A Biblical Evaluation of the Homogeneous Unit Principle, Part 5

by David Rogers on January 13, 2014 · 26 comments

This is Part 5 of a 5-part series. The other parts can be found here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

CONCLUSION

The lessons learned by many in diverse settings around the world have proven time and time again that racial and social reconciliation, even among those who have experienced the transformative power of the new birth, is hard work. [62] Due to the ubiquitous sinfulness inherent in human nature, the goal of demonstrating the unity of Christ through the structures of the local church will require an intentional effort on the part of its members. According to DeYoung et al., “A church that does not aim to become multiracial almost never does.” [63] Ortiz adds, “Many urban pastors attempting multiethnic ministries comment that crossing socioeconomic barriers can be even more difficult than crossing racial or ethnic lines.” [64]

Assimilation or Integration?

A major issue involved in working toward reconciliation is correctly identifying and dividing between assimilationist and integrationist approaches. The assimilationist approach, though often masquerading as the path to biblical reconciliation, fails to take into account (often unwittingly) the power dynamics at play behind majority and minority (or dominant and less powerful) social groups. While proclaiming the message that “we are all one,” what is really being communicated to outsiders is that “you too can be one with us, just as long as you are willing to lay down your cultural and social idiosyncrasies and become one of us.” This, in a way, is similar to the approach of intertestamental and Pharisaical Judaism, which opened the door for Gentile proselytism, but only on the condition of circumcision and cultural assimilation.

Defenders of the HUP have typically portrayed its detractors as favoring an assimilationist approach. According to their line of reasoning, a demand for cultural and social unity within individual congregations of believers carries implicit with it a demand for people to lay down their cultural heritage and conform to the culture of the majority. Wagner, curiously enough, given his usual theological tendencies, has affirmingly pointed to support from liberationist theologians who see assimilationist ecclesiology as a threat to the rights of the downtrodden and oppressed peoples of the world. [65]

Indeed, if the only choice available were that between pluralist and assimilationist approaches to mission and “churching,” the defenders of the HUP would appear to have a good argument at this point. The goal of true biblical racial and social reconciliation, however, is not assimilation, but rather integration. It involves an acceptance and appreciation of cultural diversity, and a willingness of all parties involved, especially on the part of the relatively socially powerful or dominant majority, to lay down their rights and privileges, and to see things from the perspective of those who are not “our kind of people.” As Piper notes,

This danger is especially present and unseen among majority cultures and majority ethnic groups. When we are in a very large majority, we do not even operate with the category of our own ethnicity. We are just human, so we are prone to think. Others have ethnicity. This makes us very vulnerable to the assumption that God is our God in a way that minimizes his being the God of other ethnic groups. [66]

Biblical integration is not about obliterating or blurring all cultural distinctives, but rather boldly pursuing unity in the midst of diversity. [67] The apocalyptic vision of the multitude of the redeemed gathered in unity before the throne of the Lamb is one in which the differences between the various nations, tribes, people, and languages are still perceptibly present.

A Two-Pronged Approach?

Some have proposed that the answer to this dilemma is a two-pronged approach to homogeneity and diversity, allowing for a certain degree of homogeneity in some settings while discouraging it in others. [68] There are several different variations on this same theme. Some, for example, argue in favor of integration on an intercongregational level, while maintaining homogeneity on a congregational level. [69] Others insist on integrating congregations, while leaving room for small groups within the larger congregation which are grouped according to cultural or social affinity.

There are apparent merits to the arguments on both sides of this question. Disallowing gatherings along the line of “affinities” (whether along lines of sex, age, race, culture, social class, or personal interests) is fraught with tendencies toward assimilation. At the same time, it may legitimately be asked, what is the qualitative difference between segregation at a congregational and a small group level? Does encouraging homogeneity at the small group level not imply a de facto legitimization of the principle of pluralism as over against integration? Some have argued that both the biblical evidence, as well as the ever looming threat of the human proclivity toward separationist racism, militate against the advisability of homogeneous small groups. [70]

It would appear that the answer to this question must be tackled on site on a case-by-case basis. To the degree possible, the underlying motives for certain patterns of grouping must be exposed and a way forward that best exemplifies the way of the cross proposed. In the end, it is possible that cultural and social heterogeneity on every conceivable level is not the sine qua non of biblical faithfulness.

Worship Style

In order to achieve the goal of successful integration, several issues must be addressed. One of the most conspicuous is the question of worship style. Not only tastes with regard to music, but also other elements, such as degrees of physical and emotional expressiveness, length of meetings, and patterns of personal interaction are often related to ethnic and cultural backgrounds. In a truly integrated church, there will usually be a blend of different styles, with a growing tolerance of and appreciation for unfamiliar expressions of worship.

Leadership

Another key factor is a culturally and ethnically diverse leadership team. A congregation whose leadership does not reflect at every level the diversity of its members may almost certainly be presumed not to be following a model of integration but of assimilation. While biblical prerequisites for leadership should never be overlooked, [71] an intentional effort to promote the leadership of those from minority backgrounds is often necessary. [72] According to DeYoung et al., “A color-blind approach is not viable since such an approach will likely produce only leaders who are members of the majority group.” [73] Beyond this, it is crucial that the leaders themselves are good models of racial and social reconciliation in their personal lives. [74]

An Active Attitude of Reconciliation

Finally, there must be a commitment among church members to actively demonstrate an attitude of reconciliation. According to DeYoung et al., “Most of us need a worldview change to participate effectively in multiracial congregations.” [75] This change in attitude must be manifest among both the members of the majority or dominant group as well as among the minority or less powerful group: “The importance of dominant group power as a barrier cannot be overstated. The exercise of power is not typically overt or mean-spirited but rather it is done in the name of cultural or theological purity.” [76] At the same time, those of the minority group may at times feel they must give up something of their cultural identity and heritage in order to fit in with the broader vision of the church. [77]

Indeed, demonstrating the unity and reconciliation to which God has called us as members of the Body of Christ is hard work. In many ways, it goes against human nature. If we are to be faithful, though, to the vision of radical discipleship inherent in a commitment to follow Jesus, it is not merely an option for the spiritually advanced. While recognizing that as imperfect human beings there will always be room for growth and seeking to avoid a judgmental attitude toward those who may be a few steps behind us in our pilgrimage toward fully understanding the implications of discipleship and putting them into practice, as the church at every level—in local congregations, as well as in missionary strategy and policy driving that strategy—we should manifest a lifestyle of repentance, seeking every opportunity to be faithful ambassadors of the message of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:16–20).

———————————————————

[62] Kenneth A. Mathews and M. Sydney Park, The Post-Racial Church (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011), 185.

[63] DeYoung et al., United by Faith, 170.

[64] Ortiz, One New People, 39.

[65] Wagner, “How Ethical Is the Homogeneous Unit Principle?,” 17. See also DeYoung et al., United by Faith, 117.

[66] Piper, Bloodlines, 155.

[67] DeYoung et al., United by Faith, 134–35.

[68] Ibid., 141–42; Wagner, Our Kind of People, 151.

[69] Wagner, “How Ethical Is the Homogeneous Unit Principle?,” 18.

[70] Padilla, “The Unity of the Church and the Homogeneous Unit Principle,” 289, 299; Ortiz, One New People, 143.

[71] Piper, Bloodlines, 259.

[72] Ortiz, One New People, 136.

[73] DeYoung et al., United by Faith, 177.

[74] Ibid., 170.

[75] Ibid., 150.

[76] Ibid., 171.

[77] Ibid., 114.

1 Dave Miller January 13, 2014 at 2:37 pm

This has been an excellent series.

2 Todd Benkert January 13, 2014 at 2:53 pm

David,

I’ve appreciated this series of post and, like part 5, there is much here that I resonate with and have been thinking through many of these same questions and issues as I serve in a multi-ethnic, multi-racial community. My biggest critique remains your equating McGavran’s Homogeneous Unit Principle with Wagner’s application of the principle in advocating for homogeneous churches. One can reject the latter while affirming the former.

The HUP was an observation by McGavran, which you have affirmed as sociologically accurate, that people more often come to faith if they do not have to overcome cultural barriers to do so. The HUP is kin to contextualization as McGavran was seeking to remove all unnecessary barriers to people hearing and receiving the gospel. In his setting in India, he was finding that evangelistic efforts across castes were ineffective because the difference in caste created a barrier to people hearing and responding to the message. McGavran observed that the gospel advanced most quickly and effectively when it did so among existing familial and social groupings which he called “bridges of God.” Many of our common mission practices today (e.g., contextualization of the gospel message, incarnational approaches to ministry, and quickly turning over leadership to indigenous leaders) are applications of the HUP.

Wagner’s call for homogeneous churches is, likewise, an application of the HUP not the principle itself. In my opinion, His application of Homogeneous Unit Churches specifically should not be conflated with the HUP generally. In fact, many of the necessary elements of moving to a multi-ethnic church model are examples of the validity of the HUP.

For what it’s worth, I believe that when reaching across cultural lines, we can both effectively apply the HUP in a biblical way and still strive for the biblical ideal and goal of living as one people of God. I am pursuing a multi-ethnic vision for my church, but not ignoring McGavran’s observation about how people come to faith.

Thanks for this series and your thoughtful analysis (even if I disagree on this point)

Blessings,
– Todd

3 David Rogers January 13, 2014 at 4:33 pm

Todd,

Thanks for the thoughtful interaction. I think we are very likely very similar in our personal application of these issues. I do wonder if McGavran ever said anything to distance himself from the application of Wagner, though. If so, I would be very interested to see that. He was certainly very familiar with Wagner and where he went with this.

4 Todd Benkert January 13, 2014 at 5:43 pm

I’m not suggesting that McGavran did not support Wagner’s application. If his application is wrong, that does not necessarily negate the principle itself.

One of the models that you mentioned that I think can be healthy is having a heterogenous church with some groups that are affinity based. I would think that they would not need to be set up in a way that did not segregate people within the congregation (perhaps short term in duration to address needs particular to a particular group or bible-studies done in the “heart” language of a group that worships in the “trade” language). And that there should be interaction in integrated groups in addition to any homogeneous ones.

Also, if HUP is about evangelism — perhaps using affinity based groups for outreach and evangelistic bible-studies, etc., and moving people into integrated groups as they come to faith.

Right now, though, just bridging racial and socio-economic barriers at all remains a challenge.

For those who want to explore the racial divide in this country and possible ways forward, I recommend the companion volumes by Michael O Emerson, et al:
Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, and
United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race

5 Todd Benkert January 13, 2014 at 5:52 pm

Also, Bob Kellemen (rpmministries.org) has written excellent reviews on Amazon for most every current book on multi-ethnic ministry.

6 Dave Miller January 13, 2014 at 3:29 pm

“The lessons learned by many in diverse settings around the world have proven time and time again that racial and social reconciliation, even among those who have experienced the transformative power of the new birth, is hard work. [62] Due to the ubiquitous sinfulness inherent in human nature, the goal of demonstrating the unity of Christ through the structures of the local church will require an intentional effort on the part of its members.”

That quote is gold.

7 Roger Simpson January 14, 2014 at 1:28 am

Thanks for bringing up the topic of church growth. It is awesome that people have seriously studied this. Hopefully, applicable growth models will guide SBC congregations as they seek to reach more for Christ. I believe that dramatically changing demographics requires churches to evaluate what they are doing.

8 Mark Terry January 14, 2014 at 11:32 am

David,
Thanks so much for posting your PhD seminar paper. I believe it is important for us to dialogue on these important matters. I believe you could have generated more comments if you had mentioned Calvinism. :) Todd has made my response for me, and in doing so he has demonstrated his erudition. I would just add that McGavran did NOT view the HUP as a long-term strategy; rather, for him the HUP was a short-term evangelistic strategy. I believe Dr. McGavran would applaud the planting of multicultural churches in America’s inner cities. He would say that the residents’ common poverty and social issues were actually the homogeneous factor.

Note to Dave Miller: David Rogers and I did eat barbecue, and I paid. If you’ll come to Memphis, I’ll be glad to host you, also.

9 David Rogers January 14, 2014 at 12:35 pm

Dr. Terry,

Thanks for your kind comments, for the wonderful fellowship, and for the barbecue the other day.

Memphis has, hands down, the best barbecue anywhere. And Corky’s is a worthy representative of what Memphis has to offer. But in case you, or anyone else, is interested in delving further into the Memphis BBQ scene, here are 15 pages of local comments on where to find the best BBQ in town:

http://csnbbs.com/thread-366915.html

10 Mark Terry January 15, 2014 at 11:47 am

David,
Thanks for the link. Kentucky now has Bourbon tours (I have NOT participated). Perhaps we should start a travel agency that offers barbecue tours of Memphis.

Dave Miller,
Thanks for posting these articles by David Rogers. He is an excellent missiologist and writer. I wish I could claim him as my student.

11 Dave Miller January 15, 2014 at 4:34 pm

It is my greatest joy when I get to post solid, informative articles like this.

12 Greg Harvey January 15, 2014 at 2:19 pm

I think the key to this discussion is that there are a few realizations we need to make:

1. Human methods are…human.

2. The Bible provides a very narrow view of “missiology” as a discipline. The context for the recorded Pauline missions to Asia Minor and Greece seems to be vastly narrower than the typical, multi-lingual area like an island region such as Indonesia (examples from previously, but just consider the various ethnic groups on the island of Java–roughly the same geographic size of Tennessee but with over 140 million people–alone.) That seems to leave the majority of innovation to occur within the realm of “human means” (though with guidance from the Holy Spirit, of course.)

3. Some of the best ideas in one context–again from a human means perspective–may be open to criticism in another one. The idea of evangelizing Dalits in India as a group probably is brilliant in the sense that the group as a whole is likely more susceptible to the message of the Gospel than, for instance, Brahmins in part due to societal structure. But apply the same principle in the US and you would target Blacks, not Whites…which the SBC definitely has struggled with from a missiological perspective in the South especially largely due to what could be described as ethnic myopia (if not also ethical myopia.)

And yet the Homogenous Unit Principle in effect leads us to overlook the potential for intentional discrimination in both contexts. Which suggests very strongly that it is only helpful sociologically, not morally. Which is why it is susceptible to ethical critique. My first take when I first encountered it in the 80s was that it failed the simple smell test of being consistent with the overall message of the Gospel. But MY context at that time was returning from Indonesia and finishing high school in highly ethnically diverse California (my joke about my high school was that it was 50% White, 50% Black, 50% Hispanic, 10% Asian, and 10% Other…and if you try to add up those percentages, you’re getting the point I was making when I first said it in the fall of 1978.)

What are my takeaways from this discussion?

1. Human means might lead to numerical success. But that isn’t proof of God’s agreement with the means.

2. Scriptural means aren’t sufficiently described to limit missiological choices to JUST following Scripture: we should encourage innovation.

3. Missiology might not always be testable from a sociology standpoint. What works in one case might not in another, and we especially should not expect the interaction of the Holy Spirit to be “mechanizable”.

4. But we similarly shouldn’t ignore sociology of ethnic groups–and perhaps underlying anthropology and ethnology–any more than we would ignore the biblical account of the Tower of Babel. Whether by social evolution or by divine decree, different groups have different contexts and different behavior and our missiology can afford to be sensitive to those differences.

5. But the goal should not be to intentionally differentiate the behavior of the local church in order to make the local people group comfortable. Instead, it should be to always present a long-term goal of the local congregation viewing itself as a tangible portion of the whole Bride.

I honestly feel that the BF&M’s mention of the broader Body is sufficient as a reminder of that need for the local body to envision itself as connected. I also feel that the SBCs racial history is sufficiently bumpy that we ought to be attempting to address the potential for racial division in our new starts in a helpful and consistent fashion no matter where those new starts occur. We have a story as a Convention that lends itself well to owning both our past and our present from a racial unity standpoint and communicating to all of our church starts the importance of unity.

But this is not easy work. And there are zero easy answers. But the temptation is to oversimplify and pretend it’s all easy. We should flee that lust as if it were a youthful one. Which requires serious discussions like this series has caused.

If I were to lean towards an error, it would be towards the error of permitting repeated innovation. It’s nearly impossible to collect and transmit a complete history of mistakes from the past. It’s very likely that too strong a dependence on the HUP will lead to future mistakes. But I view David’s discussion as primarily providing a warning against making those mistakes, not necessary a warning against leveraging the sociological value of the HUP to minimize the ‘activation cost’ of a new church start (that’s kind of how a chemist might look at the HUP: that it’s essentially a substrate or a catalyst for a more efficient church formation.)

Again: I offer these as just my own thinking that has emerged as part of the discussion. Not entirely sure if the thoughts are helpful or not.

13 David Rogers January 15, 2014 at 4:21 pm

Greg,

I was tracking with you, and agreeing with everything you said, until you said something about “leveraging the sociological value of the HUP to minimize the ‘activation cost’ of a new church start.” I may well agree with you on this, too—I’m just not totally sure I know what you’re talking about. Could you tease that one out a little more?

14 Dave Miller January 15, 2014 at 4:33 pm

He was speaking in tongues, without an interpreter.

15 Greg Harvey January 15, 2014 at 7:53 pm

So in chemistry, the activation cost of a reaction in energy units is directly related to the rate of reaction (simple explanation). The lower the activation cost, the higher the formation of the desired end products (well…assuming that the reverse reaction has a higher activation cost than the forward reaction…but I digress).

It seems to me that the purpose of following the HUP is to lower the “formation cost” of a new fellowship by emphasizing similarity. It also impacts the “dispersion rate” of the church by affecting ‘stickiness’. Which is why we treat it as primarily a sociological phenomenon with or without an accompanying spiritual phenomenon.

My apologies for stating it in those terms. I often try to find analogies to relate things to and I guess that one wasn’t a very good one for general consumption.

16 Ben Coleman January 15, 2014 at 7:56 pm

Greg, I think you ran into something roughly similar to this.

17 Ben Coleman January 15, 2014 at 7:58 pm

Not to mention that I’ll bet they still think you’re speaking in tongues.

18 Greg Buchanan January 16, 2014 at 2:44 pm

Agreed. Great analogy.

The church is not supposed to be a solidified compound, but a solution.

Solutions can dissolve and/or bind other compounds and blends with other solutions. We should be able to dilute ourselves into every area of our culture bringing the Gospel with us.

Perhaps the “stickiness” can or is creating an osmotic barrier that is too strong.

19 Greg Harvey January 16, 2014 at 3:17 pm

The concept of the local congregation as a cell in a larger organism might not be tired, but it is well used. The concept of a defensive wall between the local congregation and the surrounding world certainly is real. The idea of uptake and outgo isn’t too alien to discuss.

But I learned my lesson…no more science analogies. ;)

20 Greg Buchanan January 16, 2014 at 3:29 pm

No way dude… I got your back!

Bring it on!!!

But if you go int quantum mechanics or higher level organic chemistry, i’ll need my wife to interpret what your saying ;)

21 Greg Buchanan January 16, 2014 at 3:38 pm

As far as biological or natural sciences analogies, I think of God as the greatest practitioner of conservation of energy.

Does He not use natural imagery with some of the prophets: “what do you see here?”

I think most analogies break down at some point, but observations of natural phenomena illustrate what God has created and set in motion. I think there is plenty of room for those observed phenomena to be analogous to Biblical mandates for the Church, for Christian life, etc.

Bring on the science since it was Christians who first put into place the modern scientific method for the purpose of understanding what God created, not for disproving His existence as they do today.

22 Todd Benkert January 16, 2014 at 4:11 pm

You guys have lost me — I’m better with sports analogies

23 Ben Coleman January 16, 2014 at 4:31 pm

Does He not use natural imagery with some of the prophets: “what do you see here?”

E.g. Amos 8:1,2? Although there He seems to be cracking a pun in the midst of pronouncing judgement (at least in the Hebrew). I’m still trying to figure out the theological implications of that.

24 David Rogers January 17, 2014 at 12:16 pm

Greg Buchanan,

RE: ” think most analogies break down at some point, but observations of natural phenomena illustrate what God has created and set in motion. I think there is plenty of room for those observed phenomena to be analogous to Biblical mandates for the Church, for Christian life, etc.”

Actually, Christian Schwartz makes that same argument in the book Natural Church Development that I referenced in a comment on another one of these articles on the HUP. He makes the point (and in my opinion, makes it well) that we can learn many divinely sanctioned principles of church growth by studying and applying the laws that God has built into nature.

Of all the church growth materials I am familiar with, Schwartz’s stuff rings the truest to me.

25 Roger Simpson January 15, 2014 at 9:22 pm

Dr. Terry and Church Planting Experts:

Your mention of “inner cities” in the USA addresses what I believe is one of the crucial areas that the continued effectiveness of the SBC as a denomination is contingent upon.

Due to demographics, more and more people are in suburban and urban settings. While we may be holding our own in suburban areas this is definitely not true in core areas of large metropolitan areas. We are not doing too well in rural areas either but that is partially because the population has dropped there.

Unless we want to downsize the budgets of our agencies we need more people who give. I don’t think we can keep this ship afloat without doing more in inner cities. For the most part, we already have the physical plants there. We just need to “turn some levers” to keep these congregations vibrant. I don’t know if HUP is the key or not. Many of the target areas are enclaves of large cities where various groups have more or less already adjusted to a common demographic profile. Because racism is more or less obsolete in the USA, the self-segregation is along social / economic lines. [Although in some cases race can be a proxy for demographic differences]

Do you mind if I bring up a question? What would be wrong with large suburban churches, many of which draw people from within a ten or even 15 mile radius, physically moving back to the city center? There may be some examples of this happening but I am not aware of it. I think this would be the equivalent in some aspects as a permanent NAMB mission trip for many members. If we put some life in the city core then this could light a fire there in the core of the city.

There are examples of thriving SBC churches right downtown. As far as I know those churches — such as FBC Dallas, FBC Jacksonville, FBC Columbia SC — never moved away from the city center. Affluent people travel to church. So I don’t see why they wouldn’t be able to travel downtown. Most of these downtown areas are deserted on weekends so parking etc. is not that big of a problem. Also, many downtowns are undergirded by pretty good transportation systems.

What’s wrong with going to where the people are? I don’t see why it is necessary for NAMB “focus city” church plants to start from zero. At least this should not be the case if their are existing churches out in the suburbs.

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