The homogeneous unit principle

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.

  1. A large city church has started a student congregation.
  2. An African congregation uses the premises of a Baptist church on Sunday afternoons.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. A church leader plans to establish groups along homogenous lines (young couples, families, retired people etc.) which will all meet together on Sundays.
  6. People can log onto a cyber-church to receive teaching and pastoral advice, leave prayer requests and share in discussion fora.
  7. Many local (white) churches greeted the early black immigrants with hostility, telling them to attend ‘your’ church (i.e. local black congregations).
  8. 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.
  9. 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?

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4 thoughts on “The homogeneous unit principle

  1. Dear Tim,
    This is an interesting set of questions/observations. Like most Christians I suppose, I have an intuitive hostility to the idea of a homogeneous church. However, I do repeatedly come across situations where the argument against a homogeneous church/ministry comes from the people who are loving things just the way they are: e.g., the white power-holders in Australian country churches who oppose the setting up of Aboriginal fellowships because they love the expression of unity from black and white worshipping together. Problem is, of course, the same people would never dream of allowing their church meetings to become the sort of 3 hour affairs that Aboriginal Christians expect, complete with country music, altar-calls and multiple sermons. As long as those well-meaning people insist on the expression of unity (on their terms), the work amongst the Aboriginal Christians suffers.
    Just some thoughts from down under.
    Enjoy having Steve McAlpine around–we love him back here!
    Rory Shiner

  2. Hi Tim,
    Surely the norm we should strive for has to be a Christ centred reconciled church made up of all types of people, ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, social standings, etc. Most evangelical churches in the UK seem to be more of the homogenous variety and sadly this is usually traceable to the fact that we like to associate with people just like us and therefore evangelise people just like us. We tend to build our churches in our own image rather than that of the surrounding population wherever God has planted the church.
    My understanding of NT churches is that this was not the case and can be seen in a number of places, but two will suffice here:

    1.Most churches were mixtures of Jews and Gentiles – it would have been much easier to set up separate churches for each group and to avoid the undoubted friction, but the apostles never did. The dispute in Acts 6 about the distribution to the widows of each group could have been settled by forming separate fellowships, but that wasn’t ever viewed as the appropriate solution.

    2. The NT records the conversion of a number of whole ‘households’. I take this to mean the home owner, their family (including old and young), their servents, associated business partners, etc – in other words a ready made church of mixed ages, social classes, etc. My understanding of the NT suggests that this was pretty much the same in most cases we have described.

    There is never any indication that the apostles ever planted churches that were Jew only, Gentile only, rich only, slave only or any other kind of only, because that is not a reflection of the people that God is building his church into.

    This is why I personally struggle with any idea that deliberately chooses to make a church LESS than this. Perhaps it is in our terminology and what we choose to define as a ‘church’ rather than an outreach or missionary endeavour to a particular people group, who are then integrated into a church as quickly as possible. However, I can’t see any really valid argument for having a student church, black church, white church, new Christian’s church, old people’s church, rich people’s church, international’s church, drug addict’s church or any other church based on a sub-section of the population UNLESS their is a genuine practical reason, such as language difference, to justify it (and I’d like to try to overcome that as soon as possible to reflect our ONEness in Christ!).

  3. Tim,

    I have recently bought ‘Understanding Church Growth’ and plan to get Schenk’s book which contains Rene Padilla’s critique of it. I have not seen it on your lists, but would recommend M Ortiz’s ‘One New People.’

    From what I can see, I don’t think the church growth movement has been that influential in the UK (I don’t think I have ever heard any UK evangelical leader mention it – although I believe that the Sydney Anglicans use it ). What is interesting is that without the theory (HUP), we have the practise, influenced more (in my opinion) by the indwelling sins of our dominant culture, rather than the church growth movement. I am sure the HUP would be more influential in the US, where it is my understanding that mega churches (who have often used ‘church growth’ methods ) would in the main be ethnically and socially homogenous. (See Michael Horton’s ‘The Ethnocentricity of the American Church Growth Movement’ and Smith and Emerson ‘Divided by Faith’).

    I think my main problem with the HUP (like Paul) is that it seems to move directly contrary to the teachings of Ephesians 2 etc and something that may ? have been conceived with good intentions (albeit in pragmatism ?), has been used to justify not living out the radical social dimensions of the gospel. In an age of increasing separatism (maybe ???) if the gospel does not unite, we are just left in the West, with individualistic pietism, which I am convinced is not the whole picture of what is taught in scripture. It also seems to me that in the case of dominant culture churches, the HUP enables a way to water down the implications of Ephesians 2 and not to critique the lifestyles and prejudices of people in them, so that the church increasingly reflects the dominant culture and is as you say ‘vulnerable to partiality in ethnic or social conflict’, as well as the sins of the dominant cultures (look at how churches wrongly responded to slavery in the South of the US – when it was in the interests of churches not to critique the practise to upset wealthy church members). Having different sorts of people in our churches is a fantastic way to help us spot the sins we are blind to in our own culture, as well as sanctifying us as we have to relate to and make allowances (as they have to for us) for the different sorts of people in our midst.

    You made the point ‘Homogeneous churches of a socially powerful group are wrong’, well I would also make the point that it is also so for groups, who do not see themselves in this way. Mark Sturge, in his recent book ‘Look what the Lord has done’ (He is from the New Testament Church of God (NTCG), a predominantly Caribbean British church), which uses the HUP to justify their approach to church growth. Whilst I am not sure this would be owned by all their leaders / members, in a similar manner to our white middle class evangelical churches, NTCGs would be fairly ethnically homogenous, when the reality is they are surrounded by very diverse communities.

    I contend then that the HUP is generally a disincentive to the indiscriminate evangelism the NT presents us with, (parable of the sower, Matthew 28 etc) and therefore will not assist us by the grace of God to see the development of Ephesians 2 churches.

    Despite this, I can see no problem with niche outreaches, ie a children’s work etc, but we must seek to bring all (sooner rather than later), into a diverse gathering of God’s people. In the word and sacraments, and fellowship, there are no more powerful ways that the gospel is communicated. If God’s people aren’t going for this and won’t welcome all who come, (‘our church life and evangelism reflect a middle-class culture’ = individualistic = generally unfriendly and inward looking ??) in the same way an outbreak of adulterous affairs, would not go unmentioned from the pulpit, they need to be taught and taught on it, until they get it. But are pastors prepared to grasp the nettle ?

    This is a good discussion to have – it would be interesting to hear from pastors who have genuinely multi ethnic churches (I mean where no one ethnic group is over 80 % of the congregation (see De Young, Emerson etc ‘United by Faith’) and where they also a mixed leadership – which to me seems key), and how they see these issues, and how they got there

    Colin Thomas

  4. Pingback: More thoughts on the Homogeneous Unit Principle « Tim Chester

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