Book Review: The Rabbit and the Elephant: Why Small Is the New Big for Today’s Church, by Tony Dale and George Barna
Contrary to the subtitle, this book is not an argument for small churches in general but for house churches in particular. Moreover, the Dales and Barna advocate a particular movement of house churches known as House2House.
The authors argue that house churches, or what they call “simple” churches, are better at multiplying than larger, traditional churches. By focusing on basic ministries like hospitality and evangelism, and by rejecting the need for trained leadership, a house church can spring up wherever and whenever it is necessary.
An important critique of the contemporary church runs through the pages of The Rabbit and the Elephant. Traditional or “legacy” churches, the authors insist, seem more interested in putting on a show than changing lives. Members of these churches “go to a special place at a special time to watch special people perform. Once or twice a week, they sing a few songs, listen to a monologue, put money in the offering plate, and go home” (25). Traditional churches have become meeting places for lazy Christians instead of being vibrant hubs of gospel ministry.
The Dales and Barna argue that church today is failing in its evangelism and disciple-making. “Increasingly we have come to understand that becoming a disciple of Jesus has little to do with responding to an altar call or praying the sinner’s prayer” (140). Instead of getting to know non-believers and lovingly speaking truth into their lives, many Christians invite them to an event in the hope that someone else will close the deal. “The great commission tells us to make disciples, which is far more than a ‘decision’ or ‘prayer of salvation.’ God wants disciples, not mere converts. He is seeking a radical life change, a whole new way” (89-90). In addition, the Dales and Barna are rightly disturbed by the metrics used to measure success in evangelical life.
Furthermore, they argue that the church today is overly reliant on a professionalized ministry to meet the needs of church members. Christians should do more than listen to educated pastors. Churches should be preparing “an army of ordinary people who will invade their world with the Good News of the Kingdom and thereby become radically effective in their communities” (34).
Most of the authors’ critiques of the contemporary church are valid. Many Christians and non-Christians find the established church irrelevant. Change does need to be made.
So what is the prescription for progress found in The Rabbit and the Elephant?
By being small, focused, and spiritual, house churches will be vibrant and growing. Traditional churches depend more on structures than the Holy Spirit (42). Facilities are like an albatross hanging around the neck of congregations and keeping them from doing the actual work of the ministry. Christians need to be freed up to go out in faith, seeking the lost and dispossessed (101). To be in a house church, the Dales and Barna argue, is to relinquish control and allow the Spirit to work.
Yet the House2House movement (as characterized in The Rabbit and the Elephant) is not the answer to the church’s woes, because the authors treat the Word of God, the role of pastors, and the church itself far too lightly for the movement to be of lasting significance.
THE WORD OF GOD
One of the early chapters is called “The Master’s Voice” and it is about listening to God. The Dales and Barna say that Scripture is just one of many ways that God speaks, and though the authors describe the Bible as “our final plumb line against which any other word from God is measured,” the reader is left with the feeling that the Bible is not sufficient for faith and practice (51). Instead, we should be looking for God to speak in an inner peace, dreams and visions, prophecy, counselors, and finally, in action. “Just as hearing God’s voice involves recognizing when He is speaking through our thoughts, seeing Him involves realizing that He may speak through the pictures of our imagination” (53).
Can God speak through prophecy, dreams and visions, and the “pictures of our imagination”? He can speak however he wants to speak! But if the concern really is to hear the Lord speak clearly, then why not first turn to God’s Word in careful study and then by the power of the Holy Spirit, respond accordingly?
THE ROLE OF PASTORS
The authors believe the church should have leaders, and they rightly critique the CEO pastor who is more focused on programs than people (148). Nonetheless, they simply are not correct when they assert that “New Testament leadership is ‘flat,’ or nonhierarchical” (151). Such a statement makes no sense of 1 Timothy 3:5, which equates management of the home to care of the church. It makes no sense of Hebrews 13:17, which says the leaders in the church are to be obeyed. There is a hierarchy of sorts in the church. Christ is the head of the church, and I believe the congregation, as a whole, has earthly responsibility for doctrine and selecting leaders. Nonetheless, once selected, those leaders are to teach and lead.
Leadership in this house church movement is undervalued. When the authors describe their own experience in a house church, they revel in the fact that no one could tell who was leading the meeting (80). It seems they have no interest in leaders who will heed Paul’s instructions to Timothy by keeping the pattern of sound teaching and guarding the good deposit which has been entrusted to them (2 Tim. 1:13-14). In fact, the authors deliberately discourage an educated ministry in the local church. Theological training, they argue, is not for pastors in the local church. Using the “highly educated Paul” as their example, the authors surmise that such “training is more likely to be used at a strategic, regional level than in the day-to-day life of the average simple church” (149). Is it just me or is that a scary statement? Reserve the training for regional churches and leave the “day-to-day” ministers untrained?
Though The Rabbit and the Elephant is about the church, there is little explanation of what the church is beyond a series of interconnected relationships. What constitutes a church? Is there a difference between a group of non-Christians meeting to discuss Christianity and a group of Christians gathering to celebrate a baptism?
The authors of The Rabbit and the Elephant place a healthy emphasis on evangelism. The goal of the House2House church movement is authentic relationships that draw unbelievers into the kingdom of God. The irony is that by ignoring the biblical concept of the church there is less accountability. The authors admitted to being part of twelve new church plants all at once (95). Were they accountable to any one church or all of them? If someone sins but does not repent, is there any means to pursue loving and corrective church discipline? The authors will say that such questions miss the point. “One of the biggest paradigm shifts within the simple church reformation is the understanding that when we are following the Holy Spirit, there is little need for organization and no need for hierarchical control” (200-01).
But what would they say when the man who has been a Christian for twenty years and married for fifteen decides to divorce his wife? After a rebuke, would he be dismissed from the church? This seems unlikely in a church that lacks any organization. If there is no organization there is no discipline. If there is no discipline there is no accountability. If there is no accountability there is no love. And if there is no love there is no church.
The problem with The Rabbit and the Elephant is not that they advocate house churches. Scripture does not dictate wherea church should meet or how many members a church should have. Moreover, house churches can be Word-centered and Gospel-focused. But the Word of God must be central, leadership must be a priority, and the church must be defined.
When I look at the House2House movement through the lens of The Rabbit and the Elephant I see Christians who rightly prioritize evangelism, rightly see faults with larger churches, but wrongly dismiss God’s revelation about the church itself. For this reason, The Rabbit and the Elephant is not a useful tool for the pastor’s toolbox.
Editor’s Note: This book has been re-released and re-titled Small Is Big!: Unleashing the Big Impact of Intentionally Small Churches.