Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

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The Elephant in the...Mind

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery Whiteis the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • Published Aug 21, 2013

Elephant trainers have found that if they tie young elephants to heavy chains attached to deeply embedded stakes, the young elephant learns it cannot escape and refuses to try even as it gets older.  As a result, even powerful adult elephants remain tied to puny stakes well after they have the strength to uproot entire trees with their trunks.

We often talk about the “elephant in the room,” the big issue or obvious topic that screams out to be addressed (and often isn’t).

Perhaps we should start with the elephant in our mind.

Countless churches have a “we’ve tried that before and it didn’t work” mindset, or a “we’d never be able to do that here” spirit, or “they’d never go for that” conclusion.  As a result, vast numbers of church leaders view previous attempts to effect change, or to cast vision, that failed as the final verdict on what can – or cannot – be done in the future.

But like the elephant that matures, the truth is that whatever failed to work in the past may very well have failed for reasons that no longer exist, such as:

*it was over-reach for your church’s size

*your leadership skills were insufficient

*the amount of trust the church had in you as a leader was still being developed

*the core of your church wasn’t sufficiently mature

*your community demographics were different

*in terms of the team, you didn’t have the right people on the bus, much less in the right seats

All of these dynamics, and many more that I’m sure others could (and will) post, could have made something in the past fail.  The mistake would be to resign yourself to something good, right, noble or strategic never working again.

The truth is that time moves on, and elephants grow.

*newberries may now outnumber oldberries (let’s see how many church growth folks remember that one)

*your church now has a different DNA and dynamic due to a new size

*you, as a leader, are more potent than before

*there is new desperation

*what once was radical is now more mainstream

*your team is more unified, more skilled, and more aggressive

*the reality of your mission field, and its challenges, is more clear


It might be time to try pulling on that stake again.

Who knows?

You might just find it comes out of the ground.

James Emery White



James Belasco, Teaching the Elephant to Dance.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.