with one staff person, a very small team and funding around 300K over 3 years should be somewhere between 80-100 after three years. Churches that are planted with multiple staff members, a team of people and funding around 600K over three years should be around 300 in worship after three years. I was struck that our UM models of church planting often expect high yield results with low yield investments.

        I think that I have learned that we often can plant “rabbit” size churches at “elephant” speeds. If we decide that intentional discipleship rather than simply counting butts in seats is our priority, it will take a long time. Yet, I believe that this idea is important as it demonstrates the principle “If you build a church, you might get disciples. If you make disciples, you will ABSOLUTELY build a church.”

        I think that rabbit size churches are absolutely the way to go…low oversight, quick adaptability for mission with the ability to reproduce quickly. I just think that initially planting a rabbit size church might take three to five years if we are focused on discipleship and evangelism. These churches might continue to multiply quicker, but the initial investment of time and resources can border on elephant-sized proportions.

  2. Thank you for starting this discussion. Several things hit me when I first heard the of rabbit/elephant dichotomy. Among other things, as you have eloquently stated, they are two extraordinarily different organisms and a comparison between them is not overly valid. Also, the potential for 10,000 rabbits in three years is not necessarily a positive one. They would end up cannibalizing each other, and would wreck the closed system environment. Realistically speaking, you’d probably end up with 500 sick rabbits as opposed to one healthy elephant–which might actually be more effective in mission than the five hundred sick rabbits. Elephants may be slow, expensive and not particularly prolific breeders, but they also can stay the course and provide stability in an unstable system. Young elephants do take a long time to mature, but studies I’ve read of elephant culture also suggest an society that offers much of what a healthy church offers: good child-rearing practices and important social connections that help bring the young ones to healthy maturity, not to mention providing a lot of fertilizer for others life-forms to use for growth (of course, rabbits can also do that!) Rabbits are far more nimble, can indeed move quickly and do have lots of young–which are often quickly eaten by carnivorous prey.

    Clearly we need both, not just one or the other. Right now I think our system really is reinforcing the elephant model and not giving enough nurture to the rabbit model. If we want to produce a lot of rabbits, we’re going to have to provide some safety for them–right now, the elephants can and do easily stomp them out, probably more by accident than anything else.

    1. Hi Christy,

      Thanks for this comment. I agree with you that if we take the analogy to its full extent, it doesn’t look so great. I don’t think the picture for elephants is as great as you’ve made it here, though. I think our Western need (or at least our need in the UMC) for churches to be elephants has caused some real problems and lost opportunities.

      Because people believe that a viable church needs several dedicated, full-time staff with lots of programs/ministries and a building, we have been extremely slow to start churches. No – the point isn’t to start 100,000 in three years. But no one is concerned that we’re starting churches so fast that they’re cannibalizing each other — no one left to evangelize! Rather, we think we need a huge amount of people and resources just to get started, and then we think it’s a failure if that church doesn’t consistently add to its numbers. I think that elephant mentality has made us slow to do anything and caused us to call a lot of churches “failures” because they didn’t attain elephant size. That is, we’ve had very few baby elephants because of the up-front cost we anticipate, and we’ve had quite a few quick deaths because those babies didn’t attain the elephant size we expect.

      As you say in your final paragraph, the system seems to reinforce the elephant model and provide little safety for the rabbits. We tell congregations that are rabbit-sized that we hope they’ll grow up and become elephants. Why not tell them to be rabbits – and go forth and multiply? I think they have a much better shot at doing that, but it requires a totally different mindset. A mindset that doesn’t get much attention or support, from what I’ve seen.

  3. Not completely random thoughts . . . but

    I wonder how well Methodism/evangelicalism really ‘took’ in England and Europe. It’s virtually extinct in these cultures, especially now that the Great Awakening (a cultural phenomenon to be sure) has faded into the past. True, it thrived quite a bit in the larger American culture/ethos (for various reasons) and was spurred on with the Second Great Awakening, but it (Methodism/evangelicalism) largely appears to be dying in the U.S. Numbers are simply decreasing across the board. The only groups growing are Catholicism and Orthodoxy . . . with a few nods to a few charismatic groups here and there. Believe it or not, even Anglicanism has grown in England over the past 5 years. Most evangelicals I know, however, have largely given up hope for the Western, post-industrialized world. Their hope has turned to Africa, Latin America, and the Asian countries as the next, great Evangelicalism, and many almost seem to revel in the deconstruction of so-called “Western” Christianity, but this is, perhaps, a rant for another time.

    I’m really not sure how evangelicalism can evangelical its way out of extinction. I realize the gut-reaction is to revert to hyper-evangicalism, that is, the ‘missional’ and ’emergent’ route, though I’m sure such a designation and nomenclature would upset those espousing such tactics. I’m not sure how any of this is really that different from what’s happened in the past, and I’m not sure more of the ‘same’ will really help Methodism/evangelicalism.

    Barna, from what my father once related to me, has written in a recent book that he no longer ‘goes to church’. Rather, he advocates replacement of church with ‘home groups’ and entities of such nature. These apparently are small groups which meet in the homes of the close-knit community and pray, eat, read Scripture together, etcetera, and I’m sure such a strategy will gather a few hyper-evangelicals who think their home church is simply not evangelical enough, that is, has become too institutionalized, but I can’t see any long term success with such models as, to mention only one reason, they are simply parasitic of their own evangelical tradition . . . kind of like how the Green Party is parasitic of the Democrat Party. If anything, as John Milbank is wont to say, “The refusal to come out of oneself and go to church is simply the refusal of Church per se.”

    1. Hi Caleb,

      Thanks for your response. I always enjoy your perspective on these things, though I’m not sure if I can fully agree with your premise here. I’m interested to get some more definition from you first, though…

      You mention growth and decline, and your information seems quite a bit different from mine. Could you point me in some directions that show what you’re talking about? What I’ve seen is that Anglicans are celebrating a “stabilizing” of decline in England ( and that the RC and Anglican Communions in America are in decline, while the more charismatic groups are the only ones growing — some of them significantly ( In fact, if we were to use growth figures in the West as our indicator, I’d be jumping off RC, Anglican, and old-line Protestant alike to jump onto the Pentecostal bandwagon. True, the United Methodists are plummeting faster than anyone in the West, but I haven’t seen the data that shows the RC and Anglicans growing. And I think the charismatic groups merit more than a nod.

      Could you give a bit more definition to how you’re using “evangelical” and “missional”? If a person/church shares the gospel with the hope of people repenting and believing the gospel, and that person/church isn’t RC, Anglican, or Orthodox, does that make them evangelical and missional? Or is there more to that definition?

      To be clear – I’m no fan of much of what Barna has put out for the past 10 years. I used their book as my starting point to essentially ask whether churches can think any way other than our standard, business-model structure for the local church. Is there something about the nature of “house churches” that causes your reaction against them? Is it if they’re not connected to a larger body? Would your opinion of them change if they were more broadly connected?

      Given the numbers I’m seeing, I’m having a hard time accepting the notion that evangelicalism (especially if you include the charismatic groups as evangelical) is on the verge of extinction in the West and grasping at straws. The UMC may eventually collapse under its own weight, but I think that’s as much to do with financial decisions and largely abandoning its roots — surely not a result of it being too evangelical. The RC and Anglican Communions seem to be moving at about the same clip in the West as the rest – broadly, slowly declining (unless we’re talking about the Episcopal Church, which will likely collapse before the UMC).

      1. You’re right about the Church of England, Teddy. I think I saw an article related to the same statistics you linked to, but my article emphasized the growth of children, youth, and young adults. In this area, the Church of England has grown in Sunday Attendance . . . but not in overall “church attendance” as I indicated above. My memory has failed me.

        Also, the RC and EO has grown quite a bit in the USA in regard to membership (which is quasi-meaningless). See this article: I can’t find anything in regard to average Sunday attendance (which would be hard to gather for Catholics since Saturday night counts as Sunday’s Mass), but I did find some statistics from the Pew Forum (though I’ve never thought these statistics have been very reliable) detailing RC and EO stability in church attendance since the early 1970s in the US. It is virtually impossible to find any real statistics on EO.

        Also, I’m still not ready to give charismatic groups anything more than a nod in post-industrialized, Western society. They’ve never gained a significant backing in Europe, and the larger, institutional pentecostal denominations are starting to fail dramatically in the US as well. The statistics you posted pertained to membership, not church attendance. Here are the statistics I was able to pull from the Assemblies of God website (the largest Pentecostal church in the USA?): Their attendance shrunk by 8% from 2010 to 2011 even though their membership supposedly increased. You might be able to find some of the disestablished, emergent, charismatic and/or non-denominational churches which have an inkling of real attendance growth in the US, but I can’t help but think this is largely because, as I mentioned before, they are parasitic on the larger evangelical demographic/population. The Episcopal Church, by the way, though it declined in membership, actually had attendance growth between these same years. It has stabilized somewhat after the schisms around 5 and 10 years ago, and I think ‘stability’ in this respect seems like a sharp contrast to denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention, the UMC, the ELCA, Assemblies of God, etcetera who are losing adherents/communicants right-and-left.

        Definition of Evangelicalism: nominalism and voluntarism with lots of energy. Seriously, though, this is kind-of like trying to define Wesleyanism. One can either have such a nuanced or generic understanding of ‘evangelicalism’ in order to circumvent negative critique or to do quite the opposite – attack it. In regard to your specific question: “If a person/church shares the gospel with the hope of people repenting and believing the gospel, and that person/church isn’t RC, Anglican, or Orthodox, does that make them evangelical and missional?”, I would reply, “Yes, but there are also such things as evangelical Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox as well.” Usually, in the latter case, evangelical is used as an adjective. One could use John Wesley as an example here, and as you probably already know, I’m not a big fan of those type of evangelicals either, but I’m digressing.

        Definition of “Missional”: synonymous with evangelical though with more intellectual integrity and vigor. This is why I have alluded to it as a more radical evangelicalism.

        Also, in regard to your last question, I will admit there is something about the nature of “house churches” that irks me. You may not know this, but while I was in Lexington, I lived downtown for two years as part of an intentional community that had been in existence for over 10 years. We were incredibly politically, socially, environmentally, and economically active, and we even disbanded Sunday Services quite some time because they were too cumbersome and interfered with what “God was really doing in the community”. Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove both slept in our house when they were traveling in town, and this particular community even held annual week-long training camps/seminars so other churches/groups/individuals could come and learn what they were doing. Apparently, this was to assist in missional replication. After 15 years, they are still the same group, still striving to “do God’s work”, and still furious with all the other Christians for being so dimwitted.

        Ultimately, as my quote from Milbank was trying to demonstrate, there is a radically different notion of church going on here, one which, I might add, arises, not out of the Reformation (as Luther, Calvin, and Crammer would be aghast), but out of the First Great Awakening. Matt (above) can talk of “sacrificing Sunday morning attendance” in order to devote oneself to “mission”, but this is ultimately to sacrifice the Church herself. Try telling the Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, and a whole host of sacramentally minded Protestants that the Mass is getting in the way of God’s work, and they will probably laugh. Ultimately, for these groups, it is the Mass which constitutes the Church; it is only in partaking of the Body and Blood of our Lord that we become his Body and Blood. I won’t get into it, but Alison Milbank and Creston Davis have written a great work about the ‘mission-shaped’ church (the English contextual equivalent) in For the Parish: A Critique of Fresh Expressions. I would let you borrow it the next time I was in Lexington, if you were interested, but we might have to wait till you get back.


      2. Also, I had another statistical error. I mentioned that the Assemblies of God denomination had their attendance decrease by 8% between 2010 and 2011. Actually this was their Sunday PM attendance. Their Sunday AM attendance decreased by only about 1%. Sorry.

      3. Thanks Caleb. I’m afraid I’ll need you to keep giving me definitions from the words you used in definitions. Sorry! Evangelicalism = nominalism and voluntarism. Could you perhaps give an example of how the RC, EO, and Anglicans (apart from what you call their “evangelical” wings) are not nominalists and voluntarists, but everyone else is? By “voluntarism,” are you suggesting that the historic churches find it better to be linked with, and financially supported by, the state? I’m just not clear enough on these terms yet.

        I understand your point about your house church experience. And certainly about Barna’s refusal of the Church. And certainly about the notion of “canceling” worship services on Sundays. I think I’m in full agreement with you on all of these. But I’m not sure I understand how what I’m addressing above assumes any of those things. For that matter, I don’t see how the early Methodist movement supposed any of those things. I don’t think they would have put up with the Barna sort of understanding of the Church and sacraments. Though many house churches have a very low view of worship and the sacraments, I don’t think that’s inherent in a house church — nor would I approve of it in one.

        I’ll grant that here I’m really dealing with secondary things over primary things. I’m interested in size, location of worship, use of finances, and leadership and church planting. I think all of those structures dictate a lot about how any local church lives, so they end up getting into more important points. I’m not sure there’s anything “evangelical” or “hyper-evangelical” about how you handle size, location of worship, or use of finances. Surely not even the RC has much ground to stand on to say that corporate worship must happen in a cathedral. That would leave possible disagreements re: leadership and church planting. I suppose I’m wondering, though, if a church that isn’t RC, EO, or Anglican can ever be described as anything other than “evangelical” and “nominalist,” or if the definition ends up merely being that they’re not RC, EO, or Anglican. Or more simply, are all of these discussions really just a small component of the debate about whether anyone can be legitimate without being one of those historic Churches? To which, of course, I’d add that the RC says the same to Anglicans as Anglicans say to Protestants. And the RC and EO still won’t even recognize each other as fully valid.

  4. This may be insignificant to the overall discussion but Mass attendance and Sacrament participation are on the rise in local (Lexington) RC parishes. There is renewal/growth occuring in RC that possibly it is too early to measure.

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