Gospel & Culture blog
“Probably the most controversial idea of the Church Growth Movement was the elaboration of the Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP)” (Pickett, 2015, p. 178). The HUP states “People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers” therefore “conversion should occur with the minimum of social dislocation” (McGavran, 1990, p. x). That is, church planting efforts should focus on “homogenous units” which McGavran defines as “simply a section of society in which all the members have some characteristic in common” (1990, p. 85). McGavran avers “the great obstacles to conversion are social, not theological” (p. 156). People will not give a church a fair hearing if they stick out in the congregation like a sore thumb. Birds of a feather flock together.
The HUP is a product of the discourse of contextualization and the notion of people groups: The gospel must be presented to people in ways that are culturally familiar to them, including indigenous language, worship style, architecture, and so on. The HUP suggests that church growth efforts will be most effective if they are directed at homogenous units (which can be taken to mean ethnolinguistic people groups).
It is significant that the HUP was conceived by missiologists who worked in India, since India is one of the most socially stratified nations. Caste identity can significantly limit South Asian’s interactions with others who are of higher or lower standing. Therefore, it would seem, church ministry would be easiest among people of the same caste. The HUP suggests that church planting efforts should focus on these homogenous units, like the Dalits or the Brahmins.
The HUP is so controversial because it seems to subvert the value of diversity, the cross-pollination of theological thought, and the unity of the body of Christ. This emphasis on distinct worshipping communities may seem to contrast Galatians 2:28, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (NIV). Yet, Wagner (1978) argued, “Gentiles do not have to become Jews, females do not have to become males… in order to enter into and share the blessings of God's Kingdom” (p. 18). The HUP was meant to reify cultural difference, not to cause cultural divisions. As Steffen (2011) mentioned, “McGavran believed the homogeneous unit was a necessary starting point. He also believed it was not the end point. Homogenous churches could and should eventually become more heterogeneous” (p. 28).
A common heuristic device for depicting the interdisciplinary nature of missiology is the metaphor of a stool that stands on three legs (or academic disciplines). However, missiologists have disagreed on exactly which disciplines comprise those legs. That theology is central is hardly contested; but there is less agreement about the role of the social sciences, history, education, mission strategy, and so forth. Here, I argue that we should move beyond the three-legged stool metaphor, as it fails to describe the true interdisciplinary nature of missiology: The academic influences on missiology are more numerous than the stool metaphor allows for; the borders between these disciplines are fuzzy and changing; and the influence of academic theories on mission strategy is not merely one-way. In quest of a more satisfactory metaphor, I will suggest a definition of missiology as the utilization of multiple academic disciplines to develop strategies for making disciples across cultures. Drawing on that definition, I develop the image of missiology as a river with countless tributaries (theoretical disciplines) that converge for this common goal. Since scholars of Christian mission cannot be experts in many fields, we must be intentional with the sort of interdisciplinarity that is most useful for designing effective mission strategies.
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The 20 foot mural depicting Jesus has been an emotive art piece for decades- some find inspiration, some mock it (leaving cookies at his feet as they would for Santa Claus) and some find it controversial (why is His skin so light? And should we depict Jesus in human form at all?)
This week, students covered up the mural to make another point. It's missions conference week, and the mural asks, "What if you had never heard?"
What if I had never heard of Jesus? I would think the purpose in life was to amass as much wealth, toys, power, and pleasure as possible, at the cost of others around me. I would be narcissistic and nihilistic. On the other hand, in the midst of climbing the corporate ladder and trying to get people to like me, I'd
Between the 1930s and 1980s, the mainline churches changed their missions-focus from proclamation to social justice: working with orphans, civil rights, digging wells, protecting the environment and later issues like economic development and sex trafficking became more prominent whereas conversion faded to the background.
What led to this shift? Did the world all of a sudden have more physical suffering than ever? Was the world so well evangelized that proclamation was no longer a major work of cross-cultural workers?
There are actually several reasons for the shift. Some are genuine issues or problems that should inform our missiology (decolonization, social problems)- they should lead us to do cross-cultural work that is holistic and addresses physical needs. Other influences (secularism, communism) are more distractions to missions.
1) Secularization. As western society began to separate issues of faith from "real life", even church-goers, clergy and mission leaders in the mainline churches thought less and less about the supernatural, heaven, sin, forgiveness. Church, and the work of the church, was only valuable insofar as it had a secular value: promoting peace, education, development.
2) Communism. The experiment of socialism/marxism had a tremendous influence in South America in the 1960s and 1970s. This influenced Latin American theologians and missionaries. Mission work became another way of ushering in the revolution (aka the Kingdom of God). The work of missions was about equality, or really, about upending the established political and economic systems.
3) Civil rights abuses: The world saw tremendous suffering and abuse of humans in the 20th century, and Christians had to grapple with their role in perpetuating or alleviating these problems
4) The stigma of fundamentalism: If fundamentalists were seen as culturally-clueless evangelists who only wanted to make converts, mainline missionaries wanted to distance themselves from this image.
5) A reaction to the church growth movement: Donald McGavran and David Hesslegrave emphasized that missions is not just about proclamation, but persuasion. The church must be growing or missionaries are not doing their job. This made sense to evangelical missionaries, but was controversial to mainline missionaries. The distaste for such an emphasis on numerical growth and persuasion led mainline missiologists to focus more on other areas of mission.
6) Hippies: The theologians of the 1980s and 1990s came out of the hippie movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Jesus was seen as a wandering magician whose main purpose was to upset the established conservative religious and political system of the day. This anti-establishment, free-thinking attitude permeated missiology in mainline seminaries. Religion was only good insofar as it promoted peace - evangelism was seen as divisive.
7) Decolonization: As nations gained their independence from Europe during the 1950s to 1990s, the image of the European missionary who comes to teach or transform was increasingly challenged- both in the west and in the global south. The mainline church either called for a moratorium on missionaries from the West, or for a re-imagining of the role. No longer would western missionaries preach and teach, they would learn and serve.
8) Social problems: The famines, wars, earthquakes, tsunamis that have such a devastating effect in the global south captured the hearts of many missionaries.
Would you, your colleagues, or your students benefit from a listserv for professionals and scholars in Christian missions? This listserv can be used in the following ways:
- bounce ideas off other professionals and scholars in missions
- ask questions about research in missions
- network with other mission scholars
- announce book publications, job openings, internships, or upcoming conferences
I have created a listserv - now it’s your turn to participate, ask, announce, and network. To join the mission scholar listserv, send a blank email to: MissionScholaremail@example.com
The more people using the listserv, the more useful it will be to all of us. Based on how some other scholarly listervs are being used, I feel confident that it will not flood your inbox with a bunch of unnecessary emails. (The group is restricted, so information will not be publicly available on the web.) You can unsubscribe by sending a blank email to MissionScholarfirstname.lastname@example.org
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor