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Reflections on the Homogeneous Unit Principle: part 3 of 4

In the first two articles in this series, we explored the historical context and original articulation of the Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP) – the idea that “people prefer to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers.”[1] In this third article we will explore these elements more carefully.

Unpacking the HUP

McGavran’s decision about how to define a homogeneous unit was somewhat pragmatic. He chose three things that he grouped together to define homogeneity. Those three things, as we’ve seen, were race, language and class. But why not gender? Or age? The homogeneous unit principle could have been ‘People like to become Christians without crossing gender and age barriers.’

A core problem with the homogeneous unit principle is that it is neither homogeneous, nor a principle. The reason I say that is because the Bible doesn’t treat race, language and class in the same way. The Bible doesn’t allow us to group race, language and class into one category and create a single unit out of them. In the Bible, race, class and language do not define homogeneity. Let’s look at them in turn.

The gospel and language

First of all, language. The Christian faith has an extraordinarily radical approach to human languages. It embraces all languages and it says that we can be disciples of Jesus in our own language. The gospel is translatable. It is translatable into other languages and cultures.

The translatability of the gospel is built into the Bible. The Bible demonstrates translatability in a number of ways. Most obviously, the Bible is written in three different languages, Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. The Qur’an is written in Arabic, which is Allah’s language. The Qur’an is not translatable. But the God of the Bible chooses to reveal himself in a text that embraces three languages. In addition, the New Testament writers usually quote the Old Testament by referring to the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the OT – not the Hebrew.[2]

Even more striking, as Lamin Sanneh has pointed out, the gospels themselves are most likely translations.[3] The majority of New Testament scholars believe that the Lord Jesus conducted his ministry in Aramaic. But the gospels are written in Greek. So the gospels themselves are translations of the words that the Lord Jesus spoke.

And then there is the day of Pentecost. God could have worked the miracle of Pentecost in two different ways. He could have worked a miracle in which one Apostle proclaimed the gospel in one language. Then the Parthians, Medes, Elamites and everyone else were miraculously able to understand this one language. But that isn’t what happens. Instead, as the text of Acts 2 takes great care to point out, the Parthians, Medes and Elamites hear the mighty works of God in their own tongues.

CMS’s commitment to long-term mission is rooted in the translatability of the gospel. God’s shape for Christian discipleship is that we follow the Lord Jesus in our heart language. It takes time for a gospel worker to learn a new language, and to learn it to the depth where we can faithfully disciple people. And evangelism and discipleship is designed to happen in the heart language of the hearers. I’m tempted to say that evangelism and discipleship is more successful, more effective, when it happens in the heart language of the hearers. But that falls into the elephant trap of the HUP – creating strategies because they appear to be successful. No, we don’t evangelise and disciple in heart language because it is more successful, although it is. We evangelise and disciple in heart language because there is a theological and missiological principle in play – that the gospel is translatable, both linguistically and culturally.

McGavran’s HUP promoted mission in the heart language of the hearers. That truth is profoundly missiologically important.

The gospel and class

But when we move from language to class, things change completely. It isn’t entirely clear what McGavran meant by class. His cross-cultural ministry took place in India, so it is likely that he was thinking about the caste system. I’m from the UK where we take social class very seriously. British class and Indian caste are wildly different. But at the end of the day, most class structures share one thing in common: they stratify people based on wealth and privilege.

You don’t need to be a smart theological student to work out that this is a problem for the HUP. The whole tenor of Jesus’s life and ministry flattens out stratifications based on wealth and privilege. The Epistles speak specifically into this issue. James is the most obvious example – if we preference the rich person over the poor person in our church gatherings, we are showing partiality and committing sin.[4]

The logic of the HUP would suggest that it is acceptable to plant churches aimed at reaching the rich and excluding the poor. Or reaching the poor and excluding the rich. I heard about a denomination in Melbourne that was actively considering planting a church specifically for rich middle-class people. Thankfully the conversation didn’t get very far.

The gospel and race

We’ve looked at language and class. The third factor in the HUP is race. Race is complicated, and we don’t have time to develop a whole Biblical theology of race. The great picture that we have in Revelation is of the church gathered in worship around the throne of the Lamb. The church is described as a multitude of people from every tribe and language and people and nation.[5] One of the commentators says that:

It is fruitless to attempt a distinction between these terms as ethnic, linguistic, political, and so on. [Revelation] is stressing the universal nature of the church and for this purpose piles up phrases for their rhetorical impact. In contrast with the exclusivism of Judaism that prided itself on having been chosen out from among the nations, the church was genuinely ecumenical, recognizing no national, political, cultural, or racial boundaries.[6]

Differences of language, race and ethnicity are subsumed under the Lordship of Christ. The gospel is for all people everywhere. Racial profiling or segregation is anathema to us.

However, race, ethnicity and language are deeply intertwined. If you go to a Mandarin language church in Sydney, most of the people there will be Chinese. And as we’ve seen, the Bible preserves language difference in Christian ministry.

So race is complicated because ethnicity and language are so often linked. Insofar as race is intertwined with language, I think we are justified in pursuing ministry strategies that appear mono-ethnic. But the logic for that flows entirely out of the language principle, not because racial segregation is in anyway validated by the gospel. Let me give an example of this distinction.

Imagine I was working in the Northern Territory and wanted to give Anindilyakwa speakers the opportunity to hear the gospel in their own language. I start an Anindilyakwa language ministry that leads to an Anindilyakwa language congregation. That congregation would be predominantly or entirely Indigenous. The language principle makes this scenario entirely justified.

Imagine a second Northern Territory scenario. I want to reach white people who harbour racist attitudes. Can I start a church that is exclusively for white people so that they don’t have to cross any racial barriers? Of course not. That’s abhorrent. The very essence of the gospel is to break down the dividing wall of hostility and unite us under the Lordship of the Lord Jesus Christ.

At the end of the day, the problem with the HUP is that language, class and race don’t in themselves create a homogeneous unit. And when you start teasing the elements of the HUP apart, the Bible treats linguistic, racial and class barriers in radically different ways.

So why are we still talking about the HUP?

Earlier I said that the HUP is neither homogeneous, nor a principle.  So why are we still talking about it over 60 years later? The reason we’re still talking about it is because it works. People do prefer to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers. But just because it works, that doesn’t make it right. I’ve tried to show that it is right and true and good that people are enabled to become Christians without crossing linguistic barriers; but it is not right or true or good that people are enabled to become Christians without crossing class or race barriers.

Rather than focus on the HUP, I think we’d do much better to address its different elements – race, language and class – and think about them separately with their implications for mission and ministry. That will be the focus of the final article in our series.


References Cited:

McGavran, Donald A. Understanding Church Growth. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990.

Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997.

Sanneh, Lamin O. Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture. American Society of Missiology Series. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989.


[1] Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 223.

[2] I am grateful to Ben Bathgate for pointing this out to me.

[3] Lamin O. Sanneh, Translating the message: the missionary impact on culture, American Society of Missiology series, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989).

[4] James 2:1-9

[5] Revelation 5:9

[6] Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 136.