Challenging the homogenous church growth principle


You may never have heard of Donald McGavran but if you look at the churches you know you may see his theory of church growth at work. McGavran was a third generation missionary kid who was brought up in India where he observed that men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers. This insight led McGavran to develop a theory of culturally aware mission practices and theories known as the homogenous church growth principle (HCGP). Eddie Gibbs summarises that McGavran developed a ‘people-group’ approach to evangelism, not as a device for segmenting the market to invite people like us but as a strategy for penetrating the mission fields of the world. He was interested in meeting people on their own turf and identifying with the seeker. The Homogeneous Church Growth movement (HCGM) has been hugely influential in the way we view mission in all areas of the world, including the urban west.

McGavran’s main claim is that people refuse Christ not for religious reasons, not because they love their sins, but precisely because they love their brethren…[the] main problem is how to present Christ so that men can truly follow Him without traitorously leaving their kindred. From this observation, McGavran developed a church growth model that encourages the establishment of churches within homogenous units, churches which are designed to exploit existing social networks and stratification. McGavran notes that like reaches like and this is most effective when people are not required to leave their homogeneous unit and join other people. He notes that people prefer to join churches whose members look, talk and act like themselves. It is this “people consciousness”, according to McGavran, which greatly influences when, how and to what extent the gospel will flow through that segment of social order. Thus, when allocating mission resources, homogeneous units are labelled by the HCGM as “resistant” or “receptive” to the gospel and such units may coexist in one geographical area. One great fallacy, according to McGavran, is that people suppose that the church grows in a geographical area, when as a matter of fact it always grows in people themselves – usually a homogeneous unit of society.

The positive marks of the HCGM include rapid growth of first generation churches. This growth marks them out as distinctive and makes their method attractive to mission minded church leaders. I am going to blog on the positive implications of McGavran’s work for mission but show that homogenous churches that form within multicultural societies deny, by their very existence, that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ alone and lead long term to Christian immaturity.

Other posts on the homogenous church growth principle:
What happens to homogenous churches?
Getting the direction of homogenous growth right.
Church Leadership and homogenous church.
Anti-homogenous church in the Sermon on the Mount.
Anti-homogenous church in Romans.
Anti-homogenous church in Ephesians.

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12 Responses to Challenging the homogenous church growth principle

  1. Ros says:

    I have to say that I’m struggling to see anything positive in the homogeneous church movement so I’ll be interested to see what you come up with. It seems to me entirely the opposite of Jesus’ own strategy for calling disciples – he wanted people to choose him over their homes and families and lands. He didn’t make it easy for the rich men who were asked to sell all they had and give to the poor. I think it’s also pretty far removed from the NT vision of the church which included Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female.

    People may ‘prefer to join churches whose members look, talk and act like themselves’ but the church is meant to be full of people who are different and celebrate that diversity. In fact, the church is full of people who are different. And a local church which isn’t is missing out.

    Okay – tell me what’s good about this, then…

  2. Thame says:

    I do not know if you are familiar the Mosaix Global Network or not, but they seek to promote the growth of effective heterogeneous churches and ministries. Here is their website – http://www.mosaix.info

    • neilrobbie says:

      Hi Thame, welcome to TG. Thanks for the link, it looks very interesting. I believe that heterogenous churches emerge in multi-cultural communities when members of the church love Christ crucified and are willing to suffer for him by giving up their cultural norms (Romans 15:7). I pray that the glory of Christ crucified will be the focus of all Mosaix churches and that heterogenity with not be the end itself. Your bro, Neil

  3. Thame says:

    Thanks Neil. I pray the same. God bless – Thame

  4. Thich says:

    Hi there,

    I just stumbled upon your page while I was checking through my own blog!

    I’ve read this book as well and McGavran brings a lot of good insight to church growth and I too agree there are positive aspects to his model of church growth, but I also the negative sides as well.

    I come from an ethnic Vietnamese church in Canada and have struggled with the implications of what it means to be a Christian who happens to be a 2nd Generation Vietnamese person.

    I’ve come to the understanding that the church that God intended *has* to be multicultural. First generation churches have their places in bringing different minority groups into the fold and the children of these first generation immigrants in turn have the opportunity to become reverse-missionaries (to return to their mother countries) or to create multicultural churches.

    I write about some of the challenges of moving towards a multicultural framework over at my blog as well!

    Thanks for your post!

    -Thich

    http://crosscultured.wordpress.com

    • neilrobbie says:

      Hi Thich

      Welcome to TG. I’m glad you are thinking through hetrogenous/homogenous church issues and I look forward to reading your blog. I will be really interested to see what you have to say about indigenous church and its role in the invitation, welcome and adaptation of church culture as Christians from other cultures arrive on the scene. We have an ethnically Punjabi congregation which meets in our church building on a Sunday afternoon. Our first joint mission event is coming up on 20th March called “A feast for all nations” (Isa 25) – a celebration of life, cultures and Jesus Christ.

      Go well, Neil

  5. Cathy McKay says:

    Hi Neil,
    I know this is a late comment, but I’m encouraged to read your post.

    The glory goes to Jesus when it is really obvious that his powerful gospel brings together – people who would never otherwise be family. Completely and wonderfully unnatural.

    I’ll enjoy following up with the rest you have written. thanks!

    • neilrobbie says:

      Hi Cathy, welcome to TG. Thanks for your comment. We’ve noticed the power of the gospel of Christ to unite people in the multicultural areas where we’ve lived. The local church is the only organisation I’ve seen where people of different backgrounds really love, accept and care for one another.

  6. I know this is an old blog, but the issue is still very much around. I think homogeneous unit principle (hup) is a great idea for certain kind of mission in certain places, and should not be unfairly criticized for its perceieved weaknesses. Wrongly conceived, i think some people are overinterpreting it to make it look as if it is a racial principle to segregate others from us and justify racism. I think this is unfair. As a missiological princple, it is not without its own shortcomings, but it has certainly underscored the success of the people movement missions of the last thirty years, with its great results.

  7. neilrobbie says:

    Hi Jeff, thanks for your comment and welcome to TG. I think I said as much as you did in the article above. Have you read anything else I’ve written on this blog? If you press the “Hetrogenous Church” category link at the bottom of the post you’ll find lots of articles on this subject. The one on Paul’s letters to the Romans and Ephesians might be of particular interest to you.

  8. Pingback: Free Online Resources for Intercultural Ministry - Face to Face Intercultural

  9. Pingback: Healing the Racial Rift in the U.S., Beginning with the Church | Life Reconsidered

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