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Donkey Churches
By Wayne Garrett

         Not long ago I was reading in Ezra about the return of the Israelites to Palestine, when I noticed something about their animals, "Their horses were 736; their mules, 245; their camels, 435; their donkeys, 6,720" (2:66-67 NASB) and thought to myself, why so many donkeys?
         This started a chain reaction of thoughts about donkeys in the Bible. Let's see now-Balaam and the donkey that talked is one of the most famous Bible stories; Abraham saddled his donkey and went off to sacrifice Isaac; there was that guy that had all those kids and grandkids that rode on seventy donkeys, and of course Jesus was carried into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. Why so many donkeys?
         A couple of quick clicks of the mouse button showed more than 140 references to donkeys in the NASB translation. That was almost as many as for horses, and generally people owned more donkeys that horses. Why so many donkeys?
         Another couple of clicks of the mouse and I was searching the encyclopedia Encarta comparing the two. It said that donkeys are smaller than most horses. Well that's obvious, but they also live longer, tend to be more sure-footed, can survive in a larger range of conditions and climates, run for longer periods of time, and reproduce faster than horses.
         Now, my roots go down deep in Missouri. Missouri has been historically known for its mules. A mule is a cross between a donkey and a horse, usually an Arabian horse. Mules were used for working the farm because they are much stronger, and all around tougher and hardier than a horse, plus have a longer life span. Unfortunately, the males are usually sterile. There have been only a handful of documented cases where they have been able to reproduce. Sometimes females can be bred to a horse, but not generally.
         My interest in horses, mules and donkeys is not because of my upbringing, but rather because much of the church planting material being produced today talks about planting "horse churches," those which will reproduce, instead of "mule churches," those which will not.
         Most churches are like mules--they don't reproduce. The majority, in fact, never start another church without having to go through a church split. So it is often pointed out that we need to plant horse churches. Those that are fertile and reproductive.
         But what about the other half of the mule, the donkey? Granted, talking about horses conjures up ideas of the wild stallion running free across the plains, gathering his mares and promptly beating down any other that challenges his authority. And talking about donkeys brings thoughts of the plain, ordinary, stubborn or even stupid beasts of burden. It must be this negative imagery that comes with the word "donkey" that explains why we don't talk about planting "donkey churches," because when you start comparing what you are looking for in church planting to horses and donkeys, the donkey wins hands down.
         Lets compare the two for a minute, and I'll explain what I mean. To start with, donkeys are smaller than most horses. This is obvious to even a casual observer, but why would it illustrate a principle in church planting? For one thing it means that they can grow and live with much less care. Just as it takes fewer resources to feed and house a donkey, it takes fewer resources to care for a smaller church, thus allowing more resources to be channeled into the work of the church. Donkeys put out a huge amount of work for their intake, which is another good aspect of their size. Christian Schwarz published the results of a study that included 1000 churches in 32 countries in a book titled Natural Church Growth. The research shows that over a five-year period, smaller churches grew at a faster rate than large ones. In fact, for churches with fewer than 100 people, the ratio was one new believer for every 32 members, but for the mega churches, those with over 1000 members, the ratio was one new believer for every 112. In other words, two churches of 200 would bring more people into the kingdom than one church of 400. Four churches of 100 would bring in more people than two churches of 200. (Schwarz pg. 47-48)
         The second thing about donkeys mentioned above is that they live longer than horses. The longer they live the more work they can do. All churches have a natural life cycle-they are born, they mature, they get old, and eventually die. The longer the church can maintain a healthy life in the community, the more people it has the chance of reaching.
         Part of longevity deals with the third characteristic of donkeys; they can survive in a larger range of conditions and climates than horses. Being able to adapt to changing environment is an essential for church survival and effectiveness. Many churches lose their ability to reach the community and begin to die when the demographics begin to shift. When culture changes, some churches struggle and get stuck in the old way of doing things and cannot adapt to meet the world around them, and they lose their effectiveness.
         One characteristic of donkeys that really surprised me is their great stamina. They can run for much longer periods of time than horses. No, they can not run as fast (although quite fast for their size), but they don't burn out so quickly either. Some donkeys can run for 2 hours straight. Even more important is that they can carry heavy packs for days on end. They have an almost unbelievable endurance. Churches must be able to endure not only hardships and persecution they must also be able to endure the rigors of day in and day out labor carrying the gospel to the world without losing heart or giving up.
         Part of what makes donkeys such great pack animals is that they are surefooted. They can traverse almost any territory, climb mountains and descend steep hills. Whole churches can stumble, not just individuals. One biblical example is the church at Corinth, where Paul had to instruct them to take care of the immorality from within the church. Other examples can be found in the Book of Revelation where entire churches were admonished. The more surefooted a church, the greater number of circumstances it can traverse without stumbling or falling.
         The greatest characteristic of donkeys when compared to horses - they reproduce faster. Female donkeys typically produce a foal every year and can reproduce at an even faster rate. For a horse on the other hand, the gestation period alone is 11 months. Quick reproduction is a quality rarely seen in most churches today. Churches that are planting new churches tend to do it at a very slow pace. What if every Bible-believing and practicing church produced a new church every year?
         I know that few, if any, churches are going to jump on the bandwagon to be called a "donkey church." The negative connotations are just too great. But isn't it better to be a donkey church than a mule church?

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Copyright © 2004 Wayne Garrett