This past week I received a note from my friend Sam Rainer, president of the Rainer Research group, a church research and consulting organization. Sam’s forecast was that “as the younger generation ages, they will not be represented by the homogeneous unit principal that was championed in the early years of the church growth movement.” For those of you who do not know, the homogeneous unit principal (hup) is a sociological description that states that people like being with people who are like themselves. This was all the church-growth movement needed to justify the continuing racial segregation of American churches. Segregation was not the aim, of course. I am not aware of any churches that actively excluded anyone. But, the church consultants argued, it is perfectly acceptable for white pastors to cultivate predominately white churches and black pastors to cultivate predominately black churches. But now Rainer Research tells us that “heterogeneity in church settings” is quickly becoming “more normative and more relevant.” This same week TIME magazine featured an article praising Willow Creek for abandoning hup and cultivating a more diverse congregation.
This is a welcome trend. But we are in the 2010s, not the 1950s. This is a trend that is very late in coming. For decades books on church leadership and growth propounded hup as a key to a healthier, more vibrant church. Why weren’t the Jack Welch type mega-leaders challenging hup? Why were they all like bleating sheep, lagging behind the culture, pathetically following current trends here, then there? The churches should have been – and should be – leading the way in racial reconciliation.
Christians generally recognize that racial segregation is contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:11-14; 3:28). But for the church growth gurus the sociological “is” becomes an imperatival “ought.” Therefore, only now that research shows that hup is waning among the younger generation, are churches beginning to loose their attachment to hup. Rather than denouncing hup as sin, church leaders are now dismissing it as less “relevant.”
For the Christian, the word of God is normative. Cultural trends must not be allowed to establish the norms for the Church of Christ. Only then can we transcend such cultural captivity and speak with authority, “thus says the Lord.”
Our churches have always opposed the homogeneous unit principle as a key for church growth. We have never put much stock in statistics and demographics. Our philosophy is that all types of people are in the same boat: we are all sinners and we all need Jesus as Savior. Jesus is not a panacea for whatever ails you. He is not a crutch to get you through life. He is more like the wheelchair who will carry you through to the life to come. I do not suggest that Calvinistic churches have outpaced our Arminian counterparts in achieving greater diversity in our congregations. Sadly, we haven’t. Nor do I pretend to have the answers. But I am hopeful that in this coming decade we will see a transformation across the ecclesiastical landscape as Christians of all shades overcome old suspicions, break down barriers and move toward a more visible expression of our unity in Christ Jesus.