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).
In an effort to win numbers, is McGavran’s HUP sacrificing a depth of theology and Christian community that could be gained through a heterogeneous (multicultural) church? (Plueddemann, 1987). Is it better to see HUP churches as a temporary means to bringing people into the church until they grow in their faith and become more open to worshipping with Others (C. P. Wagner, 1978, p. 12)?
The witness of separate congregations in the same geographical area on the basis of language and culture may have to be accepted as a necessary, but provisional, measure for the sake of the fulfillment of Christ’s mission. (Newbigin, 1977, p. 124)
As with other models in this chapter (such as “redemptive analogies”), the homogeneous unit principle is more useful as a descriptive theory than as a prescriptive model. It is undeniable that people form together in groups of shared values, language and beliefs. This is basic to cultural and social anthropology. HUP discourse is about recognizing how groups designate the ingroup and the outgroup. The question is, how will Christians, no matter which ingroup, respond to their outgroups? “Homogeneity may be good or bad, depending on how it is used. My suggestion is that, in keeping with the aims of Christian growth, we should take a position that attempts to reinforce the strengths of homogeneity but to overcome the difficulties” (Kraft, 1978, p. 125). If the HUP is more descriptive than prescriptive, missiologists can see their task as challenging the tendency for churches to be so homogenous. We must be mindful of the ethnocentrism that seems to be inherent in any socially constructed group. How can we be relevant to a bounded “ingroup” yet also challenge that group to widen its boundaries?
And in fact, the expansion of Christianity has shown that the HUP is not a necessary (let alone desirable) factor of church growth. “The [early] church not only grew, but it grew across cultural barriers.” The New Testament “provides plenty of examples of how the barriers had been abolished in the new humanity” (Padilla, 1982, p. 29). Further, in an era of globalization, there are no more homogenous units. Even isolated tribes have members who move to capital cities and intermarry with other groups (Nehrbass, 2016, p. 71). And in fact, societies have never existed in homogenous groups; rather, classes and ethnically distinct groups have been interdependent in wider social networks (McClintock, 1988). Hyatt (2014) describes a growing trend of multiculturalism as a church growth strategy in this era of globalization.
While the HUP has gained great attention in the missiological community, causing us to think about unity and cultural diversity in the church, the model may be more academic than real, and may not have impacted the way we actually do missions (Gration, 1981). In reality, issues of heterogeneity and homogeneity are much more complex than the HUP supposed.
© 2015 Kenneth Nehrbass. All Rights Reserved.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor