How important is ethnic diversity to a church?
At Bearwood Chapel, we place a great emphasis on this.
- People within the church have explicitly prayed that we would reflect the neighbourhood around us. Note that there are really three parts to this becoming a reality. First is seeing it in attendance. We have seen some movement on this. Though there are still gaps. Secondly active participation in membership, we have a long way to go here and maybe even some thought is needed about church membership in different cultural contexts. Thirdly you should have a leadership that is genuinely multicultural. We have a long long way to go on the last one.
- We’ve said that when we plant new churches our aim is to be welcoming to all. This means we will not plant ethnically or culturally homogenous churches. Practically for example Nueva Vida ( our Spanish speaking congregation) follows those principles and a condition for the start of this new work under our care was that it must be welcoming to people from other backgrounds. It’s simply that we use Spanish as the first language. Additionally Nueva Vida attendees mix in with other aspects of church life. Also Spanish speakers are aware of the option but not pushed that this is the service you must attend.
So we are being intentional about this. However, not everyone thinks that this should be our priority.
Donald McGavran was a 20th Century missiologist who observed.
His comments were based on observations of missionary efforts in India.
This observation led to what is usually referred to as “The Homogenous Unit Principal” (HUP). It takes this observation and applies it to mission. It says that if we are to help people to come to faith then:
- We will not focus on reaching individuals who then have to leave their cultural identities in order to be part of the church
- That we should intentionally plant works that focus on reaching specific homogenous units.
Reasoning for HUP
- Pragmatic: – it will work and enable rapid growth in believers.
- Realism: – that actually you can’t avoid it. You will always by choice of time, language, music, location, liturgy, dress code etc. end up with a particular group also we make HUP choices in other contexts such as youth clubs, or mid-week classes aimed at older people, Christian Unions etc.
- Theology: – that there is Biblical justification for this
The last is important because generally speaking proponents have led with the first two and so it looks like there isn’t a particular theology behind it. Whether or not we agree with the Theology, or find it deep or satisfying does not mean it isn’t there. In fact, everything we do as believers is rooted in our theology whether or not we explicitly know it.
Here’s the Theology as I see it. Note that some of these points are explicitly argued whilst some are implicit in HUP thinking.
- Gospel priority
The first and most important question in terms of what is essential is to whether or not it explicitly relates to and supports evangelism and conversion. We must make choices around that. This will also shape a “seeker sensitive” approach to Sunday gatherings too. The emphasis is on Matthew 28 and the Great Commission. We might also be reminded of Paul’s willingness to be a Jew to the Jews and a Gentile to the Gentiles so that by all possible means he might save some (1 Corinthians 9).
We will want to commend this Gospel zeal. However, we might also want to ask whether the Great Commission does always overrule and take priority. The risk here is that we can become too dependent on human techniques and approaches rather than on God’s Sovereignty. One of the points we keep returning to on faithroots.net is that if God is sovereign and that if he reveals who he is to us, then we should worship him and speak for him in the ways that he determines. We are not free to simply do as we think right.
McGavran represents a strong rejection of individualism. There is an emphasis on reaching people groups. The idea is that you can Christianise a culture and that families, clans, tribes will come to faith together.
I want to make two observations here. First of all, that as with the first point, there is something to commend here. Modern Evangelicalism can easily slip into narrow individualism. We can lose something of the interconnectedness that there should be when we remember that the promise to Abraham was of family and nation. We are called to belong. However, belonging and being part of something does not preclude that we join one at a time. Individual conversion is not the enemy of collective identity or the same as individualism.
McGavran’s argument is that the New Testament church followed the same principle but I just cannot see evidence for this. Paul may have preached to Jews first and then to Gentiles but this was linked to a specific ordering of Gospel proclamation and did not involve the attempt to get a group to believe together. Indeed, the result of early Gospel ministry is that a few, the minority within a society believe.
Secondly, this emphasis on groups coming to faith together sounds like it is likely to have close affinity with the expectations and theology associated with Federal Vision approaches. Federal Vision theology also emphasises the corporate nature of belonging to God’s Covenant people so that children are included within the covenant on the basis of parental profession and their baptism (this is a paedo-baptist position). I think that this rests on a faulty exegesis of Peter’s declaration that:
“This promise is to you, to your children…”
The problem is that the quote isn’t guaranteeing Covenant membership to children based on parental faith. Rather, it was a promise that all who believe and repent will receive the Holy Spirit. This is confirmed by the context of Acts 2:38 and the full quote from verse 39 which is not just for the children of the hearers but for those who were at that time far off and needing to hear the Gospel message.
“This promise is to you, to your children, and to those far away—all who have been called by the Lord our God.”
HUP therefore has the same problem that Federal vision does. There doesn’t seem to be a New Testament case for collective, class entrance into the Kingdom.
- The Importance of diversity in God’s creation and so in his New Creation.
The argument here focuses on Gen 10-11 & the question is whether or not the scattering of people’s was a blessing or a curse and whether Pentecost acts as a reversal of this. The argument is that scattering would have led to a natural diversification of cultures and languages. The people were meant to scatter in this way after the flood and therefore whilst Babel involved some element of judgement, it was also about ensuring that God’s plan for people to fill the earth was fulfilled.
If that’s the case, then Pentecost (Acts2) should not be seen as the re-unification of languages into one single tongue. Rather, all hear in their own language. Indeed, when we turn to Revelatino 7 and to 21, we see that when Christ returns and gathers his people they continue to be from different tribes and clans with different languages
We might also note that there may be an ideological, religious aspect to the different lips and tongues. Is it just about language diversification or about departure from one single religion? 
There are some good points here. However, I don’t think HUP pays careful enough attention to the point that in Acts and Revelation we still have a coming together of the diversity. At Pentecost, there may still be different languages but the barrier to unity and understanding goes away. There must be a place for this in our theology and the question is whether it is pushed out to end time eschatology or seen in our ecclesiology now? That Paul frequently in Romans, 1 Corinthians and Galatians deals with the issues of heterogeneous church life suggests that this is something for now even if imperfectly.
In other words, diversity and variety within God’s family may be good but barriers are not cf Ephesians 2:14.
I also don’t think it’s a good idea to play “What if” games re Babel. We cannot second guess the nature of language development if people had scattered willingly and also if we were not under the conditions of The Fall.
Where HUP challenges us
I think the major challenge here is that HUP advocates do have a concern for cross-cultural mission. It’s important that we don’t sit back complacently and argue that we are not catering for different cultural or linguistic needs because we want to be heterogenous when what that really means is that we end up expecting seekers to accommodate to our pre-existing culture. We end up putting up our own barriers to others.
Tim Chester notes that often our churches are already homogenous and that if they are homogenously white, middle class then:
“The result of this in the UK has been to leave significant sectors of the population untouched by the gospel. British evangelicalism is largely middle-class. Our evangelism revolves around our friendships so excluding those outside our circle of acquaintance. More significantly still, our church life and evangelism reflect a middle-class culture. Homogeneous groups do seem to be effective in evangelism, but they are by definition exclusive rather than inclusive.”
Chester then raises a few questions for us to consider including
- Should we intentionally target specific homogenous groups that are underrepresented and under reached within the UK church?
- Should we use HUP approaches to evangelise (missiology) but heterogeneous approaches to discipleship (ecclesiology)? Chester says no to this one because he argues that there shouldn’t be an over distinction between mission and discipleship. I agree with him on this. 
- Are there ways of reflecting heterogeneous diversity in our church gatherings whilst providing for homogenous groups in other ways (e.g. missional communities or home groups based around shared culture, affinity, language etc).
My personal views and response
I think that Chester is right to ask the question about how we reach some of our unreached and underrepresented groups. Also, it is worth stating explicitly that being “multi-cultural” makes sense at Bearwood Chapel. We are a local church in a community that happens to be diverse. I would not expect that type of diversity or try to engineer it if we were working in an homogenous community whether that’s white working class or Asian Sub-continent background. For example, I wouldn’t try and reach a wider catchment area to create heterogeneity.
I do think that there is a huge challenge though when I look around at gatherings of believers for major conferences and festivals, especially conservative evangelical ones. Do we see the level of diversity that we should expect at a regional or national gathering? The same challenge and question should also be asked of our training programmes and Theological Colleges.
I also am aware that once we make any decision about time, language, style, location the it is going to have an affect on who participates and this may lead to a level of homogeneity. We choose to hold one of our gatherings using Spanish as the primary language and so the people who attend are connected by language. However, to those who claim that deciding to focus ministry on a particular need or affinity leads to homogeneity anyway, I would counter that a common relational theme is not the same as mono-culture. For example, a youth group may focus on teenagers but still experience diversity by having both genders and a mix of ethnic and social backgrounds. Our Spanish speaking congregation allows for diversity first because people from non-Spanish background attend, some benefiting from translation, others having lived in Spain for a time and picked up the language. Secondly because there isn’t a homogenous Spanish or even South American Culture, Ecuadorians, Bolivians, Mexicans and Argentinians all bring their own cultural traits to the party.
It remains our view that whilst we might intentionally run groups based on language and/or literacy that we would not intentionally organise affinity based homogenous groups. I note, Chester’s suggestion that this might allow for diversity at the gathering level and provide for homogeneity at the small group level. I also know of churches that function this way. However, I think that there are two issues with this. First of all, I think that it is in the small group that we are disciple. So it is in that very group where we want to learn to be cross cultural and multi-generational. That’s where someone who has not experienced higher education can both learn from people who have an intellectual perspective and also contribute significantly to their spiritual growth. It’s where the 20 year old can benefit from the experience of the 80 year old and the 80 year old can be touched by love and care of the 20 year old. It’s where the person on a low wage or no wage can discover that their worth and value is not based on their social status. So, I am inclined to encourage the church to intentionally organise all groups for diversity, only putting in the necessary focus and restrictions.
Secondly, as we tend to naturally gravitate to those we like and have an affinity with then why does the church really need to organise such things. If I want to hang out with fellow football fans I am capable of doing that. I don’t need Bearwood Chapel to organise a football watching club for me. I can call up a few friends and we can go and watch the football together. I can head off to the Albion with my neighbour and watch the game with lots of other like-minded people.
One final hypothesis. I suspect that whilst McGavran may have observed initial difference sin terms of conversion rates for those who used HUP methods that over the long term we will see that those evangelised and disciple in heterogeneous contexts are going to be better equipped for crossing cultures and talking about Jesus to those who are not like them. Therefore, I suspect that heterogeneous churches will be more effective and fruitful over the long term.
We live in the Now and Not Yet and so things are not perfect. We don’t yet see the full diversity and unity we long for in the people of God. However, that does not mean that we should wait until Christ’s return before we pursue it. Just as it is because we know that one day we will be transformed and be like Jesus that having that hope, we seek to purify ourselves and grow in holiness now, in the same way, that vision of a gathered people from every tribe and nation should encouraged us to seek to grow into that diverse unity now.
 See Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1970), 198.
 Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1970), 198.
 Acts 2:39.
 See C Peter Wagner, Our Kind of People (Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press, 1979), 111. See also Mark Kreitzer, “The Table of Nations, The Tower of Babel and Ethnic Solidarity,” Published in Global Missiology, Featured Articles, July 2004. 12. Cited 24th November 2007 Online: www.globalmissiology.net,
 See e.g. Rev 21:3, Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad, 197.
See the use of language in Zephaniah 3:9. Cf Dan Stange, Their rock is not our rock, 136.