This intriguing statement was made during an energized exchange seeking to identify parish outreach strategies. The passion of the speaker quoted was to focus evangelism and mission on the group of people who were perceived to be within the parish’s reach. The comment drew reaction from those who believed there were plenty of non middle class Anglicans in Tasmania and beyond.
The ‘Anglicans are middle class’ statement identified us as a particular people grouping. The consequence was to unapologetically ‘focus on the values and interests of this group of people in our community as we drew up the parish’s mission action plan.
The idea of identifying who we are and who the wider community is, when seeking to plan our mission, is strategic thinking.
Interestingly, in the 1970s (yes, pre-history!), the missiological literature was encouraging mission to focus on particular people groups with their common values and cultures. The basic argument is that it is easier for us to communicate the Gospel with people who share common culture and this is how people are comfortable together and it simply makes sense to reach out to people in this focused way. This is called the homogenous unit principle and was developed by Donald McGavran. The international Lausanne Committee held The Pasadena Consultation – Homogeneous Unit Principle and I recall it being compulsory reading for a budding missionary! More recently,
In The Bridges of God (McGavran) states: ‘People become Christian fastest when least change of race or clan is involved’. In Understanding Church Growth (1970, 3rd Ed. 1990), which (McGavran) co-wrote with C. Peter Wagner, this observation has become the ‘Homogeneous Unit Principle’. Empirical evidence, they argue, ‘people like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers’. As a result homogenous churches grow fastest. Homogeneous churches are those in which all the members are from a similar social, ethnic or cultural background. People prefer to associate with people like themselves – ‘I like people like me’. And so we should create homogenous churches to be effective in reaching people.
The main criticism of the homogenous unit principle is that it denies the reconciling nature of the gospel and the church. It weakens the demands of Christian discipleship and it leaves the church vulnerable to partiality in ethnic or social conflict.
Yet most churches are homogenous to some extent. People choose churches on the basis of worship-style, denominational allegiance, theological emphasis and even cultural background. As soon as you choose to operate in one language you have created an homogenous group.
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.
Fascinating stuff! Is Tasmania the UK? Read on! See the excellent full article (from which the above quote comes) on this still current missiological issue by Tim Chester.
Does the homogeneous unit principle have some application in your context?
Is your Mission Action Plan sensitive to your cultural context?
If it is true to say that ‘Anglicans are . . . class’ in your context,
- What does that mean for your mission strategy?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of limiting your parish’s mission to the same cultural group of people as yourselves?
Thanks for a stimulating post. I can’t help feeling that we lose something important in the transition from McGavran’s early work to the ‘homogenous unit principle’.
In rural Tasmanian contexts (and the urbanised poor of our regional towns) I think McGavran’s missiological observations are important. Social and familial ties mean that people do think of themselves in the context of the group, not solely as individuals. For the person in this context who becomes a Christian, the tide of opposition from the group is often massive, and massively difficult to overcome. This has consequences both for our discipling of individuals from such contexts, and for our missiological strategies. We need to work with the social group, not just try to convert individuals.
As applied in many contemporary western contexts, however, I think the homogeneous unit principle has great weaknesses. It also presumes that someone else is going to reach out to those not ‘like us’ – a presumption that is quite unsustainable in many of our contexts where there is little or no other Christian presence.
Thank you, Jill, for your comment on rural Tasmania re the significance of the social life that enfolds us and its particular strength in rural contexts: also in African tribal and muslim cultures.
Australian anthropologist, Alan Tippett worked with McGavran and gave his missionary observations a cultural depth. I have sometimes wondered if the tendency to construct ideas and experience into a methodical approach or principle undid some of the wealth of Tippett’s and McGavran’s anthropolgy that dealt with the ‘raggedness’ /untiddiness that tends to accompany human beings.
While at St Andrew’s Hall in the late 70’s, David Penman had us read Tippett, A.R., 1970. Church Growth and the Word of God, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids; and we also had the privilege of lectures by Alan Tippett – a marvellous gracious Christian with a wealth of cultural insights.