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Reflections on the Homogeneous Unit Principle: part 1 of 4

CMS Director of Training and Development David Williams introduces a series of reflections on the Homogeneous Unit Principle. In this first of four articles, he defines this influential mission idea and gives a history of its development. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. Part 4 is here.

We are beginning a series of Checkpoint articles that reflect on the Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP). What is the HUP? As it was originally stated, the HUP says that “people prefer to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic and class barriers.”[1] The HUP has shaped church growth thinking for the last sixty years and its influence is clear in a range of contexts – whether we are talking DMM strategies in predominantly Muslim context or church planting methodologies in suburban Sydney. In this first article I will review the historical context in which the HUP was developed. In future articles we will explore its development before unpacking its different components.

Historical Context of the Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP)

When we are talking about the Homogeneous Unit Principle, we are talking about American Missiologist Donald McGavran. But in order to understand McGavran, it’s good to be aware of the influences that shaped his thinking. And McGavran was particularly influenced by the writing of Roland Allen. Allen was a British missionary who served in China from 1895 to 1903. His time in China was brought to a premature end by ill health. But it would probably be fair to say that his mission leaders breathed a bit of a sigh of relief about that. Allen was critical of traditional mission practices. He didn’t like the whole model of western mission in China. He wrote two seminal books that were so radical that during his lifetime nobody took much notice of them. The first was called “Missionary Methods, Paul’s or ours?”[2] The second was “The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the causes that hinder it.”[3] Allen wrote in the early years of the 20th century. He said about his own books “I don’t think they will be understood until I’ve been dead 10 years.” He was right. His work only received attention much later – around the time that Donald McGavran was beginning his research.

Donald McGavran is the father of the church growth movement and the man behind the homogeneous unit principle. McGavran was American and a third generation missionary in India. One striking similarity between Roland Allen and Donald McGavran was their willingness to challenge the status quo in mission. Both men stepped outside of the mission structures they were operating in. Both were unafraid to challenge radically what was considered normal practice. But while Roland Allen was largely ignored, by the time McGavran was writing, the mission world was ready for change.

The mission station model

The context that both Allen and McGavran were especially reacting against was the “mission station” model of mission. For Allen in China and McGavran in India, mission traditionally happened from mission stations.

A classic 19th or early 20th century mission station was a compound, set slightly apart from the local community. It would usually include a clinic or hospital, perhaps a school, a chapel, some missionary accommodation. In many parts of the world, the mission station would have been surrounded by a wall encircling the compound.

McGavran was primarily reacting against the mission station model. This was what he had grown up in as a missionary kid and this was the model he was expected to operate by. McGavran had two major problems with the mission station model. The first was that the results, in terms of people becoming Christians, were in his experience tiny. A trickle of conversions. The second problem was that the mission station model is extractionist, at least as McGavran experienced it. It expected that local people coming to faith in Christ would be extracted from their local culture in order to become Christians. An extractionist model of mission says: “to become a Christian, you must stop being like you and start being like me.”

Individual decision-making versus interdependent decision-making

Another contextual factor that McGavran was grappling with relates to how people in different cultures make decisions. The model of mission that McGavran was frustrated with assumed an individual decision-making culture. People were evangelised as individuals and invited to respond to the gospel one by one. But McGavran knew that in many cultures around the world, that isn’t how decisions are made. When the NBN was rolled out in our street, each house received a letter asking us if we wanted broadband. Each house made its own decision. Our street was not approached collectively and asked if we all wanted to opt for broadband at the same time.

But in other cultures, communities make decisions together, not alone. One of McGavran’s co-workers was a man who is perhaps Australia’s most famous missiologist – Alan Tippett. Tippett and McGavran talked about cultures that are “multi-individual, mutually interdependent” decision making cultures.[4] If you were asking a village in India if they wanted broadband, you would not write to each house individually, you would engage with the whole community. They would consult together and make a collective decision. They would either all opt-in together or they would all opt-out. McGavran was trying to develop models of evangelism that were appropriate for multi-individual, mutually interdependent decision-making cultures.

Applying the HUP today

McGavran started grappling with these issues. His first attempt to outline his ideas came in a book called “The Bridges of God” published in 1957, which owed a substantial debt to Roland Allen.[5] McGavran’s magnum opus, “Understanding Church Growth”, was published in 1970.[6]

The take-away from this review of the historical context is to note that the HUP was developed in a radically different context to the one we find ourselves in today. McGavran was dependent on Roland Allen’s thinking; to which we might add a footnote to say that Allen’s writing has been critiqued extensively, for example by Eckhard Schnabel.[7] We will explore the development of McGavran’s thinking in the next article.


References Cited:

Allen, Roland. Missionary Methods: St Paul’s or Ours? Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962.

———. The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes Which Hinder It. 1st American ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962.

Hovey, Kevin G. . Guiding Light: Contributions of Alan R. Tippett toward the Development and Dissemination of Twentieth-Century Missiology. America Society of Missiology Monograph Series. Vol. 38, Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2019.

McGavran, Donald A. The Bridges of God: A Study in the Strategy of Missions. London: World Dominion Press, 1955.

———. Understanding Church Growth. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990.

Schnabel, Eckhard. Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods. Downers Grove IL: Apollos, 2008.


[1] Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 223.
[2] Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St Paul’s or Ours? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962).
[3] Roland Allen, The spontaneous expansion of the church and the causes which hinder it, 1st American ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962).
[4] See Kevin G.  Hovey, Guiding Light: Contributions of Alan R. Tippett toward the Development and Dissemination of Twentieth-Century Missiology, vol. 38, America Society of Missiology Monograph Series, (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2019).
[5] Donald A. McGavran, The bridges of God: a study in the strategy of missions (London: World Dominion Press, 1955).
[6] McGavran, Understanding Church Growth.
[7] Eckhard Schnabel, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods (Downers Grove IL: Apollos, 2008).