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Unity and Diversity in the Family of God
© copyright 2003, Antonio Carlos Barro, Ph.D.
Without a doubt, the homogeneous unit principle is the most controversial of all church growth principles. Donald A. McGavran, the founder of the Church Growth Movement, began to write on the HUP in 1936 and elaborated it into a fully detailed principle in his book The Bridges of God, published in 1955. Later he founded the Institute of Church Growth, later leading to the establishment of the Fuller Theological Seminary's School of World Mission in Pasadena, CA, which became the center from where his ideas spread throughout the world.
As a prophet of any new movement, McGavran made many comments that not only shaped the view of the church’s mission regarding to its growth, but also he received many critiques about his positions and his theology. Among his positions, HUP was the one that received more criticisms.
The focus of this essay is to look at the Homogeneous Unit Principle from a Third World perspective. However, we respectfully do it for all that McGavran represents to all evangelicals and specially for the growth of the church scattered throughout the world.
First, a definition of terms is in order. Secondly, the biblical and theological considerations of this principle will be examined. Thirdly, the results of the application of this principle will be discussed, and finally a case from McGavran’s Understanding Church Growth will be analyzed.
The Homogeneous Unit Principle Origin
Donald McGavran says,
The homogeneous unit is simply a section of society in which all the members have some characteristics in common. Thus a homogeneous unit (or HU, as it is called in church growth jargon) might be a political unit or sub-unit, the characteristic in common being that all the members live within certain geographical confines (1980:95).
He goes on to say that "the homogeneous unit is an elastic concept, its meaning depending on the context in which it is used. However, it is a most useful tool for understanding church growth" (1980:96).
To my understanding, his definition is not very clear mainly because he says that HU is an elastic concept. It leaves the doors open for everything. It is a broad definition. However, C. Peter Wagner defines it clearly.
Such a section of society (HU) can be a culture or language, a tribe or caste, a clan or geographical unit. The members of a homogeneous unit think of themselves as enjoying a common bond of unity, simultaneously feeling different from other. The term is also frequently used as an adjective, such as in homogeneous unit church, meaning a church characterized by having members of just one social group (1979:64). Thanks to this statement we now know what HU really means.
According to McGavran, Homogeneous Unit is a principle (1980:243). Principle is defined by the New Webster’s Dictionary as a comprehensive and fundamental rule, doctrine or assumption. Thus, we can understand that principle is law; that is, it must be applied every time in every circumstance.
When we translate this into a biblical language, we have problems because we don’t see this principle clearly stated in the Scriptures (Shenk, 1973:21, 22). Therefore, if HU lacks biblical and theological warrant (Peters, 1981:229,230), it cannot be set as a principle for the church’s mission.
The HUP was born in McGavran’s mind out of the Indian system of caste. He experienced castes coming to Christ and still remaining a separated group. Also, behind his work in India there is the American culture with the individualistic world view and the superiority of the WASP class. This led him to say that "men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers"(1980:223).
We now proceed to analyze it biblically and theologically.
Unity and Plurality
The Book of Genesis introduces the account of human history by telling us about the unity between Adam and Eve and both with God. That unity was lost because of the fall. Man and woman perverted that harmony; consequently bringing a wide divide between humankind and God. This uncomfortable feeling of separation is the first result of the fall. Unity and harmony no long existed between humans and between them with God.
God’s intention from the beginning of his creation was to have a perfect harmony on earth. Everything he created was goodnature, creatures and humans. Now, with the fall, humans are expelled from God’s presence (3.23) and the earth (nature) is cursed (3.17).
Fall, as Geevarguese M. Osthathios points out, "was from unity to plurality, from one family to many warring families, from one Eden, the garden of God, to many lands of thorns and thistles" (1980:60). However, prior to the banishment from God’s presence, it is important to note that God promised to send one who will crush the serpent’s head (3:15), the articulator of human disunity.
Indeed, the disunity is accentuated with the event of the Tower of Babel. Families are scattered throughout the earth, each one speaking its own language. Wagner uses this event to show as a proof of God’s purpose in diversifying the human race (1969:111). He sees the dispersion primarily as one act of God in fulfillment of the commandment given in the garden of Eden, "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth..." (1:28), and not so much as a result of peoples’s sin.
Wagner fails to see that the order in Genesis 1:28 was given before the fall, when harmony was perfect between God, humans and nature. Thus, the gathering around the Tower of Babel was evidently a rebellion not against God’s commandment, but against God himself. Again we read from Osthathios, "It is impossible to have a classless society in perfection if it is without God as the centre, and without the whole earth as its earthly limits. The mistake of the Babel community was that they wanted to put themselves in the centre" (1980:35). They looked after their own honor and intended to make their name great (Conn 1983:90).
Sin caused the fall and the flood also, and the consequences in both of them was terrible. Why can’t we attribute the dispersion as consequence of sin too?
The text after Babel attests what I am attempting to show. Even though God disperses the families throughout the earth to replenish it, he does not work with those people anymore. God calls Abraham to start a new people and a new history (Bosch 1980:61). It does not mean that God is abandoning the nations, rather the opposite is true (De Ridder 1983:175). In Abraham, God will accomplish Genesis 1:28. God says to him, "Look up at the heavens and count the starsif indeed you can count them. So shall your offspring be" (15:5).
In Christ, the blessing given to Abraham came to the Gentiles (Gal. 3:14). In Christ all nations are made one (even though cultural traits remain). In him the lost peace in the Garden of Eden is restored (Lk. 2:14). Fellowship with God is reestablished as well also brotherhood.
We now turn attention to the ministry of Jesus Christ.
Did Jesus Work Along the Homogeneous Unit Principle?
The Focus of His Ministry
a. Go to a Homogeneous Unit
Matthew 10:5b, "Do not go among Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans." Why Jesus asked his disciples not to go to the Gentiles? At this point of his ministry was he stressing homogeneous unit as Wagner (1979:118) sees it or was it simply a matter of time? Because the time for the Gentiles to hear the gospel had not come yet? (Bosch, 1983:225).
This specific instruction was made within a historical context rather than a cultural context, because Jesus himself was the first one to break the homogeneous line as we see him at the very beginning of his ministry sharing the gospel with the Samaritan woman (she belonged to the people he told his disciples not go ).
Historically Jews and Samaritans hated one another, and both Jesus and the woman knew it from the beginning of their dialogue. Jean-Marc Chappuis suggests that Jesus' action "consists in destroying the wall of separation, in raising the age-old ban, in making communication possible between people separated by their ethnic, cultural and religious traditions" (1982:14).
To the astonishment of his disciples, Jesus deliberately broke all these three walls of separation. Interesting enough, Jesus went to Samaria after his meeting with Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee and member of the Jewish ruling council. He belonged to the people to whom Jesus came (Jn. 1:11); however, Jesus did not revealed himself to him as the long-awaited Messiah. For the first time in his ministry he declared to be the Messiah and he did it to a person completely different from his homogeneous unit, to a person outside the chosen people and outside of her own society.
F.B. Westcott rightly says, "Prejudice of sex and nation were broken down by this first teaching of the Lord beyond the limit of the chosen people" (1954:146).
Another event that calls our attention is when Jesus openly declares what his ministry ought to be in Luke 4:14-30. Luke says that Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and went into the synagogue as was his custom. Jesus was not doing something unusual, people from that city knew him very well. However, when he declared to them that he is the Messiah, what happened? His homogeneous group, the people of his home town (more than any people in Israel, this was his people) sought to kill him. This event shows that homogeneous unit is not enough for the acceptance of Christ.
b. Fulfilling the Covenant
Wagner (1979:119) points out that Jesus ministry was concentrated in Galilee because he knew that the movement he was initiating needed first to be rooted solidly among Aramaic-speaking Jews, his own homogeneous unit, if it were later to gather the necessary strength to spread among Greek-speaking Jews, henceforth to the Samaritans, and later to the Gentiles; to the end of the earth.
What Wagner fails to see here is that Jesus did not concentrated his ministry among his homogeneous unit for strategic reasons. If that were the case, Jesus could start his ministry among the Romans, because they had all the political, economic and military power (later Paul made use of his Roman citizenship in order to spread the gospel).
Jesus began his ministry among the Jews in order to fulfill the covenant God made with Israel. Bright says, "For it is the unanimous affirmation of the New Testament that this Jesus is no less than the long-awaited Messiah, and that in him all the hope of Israel has found its fulfillment and become present fact" (1982:188). This is precisely what we read in John 1:11. "He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him".
He initiated his movement in Galilee (Mat. 4:12-17), in order to fulfill the promise made in Isaiah 9:1-2. Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulum and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light: on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.
c. The Selection of His Disciples
Wagner calls our attention that the Jesus inner circle was a homogeneous unit (1979:117-118), the lone exception being Judas Iscariot, a man from Kerioth of Judea. However, when we give a closer look at his inner circle we are going to find out that his disciples were not a perfect homogeneous unit.
Among his disciples we found one like Matthew. Even though he was from Galilee, he worked for the Roman Empire as a tax collector (Matthew 9:9-13). As a tax collector he was hated by everyone in Israel, "he was regarded by his fellows as being also a renegade or traitor, for he was in the service of the foreign oppressor" (Hendricksen, 1973:315). After Jesus called Matthew he went to his house and many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. The Pharisees, question was: "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?".
Why were they surprised? They were surprised because Jesus was breaking again his homogeneous unit. In that culture, eating with somebody implies fellowship and friendship. Jesus answer to them was, "For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners". It just appears to me that the sinners were Jesus homogeneous unit.
Another "stranger" person in this group was Simon the Zealot. Today, he would be considered a "left wing" militant. He was involved with group who wished to liberate Israel from Rome. Zealot was a name given to a member of a Jewish patriotic party started in the time of Cyrenius to resist Roman aggression. According to Josephus, the Zealots resorted to violence and assassination in their hatred of the Roman, their fanatical violence eventually provoking the Roman war (Tenney, 1963:908).
In Jesus band we have Matthew, who worked for Rome and Simon who works against Rome. Only Jesus could handle that situation and having both of them working together.
We conclude that the disciples were culturally a homogeneous unit, but were far from it politically and economically.
b. His "Rejected" Disciples.
After healing a man with an unclean spirit in the region of Gedarenes, Jesus did not allow him to join his team, instead told the former demoniac to return to his people and report to them the wonders of God (Mark 5:1-20).
Wagner uses this event to show that Jesus did not allow that man to follow him, because he belonged to another homogeneous unit. To my understanding that was not the reason why Jesus did not allow that man to be part of his disciples band.
Reading the text we note that when the people from the city came to see what it was that happened, those who had seen it described to them how it had happened to the demon-processed man, and all about the swine (5:16 NAS). When they hear the last part of the report, they asked Jesus to depart from their region. Their motives were more economic than spiritual. Luccock’s paraphrase of their refusal is helpful here, "You (Jesus) care for men; we care for swine, we care for the rights of property. That is where we differ. So get out" (1951:716).
In consequence of their denial to receive Jesus in their city, Jesus decided to leave the new believer among them in order to be a witness in their city, otherwise they would remain without the knowledge of the gospel.
In Mark 10:21 we see Jesus telling the rich young man (Luke 18:18 calls him a young ruler, probably a member of some official council or court; Matthew 19:20 says he was young) from the region of Judea to sell everything he possessed and than come and follow him. It was more than a cordial call, "It was an invitation to become Jesus personal follower" (Grant, 1951:804).
The rich man did not accept Jesus invitation not because he belonged to another homogeneous unit, but because he loved so much his comfortable life.
c. His Heterogeneous Disciples
Wilhelm (1987:8) says that "The Inner Circle of Jesus were men like him". Certainly his 12 historical disciples were men, but we must not forget that Jesus had others disciples, and I am not referring to the 70/72 neither the 120 in the Pentecost Day. I am referring to the women who followed Jesus.
Luke 8:1-3 tells us about a group of women who used to follow Jesus and his disciples, helping them as they preached the kingdom of God. They were very heterogeneous. There we find Mary Magdalene (see Luke 24:10), a former demoniac, walking side be side with Joana the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household, belonged to a distinguished and royal home, thus a woman of affluence and social standing and Suzana and many others.
They were homogeneous in one sense only. They were saved by their Lord Jesus Christ and wanted to serve him. Social position and class barriers were not problem for them.
Did Jesus worked along homogeneous unit? Studying his ministry (action) and teaching (words), there are strong evidences where homogeneous unit cannot stand/
We find in Matthew 8:21,22 and 10:35-39, that love for Jesus must be far superior to love for existing social ties. Love for family is not equal than love for Jesus.
Homogeneous Unit Principle Objectives
Our task now is to see the objectives of homogeneous unit in the life of the church.
According to McGavran (1980:227), "Men and women do like to become Christian without crossing barriers". C. René Padilla put the same phrase in this way, "...people generally prefer to become Christians without having to cross the barriers between one context and another" (1980:300).
My concern now is with the outcome of people’s conversion within their own homogeneous unit. After their acceptance of Christ as Lord and Savior what is going to happen with their prejudice toward other people? Is this going to be vanished away? Many critics of the Homogeneous Unit principle are not dealt with this particular point.
McGavran (1980:239) stresses,
The Christian in whose heart Christ dwells inclines toward brotherhood as waters runs down a valley... If Christ in the heart did not impel toward brotherhood, no amount of social action would help the situation. Jews and Gentiles--or other classes an races who scorn and hate one another--must be discipled before they can be made really one.
Our impression in reading the words above is that homogeneous unit will not prevail after conversion, because Christ "creates one new man in place of the two in himself " (McGavran 1980:239). However, the examples pointed out in chapter 12 of McGavran’s Understanding Church Growth points to another direction. We did not see there a single example of Christians of many different races and colors being united in one people in Christ. The prejudice and superiority remained after conversion. Regrettably what McGavran prophesied did not happen.
What would happen to the growth of the church if brotherhood between Homogeneous Unit would be brought about? The answer according to McGavran is clear: stagnation! He gives three examples of it in chapter 11 of his book Momentous Decisions in Missions Today.
Wagner is also very clear about it. "A vital sign of a healthy, growing church is that its membership is composed of basically one kind of people" (1976:110). Thus, Homogeneous Unit according to him produces: 1) a healthy church, 2) a growing numerical church and 3) a homogeneous unity.
We have a dilemma here. As a Christians we would like see brotherhood, but if brotherhood happens, the growth of the church will stop. In Homogeneous Unit thinking there cannot be both of them. One will destroy the other.
I certainly agree with McGavran (1985:106) that we should not require brotherhood as prerequisite for baptism, but we expect it after baptism. Take for example the relationship between the Mexican-American and the American here in the States. They are living close to each other for more than a hundred years and where is the brotherhood?
Andres Guerrero charges the Anglo-Saxon society (churches included) for not being open to the challenge of brotherhood. He points out,
...I believe that for the Chicanos (Mexican-American) the merger has already happened. But what has not occurred is the response from Anglo-Saxon to help develop this perspective. It would be foolish to believe that they have the intention of responding in this way. Chicanos have to wake up from their political, psychological, social, economic. and spiritual slumber. They have to take the bull by the horns and wrestle him down (1985:112,113).
He goes on to conclude, "The body of Christ cannot be one, the communion of saints cannot became a reality, if racism is permitted to prevail" (1985:153). Virgil Elizondo adds to this, "Hispanics are not welcomed nor accepted in many of the Anglo churches" (1982:63).
When the kingdom of God is inclusive, Homogeneous Unit is exclusive, it prevents the participation of the other-kind-people with "our kind of people". They must be kept apart for the success of the numerical growth of the church.
G.M.Osthathios, Metropolitan of the Orthodox Syrian Church in Kerala, South India says,"
A divided church is a poor missionary church of classless society. Casteism and discriminations within the church are an anomaly. Feuds, quarrels and litigation between the members of a so-called reconciled community are an offense to those who are not Christians" (1980:62).
I would say that the offense in primarily against God who works through Christ in order to bring peace and reconciliation on earth (Luke 2:14). When men are reconciled with God they are reconciled with their neighbor too.
By accepting that the church must work primarily with Homogeneous Unit principle for the sake of the growth, certain elements of what makes the church a real community will be missed. We name only a few of them.
1. Resources are being kept apart.
The blessing of carrying each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2) is never completed in its fully scope, but it is only restricted to some particular homogeneous unit church. The wholeness of the Body of Christ is never visualized in its completion.
I certainly agree with Neal when she states that, "By keeping people separated we accentuate the differences, weakness and power of each group. We block access for distributions and mutual enrichment" (1977:88).
Take the example of the American Churches. Most of them give generously to a lot meritorious causes, but rarely they get involved with those causes. Pastors appear to appeal to their congregations to meet the "others" brother’s needs out of pity than love.
2. The stronger community becomes authoritarian and does not want to be open for other.
Where the church, any church, is the focal center of a socioreligious community, recent research suggests that this tends to foster a provincial and authoritarian view of the world. It is these enclaves that most often known the least about other groups, their values and their customs. They are also most vulnerable to distress if general social change impinges on the security of their religious, cultural and social unity (Marden & Meyer, 1978:58).
America’s civil religion had no old tradition for coping with the invasion of one community by another. It knew only how to cope with one stranger at a time, and then by having the stranger assimilate to the dominant ethos (Neal 1977:62).
3. The community tends to become a powerless sign of the kingdom of God.
Church growth is not only church growth and period. There is something more than that. The community charges the society when it is being racist and using power to controls and manipulates other peoples (plural). The church has to say to the world that it is being demoniac in maintaining such kind of attitudes. But more than that, the church has to show to the world what is God’s intention for his creation in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:14).
Orlando Costas rightly says,
The fellowship of faith (the church) is... a sign of the coming kingdom. If the kingdom of God represents the definitive reconciliation between God and humanity, between individuals, peoples, sexes, generations, and races, and between humanity and the rest of creation--a promise that will be fulfilled in the second coming of Christ--then the community of God’s people is an overriding necessity, in order that the world might understand what the salvation that God offers in the gospel really is (1984:31,32).
Thus, when the world look at the church, it will be ashamed of its attitude, ashamed of the exploitation that is going on everywhere.
We must go forward in our task of bringing people to Christ, but in our moving let us not forget that in Christ we are really made one. We are people of his own possession (Titus 2:14).
A Contemporary Case of the Congregação Cristã do Brazil
William Read (1965) was the one who started the process of mytholization of the Congregação Cristã no Brasil Church (CCB). From that time on, this church has been used by the adherents of Church Growth Movement as an example of growth. However, it has been used without any serious studies about the real situation of that church since Read’s book.
The CCB grew from zero to over a quarter million people members in fifty-two years. This spectacular growth motivated McGavran to use the CCB church as an example for homogeneous unit principle, because the CCB started among the Italian speaking people in Brazil. He says, "...the principle that men like to become Christians without crossing class and language barriers is clearly a factor in the amazing growth" (1980:235).
In 1910, Louis Francescon and G. Lombardi, persons of Italian descent, leading by the Holy Spirit, arrived in São Paulo. Lombardi went to live in Argentina and Francescon went to another Brazilian State, returning later to São Paulo.
In the district of the Bras, an Italian speaking barrio, there was a Presbyterian Church functioning. One Sunday Francescon was given an opportunity to preach in it. W. Read describes what happened that day.
He spoke in Italian. One of the Presbyterian elders disagreed violently with the manner and message and ordered Sr. Louis out of the Church. As Louis Francescon left the Presbyterian group, others went with him, which led eventually to the splitting of this Presbyterian Church which was just getting start in the area (1965:23).
This is the beginning of the Congregação. McGavran says that the "Italians would have had to cross linguistic and class barriers and leave their own community"( 1980:235), if they want to become Christians in the well-established churches (Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran and Presbyterian).
This declaration, however, needs clarification. Francisco Rolim, a Brazilian Sociologist, points out: "In the Bras there were only Italian speaking people; schools, Catholics and Protestants churches with their teaching, worship and preaching in the Italian language" (1985:34). Thus, the affirmation that the Congregação grew because it the was the only Italian speaking church in the area does not proceed.
According to Rolim the greatest facilitator for the beginning of the Congregação was the Presbyterianism in São Paulo. It fully opened its doors to Francescon. Francescon himself describes the beginning of his church, "...near 20 souls accepted the faith and almost all of them proved from divine virtue. Part of them were Presbyterians, some Methodists and Baptists, and some were Catholics "(Francescon in Relly, 1984:382).
Having a core group of Christian people who did not have to be converted, was a great help and avenue for Francescon. They gladly accepted the news he brought from Chicago, i.e. the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This was the breakthrough and not the homogeneous unit concept. It can be attested in Francescon’s experience in Platina, prior his work in São Paulo.
In Platina he baptized 11 people and only 2 of them were Italian speaking people (his hosts). The remaining nine were Brazilians with Catholic background (Reily, 1984:382, 416). Eventually, he was expelled from that city and traveled to São Paulo. However, it shows that with homogeneous unit or without it his church would grow anyway.
Another historical factor that substantiate that homogeneous unit was note the key element for the Congregação Church increase, is the growth of the Assembly of God in Brazil.
Interesting enough, when the Congregação was starting in South of Brazil with 2 Italians, the Assembly of God was starting in North of Brazil with 2 men of Swedish origin. There they went to a Baptist church (Franciscon to a Presbyterian) and the church was divided over the matter over the Holy Spirit (we saw the same parallel in São Paulo). The church grew faster than the Congregação and today it is at least 8 times bigger than the later. However, it did not grew among the Swedish people but the Brazilians.
The common element for both of them was the introduction of the Pentecostal fervor. The same pattern of growth is found in Chile, with the Methodist Pentecostal Church at Jotabeche Street. It, too, started in 1910 and grew rapidly.
We conclude saying that the growth of the Pentecostal churches is incredible everywhere. It does not matter whether there is or there is not a homogeneous unit to path their growth.
The complexity of the issue which I tried to expose here cannot be underestimated. The amount of literature written on the subject tells us that Homogeneous Unit is not something neither here nor there. It deserves churches leaders attention.
We must recognize that the cultural and linguistic differences will remain after conversion. However, we must not tolerate the "manifest destiny", i.e. one culture is superior to another, therefore one must subdue the other.
We cannot tolerate injustice among social classes. I Christ all classes disappear. In him we are one and more than that, everything we possess is not ours but his and for his kingdom.
The church has reach a point in history where it must show maturity. The true church of Jesus Christ must take the lead and speak up against social injustice and racial discrimination. The church must not be in agreement with the status quo of the dominant classes and stop to preach a kind of soft gospel that does not harm neither challenge people’s heart and their life style.
C. René Padilla points out, "The missiology that the church needs today is not one that conceives the people of God as a quotation taken from the surrounding society, but one that conceives it as an embodied question-mark that challenges the values of the world" (1983:302). I dare to say that even the world expects the church to be like that.
In light of what Padilla states, it is rather difficult to understand McGavran’s words, "The distinctions of education, wealth, poverty, color, and occupation will remain but these will be see to be minor" (1984:98). The questions are: why will remain? Will remain because the dominant classes do not want to change? For whom these distinctions are to be considered minor? For long decades the church has been considering these distinctions minor in detriment of the weaker brothers. It is time to be major now.
"Men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic and class barriers". The Apostle Paul quoting Psalm 53:1-3 says, "There is no one who seeks God" (Romans 3:11). Paul’s quote is more agreeable with people’s response to the gospel than the former. People do not like to become Christians. They even do not prefer to become Christians. If people like to become Christians, why is that the world is not being Christianized by leaps and bounds?
In order that someone be converted (being she/he an individual with loose social ties or immersed in her/his homogeneous unit), one must be confronted with the Gospel. Perhaps one will not accept it at the first sight, but one will know that she/he is being confronted with the true gospel, "the power of God for salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jews, then for the Gentiles" (Romans l.16).
From the beginning we have unity, during our time of peregrination we have plurality within unity, but when with our precious Lord on the New Heavens and the New Earth we will have the perfect unity he planned from the beginning for his own people.
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Chappuis, Jean-Marc (1982) "Jesus and the Samaritan Woman," Evangelical Missions Quarterly October 1984, nº 4.
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