August 2, 2010
Down with the Homogeneous Unit Principle?
Can we call our church model “biblical” if we’re not reaching out to everyone?
Ninety-five percent African American, five percent other. These are the demographics of the Chicago neighborhood where our three-month-old church has been planted. I am “other.” White. One hundred percent white. As the pastor of this young church plant, I have lost sleep over these percentages.
Most of the church planting models and examples I’ve been exposed to are very different from my current cross-cultural experience. In the recent past, the Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP) was viewed positively as the rationale for starting churches of demographically similar people. This principle states that it is easier for people to become Christians when they must cross few or no racial, linguistic, or class barriers. Ideally, then, these new churches were led by pastors whose culture, class, and skin color closely matched those of their flocks.
The HUP is seen less favorably these days, but it remains common for church planters to target culturally similar people. Categories such as cultural elites, the creative class, or young professionals may sound exotic but are often used to describe people most like the church planter.
Take the recent urban church-planting trend. Like me, many of these church-planters are not native to the city. So why are they leaving suburbia to start urban churches? In a recent blog post, Tim Keller identifies what I think is the primary motivation for many of these church plants:
“For the last twenty years, since 1990, American cities have experienced an amazing renaissance. People began moving back into cities in droves, and downtown/center cities began to regenerate at their cores.”
In other words, the children who grew up in homogeneous suburban churches are moving into America’s cities, followed closely by the next generation of church planters. The result? Young, urban, and homogeneous churches.
To be absolutely clear, I believe we need new churches that reach everyone. Not only that, we need many types of churches to reach many types of people. Yet I am increasingly surprised at how few churches and church-planters seem interested in extending the gospel to people unlike themselves. Why is this?
There are good reasons to be hesitant about cross-cultural church planting. As a white man pastoring a multi-ethnic church in a historically African-American neighborhood, I’ve become exceedingly aware of the perils. Anxieties about patriarchy, inexperience with racism, and ignorance about other cultures and histories are realities I must deal with directly and repeatedly. Additionally, most of us are keenly aware of how difficult it is to bridge racial and class divisions. The amount of humility and patience needed to do so can seem super-human and—to be frank—not worth the effort. In fact, if not for the nature of the Gospel itself, the pitfalls of non-homogeneous ministry are enough to dissuade even the most cross-culturally adept church planter.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul identifies himself both as “the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles” and “a servant of the gospel.” It is this gospel that has “brought near through the blood of Christ” those who were once divided by a “wall of hostility.” God chose Paul, a Jew, to proclaim and demonstrate the reconciling gospel to people completely unlike himself. The power of God’s atoning work through Jesus was displayed throughout the Roman Empire through the unlikely medium of a Jewish messenger and the powerful message of reconciliation through Christ.
The same unlikely medium and message are needed today, and homogeneous models of church planting are ill suited for the task. When Paul pleads with the early churches to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bonds of peace,” he has something far more compelling in mind than the ecclesial squabbles we might imagine. The very reputation of the gospel is on the line as cultural enemies are invited into a new family together. Is the same not true in our day?
A lot of energy is currently being expended debating which church models are most Biblical. House or mega? Plant or second site? Video or campus pastor? These may be important questions, but any model that fails to take seriously the reconciliation envisioned by Paul will also fail to fully communicate the Gospel message with power.
Paul’s cross-cultural church planting model not only demonstrates the Gospel’s power, it also has pastoral benefits for a new church. More so than a life-long suburbanite, a pastor who grew up in the city is better able to shed gospel light on the suburban idols of comfort, privacy, and safety. A Hispanic pastor with an innate cultural understanding of community may foster more unity and interdependence among a predominantly white congregation than any small group ministry ever could. These are generalizations, of course, but they show the benefits when old lines of division are crossed with care for the sake of the gospel.
Again, we need new churches of all different types. Thanks be to God that whatever the shortcomings of our strategies, it is his church and mission. Even so, we must continue to choose church-planting models whose very essence displays, as Paul puts it, “the mystery of Christ.” On those restless nights when I doubt my ability to pastor those so different than myself, it is this mystery that finally puts me to sleep.