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Service begins Sundays at 10:00AM.

the end of hostility and the beginning of true growth

Last Sunday I preached an excursus—a more focused treatment—on the issue of ethnic hostility from Ephesians 2:11. A significant part of Paul’s letter is devoted to the issue of ethnic division and reconciliation in the church. This is significant for in the first three chapters Paul is spelling out the good news of Jesus. Salvation necessarily includes horizontal reconciliation (that between people) as well as vertical reconciliation (humans to God).

Whereas there formerly had been two groups of people—from the Jewish perspective, that of Jews and not-Jews—now in Christ there is one new humanity. In Christ there is one unified people even as they remain distinct. A Jew who follows Christ is a still a Jew just as a Greek who follows Christ is still a Greek. God has never desired the erasure of ethnic identity. Rather, God has always desired the growth of distinct cultural expressions so that in the midst of this diversity the unity of his people would be displayed. As Paul pointed out in Romans 15:5–6, God’s desire for the Christians in Rome—who were strongly divided along the Jew / Gentile divide—was to “grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”. That is, God desires the integration of diverse peoples in his churches, not the separation into culturally distinct local churches. Sadly, the emergence of a new concept in church history still today affects this integration in the local church.

The impact of Donald McGavran is massive. He was born in the 1800s to missionaries in India. His grandparents, too, had been missionaries in India. McGavran made popular the “Homogeneous Unit Principle”. This is rooted in the reality that each person has an identity that is directly tied to his or her people group, or socio-economic class, or political party, or even sense of one’s sexuality. This identity is what gives a person meaning and purpose in life.

McGavran argued the greatest obstacles to conversion are social rather than theological. Shortly before his death in 1990 he wrote,

The great obstacles to conversion are social, not theological. Great turning of Muslims and Hindus can be expected as soon as ways are found for them to become Christians without renouncing their loved ones, which seems to them a betrayal.

Donald McGavran, “Understanding Church Growth”

Any reading of, say, the book of Acts would suggest that the great obstacles to conversion are in fact theological, namely, those who need to convert are sinners who persist in their unbelief. Further, this notion flies in the face of what that one guy said a long time ago.

Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”

Luke 14:25–27 ESV

Here Jesus does not mean hate quite so woodenly and literally. It’s relative. He means that to be his disciple means if it comes down to it, one would forsake his or her closest family to follow him. This was said immediately after he shared various reasons people have for not following him, whether family obligations or work obligations (which are really family obligations as well). He’s saying that unless one prioritizes following Jesus over maintaining familial relationships, one is not actually following him.

To be fair to McGavran, he does cite one real obstacle to Christian community: language. Paul acknowledges this, too, in his letter to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 14 he writes about the gift of tongues and how speaking in an unknown language is a barrier to communication. From the beginning of the church shared language, along with faith in Jesus, have been the two bases for forming local churches. If a church does not speak the same language, in Paul’s words “how can anyone say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying” (1 Corinthians 14:16). Culture and language often go hand in hand, but it is language that Paul indicates is more important. As we saw on Sunday from Colossians 3:11, culture is not a real barrier to Christian community. To be sure, differing cultural expressions will require effort, but the existence of different cultural expressions does not prevent genuine Christian community in the local church.

What McGavran advocated and was later popularized by the church growth movement was attempting to reach distinct people groups, with the lines drawn around the very pragmatic notion of whatever may unite a group together according to their shared characteristics. There are so-called “cowboy churches” and churches for high-income couples with no children and churches for cutting-edge artists and churches for lower-income urban minorities and churches for successful suburbanites and churches formed around shared musical tastes. The idea behind this is people who are around those just like them will feel more comfortable and therefore believing the gospel and following Jesus will come more naturally to them. The problem is believing the gospel and following Jesus is the most unnatural thing there is for we are all “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). Jesus said very clearly in Luke 14 that one must first count the cost of following him. If there is no cost to following Jesus one is not actually following Jesus.

One thing is quite clear: a local church can, in fact, grow in numbers at a far faster pace when it pursues the people according to the Homogeneous Unit Principle. I would love to be in a group of people who enjoy making hot sauce and who cheer whenever the Lakers lose or the Celtics win and recognize how much better Linux is than either Mac or Windows and who love to learn about physics and who are intensely curious about the things I am intensely curious about (which is everything, frankly) and who love bacon and meat and cheese like I love bacon and meat and cheese and who love Michigan football.

The real problem here is two-fold. First, the Lord clearly desires diversity in his local churches, not homogeneity. God does not desire his local churches be sterling examples of the Homogeneous Unit Principle. If he did, he would not have inspired the apostle Paul to urge the divided Christians in Rome to glorify God together with one voice. If he did, Jesus would not have come to tear down the dividing wall of hostility. Instead, he would have sought to keep the wall, but maybe make it less hostile. Instead, he has broken down the dividing wall of hostility and has created in himself “one new man”, reconciling us both to himself in one body, Paul says. When Paul says “in one body” he does not mean the so-called “universal church”. The catholic church is found in various local churches. It is in these local churches that God reconciles people to himself in one body.

In short, the first problem with the Homogeneous Unit Principle is it is contrary to the gospel of Jesus. It is against the Spirit of Christ. To say this another way, it is the spirit of antichrist, and it has largely driven the Western Church’s desire for bigger and “better” churches. We are not satisfied with the growth God causes (see 1 Corinthians 3:5–9). We strive for bigger and faster and more and more.

Second, the problem with the Homogeneous Unit Principle is it results in spiritual blindness. Think of all Paul wrote about the diversity of spiritual gifts. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:7) yet to each is given a different manifestation! He says in 1 Corinthians 12 that the church is a body made up of distinct parts that all rely on each another for various things, and therefore each part is essential. If we extrapolate this principle out to distinctive personalities and cultural expressions and cultural values, we see even further that the diversity God desires in his local churches is meant to cause us to become more like Christ.

When a group of people are all the same, it is extremely unlikely they will challenge each other in the ways they most need to be challenged. The default assumptions of, say, young couples with high incomes and no kids will be passively affirmed by everyone in their peer group being just like them. It’s not hard to imagine self-indulgence emerging as a common characteristic for they would all have disposable income and few responsibilities. Far better to be around those with kids or around singles who have no family to join on holidays or around those with far less disposable incomes, for being around those who are quite different from them will help them to see the ways they are self-indulging and living for themselves rather than reflecting the nature of God to one another. Being around those who are not young couples with high incomes and no kids will help them see the ways they were given their resources and greater freedom so they could help others and learn from others.

This is true of any homogeneous group, whether young or old, whether rich or poor, whether black, white, Asian, or Hispanic, whether Democrat or Republican. We all have default assumptions about the world and life in it that are largely formed by our identities—our peoples. In response to the Homogeneous Unit Principle the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism in 1977 wrote:

For Christ the Lord gives to his people new standards. They also receive a new homogeneity, which transcends all others, for now they find their essential unity in Christ, rather than culture.

Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism, 1977

In his letters to the Ephesians and to the Romans and to the Galatians, the apostle Paul spells out the gospel he preached. In each of these letters he emphasizes the unity of the local church that transcends cultural background and religious background and ethnic identity and social class. Those remained very real barriers in the broader culture yet in the church the unifying identity is that given by the Lord Jesus Christ.

It is precisely through this diversity, whether of spiritual gifts or cultural and ethnic expression, that God works in us and through us to make us all more like Jesus. Again, this isn’t about the erasure of ethnic identity; it’s about becoming more like Jesus. We are his body, after all. It is in the midst of this great diversity that our sins are exposed and we challenge one another, but also it is in the midst of this great diversity that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God” is made known (Ephesians 3:10). Paul says this is God’s eternal purpose in Christ (Ephesians 3:11).

We must, as a church, reject the promise of pragmatism that suggests that growth at nearly any cost—growth in size, mind you—is our purpose. Our aim at New City has been simple from the very beginning: “Making disciples. Period.” If this results in numerical growth, so be it. Jesus is worthy of more worshipers! If this results in less numerical growth and greater maturation among Christ’s people? Great, for this is our mission!

The reality is when the Lord Jesus returns and re-creates the heavens and the earth and dwells on earth among his people, there will be nothing even remotely close to homogeneity. In his vision in Revelation, John saw that final assembly, the catholic church on the new earth with Jesus:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Revelation 7:9–12 ESV

This is our future reality on the new earth. At the end of Revelation John speaks of the kings of the earth bringing “the glory and the honor of the nations” into the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:28). These are the cultural and ethnic and linguistic and spiritual treasures of the diverse people groups who make up God’s kingdom. If this is our future reality on the new earth, why on earth would we settle for anything less now?