In 1955, Donald McGavran, in his groundbreaking book The Bridges of God, laid out many of the fundamental principles of what would later come to be known as the Church Growth Movement. Among these principles, the most controversial is the homogeneous unit principle (HUP).1 Though he articulated and defended the key ideas underlying it in The Bridges of God, the most succinct and well-known summary of the HUP is that found in McGavran’s Understanding Church Growth: “Men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers.”2
As a sociological observation, though there are certain exceptions to the rule, the general accuracy of the HUP is practically incontrovertible.3 But it is not as a sociological observation that the HUP has elicited such controversy. The pushback has come when the HUP has been promoted not only as an interesting and instructive description of human behavior, but as a prescriptive guide for missionary and church growth strategy. In The Bridges of God, McGavran plainly stated, “The normal clannishness of the new group being discipled must be cheerfully accepted and, indeed, encouraged.”4
While it is evident from his writings that McGavran himself was not personally racist,5 the accusation has been leveled by more than a few critics that the implications of the HUP have been responsible for a de facto racism and failure to live out the unity of the gospel among many groups of Christians around the world. The claim of HUP advocates is that it is a helpful tool for working toward the fulfillment of the Great Commission, and it is evident that McGavran’s principal motivation was indeed that of “discipling the nations” in a more effective manner. Among other developments, McGavran’s articulation of the HUP led to the contemporary emphasis on identifying unreached people groups and targeting them for special evangelistic efforts.6
In their defense of the HUP, the proponents of the Church Growth Movement have been accused of starting with a sociological premise and then seeking a posteriori a theological justification to back it up.7 Though there may be some degree of legitimacy to this accusation, McGavran and his colleagues do attempt to back up their claims with scriptural exegesis. There is some question, however, as to whether McGavran in his defense of the HUP as a missiological principle correctly understood the Great Commission, and whether a prescriptive practice of the HUP in missionary and local church contexts is truly biblical.
McGavran’s Understanding of the Great Commission
The primary scriptural basis adduced for the HUP in the writings of McGavran comes from the use of the phrase matheteusate panta ta ethne (“make disciples of all nations”) in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20. According to Bosch, however, “On the slender basis of the interpretation of Matthew 28:19 as meaning that Jesus commissioned the discipling of separate homogeneous units, the Church Growth movement has erected an imposing superstructure.”8
The Meaning of Ethne
For McGavran, the key component of this passage is the command to disciple the various ethne (or “nations”) of the world, which he understands as referring to ethnic groups rather than to geopolitical nation-states. Though there is not an exact correspondence between the “homogeneous units” of the HUP and the ethne of the Great Commission, the command to disciple the ethne forms the proposed biblical basis of evangelistic and missionary strategies targeting specific homogeneous units.
Wagner, widely credited with taking McGavran’s principles and fleshing out their practical implications for missionary strategy, provides a definition of homogeneous unit that is somewhat flexible and nebulous: “The rationale upon which a homogeneous unit is determined is a group in which people can ‘feel at home.’ They know they are among ‘our kind of people.’”9 McGavran himself, who served for 38 years as a missionary in India, identifies ethne as functionally equivalent to Indian jati or castes.10 He defines a “homogeneous unit” as “a section of society in which all the members have some characteristic in common.”11 He further stipulates that homogeneous unit lines are normally drawn according to socially acceptable lines of intermarriage within a given community.12
The Meaning of Matheteusate
A second key concept underlying McGavran’s understanding of the Great Commission is his definition of the imperative verb matheteusate, alternately translated “teach,” “make disciples,” or “disciple.” In keeping with his understanding of panta ta ethne (“all nations”) as referring to ethnic groups, he postulates that to “disciple” an ethnic group basically means to “Christianize” the society of that ethnic group. Though he does not deny the reality and the necessity of individual conversion, McGavran sees the discipling of ethne as a collective process:
According to the Great Commission, the peoples are to be discipled. Negatively, a people is discipled when the claim of polytheism, idolatry, fetishism or any other man-made religion on its corporate loyalty is eliminated. Positively, a people is discipled when its individuals feel united around Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, believe themselves to be members of His Church, and realize that ‘our folk are Christians, our book is the Bible, and our house of worship is the church.’13
McGavran’s concept of Christianizing the ethne of the world is closely tied to his church growth theories regarding “people movements.” In contrast to the “one-by-one mode” which he claims is more typical of the pattern of evangelization in the West, McGavran claims that, “Across the ages and in all six continents God Himself has caused most first-time decisions from non-Christian faiths to come by way of people movements.”14 Indeed, in his opinion, “Christward movements of peoples are the supreme goal of missionary effort.”15
“Discipling” and “Perfecting”
All this is further complicated by McGavran’s understanding of the Christianization of an ethnic group as a two-stage process, which he describes as consisting of discipling and perfecting: “The removal of distracting divisive sinful gods and spirits and ideas from the corporate life of the people and putting Christ at the centre on the Throne, this we call discipling. Discipling is the essential first stage. Much else must, however, follow.”16 “The second stage in the establishment of a Christian civilization is ‘teaching them all things.’”17
It is this division of the Christianizing process into two stages which paves the way for a comparatively lower degree of expectations with regard to moral and ethical standards for newly “discipled” people groups, including their approach to racial and social-class segregation. HUP proponents in general agree that the ideal toward which Christian discipleship, both on an individual as well as a collective basis, should point is one of full equality and unity across racial, ethnic, and social-class lines. According to McGavran, however, “Jews and Gentiles—or other classes and races who scorn and hate one another—must be discipled before they can be made really one.”18 As a result, it is asking too much to expect people groups to give up their natural proclivities to relating primarily to “people like them” as a requirement for initial discipleship. Growth in that area, according to McGavran, comes later, once people have already embraced Christianity as their religious preference.
(to be continued…)
1. Antonio Carlos Barro, “Unity and Diversity in the Family of God” (Faculdade Teológica Sul Americana Londrina, Paraná, Brazil, 2003), http://www.ediaspora.net/ACB_article3.html.
2. Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Revised ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 223.
3. See, for example, Charles H. Kraft, “An Anthropological Apologetic for the Homogeneous Unit Principle in Missiology,” Occasional Bulletin of Missionary Research 2, no. 4 (October 1978): 122. Edward R. Dayton and David A. Fraser, Planning Strategies for World Evangelization (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 130–31.
4. Donald A. McGavran, The Bridges of God (Revised; New York: Friendship Press, 1981), 130.
5. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 239. C. Peter Wagner, McGavran’s colleague in the Church Growth Movement, and fellow advocate of the HUP, shares his views on racism. See, for example, C. Peter Wagner, Our Kind of People (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979), 153.
6. “McGavran’s understanding of social units paved the way for the growing awareness of the unreached people’s concept, but this concept was developed, set forth, and popularized by Ralph D. Winter.” Kenneth Mulholland, “Donald McGavran’s Legacy to Evangelical Missions,” EMQ 27, no. 1 (January 1991): 64–70.
7. See, for example, C. René Padilla, “The Unity of the Church and the Homogeneous Unit Principle,” in Exploring Church Growth (ed. Wilbert R. Shenk; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 301; George W. Peters, A Theology of Church Growth (Zondervan, 1981), 10; Dayton and Fraser, Planning Strategies for World Evangelization, 130–31.
8. David J. Bosch, “The Structure of Mission: An Exposition of Matthew 28:16–20,” in Exploring Church Growth (ed. Wilbert R. Shenk; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 236.
9. Wagner, Our Kind of People, 75.
10. Donald A. McGavran, Effective Evangelism (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1988), 47.
11. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 85.
12. McGavran, The Bridges of God, 1.
13. Ibid., 14.
14. Donald A. McGavran, Momentous Decisions in Missions Today (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 108. See also McGavran, The Bridges of God, 8–12.
15. McGavran, The Bridges of God, 82. Yoder, however, provides a devastating critique of people movement missiology: “Can there be a ‘Christianization’ of a whole population that is so superficial that they are not really Christian at all? In The Bridges of God, pages 36–40, McGavran is very affirmative about the age of Constantine and Charlemagne, i.e., of the historical Christianization of Europe by the prince. He calls that a people movement. I trust there are people movements that are more valid than that. But how can you tell the difference between a prince saying, ‘now all you people will be baptized,’ and a village collectively deciding in such a way that they say ‘we decided’? If Clovis says, ‘I’m going to have all troops run through the river,’ that’s not a valid decision for baptism. It is not clear how McGavran can tell them apart.” John H. Yoder, “Church Growth Issues in Theological Perspective,” in The Challenge of Church Growth (ed. Wilbert R. Shenk; Missionary Studies No. 1; Scottsdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1973), 42–43. Peters adds the following insightful comment: “It must be admitted, however, that to a great extent this expansion of the form, profession, and name of Christendom has little resemblance to the Christianity defined in the New Testament and the church portrayed in the Book of Acts. In many ways the expansion of Christendom has come at the expense of the purity of the gospel and true Christian order and life. The church has become infested with pagan beliefs and practices, and is syncretistic in theology as evidenced in the larger and ancient branches of Christendom. Large segments have become Christo-pagan.” Peters, A Theology of Church Growth, 24. Olson links McGavran’s theories on people-movement conversion to theological presuppositions rooting in “the baptism regenerationist overtones of his Campbellite background” and his “postmillennialism.” C. Gordon Olson, “What about People-Movement Conversion?,” EMQ 15, no. 3 (July 1979): 133. Ironically, Wagner makes a counter-accusation of denominational bias, insinuating that those who oppose the HUP do so largely in keeping with “the Anabaptist or so-called radical Christian model for doing theology [which insists] that a change in one’s loyalty to culture or society is necessary in order to be an obedient Christian,” and identifies this position as representative of the “Christ against culture” position described in H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture. Wagner, Our Kind of People, 100.
16. McGavran, The Bridges of God, 14.
17. Ibid., 15.
18. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 239.