The homogeneous unit principle (HUP) of church growth model argues that “men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers” so why cross them. Crossing these boundaries will inhibit church growth; therefore, churches should stay in similar units. A homogenous unit could be a group that has similar ethnic backgrounds, linguistic backgrounds, vocational similarities, social-economic backgrounds, amount of education, and so on. For the intended work of this paper, the focus will be primarily “ethnic” barriers with all other barriers in the backdrop. Though the observation of HUP is undoubtedly right, the movement from observation to principle is not.
In this work, I would like to demonstrate that the HUP is unbiblical in light of the whole Gospel and must be fought in our methodologies of church growth and church life. Although the principle has been taught for 40 years, it is a reductionist view of the Gospel. We will look at the development of HUP, the biblical evidence for and against HUP with critiques along the way, two test cases to show the fault in principle, followed by a conclusion with reflections for continued thought.
The Homogenous Unit Church Growth Principle History and Critiques
The HUP grew out of the work of Donald McGavran (1897–1990) and the Church Growth movement starting in the mid-1950s. Donald McGavran’s context in developing this principle was his observations in India as a missionary. The principles of church growth then were introduced in the 1970s in the United States in the works The Bridges of God and How Churches Grow Furthermore HUP was more explicitly introduced in works like Ethnic Realities, Our Kind of People, and Understanding Church Growth. It is important to note that the publications of these works were during the height of racial tensions in the United States. Peter Wagner, whom many consider McGavran’s disciple, defined church growth this way,
“all that is involved in bringing men and women who do not have a personal relationship to Jesus Christ into fellowship with Him and into responsible church membership.”
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The four principles that made up the Church growth movement were the following:
(1) God wants His lost sheep found;
(2) Our choice of method must be based on fact;
(3) Pour your resources into winning channels, and
(4) People like to stay with their own people. Let them do so.
This fourth principle is the one we are critiquing in this work. The question that then must be asked after seeing the definition of church growth and the four principles to follow is can one be a “responsible church” member in fellowship with Jesus Christ and follow principle four? This is the question we will seek to answer throughout the rest of the work.
There is an excellent handful of biblical evidence given to support HUP some legitimate and some quite questionable. On the questionable side, McGavran claims that
“nothing in the Bible, for instance, requires that in becoming a Christian a believer must cross-linguistic, racial, and class barriers.”
He makes this claim however with a lack of evidence
This shows to be so and is question begging. McGavran also looks to the strength of the “Jewish caste” as he says,
“As long as Jews could become Christians within Judaism, the Church could and did grow amazing among Jews…When she broke over into the half-breed Samaritans, there is no reason to believe that Christian Jews started to interdine and intermarry with them.”
Once again this is a strong statement that doesn’t fall in line with the biblical evidence of Paul’s epistles and the book of Acts, which will be presented in the biblical evidence section to follow.
On the semi-legitimate side, it is pointed out that Jesus chose 11 Galileans all who spoke Aramaic and the exception is Judas, a Judean who will be replaced by a Galilean named Matthias in Acts 1. So evidently the closest companions of the Lord were not a diverse group. However, is this really the case? Can this been called a homogenous unit and if so can it be built into a model for church growth? Much of the other given biblical support for the HUP is pulled from Jesus ministry.
For example, in Mark 5 where a Gadarenes man is healed of the demoniac, it is argued that Jesus did not let him follow him because he did not fit the Galilee homogeneous unit of the disciples. To make this assumption of the text and the Son of God’s motives behind his words is an awful tricky jump to make with little to no grounds for doing so.
Similarly, it is pointed out that the commissioning of the twelve to preach in Matthew 10 was only to the lost sheep of Israel. The question we must ask is whether this is the HUP in play or prioritizing the Jews because the oracles of God were given to them first. The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is also cited in the handful of given evidence showing that
“no cultural group was required to adopt the Jewish culture upon becoming Christian, but instead were encouraged to continue in their own cultural milieu.”
Church growth throughout the world
Though this statement is true, it seems to ignore the reality that this decision was the goal of unity across these barriers of cultural difference. This handful of evidence seems to be the most substantial evidence given in support of HUP (questionable or not) and will suffice for the length of this work. To see more biblical evidence given by HUP supports see Bruce W. Fong’s work Racial Equality in the Church.
In Ethnic Realities, McGavran demonstrates the HUP in a test case of India which is a context he knows well. In the size of this work, there isn’t space to review McGavran’s test case, but the observation is clear, especially with the caste system of India, that homogenous units indeed are better for “church growth” concerning numbers. Similarly in Wagner’s work Our Kind of People, Wagner uses the United States to illustrate the HUP.
Once again this is not hard to observe as according to sociologist Michael Emerson in 1998 only 7% of church bodies were multiethnic and in 2010 14%. Though there has been some growth, homogeneous bodies far outweigh the number of heterogeneous bodies. The question remains this helpful or harmful? Can one be a “responsible church” member in fellowship with Jesus Christ while maintaining the dividing walls created by the culture? To flesh out these questions, I would like to provide a test case showing that “church growth” in homogenous units does not equal sanctified united believers or even “brotherhood in the future.”
Test Case 1: Rwanda Genocide
In 1994 “within a period of less than one hundred days, more than 800,000 Rwandans were killed by fellow Rwandans…the majority of the killings were carried out by ordinary Rwandans against their neighbors using machetes, sticks, and clubs with nails.” Most of those “killed, raped, and mutilated during those 100 days were members of the minority Tutsi ethnic group -the rest were moderate Hutus who advocated peaceful coexistence with their Tutsi neighbors.” At this same time it is estimated that the country of Rwanda was close to 90% Christian, arguably the most Christian country in Africa. How could such a horrific genocide happen in a nation that is nearly all Christian? The answer, unfortunately, is the outplaying of the HUP theory (intentional or not).
According to Octave Ugirashebuja, the “White Fathers” (Peres Blancs)
“felt compelled to choose the ethnic group with whom they would collaborate…In 1910, the 4500 Christians in Rwanda were largely Hutus, and the seminarians preparing for the Catholic priesthood also were Hutus.”
The church then was created while maintaining this division and these division results were shown in 1994. It must also be noted that the “racialization” of Rwanda and the West is a modern phenomenon and unfortunately the western church had a strong influence on “racializing” Rwanda. After examining this case we must ask ourselves again, can one be a “responsible church” member in fellowship with Jesus Christ while maintaining the dividing walls created by the culture? The answer according to Rwanda has to be an emphatic no. It is clear that in homogeneous bodies it is easy to attach our social and political ideologies to our Christian faith even when they cannot fit together, as seen unfortunately in Rwanda.
Biblical Evidence against HUP and for “Barrier-Breaking” Church Bodies
When looking at the biblical evidence for what I am calling “barrier-breaking” church bodies and evidence against HUP the first place we must turn is Ephesians 2:11–22. When writing about HUP and Ephesians 2, Dr. Bruce Fong puts it this way,
“On the surface [HUP] appears to be reasonable; but, it fails to adequately address the basic biblical principle stated for example in Ephesians 2 or in a theology that adequately portrays Christ.”
After closely examining the text his statement holds true that if we are to listen to Ephesians 2:11–22, HUP has no place in our church growth strategies. Ephesians 2:11–22 can be broken down into three parts:
(1) A recalling of the Gentiles history in relation with God and their new relation with God in being brought near in the blood of Christ (11–13);
(2) Jesus has brought horizontal and vertical peace breaking down the dividing wall of hostility and making “one new man” who has access to the Father (14–18); And (3) the consequences of this new union made in Christ (19–22).
In brief, in the first section of the passage, the Gentiles past situation is laid out as the people being in a desperate place far from God.
The Gentiles were:
(1) “separate from Christ” with no hope of redemption; (2) “excluded from citizenship in Israel” being strangers and aliens called the “uncircumcision”; and (3) they were “aliens to the covenants of promise.” However, now something new has been established.
In section two this “new thing” is revealed as a “new humanity” created by the destroying of the barrier of hostility. This dividing wall of hostility “represents the enmity that exists between Jews and Gentiles.” This new humanity called the Christians, though still each holding their cultural uniqueness in some manner leaves the enmity and hostility behind. Fong interestingly points out the logical flow of the passage has reconciliation to each other (Jew and Gentile) happening first before reconciliation to God. Reconciliation to God happens in the context of an already reconciled people. This reality is a huge blow to those holding HUP as a valid church growth method. Though they would acknowledge unity is needed their delay in unity in the present reality should raise many questions.
The third section then wraps it all up showing that the Gentiles are now part of “God’s household” as Jews and Gentiles are brought together making a new humanity. Paul’s metaphor switches to describing a building/temple in which Christ is the cornerstone, the apostles and prophets are the foundation and this “one new man” is the rest, being indwelled corporately by the Spirit, similar to God’s presence in the temple of the old covenant.
Bruce Fong hits the nail on the head when coming to concluding remarks concerning this next and the HUP. He writes:
“It is clear from this text that segregation in the church is an indefensible position. As well, genocide is equally an unacceptable extreme. Nor is there an allowance made for some delayed post-salvation union with the new humanity. Instead, at the point of conversion, there is a new level of spiritual being where all mean with their differences are elevated into a common brotherhood. Therefore, it seems highly contradictory to build churches on the principle of racial, cultural or linguistic differences and hope that they will, later on, convert into the picture of unity that Christ completed at the cross.”
Fong’s statement and Ephesians 2:11–22 seem to defend the “barrier-breaking” church body I am suggesting as the needed norm and biblical church, but the biblical evidence goes much further than this. In a work of this length, it will be helpful to point out other strong biblical passages to support my proposal. First, you can look at Galatians 3:28 where barriers are no longer in place and unity in Christ is established. Those who hold the HUP acknowledge this passage teaches the unity of the Church across barriers of ethnic, gender, and socio-economic lines but they would say it is the “ideal” church and not real in this life. This reading, however, ignores the fact Paul was dealing with reality and not merely an ideal state. Nowhere is it indicated that this is merely an ideal. Paul was working with real flesh and blood people. The dividing walls have been broken down by Christ, and the church should never put them back up. The failure to pursue unity and idealize it is simply disobedience. Similarly, you can look at Colossians 3:11 which lines up with both Ephesians 2:11–22 and Galatians 3:28.
Second, you can look beyond Paul’s epistles to the book of Acts where the Church is moving far beyond the barriers of Judaism. For instance, look to Acts 10 where Peter going to the Italian centurion Cornelius and his family receives the Gospel, and the Holy Spirit indwells them. Peter not only preached the Gospel to them but lodge with them for a few days which is breaking the barriers of Judaism by “interdineing” with Gentiles. You can also look at all three missionary journeys that went out to the Gentiles across various barriers of people groups. In Acts 15 the church makes a statement at the Jerusalem Council that the church is of all people and they deny the temptation to make this a “Jewish thing.” Jesus himself in the Gospel crosses various boundaries even though he preached mainly to Jews. For instance look at the story of the Samarians woman at the well in John 4. To uphold HUP would also deny the Kingdom vision of Revelation 7. The Biblical evidence is plentiful calling us to make “barrier-breaking” church bodies.
The Need for the Multi-Ethnic, Multi-Class, Multi-Generational, Multi-Gender Church
At this point in the work, it should be evident that the HUP theory of church growth needs to be questioned. Beyond that, the test case and biblical evidence should cause us to question why our churches (if they are) are homogeneous. It some case they are homogeneous units because of the surrounding community, but this is not the case as much as we would like. According to sociologist Michael Emerson’s research, most communities surrounding local churches are ten times more diverse than the church bodies, and the schools in those same communities are twenty times more diverse. So, I repeat, the question must be asked why do I churches not reflect the communities they are in.
Much of the reason is our history of division and our willingness to allow the world to define the boundaries. Though many cannot be called “racist” per se, we all find some comfort within these boundaries created. However, if we would step beyond these categories the world has put on us and live as the Church Christ has created as one new humanity, we would indeed be liberated. If we do not intentionally fight the homogeneous unit principle of church growth, it will continue to divide us even if the division is not intentional. Though there is much work to be done and many questions to be answered, there is hope in Jesus. In Christ, the walls of hostility have been broken down, and we can be a part of the new humanity or might I say true humanity. Church, don’t build up the walls that Christ has already broken down.