by Terry Cornett and Robert Edwards
To those aware of the recent debate concerning the “Homogeneous Unit Principle,” another in a long stream of articles on the subject may not be a welcome sight.
To those aware of the recent debate concerning the "Homogeneous Unit Principle," another in a long stream of articles on the subject may not be a welcome sight. In many ways, as John Gration recently suggested, the debate has become more academic than real (Gration, 1981). Furthermore, the principle itself does not seem to have spawned new practices on the mission field. Semantic differences regarding the definitions of key terms have been a primary source of this confusion.
According to Donald McGavran, "The homogeneous unit is simply a section of society in which all the members have some characteristic in common" (McGavran, 1970, p. 95). As stated, this could legitimately include all people with brown hair, unemployed workers in South Succotash, or any one of a thousand shared characteristics, including all people who consider themselves to be Christians. This elasticity of definition has frustrated both friends and foes of the "Homogeneous Unit Principle." The common characteristic has often been pushed to nebulous attitudinal extremes when no demographic similarities can be found. Expressing his frustration, Francis Dubose says, "…at times they stretch the philosophy to include most anything, the whole Methodist Church of India for example. Wagner even uses the concept of ‘psychological’ to classify an otherwise nonhomogeneous group like the Circle Free Church of Chicago. This is confusing, to say the least. This use of the principle is so broad, it makes it essentially worthless as a frame of reference" (Dubose, 1978, p. 131). This confusion has persisted because no theological and sociological guidelines have been constructed to define a homogeneous unit in practical terms.
C. Peter Wagner, in x, emphasizes that homogeneous units constitute a sociological reality. However, Wagner does not answer the question, Why do people feel comfortable with "their kind of people"? Edward T. Hall in his book, The Silent Language, offers a workable explanation for this phenomenon, which ". . . outlines both a theory of culture and a theory of how culture came into being. It treats culture in its entirety as a form of communication" (Hall, 1959, p. 51).
Culture consists of underlying patterns of learned behavior and attitudes toward people, institutions, and material things forming the rules by which people communicate. Therefore, effective communication is the only externally discernable characteristic shared by a group of people which constitutes a legitimate homogeneous unit. In other words, people do not feel comfortable with "their kind of people" because of some demographic similarity, but because they share a sufficient cultural foundation within which communication is possible.
This principle is particularly relevant to the proper functioning of the local church. Respected missionary theorists like Eugene Nida and David Hesselgrave have long emphasized that fruitful cross-cultural evangelism and ministry depends upon effective communication. Obviously, this truth is not limited to cross-cultural situations. Any attempt to preach, teach, evangelize, exhort, rebuke, fellowship, encourage, or discipline is useless unless Christians are able to communicate effectively among themselves and with non-Christians. Whether the ability to communicate takes place unconsciously, with some inconvenience, or across cultural barriers, it constitutes the guideline by which we can determine the legitimacy or illegitimacy of a "homogeneous unit" church.
The absence of any one of the following three essential components of culture-cognitive processes, a common language, or geographical proximity-allows for, but does not mandate, the formation of "homogeneous unit" churches. Traditionally, the church has relied upon missionaries to cross the barriers imposed by these three primary components of culture. Healthy church life is improbable when one local congregation seeks to minister throughout a large geographical area or to people of varying languages or differing cognitive processes. In terms of the "Homogeneous Unit Principle" debate, this concept needs little defense.
First, geographical distance is obviously a legitimate reason to form separate local churches. Second, "homogeneous unit" churches reflecting linguistic distinctions are certainly valuable manifestations of diversity within the universal church, as well as necessary for any in-depth communication to be possible within the local church body. Finally, differences in worldview can destroy our ability to understand one another even when speaking the same language face to face.
The local church is not responsible for overcoming the barriers imposed by cognitive processes [worldview], rather, according to Hesselgrave, ". . . the contextualization of the message by the missionary into the worldview of his respondents is in keeping with the missionary calling and the realities of culture" (Hesselgrave, 1978, p. 132). The "Homogeneous Unit Principle," if applied in reference to any one of these three primary cultural components, is not only conducive to healthy church life, but as we will show, is both biblically allowable and sociologically defensible.
However, "homogeneous unit" churches formed around cultural characteristics that are more specific than those outlined above are not biblically defensible and may not even be sociologically beneficial. Commonality in geography, language, and cognitive process comprise the subconscious foundation from which effective communication can flow in spite of subcultural differences. The New Testament clearly teaches that the local church should transcend subcultural distinctives.
Socio-economic status, vocation, special interest groupings and racial or ethnic distinctions (not based upon differences in language, geography, or worldview) are several such distinctions that the New Testament example specifically does not allow to divide the local church.
Regarding socio-economic status, the New Testament narrative sets a clear pattern for relations within the local body. Paul exhorts those of higher status to associate with the lowly (Romans 12:16). Slave and free were commanded by Paul to set aside such differences, bearing with one another, so that they could dwell in perfect unity (Colossians 3:11-15). James chapter two takes for granted the presence of both rich and poor worshiping together in the same assembly. Thus, "homogeneous unit" churches organized around socio-economic lines are an ongoing denial of basic New Testament teaching. As McGavran rightly concludes, "If class distinctions continue, they do so in spite of the Christian faith, not because of it. Brotherhood is part of the basic theology of the Christian church" (McGavran, 1970, p. 239).
Voluntary group associations such as political parties, trade unions, social clubs, or hobby associations are largely a phenomena of developed societies and are not specifically dealt with in Scripture. The intention to start separate "house churches" for Democrats, health food enthusiasts, or Rotarians is, however, inherently problematic. These voluntary associations in no way hinder the ability of their members to communicate effectively with members of other groups. In fact, if all are present in the same body, differences of this kind are valuable avenues of evangelism and personal enrichment. Similarly, vocational diversity within one local congregation is also consistent with New Testament teaching (Philemon and Onesimus, for instance), and again does not threaten the potential for in-depth interpersonal communication.
The prominent role of cultural conflict within Acts provides an excellent pattern to follow when managing the problems rising from ethnic diversity. As Francis Dubose observes, "… when the conflict arose over the alleged favoritism shown to Judaic Hebrew widows above Hellenistic Hebrew widows, the solution was not to divide these people according to their ethnic and cultural differences. The solution was to handle the problem administrationally. Thus, deacons were selected to give special attention to such matters that there might be unity in the church" (Dubose, 1978, p. 127).
Even racial diversity did not hinder the heterogeneous composition of the early church. Leadership, much less the congregation at Antioch, not only included Jews and Gentiles, but also a black man named Simeon.
God clearly intends for his people to communicate the gospel to non-Christians and to be able to communicate among themselves in order to edify the brethren. The consistent biblical example clearly demonstrates that sub-cultural barriers across which effective communication is possible should be overshadowed by our fellowship and unity in one faith, one baptism, and one Spirit.
We believe that Scripture clearly argues for subcultural heterogeneity within the local church, and while we believe that this is sufficient grounds in and of itself, it is interesting to note that recent sociological and psychological investigation seems to confirm that this type of heterogeneity is necessary for proper growth and development.
Research suggests that a heterogeneous group is more conducive to leadership emergence and development. In Handbook of Leadership: A Survey of Theory and Research, Ralph Stogdill points out that attempts to lead are more successful in groups of varying social status than when only one social stratum is represented (Stogdill, 1974, p. 232). The increased incidence of internal conflict within a heterogeneous group will through their resolution promote the emergence and development of leaders. Scripturally, conflict within the church was not avoided or ignored by separating the parties involved, but rather it was resolved by the leadership, so that the body was edified and unity was maintained (Acts 6:1-7, James 1:2-4).
Homogeneity not only adversely affects leadership emergence and development, but has been shown to deter moral and cognitive development as well. Piaget theorized that people develop or mature cognitively and morally as they experience and resolve conflicts. In a recent study, Muhammad Masquad demonstrated that ". . . the moral judgment scores of the subjects who were exposed to a heterogeneous educational environment were significantly higher than those of the subjects who were subjected to a homogeneous school environment" (Journal of CrossCultural Psychology, March 1979). Masquad suggests that two types of heterogeneity are conducive to moral maturity. First, "horizontal" heterogeneity where people of the same age interact with others of diverse social backgrounds. Second, "vertical" heterogeneity where people interact with differing age groups within their own subcultural groupings. Masquad states that "Both types of social heterogeneity in normal circumstances tend to promote the development of moral judgment. Masquad’s interpretations are in line with the idea presented by Piaget (1932), Langer (1969), and Turiel (1974) that ‘moral conflicts cause cognitive imbalance and their resolution advances the development of moral judgment’ " (Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 1977). In light of this, we conclude that though the effects of a "homogeneous unit" church may be positive with respect to numerical growth, they are negative in their propensity to inhibit Christian maturity. Admittedly, this research is not the final word, but it does point out the directions that social science research into the "Homogeneous Unit Principle" must take, if that research hopes to be probing the heart of the issue.
Thus, we conclude that homogeneous churches may exist, though they are not required to, along the broader cultural lines of language, cognitive process (worldview), and geography. Even though homogeneous units based on subcultural variations are outwardly and consciously different, they do share the nonconscious base for in-depth communication within their larger culture.
Given this capacity and the work of the Spirit, those conscious distinctions of subcultural heterogenity should wither in light of our unity in Christ. Effective communication, the prerequisite capacity for maintaining the proper intrachurch relations necessary for healthy growth, life and maturity, constitutes the only criterion around which "homogeneous unit" churches should be formed. Scriptural as well as sociological obligations constrain local churches to transcend subcultural barriers in order to exemplify the fulness of Christ within our larger culture. Therefore, the legitimate and defensible homogeneous unit is simply a section of society in which all the members share the nonconscious base for effective communication in common.
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