Homogeneous Unit Principle: Origins

I am a natural skeptic and as I came to Christ in 2002 and quickly began asking questions of any and everything I saw around me.  One question that I asked my pastor was “Why isn’t there more diversity of races within out church?”  You see I was one of the few black faces that I saw most Sundays.  At the time Johnson County [KS] was about 90% Caucasian but that still drove me to wonder about the lack of diversity within my church.  My pastor surprised me when he said, “Jon, it’s a thing called the ‘homogeneous unit principle’ that drives whether or not minorities come to our church.”  At the time this statement did not really bother me but as I began to research more about the [American] church and her history I became troubled.  This is the prod that began my juices flowing

Interviewer:  “[Dr. King] Don’t you feel that integration can only be started and realized in the Christian church, not in schools or by other means? This would be a means of seeing just who are true Christians.”

Martin Luther King:  “As a preacher, I would certainly have to agree with this. I must admit that I have gone through those moments when I was greatly disappointed with the church and what it has done in this period of social change. We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this….”

This began my research into the Homogeneous Unit Principle and its origin. Donald A. McGavran (1897–1990) was former Senior Professor of Mission, church growth, and South Asian studies at the School of World Mission, Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. A 3rd generation child of missionaries in India, and later a missionary himself.  Dr. Mc Gavran spent much of his life trying to overcome social barriers to Christian conversion. While in India McGaveran tried to understand , what forms people by economics and caste, substantially hinders the spread of Christianity.  From that work McGavran created a church growth text called, Understanding Church Growth, this book is still influential because of essays and lectures at missionary conferences in which he identified differences of caste and economic social position as major barriers to the spread of Christianity. His work substantially changed the methods by which missionaries identify and prioritize groups of persons for missionary work and stimulated the church growth movement.

The homogeneous unit is simply a section of society in which all the members have some characteristics in common. Thus a homogeneous unit might be a political unit (liberal/ conservatives) or sub-unit, the characteristic in common being that all the members live within certain geographical confines.

In his book McGavean says, “the homogeneous unit is an elastic concept, its meaning depending on the context in which it is used. However, it is a most useful tool for understanding church growth”.

Honestly his definition is not very clear mainly because he says that HUP is an elastic concept.  It is a broad definition. However it has been defined much more clearly.

“Such a section of society (HU) can be a culture or language, a tribe or caste, a clan or geographical unit. The members of a homogeneous unit think of themselves as enjoying a common bond of unity, simultaneously feeling different from other. The term is also frequently used as an adjective, such as in homogeneous unit church, meaning a church characterized by having members of just one social group.”

The HUP was born in McGavran’s mind out of the Indian system of caste. He experienced castes coming to Christ and still remaining a separated group. Also, behind his work in India there is the American culture with the individualistic worldview and the superiority of certain classes. This led him to say, “men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers.”

  • Does your church abide by this?
  • What do you think of this concept?

About Jon Nelson

I am just a nobody trying to tell everybody about Somebody [Christ Jesus]!

Posted on February 3, 2011, in ...from Jon, Black History Month 2011, HUP, Theology and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Nice post. I was checking continuously this blog and I’m impressed! Extremely helpful info specifically the last part 🙂 I care for such information much. I was seeking this certain information for a very long time. Thank you and best of luck.

  2. Kallie-Jo Wolf

    I’m actually doing my senior project on the use of ethnography in missions and I have spent a lot of time reading McGavran’s work. I’ve just begun writing and I haven’t finalized my opinion, yet, although I have a guess at how I’m going to wrap it all up. I have read a lot of people very much against his principle who are of the opinion it is racist, divisive, and potentially dangerous. Others who are for it seem to use it on the basis of language especially and also group that will only intermarry with one another (similar to the caste system in India). Have you heard any other opinions on this topic? Thanks!

    • Kallie,
      Wow, what a project! I hope it all comes out well and (if you would mind) would love to see a final copy of your project. Before I begin I did want to say that I do not necessarily have an issue with Dr. McGavern’s work in context (ie. under the caste system, apartheid, etc). My personal experience originated from the [American] Seeker friendly/ Purpose Driven models of Christianity and though this movement specifically refer to McGavern’s work it is deeply shaped by it. As you search through the [early] materials of Dr. Rick Warren, Dr. Dan Southerland, and Bill Hybels, with a keen understanding of McGavern’s writings, you will see the inextricable link between the two ideologies, though I would argue this was never the original purpose for his book. As the American landscape shifted towards the Seeker friendly/ Purpose Driven models you see the importing of the Homogeneous Unit Principle, not in a nefarious way, [but] from a pragmatist point of view as church leaders saw the suburban landscape (Ethnography feeds in here) and tried to attract and reengage a generation removed from God. I would argue this has had an divisive and devastating effect of the American church landscape. I hope that this information points you in the right direction. Please let me know if you need anything else.

  3. I think McGavran was on track for his time and his context. The HUP may have good missiological applications, but applying it to ecclesiology has some serious scriptural problems I think. See Mark Deymaz’s “Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church. He tackles this issue a bit.
    Cheers Jon, I think you are hitting on something very important here, and I would continue this discussion further with your pastor.



  1. Pingback: Homogeneous Unit Principle: Jesus « Neo Soul Faith

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