The following notes were part of my lecture on Ephesians 3 – an attempt to correlate the biblical text with contemporary missiological issues. In fact we did not get much time for the homogenous init principles ebcause we got into a long discussion on the nature of the heavenly realms.
Which of the following are legitimate? What biblical principles allow us to determine which are legitimate and which is not? Which are church? They are all real examples.
- A large city church has started a student congregation.
- An African congregation uses the premises of a Baptist church on Sunday afternoons.
- A church in Wales which has two congregations which meet in the same premises at the same time – one using English, the other using Welsh.
- A church leader has started a congregation that meets in the school hall at 3.30 pm on Monday afternoons in order to reach mothers and their children.
- A church leader plans to establish groups along homogenous lines (young couples, families, retired people etc.) which will all meet together on Sundays.
- People can log onto a cyber-church to receive teaching and pastoral advice, leave prayer requests and share in discussion fora.
- Many local (white) churches greeted the early black immigrants with hostility, telling them to attend ‘your’ church (i.e. local black congregations).
- An Christian organisation in Bristol has started a church for prostitutes and drug addicts who have been converted through their work. They say that integrating them into the largely middle-class sponsoring church would involve too great a cultural leap.
- An evangelist is starting a ‘walkers church’ – a monthly hike with Christian meditations en route.
Donald A. McGavran (1897-1990) was a third generation missionary to India. He become concerned about the lack of conversions seen by his mission agency over a fifty year period, despite a large investment of personnel and finances. So he devoted himself to the study of the factors that lead to church growth. He became universally acknowledged as ‘the father of church growth movement’. He was the founding dean on the School of Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.
McGavran asks the question: ‘How do peoples become Christians?’ Note the plural ‘peoples’. At one point he states the question thus: ‘How, in a manner true to the Bible can a Christward movement be established in some caste, tribe or clan which will, over a period of years, so bring groups of its related families to Christian Faith that the whole people is Christianised in a few decades?’ Notice that the question is:
- concerned with ethnic identities
- assumes the question can be answered with sociological research
- assumes a correlation between inputs and outputs
He observes that Western individualism means Western missionaries often ignore group processes:
Among those who think corporately only a rebel would strike out alone, without consultation and without companions. The individual does not think of himself as a self sufficient unit, but as a part of the group. His business deals, his children’s marriages, his personal problems, or the difficulties he has with his wife are properly settled by group thinking. People become Christian as this group-mind is brought into a life-giving relationship to Jesus as Lord’ (p. 12)
So to Christianise a whole people we must not snatch individuals from that people group. ‘People becomes Christians when a Christward movements occurs within that society.’ (p. 11) McGavran postulates that Paul’s strategy was to work through people groups. ‘He followed up groups of people who had living relations in the people Movement to Christ’. (p. 33)
In some ways The Bridges of God is in the tradition of Roland Allen. McGavran contrasts peoples movements favourably with a mission station (or gathered colony) approach. We should not take people out of their social group or cultural context. Like Roland Allen, he sees this as a form of racism in which indigenous people are not trusted unless they are first Westernised. It is call for indigenous mission and churches.
But McGavran goes further. In The Bridges of God he states: ‘People become Christian fastest when least change of race or clan is involved’. In Understanding Church Growth (1970, 3rd Ed. 1990), which he co-wrote with C. Peter Wagner, this observation has become the ‘Homogeneous Unit Principle’. Empirical evidence, they argue, ‘people like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers’. As a result homogenous churches grow fastest. Homogeneous churches are those in which all the members are from a similar social, ethnic or cultural background. People prefer to associate with people like themselves – ‘I like people like me’. And so we should create homogenous churches to be effective in reaching people.
McGavran’s analysis was largely based on rural mission where neighbourhoods (villages) are usually fairly cultural homogenous. He was observing how groups are transformed by the gospel. The transference of cultural homogeneity to urban contexts were neighbourhoods are not culturally homogenous becomes more problematic.
The main criticism of the homogenous unit principle is that it denies the reconciling nature of the gospel and the church. It weakens the demands of Christian discipleship and it leaves the church vulnerable to partiality in ethnic or social conflict. It has been said that ‘the homogenous unit principles is fine in practice, but not in theory’!
Yet most churches are homogenous to some extent. People choose churches on the basis of worship-style, denominational allegiance, theological emphasis and even cultural background. As soon as you choose to operate in one language you have created an homogenous group.
The result of this in the UK has been to leave significant sectors of the population untouched by the gospel. British evangelicalism is largely middle-class. Our evangelism revolves around our friendships so excluding those outside our circle of acquaintance. More significantly still, our church life and evangelism reflect a middle-class culture. Homogeneous groups do seem to be effective in evangelism, but they are by definition exclusive rather than inclusive.
Should we then establish groups or plant churches that target those otherwise marginalised by our churches (for example, a church for drug users)? Or does this perpetuate the failure to take seriously the reconciling nature of the cross that was the problem in the first place? Should we work harder at reconciliation and establish churches that reflect heterogeneous cultures and sub-cultures?
Here are some possible ways forward:
1. Some people have argued that homogeneity is a principle of mission while reconciliation is a principle of church. Homogeneous groups are valid when they are in the context of mission, but as people are converted and discipled they must be integrated into a church which is diverse in character. Is a weakness of this approach the strong distinction it makes between mission and church – a distinction which struggles to do justice to the essential missionary nature of the church?
2. The churches of the New Testament may have been networks of household churches. It is possible that these household churches were fairly homogeneous (reflecting the homogeneous nature of their social connections). Nevertheless, the reconciling nature of the gospel found expression in the city-wide identity of these household churches. This structure allowed the apostolic churches to express both homogeneity and transcultural and ethnic reconciliation. McGavran and Wagner says: The biblical teaching is plain that in Christ two peoples become one. Christian Jews and Gentiles become one new people of God, part of the one body of Christ. But the one body is complex. Since both peoples continue to speak separate languages, does not the oneness cover a vast and continuing diversity.’
3. Homogeneous churches of a socially powerful group are wrong – the church should be a reconciled community that includes all, especially the socially marginalised. But planting churches targeted at marginalised groups is legitimate in order to prevent that social marginalisation being replicated within the church. If there were a ‘level playing field’ the socially dominant culture would also dominate in the church. One UK Tearfund partner said: ‘When middle-class people come in they destroy the confidence of my people just by the state of their hair.’
The issue is accentuated by modern life. Traditionally a congregation was defined by two things that they held in common – the gospel and their locality. But many urban people live in dormitory suburbs in which they do little more than sleep. There is little sense of neighbourhood. Community is defined in other ways – overlapping communities of work, family, leisure and shared interest. If community and geography are diverging which road should the church follow? If the community of people with whom I work is more significant to me that the community among whom I live, why not have a church of my work place? If community is defined by common interest rather than common location then why not interest-group churches? And where do the limits lie? If I can be part of a virtual community on the internet then why not be part of a virtual internet church? Or should we develop ‘matrix churches’ in which neighbourhood expressions of church co-exist with other expressions of Christian community. Could I belong to a workplace ‘church’ and a local church?