I can remember over 15 years ago now, having a memorable conversation with my pastor at that time. I was a student pastor way back then and eager to fix our church which I thought was becoming irrelevant in its community and in danger of dying. I had been reading a lot of ‘how to’ books. ‘How to grow your church’, ‘How to have a successful youth ministry’ etc. I don’t think they were the exact titles but you get the idea. I remember having a conversation with him once about the nature and organisation of church. He told me about his concern and disagreement with most churches at that time which were separating people into various ages, cultures and ‘tribes’ so that more quantitative growth would happen. I recall him lamenting that this was not what the church was all about. Well of course I knew better and only half listened to him while all the time thinking how old fashioned his view sounded. I argued back at him by pointing to the ‘proof’ and the ‘results’ right before our eyes, that this segregation was the main reason why most churches were growing and ours was not! I now look back on that conversation and actually realise how ahead of his time my pastor really was.
The Church Growth Movement
As we know, this practice of segregating people into homogenous groups was called the ‘homogenous unit principle’ and it was a very strong conviction especially in the late 20th century coming through the Church Growth Movement at that time. This movement took from behavioural psychology and marketing principles applying them to the church in order to especially produce more quantitative growth. Even though the church growth movement had its beginnings in the context of international missions, this movement morphed in various ways over the decades and began to take on more characteristics from our culture’s trends, namely that of pragmatism, consumerism and hedonism which stem from business and marketing principles. This was a cultural trend that affected the church as it absorbed these principles and resulting practices uncritically and applied them to its structures and identity. One practice in this trend was segregation. The father of the Church Growth Movement Donald McGavran, believed that people came to Christ more easily if they were around others who were similar to them. He stated, ‘People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers…The world’s population is a mosaic, and each piece has a separate life of its own that seems strange and unlovely to men and women in other places’ (1). Segregation was therefore seen as desirable in order to maximise growth.
A Watered- down Expression of the Kingdom
Many people today are waking up to the not so helpful consequences of the church’s capitulation to this cultural trend of segregation as it applied the homogenous unit principle. Often when the church takes on cultural trends uncritically, what happens is that the radical nature of the gospel is watered down in order to make it more palatable and easily practiced. This is the situation with the church’s acceptance of the pragmatic solution to separate people into different ages, life status, compatibility and race for the goal of growth. Instead, the gospel calls us to reach for the higher standard of deeply connecting with and learning from those who are different to us rather than comfortably staying within our known and safe spaces which reflect our personal preferences. Colossians 3:11 says that in our renewal ‘there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!’ And in Revelation 6:9 the ideal heavenly picture that we presumably should be moving towards while here on earth, is of a ‘multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages’ standing before Christ.
The Consequences of the Homogeneity Principle Today
The consequences of this church practice are varied today. We see churches that tend to look similar in terms of their cultural make up and we see programs and congregations being developed for particular ages and cultures for instance, all neatly partitioned so that hopefully growth and connection happens more quickly. There is now a natural and normal expectation for example that children must have separate ‘children’s church’ and youth have ‘youth church’ and other cultures or sub-cultures have church designed to meet their specific needs. As the pastor of a local church what grieves me is this; firstly, that this expectation has become so natural that it is hardly challenged and secondly, that various ages and cultures are missing out on learning from each other and experiencing the kingdom together. We see today a ‘counter’ homogenous principle movement rising up, which encourages more inter-generational participation. This is effectively what my pastor from all that time ago was talking to me about. The kingdom is about variety, difference, diversity rather than homogeneity. However, these kinds of counter the church culture movements struggle to get their message across because the homogeneity principle has been so ingrained in us. How difficult is it for example to help adults in the congregation understand that including children as a part of ‘normal’ church life is an aid for the spiritual growth of the family? Rather than creating another children’s program where they are whisked away to the segregated space of ‘Children’s church’, what about allowing them to participate ‘with’ the adults. This goes beyond putting on a children’s talk for the kiddies every Sunday morning. We want to do ministry ‘with’ the children rather than simply ‘for’ them. Of course, I’m not saying that there is no room whatsoever for separate activities for various ages and cultures. Only that this should not be our default position as people who now inhabit the diverse kingdom of God.
At our church we are currently trying to integrate with our Korean congregation members to form one community. We used to have a separate Korean congregation which has ended and at least for the time being, integration needs to happen. I have loved working through together the issue of what integration really means in our context. But it has also been challenging not only because different cultures are now in the same proximity and because of language differences, but because of the mindset of segregation which exists as the normal expectation among Christians. Recently, one of our worship leaders as he led worship one Sunday morning, inserted into a song the chorus of ‘How Great is our God’ in Korean. Was it a struggle for many in the congregation to sing? Yes. Did it make ‘worship’ a little more awkward’? Yes. But did we feel like it was a more adequate and beautiful expression of the kingdom of God? Yes! We all felt like we had a taste of heavenly worship that day as the many ‘tribes’ and nations of various ages and cultures gathered around the throne together praising Jesus the king of this kingdom which we are a part of now.
We live in a world that craves connectivity today. What better solution for this than practicing the kingdom values of diversity, heterogeneity and an inter-generational paradigm in order to join with God on his mission to reconcile our world?
How have you encountered the homogeneity principle in church which has perhaps been practiced uncritically in a context?
—[Image by Manu Arjuna, CC via Flickr]
1. Ralph H. Elliot, “Dangers of the Church Growth Movement”, Christian Century, August 12-19,1981.