Over the years, one of the most complex and controversial issues in the field of Christian mission has been the Homogenous Unit Principle (or so called HUP). Partly this is because of its roots in the US ‘church growth’ language, but it is also because of some deeper theological reasons. In this article we want to unpack and explore some of these key issues.
Expressed at its simplest, the question runs, ‘Is it or is it not acceptable (or desirable) to have Christian communities made up of only one homogenous culture or social group?’ The most learned church leaders, theologians and missiologists around the world strenuously disagree with one another on this question, so it can’t be easy to resolve. That being said, we do believe there is a resolution – one which holds that homogenous groups are right and not right … but not at the same time or in the same community structure.
So here is our first clue: if one key to resolving the apparent conflict is community structure, then it shouldn’t surprise us that different sized expressions of church can have a key role in resolving the question … rather than creating the dilemma.
Now obviously, we are creating a bit of a paradox here. How can it be right and not right at the same time? Well, our contention would be that one of our Western weaknesses is that our thought processes are Greek-style, meaning they are linear and everything has to agree for it to make sense to us. Biblical Hebraic thinking on the other hand deals with a relational God and humanity made for community. And that means holding apparent opposites in tension. So the HUP can be right and not right … but in different situations!
Some cultural variations
Let’s take a step back and think about social and cultural differences by remembering what sort of differences we may expect when we go abroad. Maybe think of a country, like Spain or Turkey or Thailand. We expect a different language, different food, different temperatures, as well as climate! Then there are customs, currency, clothing, family patterns, and so much more that we take for granted. We need to recognise that this cultural diversity is God’s doing. The whole of creation is a kaleidoscope of variety and God’s creative variety extends equally to human culture. Hence to form faith communities that express this diversity honours God the creator and respects humanity made in His image. Even in heaven, every tribe and tongue will be represented and distinguishable – not made one bland mixture (Revelation 5:9).
If we are planting a church to reach an ethnic group, for example amongst Asians, Hispanics or Afro-Caribbeans, our first thought is the need to be appropriate to the culture. Furthermore, we probably realise we don’t understand these ethnic cultures very well and so the best people to interpret them and decide what sort of church is contextual are Asians, Hispanics and Afro-Caribbeans themselves!
Furthermore, we readily recognise the failures of our mission efforts in other continents during the colonial era of earlier centuries. It seems obvious now that to export hymns ancient and modern, robed choirs and stained glass windows to Africa was unhelpful cultural imperialism. As was declaring drums the devil’s music.
However, a problem for many white British Christians is that we expect cultural differences abroad or among other ethnic groups here, but we are blind to them within our own ethnic grouping. This is very serious for our mission engagement and developing church beyond the fringe, since in fact the cultural differences between professional, middle class and the urban poor may be more challenging than moving from a professional English culture to a professional Spanish one. This blindness may be a primary reason why the church has so often been weak and ineffective amongst the urban poor. The only church we offer is of an alien culture and there is rarely a church of the poor for the poor.
With our culture getting more diverse and pluralistic, cultural blindness like this gets even more serious. So, in developing church today, culture affects a whole range of things. It’s not just the style of worship and type of music, important though it is for these to be contextual. There are also things like the patterns and places of social community life (at a superficial level ‘wine and cheese’ or ‘pie and peas’!), the values and priorities we hold (for instance between people/relationships relative to time/task/performance), the size of group within which people sustain relationships and most important, the models and styles of leadership practised in the community (middle class managerial leadership is almost universal in our churches but not in all our cultures!).
Not only are we white Anglo Christians often blind to culture in our own ethnic group, we even resent the talk of differences, using ‘us and them,’ thinking it ‘snobbish’ or un-Christian. We then tend to seal the matter by adding theological argument that different sorts of congregation are divisive and contradict the unity of the Gospel. With such arguments we go on justifying imposing our culture and preferences on others in our mission and church practice.
I say imposing because as sociology and anthropology prove, when two cultures meet, you don’t so much get a hybrid mixture, rather one will dominate the other. And the really important insight is that the culture which ends up dominant is not necessarily that of the larger group, but rather the one with higher educational and financial power – certainly not gospel values!
Greater understanding of how evangelism works has also opened our eyes to the corporate dimension. A not-yet Christian on a journey to Christ encounters the Gospel lived out both in a messenger but also in a gospel community. If that gospel community is of a different social or cultural group then it is made much more difficult for the not-yet Christian to respond. In addition to the barrier of the cost of the gospel, there are now also the twin barriers of the community expression of the gospel failing to communicate in his/her culture/language and then this presents the need to become part of a ‘foreign faith community.’
The conclusion is that we need to put no extra barriers and the not-yet Christian should, wherever possible, not only hear the gospel in their dialect, but see and experience it lived by a group in their culture and be able to join a gospel community of their culture.
Put in everyday terms, we or our teenagers or our homeless or our art community need to be able to say to any friends, ‘Come and see, come and spend time with us, we are a group of folk just like you – except Jesus is transforming us!’
This principle of creating churches that are appropriate to the culture is based on the mission model of Jesus, which is incarnation. Jesus left heaven, laid it all aside and became one of us. Whilst never turning anyone away, his clear mission focus was to ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ and so he commissioned his disciples (Matthew 10:5).
Each new church needs as far as possible to be born out of the culture in which it is set for it to be authentic. This means that cross-cultural mission church planters have to learn Paul’s lesson to ‘become a Jew to reach Jews and a Greek to reach Greeks … becoming all things to all men … in order to win some’ (1 Corinthians 9:20). It’s not just a matter of planting a church to reach them, so much as a church arising among them.
These principles are expressed more fully in Mission-shaped Church. This incarnational pattern of mission to create church of each context is likened to a seed (the gospel embedded in a small mission team) falling into the ground and dying, so that it may become many new seeds (fresh expressions of church), as pictured in John 12:24. Each new fresh expression planted emerges from a synthesis of the gospel lived and communicated by the mission team and the receiving culture.
However, it would not be fair to suggest that objections to HUP are simply wrong or misguided. They too are founded on sound biblical principle. So, before you think that we are only putting all the arguments on one side, let us look at the main argument on the other side.
In the last hundred years we have learnt so much about the evils of cultural prejudice and segregation. The promoting of homogenous church groups sounds to be rather like this … so isn’t it wrong too? Not only has Jesus made us all one in a new humanity, he has done it by tearing down the dividing wall that separated mankind from one another based on cultures (especially Jew and Gentile) and by ending the hostility and enmity that separated us (Ephesians 2:1-8). Paul even seals the argument that there is now neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Galatians 3:28). I’m sure he would have added today, neither old nor young!
This seems so clear cut that it appears to end the argument as conclusively as seemed our reasoning on the other side. But when confronted by apparently contradictory biblical principles we can’t simply jump one side of the fence or the other. That would be to embrace one truth and deny others. Nor can we jump from one side of the argument to the other depending on how the question is put (which I have heard some theologians do). That’s what Greek linear thought does to us. Hebrew thought on the other hand holds together apparent opposites for resolution. In fact, there are four foundational Christian truths that relate to the homogenous/heterogeneous question. We have in fact already referred to all four:
Of the four, three clearly support homogenous expressions of church whilst one challenges us to go beyond that. Hopefully you can recognise that I have drawn on all three of the theologies of creation, incarnation and justice for the poor to support homogenous, inculturated expressions of church. But I have also identified that reconciliation requires something more.
Resolution of homogenous and heterogeneous
If you have followed with us so far, now we find the resolution of the apparent conflict that we suggested at the beginning. We have to find ways that in time and space all four truths can be worked out and held together in the life and practice of mission and church.
Time: With the imperative for mission and evangelism, we have established that not-yet-Christians should preferably be able to start by hearing the gospel in their language; seeing it lived by a group of Christians of their culture and being able to join such a community to be discipled without crossing a culture gap. However, as they continue in discipleship, it is most important that new Christians are exposed to Christians from other cultures and social groups.
It is an invaluable part of any Christian’s growth to experience Christian community that is different from their culture. In fact, this is itself a most powerful witness to the reconciling work of the Cross of Christ that the world may know (John 17:23). It is also the proof against our developing a relative gospel that is actually justification based on our culture rather than grace.
This is no gospel at all – it’s just being ‘bewitched!’ (Galatians 1:6-7 & 3:1). We all need exposure to the ‘Global Christ’ to keep us rooted in grace. So time is the first dimension that opens up the possibility to have homogenous communities as incarnational starting points from which Christians move on and out to engage with different Christian cultures to grow in their discipleship.
Structure: This is the second element: that of space and size, providing a context to reconcile homogenous and heterogeneous communities’ expressions of church.Church is not a single static structure or unit, nor was it ever intended to be. Once again we have been trapped into a false position by accepting the lie that church is a one day a week religious event in a special building.
Once we recover church as seven days a week lifestyle community, forming and reforming in lots of gatherings of different styles and sizes, then we are liberated to express both the homogenous and the heterogeneous in ways that all of us can be fully involved in both. The contradiction evaporates, the conflict is emptied and no longer do we have to fight one corner or the other!
So how may this structural resolution work out in practice? Well, answers may be found in several expressions of church from network church, to mid-size missional communities (sometimes called clusters), to local churches developing Messy Church, café church, youth church or outreach communities, and so on. But all part of a matrix and inter-relating periodically and mixing from time to time. These are then places where the homogenous and heterogeneous are held in tension, where homogenous communities form and meet regularly, and then gather together with the wider church community in different patterns and frequencies.
Sometimes it is simply a case of a ‘mother church’ bringing all the ‘daughter communities’ together, in the style and culture of the centre, but at other times this may not be appropriate. One of the best ways to cultivate a sense of unity is around food. In Sheffield we have seen so many examples of food bringing homogenous communities together in a way that nothing else can. Take music for example. In today’s multi-media multi-shaped world, music style is one of the strongest culture carriers. Hence, gatherings that bridge between different cultures and generations are often best to minimise the music. Shared worship without music can be fine, but worship styles in general can often be hard to bridge. On the other hand, cross-cultural cuisine is a positive attraction – everyone loves a foreign dish! So eating together is one of the best ways to integrate people from different homogenous groups.
In fact, all forms of social interaction tend to be excellent for bridge building. Doing practical projects together with a fresh focus also takes attention off differences. This is also true of doing mission together. This can be both unifying and provide the creative challenge of encountering the gospel in different stories and metaphors.
The key is that community is never static and so when it gathers into multi-layers of different sizes, there is every scope for mixing up Christians of as great a diversity as is present in the region. And that doesn’t begin to include the cross-cultural experiences possible through short-term teams that are sent and received nationally and inter-nationally.
The fullest expression of reconciliation requires homogenous units!
Hopefully you can already see how socially, missionally and theologically the weight of the argument favours homogenous Christian communities, but not in place of a heterogeneous Church. Of the four theologies we highlighted earlier, three tended towards explicitly homogenous expressions. But even the fourth theology, that of reconciliation, relies on homogenous expressions for its fullest realisation. Let’s explain.
For the full measure of reconciliation to be worked out, we need the corporate meeting of different social, cultural and generational groups. When the two meet, we are not looking for a mixing of the two cultures – a sort of mayonnaise! Each has to experience the cultural community of the other, for the very essence of culture is relational and social. The corporate Christ in one culture has to engage with the corporate Christ in the other. We talked before about food. Well, we have seen Gentile community joining a Messianic Jewish community for Passover, followed by the Messianic Jews joining the Gentiles for a bacon prayer breakfast – and certainly the Kingdom was powerfully at work in both places.
Again, to see the depth of this truth, we have to be very practical. If I visit a Christian community/church of a different culture and am received as one with them, I experience and may be challenged by the different Jesus expressed in their community. But they in turn, do not experience my culture as I’m on my own. The predominant outworking of reconciliation is one-way. Only if they as a group together engage with me and a group of Christians of my culture, do both groups experience the corporate Jesus expressed in the distinct interactions and social patterns of each group.
So surprise, surprise! The theology of reconciliation does point us to heterogeneous engagement. But it’s not complete unless we also have authentic homogenous, corporate cultural expressions of each – building bridges collectively to one another. So even our fourth theology requires the homogenous in order to open up the full measure of the heterogeneous reconciliation in Jesus!
This is an appropriate point to draw the threads together. We hope that we can now begin to see the answers to this complex question, that the fullest expression of the reconciling and unifying power of the gospel is only experienced when indigenous, homogenous groups do exist and they come together to experience one another’s different gospel communities.
When one or two individuals from one culture join a large Christian group of a different culture this is good, but the exchange is largely one way. The ‘outsiders’ experience the ‘insiders’ culture. One culture still predominates. On the other hand, both cultural expressions of church experience the fullest challenge and work towards true gospel unity when the two corporate expressions meet together and accept one another. This inter-relationship honours and respects the integrity of each, each is challenged by the other, neither being submerged by the other! This is the Kingdom of God!
And this also gives us a right perspective on a fifth key theology – the truth which tells us where it is all leading – the end times, or eschatology. Some have argued that at the end everything will be heterogeneous as all barriers are completely removed and we are fully one. Every tribe, tongue and nation united around their God (Revelation 5:9-10; 15:4 and 22:26). But this again misses the point. Tribes and tongues will still be recognisable. Culture only exists as it is socially expressed. So every tribe and tongue will still be present and preserved in its cultural identity whilst also being perfectly at one with all the others. Heterogeneous doesn’t replace homogenous – it will be both together. We shall experience perfect heterogeneously homogenous communities!