The Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP) was devised by Donald A. McGavran back in the early 1970s. McGavran was the child of missionaries, and a missionary himself. He is recognized as the founding father of the Church Growth Movement in the 1950s, and became dean of the School of Missions of Fuller Seminary in 1965. The impetus behind the development of HUP was his interest to discern the most effective means of spreading the gospel of Christ. McGavran observed, “Human society is necessarily a mosaic of homogeneous units and all Christianization must take account of the fact.”
A homogeneous unit is a group of people who share a common characteristic, that is, an ethnicity. The Homogeneous Unit Principle states that people become Christians and join churches more readily within a homogeneous unit, where taking that step of faith does not require them to cross ethnic lines.
McGavran was formulating his principle right on the heels of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It was becoming increasingly unpopular to argue that segregation into homogeneous units was something to be desired. All that McGavran ever wanted was for people to become Christians and for the church to grow. He found an effective principle by which these ends might be pursued, but immediately found also that his principle was controversial. “The Homogeneous Unit Principle was a hot topic toward the end of the 1970s, and McGavran found himself defending and clarifying his beliefs time and time again.”
More recently, HUP has found wider—though no less controversial—application. Christian faith prompts human culture to grow more purely within homogeneous units. There is less conflict and more stability within homogeneous units. Dissolving homogeneous units and blending all of humanity into a global unity is a Tower of Babel vision. God dispersed the nations into separate peoples for a reason. McGavran discovered one reason—because people more readily embrace Christian faith when surrounded by others like themselves. Another reason is because human unity must never be allowed to become an ultimate principle, as it did at Babel and now threatens to do again today.
A trend in our day is to entirely discredit HUP. However, there still remain those who wish to discredit only cultural application of HUP and preserve its missiological application. One such is Matthew Hirt. Hirt has been involved in a lot of overseas missions work. He earned a Master of Divinity in International Church Planting from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and currently is in their PhD program. In a recent blog post Hirt accuses the alt-right of “Hijacking the HUP.” Hirt is not bashful about labeling cultural homogeneity as “evil”: “The explicit limitations of the HUP accepted by missiologists have not prevented the alt-right movement from attempting to usurp the truths behind the HUP for their own evil purposes.” With such a statement Hirt sends himself flying off in two directions at once. In one direction he wishes to hold firmly to the conviction that there are indeed “truths behind the HUP.” In the other direction he wishes to characterize misapplication of those truths as not merely misguided or counter-productive, but “evil.” It would seem that in Hirt’s mind cultural homogeneity is missiologically useful, but any desire to maintain cultural homogeneity is “evil.” This presents a tension that is impossible to negotiate, which is why most of those of Hirt’s mindset today wish to scrap HUP altogether. However, Hirt thinks he can manage the tension through a proper understanding of “nation.” Here is Hirt’s explanation:
Nationhood in the Bible is a complex concept. The concept of modern nation-states did not come into existence until at least the seventeenth century. When the Bible refers to nations, tribes, peoples, and languages, it is not meant exclusively in a geopolitical sense. However, the biblical concept of nationhood was also not exclusively ethnic. The Greek and Hebrew terms for “nations” are inherently complicated in both the Old and New Testaments. So simply inferring that the biblical terms “nations” and “tribes” refers to the same concepts as alt-right racists is simply false. The terms do not in any way condone an indefinite division of people of different ethnicities.
Much of Hirt’s exposition misses his target. The modern concept of nation-state is nothing more than a politicization of a prior ethnic reality. In the ninth century Charlemagne was crowned king of the Francs. He was not head of a political entity called France. He was ruler of a homogeneous unit of people called the Francs. The emergence of the nation-state in the seventeenth century was driven by the mercantile interest to incorporate lands into economic units. “England” can do business with “France” on a much greater scale than the Anglos can do business with the Francs. At first, nation-states mirrored the nations: all of the Anglos were found in England, and all of the Francs were found in France. Today of course, the coincidence of nation and nation-state has nearly disappeared. Today the most popular baby name in the political entity called “England” is Mohammad.
Mr. Hirt is entirely correct: When the Bible refers to nations, tribes, and peoples, it indeed is not meant in a geopolitical sense. With this insight Hirt seems to feel that he has slammed the door shut on alt-right nationalism. But he has misunderstood his opponent. He seems to seriously believe that when we read “nation” in the Bible, we think “political entity.” He seems to think that it is sufficient for him to point out to us that it does not mean that. Of course the Bible is not talking about the modern nation-state. We never thought that it did. But if that is not what the Bible is talking about, then indeed what is it talking about?
On this question Hirt becomes quite fuzzy. The most he can say is that it is a “complex concept.” He claims, “The Greek and Hebrew terms for ‘nations’ are inherently complicated…” Oh, come on, Mr. Hirt! The Greek word is ethnos. This is not complicated. It means the same thing we mean today by “ethnicity.”[1. Thayer, trans., ed., Greek-English Lexicon, 1868; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974.] Our English word nation derives from the same root as natal, native, nativity.[2. Partridge, Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, New York: Macmillan, 1966.] The root concept is of birth. A nation is a people who share a common birth. That is why nation is a good translation of the biblical terms. What the Bible means by “nation” is not so complicated as Hirt has suggested.
In his post Hirt invokes several biblical texts to argue for his vision of racial amalgamation. He claims on the basis of Genesis 1 and 2 that our common ancestry in our first parents precludes any thought of preserving national homogeneity. But he has forgotten that God dispersed men into the diversity of nations in Genesis 11. He claims on the basis of John 3:16 that God loves all the people of the world. But he has not shown how this fact implies that national homogeneity ought to be dissolved. Neither has he shown how national homogeneity requires the nations to hate each other. He claims on the basis of Ephesians 2:13–16 that all ethnic divisions ought to be torn down. But all that Paul argues in that text is that the Gentiles (ethnos) now are to be included among the people of God. Contrary to tearing down ethnic distinctions, Paul was quite vehement that the Gentiles must not be required to assimilate via receiving circumcision. Hirt claims on the basis of James 2:1 that ethnic distinctions are condemned. But he has not shown how condemning class prejudice within an ethnos can be enlarged to require condemning distinctions among ethnicities.
As is usually the case with writings such as this post of Mr. Hirt, he is rather vague in speaking of “racism.” At some points his understanding of “racism” seems to be that a person of one ethnicity hates all other ethnicities. At other points it seems to be that a person of one ethnicity feels that his ethnicity is superior to all other ethnicities. Indeed, ethnic hatred and feelings of superiority are quite common in the world. But it does not seem to grab the attention of writers like Hirt unless it is White people who are doing the hating or feeling superior. And if anyone expresses that he is proud to be White and wishes to preserve White culture, writers like Hirt simply assume that such sentiments can only arise from hatred or a feeling of superiority. Hirt speaks of “the racism and the visceral hatred exhibited by the alt-right.” White people are not allowed to celebrate whiteness apart from a motive of hatred. How is it that Black people are allowed to be proud of their ethnicity and not presumed to be hateful? May I also be allowed to be proud of my ethnicity?
McGavran observed that people more readily embrace the gospel of Christ from within a national or ethnic context. Controversy in his own day brought pressure to downplay homogeneous unity and to emphasize “diversity.” This led him into a dialectical tension. He came to feel that he could not hold HUP in simple purity, but needed to accommodate the new social ideals. McIntosh reports, “[I]n the long run, he [McGavran] believed they should seek balance between cultural pluralism and the good of the whole.” As previously noted, many current theologians seek to resolve this tension by discarding HUP altogether. As Hirt-the-left seeks to denounce the “evil” of ethnic homogeneity, he approaches ever nearer those who have denounced McGavran. As Hirt-the-right seeks to defend McGavran, he approaches ever nearer those who are filled with “visceral hatred.” Hirt seems for the time being to be willing to live with the tension. But how long can this go on? If homogeneous cultures make it more likely for people to come to Christ, then how can Hirt consistently speak of a desire to preserve homogeneity as “visceral hatred”? If a desire for homogeneity is “evil,” then how can Hirt continue to find any value in HUP?
How about it, Mr. Hirt? It must be painful trying to find balance on that fence. Come and join us in celebration of homogeneous cultures that each in their own way worship and glorify God, just as God intended, and which provide familiar contexts in which Christian faith may sprout and be nourished. Join us, or else join your true colleagues, who have disavowed HUP. Disavow it yourself, and disavow the separation of nations at Babel, and stop pretending that working to rid the world of ethnic distinction accomplishes the will of God. How long will you hesitate between two opinions?