A Biblical Evaluation of the Homogeneous Unit Principle, Part 3

Other Biblical and Theological Considerations

In addition to one’s interpretation of the Great Commission, there are a number of other biblical and theological considerations that have a bearing on the legitimacy of the HUP as a missionary strategy.

God’s Plan for Diversity and the Tower of Babel

Proponents of the HUP argue that ethnic and cultural diversity has been a part of God’s plan for mankind from the beginning. Wagner maintains that the scattering of humanity into different language groups at Babel should not be understood merely as God’s punishment for building a tower unto heaven without taking him into account, but as God’s means for forcefully redirecting humanity toward his original intention of linguistic and cultural diversity. Other interpreters, however, disagree with this interpretation, focusing on the dispersion of humanity into different linguistic groups as a negative consequence of their sin. [31]

Homogeneity and the Old Testament

It is clear that throughout the bulk of the Old Testament, cultural homogeneity on the part of God’s people is generally regarded as a good thing. Israel is repeatedly commanded to keep themselves pure from the pagan customs of the people surrounding them. Glimmers of cultural diversity as a positive characteristic of the people of God are usually only hinted at through the lens of prophecy looking forward to a future dispensation. With only a few isolated exceptions, any reference to Gentiles becoming a part of the people of God was by way of assimilating, as proselytes, into the Jewish culture and way of life.

Homogeneity and the Ministry of Jesus

In the New Testament, Jesus’ earthly ministry, while directed mainly toward the “lost sheep of Israel” (Matt 10:5–7; 15:24), serves, in many respects, as a transitional bridge to the new dispensation in which there was to be no distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free, or male and female (Gal 3:28). There are, nevertheless, some poignant moments in Jesus’ earthly ministry that point toward the impending future soon to be incarnated in the Church which impinge upon the theological discussion with regard to the HUP.  “Jesus declared, ‘Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?”’ (Mark 11:17). The author of Mark understood that the last four words of that quote from Isaiah—for all the nations—summed up what caused the religious leaders to fear Jesus and look for a way to kill him (11:18).” [32]

Homogeneity and the New Testament Church

It is primarily with regard to the emergence of the New Testament Church, however, that the discussion on the theological basis of the HUP must be centered. Indeed, the ecclesiological vision articulated by Paul makes clear that the Church is to be regarded as a “new humanity,” a third category of people that is neither completely Jewish or Gentile. Yoder elucidates:

It is not the case that Judaism as a whole has accepted Christianity nor that Gentilism as a whole has accepted Christianity, even in one place. To think of ethnic units existing and acting ‘as a whole’ is pre-gospel. The gospel divides them. Some Jews believe, but many do not. Some Gentiles believe though many do not. Together those who believe form the new humankind (Eph 2:15). What has happened is the creation of a new socio-history which is neither Jew nor Greek, or is both Jew and Greek (you can say it either way as Paul does). The reality is so new that the words Paul uses for it are new creation (not only in II Corinthians but also in Galatians) and new humanity. In none of these usages (new creation, new humanity) is the new thing Paul is talking about an individual. But neither is he talking about an existing ethnic group. He is talking about a new group which is so much like an ethnic group that it can be called a nation or a people, but whose constitutive definition is that it is made up of both kinds or many kinds of people. [33]

If Yoder’s understanding is correct (and evidently, at least on the points covered in the preceding quote, it is), it will be helpful to think through how this spiritual reality was expressed in practical ways in the New Testament Church.

It is significant, and quite likely instructive, to note that on the Day of Pentecost the initial setting in which the Holy Spirit was poured out and the Church was born was a multicultural, multilingual one. While it appears the initial diversity of the group at Jerusalem was relatively limited in scope, consisting of ethnic Jews and Gentile proselytes, even a cursory reading of the book of Acts makes clear that the cultural diversity of the universal Church was meant to extend far beyond these initial parameters. Though it is not possible to know the ethnic, cultural, and social makeup of the membership of each local church, there is ample evidence to suggest that this diversity was generally manifested on a local as well as a global basis.

Early on, in the Jerusalem church, conflicts arose that largely centered on cultural and linguistic differences. The solution, however, was not to form separate congregations, but to work toward a consensus in which the interests of all were taken into account (Acts 6:1–7). When Cornelius and his family came to faith, nothing is said of forming a Gentile church in Caesarea (Acts 10, 11:1–18). Antioch was apparently a multicultural church with a multicultural leadership team (Acts 13:1). Paul worked with a multicultural traveling apostolic band (Acts 20:4).

Yet Paul adapted his evangelistic approach when preaching to different cultural groups. He preached in synagogues to both Jews and God-fearing Gentiles (Acts 13:5, 14–16, 26; 14:1; 17:1–4, 10–12, 17; 18:4–5, 19; 19:8). In Ephesus, in the Hall of Tyrannus, he conducted his work in such a way that both Jews and Greeks heard the gospel (Acts 19:10; 20:21). When rejected by the Jews, he specifically turned to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46; 18:6; 19:9). He contextualized his message to a particular people group segment when he preached at Mars Hill.

Padilla, however, emphasizes the fact that Jews and Greeks were generally evangelized together, not separately. [34] He also takes the implications of this assumption one step further:

It would be ridiculous to suggest that Jews and Gentiles heard the gospel together in the synagogues, but then those who believed were instructed to separate into segregated house churches for the sake of the expansion of the gospel. Such a procedure would have been an open denial of apostolic teaching concerning the unity of the church. It would have also meant that the door of the church was made narrower than the door of the synagogue, where Jews and Gentiles could worship together. The suggestion is so farfetched that it can hardly be taken seriously. [35]

Wagner, however, dares to make just such a suggestion. [36] And he is willing to stake his defense of the HUP upon his assertion: “What were the precise sociological lines along which church growth actually took place under Jesus and the apostles? The validity of the homogeneous unit principle may stand or fall on the answer to that question.” [37]

In order to support his presuppositions, Wagner resorts to speculation: “Thus, while local congregations in Antioch were very likely established within particular homogeneous units, the leadership of the church as a whole included representatives of several different racial and regional groups, all of whom probably came from outside Antioch itself.” [38] Various commentators have concluded, however, that from the evidence available, it is far more likely that New Testament congregations tended to be at least as culturally and socially diverse as the local setting in which they were found. [39]

An important milestone in the development of cultural diversity within the fledgling Christian movement was the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). While a logical option for the apostles and elders gathered to give voice to their collective opinion regarding the incorporation of Gentiles into the up-to-that-point primarily Jewish Christian movement may well have been to suggest the segregation of Gentile and Jewish believers into separate congregations, it does not appear that was an option that was ever even considered. [40]

One of the most powerful examples of the significance of ethnic integration found in the history of the New Testament Church is the encounter between Paul and Peter (or “Cephas”) narrated by Paul in Galatians 2:11–14. It is especially noteworthy that when Paul “opposed him to his face,” it was because he and Barnabas “were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.” Schnabel explains:

Paul insists that Peter and Barnabas and the other Jewish believers in the church in Antioch must continue to fellowship and worship in the same church as Gentile Christians do, which includes eating meals together. In other words, Paul expects the Jewish believers—whether veteran leaders such as Peter or new Jewish converts—to belong to the same local congregation as the Gentile Christians do. [41]

It is quite clear that for Paul the matter of racial and ethnic reconciliation was not an advanced level elective in the school of Christian discipleship, but rather, part of the core curriculum.

Homogeneity and Paul’s Theology of Reconciliation

Several passages in which Paul explains his theology of reconciliation help to confirm this assertion. Ephesians 2:11–21, analyzing the effects of the blood of Christ with regard to the separation between Jews and Gentiles, states that through his crucifixion, Christ “has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,” and speaks of them as forming “one body” composed of “fellow citizens” and “members of his household.” Romans 3:22, 1 Corinthians 10:32, 1 Corinthians 12:13, 2 Corinthians 5:16–21, Galatians 3:28, and Colossians 3:11 all emphasize the gospel significance of the eradication of differences between Jews and Gentiles. Schnabel, a leading evangelical authority on the theology and missionary ministry of Paul, concludes: “Paul’s emphasis on the unity of a local congregation in which Jews, proselytes, God-fearers and Greek and Romans who have come to faith in Jesus Christ live and learn and worship together proceeds from the foundational significance of the missionary message he preaches.” [42] In spite of all this evidence, however, Wagner makes the incredible claim that “to the end of his career [Paul] taught that people need not cross racial, linguistic, or class barriers in order to become Christians. He was the first-century champion of the homogeneous unit principle.” [43]

Homogeneity and Revelation

A final biblical passage that has a bearing on the question of the HUP is the celestial vision of Revelation 7:9–10 of “a great multitude . . . from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb,” and worshiping God. Independent of the view one takes regarding the more controversial aspects of biblical eschatology, it appears clear that this vision corresponds to that of “the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven” referenced in Hebrews 12:22–24, which serves as the model for present-day earthly expressions of the eternal, universal Church, as manifested in local congregations. Though ethnic, social, and linguistic differences are still recognizable, redeemed representatives of each “homogeneous unit” come together as one in order to lift a harmonious chorus of praise to the Lamb who by his blood has reconciled them to God and to each other.


[31] Harvie M. Conn, “Looking For a Method: Backgrounds and Suggestions,” in Exploring Church Growth (ed. Wilbert R. Shenk; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 90–91.

[32] DeYoung et al., United by Faith, 19.

[33] Yoder, “The Social Shape of the Gospel,” 282–83. On this point, see also Manuel Ortiz, One New People (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 130; Costas, The Church and Its Mission: A Shattering Critique from the Third World, 128; Bosch, “The Structure of Mission: An Exposition of Matthew 28:16-20,” 239–40; Padilla, “The Unity of the Church and the Homogeneous Unit Principle,” 287.

[34] Padilla, “The Unity of the Church and the Homogeneous Unit Principle,” 295.

[35] Ibid., 296.

[36] “The context in which Paul writes . . . however, was not one of mixtures of Hebrews and Hellenists, Jews and Greeks, Egyptians and Parthians in the same local house churches. Rather, the Christian churches of the first century, as we have seen, did develop along homogeneous unit lines just as they have for nineteen centuries afterward.” Wagner, Our Kind of People, 129.

[37] Ibid., 109.

[38] Ibid., 125.

[39] See, for example, Padilla, “The Unity of the Church and the Homogeneous Unit Principle,” 300; Eckhard J. Schnabel, Paul the Missionary (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2008), 408. Wayne McClintock, “Sociological Critique of the Homogeneous Unit Principle,” International Review of Mission 77, no. 305 (January 1988): 108. Frederick W. Norris, “Strategy for Mission in the New Testament,” in Exploring Church Growth (ed. Wilbert R. Shenk; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 271; DeYoung et al., United by Faith, 30.

[40] Padilla, “The Unity of the Church and the Homogeneous Unit Principle,” 294–95.

[41] Schnabel, Paul the Missionary, 407.

[42] Ibid., 406. See also 408, 412.

[43] Wagner, Our Kind of People, 136.


  1. Dave Miller says

    The arguments for homogeneity seem to me to be a concept in search of support from scripture, rather than a concept drawn from scripture.

    Interesting arguments, though.

    • David Rogers says

      As you can probably tell, I am not a big fan of Wagner’s exegesis in Our Kind of People. I wonder if any if our HUP advocates reading with us here have read Wagner on this and if they think he represents the best biblical arguments in favor of the HUP. Maybe there are other biblical arguments they think are better. If so, I’d be interested to hear them.

      After this post, we get into practical application.

      • David Rogers says

        As a side point, it is interesting to me to observe the development of Wagner’s ideas down through the years. I have followed with interest and read much of what he has written on various topics. It seems he started (after his missionary career in Bolivia) primarily as a leading proponent of the Church Growth Movement. No doubt, many of his observations related to this (especially from a sociological perspective) are valid and at times useful. Then, he began to write about spiritual gifts, and what we as “conservative evangelicals” can learn from Pentecostals and Charismatics. Though there were a few “seeds” to spit out here and there, I think he had some good thoughts and “watermelon” worth eating in this phase as well. Then, he began to get off into spiritual warfare and territorial spirits. Though I still think there are some interesting and sometimes helpful ideas in what Wagner has to say in this area–emphasizing the importance of prayer and spiritual warfare–there were even more “seeds” to spit out, and less good “watermelon” to eat. More recently, in my opinion, he has gone way off course and over the top with his defense of the New Apostolic Reformation. It is sad to me to watch his development. I think there are a lot of helpful things that can be gleaned from his writing down through the years. But he, in my opinion, has not ended well.

    • Doug Hibbard says

      Overall, it feels like the HUP idea is a case where “This works, so let’s see if we can make it ok to do it.”

      The justifications I have heard for intentionally developing a church along the HUP have always been a two-stage argument. It goes like this: we are commanded to reach people with the Gospel (which we tend to all agree with); homogeneity is a faster way to reach people; therefore homogeneity is not only acceptable but commanded.

      It’s not really a Biblical justification–and I’m inclined to think the secondary premise that “homogeneity is a faster way to reach people” is not valid in the argument. It may be that Western-style statistics support that, but Biblical discipleship does not.

      • David Rogers says

        Doug, Precisely. And I would add that, once we “reach” them, we must ask ourselves if it is truly the biblical gospel we have reached them with. The ultimate goal (or, as the IMB calls it, “end vision”) of our missionary efforts, as I understand the Scripture, is not establishing congregations among every people group, or numerical church growth, but rather the “building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12–13).

  2. Roger Simpson says

    My own personal experience in the USA suggests that the suitability of “targeted marketing” [aka HUP] likely depends upon the whether the church unit under consideration is an existing congregation or a new church plant.

    So far, in this series of discussion, I have not noticed much mention of what difference, if any, it would make if there was already an existing church. Implicit in the HUP principle, as I understand it [I have read Wagner’s book, but not all the other books on this topic] is that the idea of “targeted marketing” only applies to new church plants. I don’t recall any worked out examples in the literature that show something like the following hypothetical case:

    First Baptist Church of Podunk is a county seat church in Texas. This church has not experienced growth in at least a decade. [Could this be because the population of the county has dropped from 30,000 in the 1950 census to 18,000 in the 2010 census] . It was determined to change the style of the service to be more relevant to the younger generation. The average age of the congregation has increased in the last 15 years so obviously the church is on a path towards extinction. The church adopted a style that is attractive to the “younger generation” including different music. The overall attendance at the church continued to slowly decline after adopting the new “targeted marketing”.

    The scenario I’ve described above is hypothetical. However, it mirrors the situation in tons of SBC churches today. What is the “problem”? Is it because other new churches sprung up to reach a younger target before the older established church could gear up to the challenge? If so, then was the older church’s change was too little too late? Or was it because, the older church suffered collateral damage implementing the change due to reduced attendance from existing members that was not offset by gains due to new, and younger, members? O was the problem due to demographic changes that had nothing to do with “marketing”?

    My own personal observations of Baptist Churches here in the USA is that all of the above factors are in play.

    Is there an argument that shows the HUP works in the USA in churches that are at least 50 years old in areas where the population is declining?

    The reality of the situation is that in many states in the USA we are seeing a bifurcation of growth. Here in Oklahoma there are 77 counties. Between 1952 and 2005 the 43 “urban counties” have experienced growth. This growth has ranged from 520% to 102% — 100% represents no growth. The 34 “rural counties” have experienced shrinkage ranging from 98% to 38%. There are 15 counties in Oklahoma where the population is 2/3 or less today than it was in the 1950s. In Tillman, Greer, Grant, Roger Mills, and Harmon counties the population has decreased by a factor of 2 or 3.

    I don’t think the only reason that churches are shrinking is due to failure to keep up with the latest cultural trends in terms of worship style.

    This population bifurcation — between growth areas and areas of population decline is happening in virtually all of the states between the Rockies and the Appalachians. I have not done this research on every such state but the for the ones I’ve looked at TX, OK, KS, AR, MS, MO, IA this bifurcation holds.

    It would be interesting to see if this same condition applies to the deep south: GA, MS, AL. My guess is that it probably does.

    • David Rogers says

      Roger, Thanks for helping us tease out some of the implications of all this further. As I understand you, you are talking about the pragmatic validity of the HUP in the specific contexts you mention. In my first post (Part 1), I said, “As a sociological observation, though there are certain exceptions to the rule, the general accuracy of the HUP is practically incontrovertible.” The situation you are pointing to here may well be one of the exceptions I allude to. In this paper (and these posts) I am not so interested, though, in analyzing the sociological and pragmatic validity of the HUP as I am the biblical basis and the implications of following what the Bible has to teach us regarding this.

      The whole question of “Worship Wars” and how they tie into church growth theory is an interesting question that is well worth discussing. I mention worship styles very briefly in my upcoming Part 5, which will be the final post on this topic. Personally, I think that, in all we do in church, we need to take care to be as inclusive as possible with regard to demographic differences in the community in which we minister. This can be much more complicated than it sounds, though. We each have our personal sense of aesthetic and of what seems good or appropriate or edifying. I believe we all, both young and old, country folk, and high-brow classical people, rappers and rockers, need to pay special attention here to what Paul wrote in Phil. 2:3-4: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

  3. William Carpenter says

    David, I’m one of the lurkers in weeds that comes to read but rarely comment. I have long been critical of HUP. Does not the NT indicate that the Church transcends culture, Col. 3:11? And does this truth not result in 1) the Gospel must break through cultural barriers, 2) when one becomes saved they do not have to join a correct culture (i.e. Jerusalem Council, Gentiles do not have to become Jews), 3) local churches reflecting the Church should not allow cultural barriers to hinder the fellowship of believers.

    I have been intrigued as I’ve read your articles. Thanks for your insight.

    • David Rogers says

      William, Thanks for reading and for popping up here out of “lurkers land.” Yes, you are following me correctly here. I agree completely with everything you say here.

      • William Carpenter says

        Thanks David. Since I am out of the weeds, let me venture out a little and ask two more questions for those who are NT scholars here.
        1) Gal. 2:14 – “But when I saw that they were not walking straight according to the truth of the gospel.” In Paul’s dispute with Peter is this a Jew specific issue concerning salvation by grace through faith whereby some are uplifting circumcision, or is the problem more general of separating between Jew and Gentile. In other words is Paul accusing Peter of not walking according to the truth of the gospel because they are making something of circumcision, or is he not walking because he is not recognizing the unity of the body, Jew and Gentile?
        I ask this because it has gospel implications. If it is the second, then are we not in danger of misrepresenting the gospel (not living/walking according the gospel) when we divide ourselves up into churches of “people like me”?
        2) A few years ago at a pastors conference church unity came up (unity within the local church and unity between churches). In the discussion a link was made between the death of Paul and the desire for unity of the larger body of Christ. That link followed this logic.
        -Paul in Ephesus desires to show solidarity between the more Gentile churches of the West and the more Jewish churches of the Judea.
        -Paul, desiring continue to Rome and then Spain, takes a detour to collect an offering among the churches of the West to be presented to the church in Judea.
        -Paul is told along the trip that his return to Jerusalem will result in his arrest.
        -Upon arriving in Jerusalem Paul is advised by the elders to join with four others in going to the temple to fulfill a vow, thus showing that Paul himself is not leaving Judaism. It was at the temple when Paul was arrested which led to his presentation before Caesar.
        Our thinking followed this principle: Paul knowing full well that his going to Jerusalem will result in his arrest could have at any time determined to head on to Rome or not go to the temple once he got to Jerusalem. Instead his desire for unity between the Gentile and Jewish branches of the church led him to continue on eventually to his arrest and martyrdom. Is our thinking out of line, or have we misunderstood some of Paul’s motives in these passages?
        Again thanks for your feedback.

        • David Rogers says

          William, Excellent observations. I think that indeed Gal. 2:14 is a key reference in all of this. Though it may seem like a thin line between something that is not a consistent application of the gospel and something that cuts at the very core of the essence of the gospel, I think it is an important question. My personal view is that the view Paul was confronting here in Gal. 2:14, is, at the very least, something that is not a consistent application of the gospel. I don’t think he is at the point of personally anathematizing Peter and Barnabas–that would be pretty extreme, wouldn’t it? But, when taken in the context of what he has already said in Gal. 1:6-9, it does at least cause one to entertain the question.

          Though I have not studied enough on the New Perspective of Paul from Sanders, Wright, et al., to have a valid opinion on their view, I have dabbled enough in it to posit that they likely have some pointed views with regard to the questions you pose here. My personal tendency, based on the little I have dabbled in all this, is to side with Piper (and others like him) in their response to Wright, et al. But, once again, others more versed in all this would need to weigh in here.

          That being said, it does seem to me that the group of pastors you reference in your point 2 did come to a reasonable and seemingly correct conclusion with regard to Paul and his motives for going to Rome. And I think the point you are making here is indeed significant and supports the overarching thesis I am arguing for in my posts. Thanks for your input.

  4. Roger Simpson says


    I admit I’m looking through the lens of “pragmatism”. So I’m guilty as charged. I may have only been looking at this discussion as a one dimensional problem — namely “pragmatism” — i.e. does HUP (what I call “targeted marketing” work). The additional dimension is: is HUP Biblical?

    So we have a two dimensional grid:

    HUP Biblical – HUP Works | HUP Biblical – HUP does not work
    HUP Not Biblical – HUP Works | HUP Not Biblical – HUP does not work

    In the above diagram Pragmatism is on the horizontal axis and adherence to a Biblical model is on the vertical axis.

    I guess I have never thought this through in terms of both dimensions.

    Specifically, right now you are mostly addressing “regardless of any pragmatic result is HUP Biblical”?

    Implicitly, I’ve assumed that if HUP was Biblical then it would work in all contexts. However, God does not guarantee “success” (at least by our common definition) so maybe pragmatism is not a good way to gauge our activities.

    My guess is that regardless of how Biblical HUP is, it only “works” in certain contexts. Here I’m defining “works” as being pragmatic results such as Baptisms, or attendance a worship/preaching/prayer meetings, or some gauge of discipleship.

    What is needed is a dual blind study to tease out whether HUP works or not WHEN ALL OTHER VARIABLES between the test cases are the same.

    My guess to the above question is “sometimes HUP works”.

    HUP may be part of a bigger toolkit that his servants utilize to proclaim the Gospel and make disciples.

    I’m just a layman, not a Bible scholar so I can’t weigh in on Greek (or Hebrew) texts. But how we implement the Great Commission deserves serious thought so we should probably delve into the multidimensional terrain of the subject of the Great Commission — both textually and experientially.

    Roger Oklahoma City

    • David Rogers says

      Roger, I think you are on target in your analysis here. Personally, I think one of the main flaws in late 20th-century and early 21st-century North American Evangelicalism is an over-reliance on pragmatism and an under-reliance on theology. Some of the excesses of the Church Growth Movement are largely to blame for this.

      That, being said, I think there may a baby somewhere in the mix we should not throw out with the bathwater. We do indeed need to be good stewards of the resources God entrusts us with, and statistical analysis can sometimes be our friend, in this regard.

      Christian Schwartz, the author of Natural Church Development (NCD) and various other books, argues that while quantitative church growth is not always an accurate indicator of church health, church health (as measured by a series of factors he has identified) is almost always a good gauge of church growth. IOW, churches that are truly healthy in all of the indicators almost always grow numerically as a result–as long as there are not other extenuating circumstances involved. Personally, I am somewhat sympathetic to the views of Schwartz and think they are a good balance to a lot of other church growth theory.

      Here is one link that introduces some of the basics of NCD theory:


      • David Rogers says


        I might add that, in my interaction with you online, though you have not attended seminary or studied biblical languages, you have demonstrated to me you are good analytical thinker. I think that “laymen” like you may well be surprised at the amount of things you can learn on your own through perusing the resources and language tools available on sites such as the following:


        • says

          Good analytical thinking is sometimes lacking in those of us who have nerded our way into Greek and Hebrew. We sometimes think “I know what that word means” because we read it in a book.

          And it may not mean what we think it means.

  5. Roger Simpson says


    Thanks for the info on the links to NCD as well as “Bible Hub”.

    I am going to bookmark both of them and look into them.

    I’m especially interested in Church Growth since here in Oklahoma City as well as from the period from 1965 to 2005 in Silicon Valley, I’ve seen as many or more “shrinking churches” than expanding ones.

    I don’t know if, even in principle, some “method” or “church growth model” could have addressed these situations. However, to say that Evangelistic Christianity is alive and well here in the USA is a simply not accurate given a real-world assessment.

    I’m not saying that Christianity is becoming extinct but it is certainly not growing as a percentage of the total population. And in addition, congregations that once had 1000 to 3000 in attendance on Sunday morning are now either shut down or operating with only 1/3 to 1/10th of their former members. And this is problem is constant all the way from Silicon Valley to the buckle of the Bible Belt. So there must be something going on which transcends some narrow regional problem.

    Of course, there are examples of growth in isolated circumstances. I honestly think most of it correlates with demographics — i.e. setting up shop recently [since around 1980] in a “new area on the suburban fringe” where the culture is very homogenous because everyone out there is very much the same demographically including age and lifestyle. Here in the greater Oklahoma City area there are four or five thriving churches that come to mind and all of them are about 15 miles from the center core of Oklahoma City. This must be more than a statistical fluke — there is something going on with the demographics of the area that accounts for this.

    I hesitate to broach this subject but here goes. There are examples that conflict with “conventional wisdom”. I can name several prominent SBC churches that are absolutely thriving in downtown locations — locations where they have been for 50 to 100+ years. If I was 40 years younger and working on a PhD at a seminary [rather than being 70 and a retired software engineer] I’d like to put a microscope on these successful-inner city churches to see what their “secret sauce” is. I know one thing that these inner city churches have in common: they own “tons” of land downtown for parking and/or they have multi-story parking garages since people who attend there come from all over the metro.

  6. Mark Terry says

    I would agree that the Church Growth Movement began as a missions strategy and only later sought biblical justification. McGavran wrote that he assumed a basic evangelical theology, so he did not lay out a biblical/theological foundation when he first articulated his strategy. Over the years (now many for me) I’ve found that most critics of the Church Growth Movement have never read McGavran’s books. The primary books that explain Church Growth are: The Bridges of God, How Churches Grow, and Understanding Church Growth. For its first 20 years the CGM ONLY focused on international missions. It wasn’t until about 1975 that Church Growth principles began to be applied to local churches and denominations in North America. Today, if you mention “Church Growth,” folks think you are referring to the growth of an individual congregation in the USA. McGavran’s focus was primarily on international missions. There are three books, not by Wagner, that explain the theology and ethics of the CGM. Two were written by Alan Tippett (faculty colleague of McGavran’s at Fuller Seminary): Church Growth and the Word of God and Verdict Theology in Missionary Theory. Dr. Ebbie Smith’s book, Balanced Church Growth, is very helpful. Dr. Smith taught at SWBTS for many years. He holds a PhD in ethics, and he also studied under McGavran at Fuller. In his book he states that the church should grow bigger (numerical growth), better (growth in spiritual maturity), and broader (more inclusive and more involved in ministry). I believe Smith is right on target, both biblically and in his understanding of McGavran.

    Let me add two suggestions for your many readers. First, you have to read McGavran wearing Indian (Asia) spectacles. McGavran was born and raised in India, and he served there as a missionary for about 30 years. So, one must always keep India in mind while reading McGavran. Second, in evaluating the CGM remember that “pragmatic” simply means “practical.” McGavran was not referring the philosophical school of thought called “Pragmatism.” By pragmatism McGavran meant that unfruitful methods should be jettisoned and more productive methods employed. We all live our lives in this way. If you have a rash, you go to the doctor and she proscribes an ointment. If it doesn’t relieve your rash, you return to doctor to request a different remedy.

    Personal note: I would be delighted to receive a copy of your entire paper. I’ll trade you a paper by Ebbie Smith, called “What’s Right with the Church Growth Movement.” We might meet at Corky’s to swap. :)

    • David Rogers says

      Dr. Terry,

      Thanks for continuing to stick with me on this. I think my parts 4 and 5 will help to clear up SOME of the loose ends on this, and also provide a little more balance to what I am saying. My prediction is, in the end, we will see we are not all that far apart on our views; though I continue to think an uncritical acceptance of the HUP has led to some unhappy consequences both in the US and overseas.

      I am familiar with most of the books you reference as I read (or skimmed through) them as I researched this paper. Though I took a church growth class at SWBTS in my M.Div. studies under Ebbie Smith, I don’t remember, however, reading Balanced Church Growth or “What’s Right with the Church Growth Movement.” I look forward to reading both.

      Corky’s sounds great (though there are other BBQ places in Memphis even better). I will be happy to print out my paper and bring a copy for you. Ron and Bart can come along as well. But, in the meantime, if it is hard for us to all coincide, the two of us can just get together the first time. My e-mail is loveeachstone@gmail.com.

    • Greg Harvey says

      As an aside: Ebbie also served with the FMB in Indonesia. I don’t remember when they came to the field (they were on the field when we arrived, and, sadly, lost a son in a motorcycle accident while we were in transition to the field for the first time.)

      I think I would add a thought to the discussion of HUP that probably hasn’t been “said” out loud: often missionaries are open to trying “unproven” strategies and end up also innovating in part due to just the situation they’re in. So adopting a principle like HUP might be done without thoroughly grounding the concept in Scripture just to try it out. I’m not sure how other missions handled that, but the field evangelists had a pretty free hand in Indonesia both for planning/budgeting work and implementing the plan.

      I mention it because it probably is part of the “FMB/IMB” context that might not otherwise get mentioned.

    • Todd Benkert says

      Thanks for chiming in, Dr. Terry. I was thinking of all the truisms you shared with us concerning McGavran and the Church Growth Movement as I was thinking of a writing a response to David. I particularly remember your observation that all churches are in one way or another homogeneous.

      As I have weighed McGavran and the HUP over the years, I have kept his “discipling” and “perfecting” stages in view. On the one hand, effective evangelism requires contextualization of the message and messenger. The HUP reminds me that I should not raise additional cultural barriers to a person’s hearing and receiving the gospel. On the other, gospel obedience leads me to pursue the heavenly vision of removing barriers to our unity as one true people of God. The quest for a truly heterogeneous Church is a lifelong pursuit, but one that will likely never be achieved this side of eternity.

      Finally, thank you for your reminder here that McGavran and the CGM not be evaluated by Wagner’s applications alone. Most people reject caricatures of McGavran and Church Growth principles without really knowing what McGavran actually said.

  7. says

    The HUP began simply as a descriptive observation: churches tend to grow faster when they are made up of one kind of people. Donald McGavaren didn’t necessary mean it to be prescriptive of how churches ought to reach out.

    As a descriptive principle, I believe it is true, like the law of gravity. But that doesn’t mean we don’t take measures to work around the law of gravity. We don’t let it pull down our roof; we build strong enough pillars to hold our roof up. Just so, we need to build strong enough churches to defy the reality of the homogeneous unit principle.

    • David Rogers says

      John, though I agree with the general gist of what you are saying here, we still have to deal with statements from McGavran such as this one I quoted in Part 1 from The Bridges of God: “The normal clannishness of the new group being discipled must be cheerfully accepted and, indeed, encouraged.”

      • Todd Benkert says

        Be careful not to take McGavran out of context here. Bridges of God dealt with people movements and how the gospel naturally flows when existing familial and social relationships are maintained (against the mission station approach which removed new believers from their culture and relationships). The title of the book itself recognizes these relational connections as “bridges of God” over which the gospel spread to large segments of society.

        • David Rogers says


          Though statements like the one I quote here, as well as McGavran’s theological underpinnings for the HUP as evidenced in his division between discipling and perfecting, still concern me, I am sure he was well-motivated, and, as I point out in Part 4, there are some important and positive things to be gleaned from his emphasis on people groups.

          What concerns me more than McGavran himself and what he actually said, though, is the way many, both in the States as well as overseas, take the HUP and use it as justification–either overtly or tacitly–for a de facto racism and disunity along homogeneous unit lines in the Body of Christ.

          • Todd Benkert says

            I stand in agreement with you that any form of racism is both contrary to McGavran’s church growth ideas and to the Scripture. I am not willing, though, to reject concepts merely because they are abused by some.