FX, EC and the DNA of HUP: Homogeneity and heterogeneity in emerging churches: a problem explored

FX, EC and the DNA of HUP

Homogeneity and heterogeneity in emerging churches: a problem explored

by Tim Dean

The Church of England’s 2004 report, Mission-shaped Church, is a seminal document in the multi-denominational quest to create fresh expressions of church (FX) and emerging churches (EC), as it participates in the missio Dei. The Report was part of a continuing evaluation of the Church’s church-planting mission initiatives. But what is one to make of two pages devoted to the Homogenous Unit Principle (HUP) – highly controversial even within the Evangelical movement in which it was born? A controversy given renewed impetus with the virulent attack on the Report by John Hull. Why was HUP mentioned, and what relevance has HUP to fresh expressions and emerging church developments? This article seeks to provide an answer, and in doing so assumes fresh expressions and emerging church initiatives are to be welcomed.

The Homogenous Unit Principle

The concept which informs the ‘principle’ was the product of Donald McGavran, who was an American missionary in India. He published Bridges of God in 1955, which contained a radical idea based on his observation, that ‘People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers’.1 According to Peter Wagner,2 this became the ‘most frequent cited statement of the homogeneous unit principle’.3 ‘The homogeneous unit is simply a section of society in which all the members have some characteristics in common’.4 The HUP drove the Church Growth Movement whose major emphasis was numerical, quantitative, growth in converts. McGavran’s driving passion was to bring as many people as possible to faith in Christ.

McGavran observed that conversions from particular ‘people groups’ was ineffective if, as a consequence of their conversion, individuals either removed themselves from their cultural group to join other Christians outside the group, or began to remove themselves from the cultural practices of their group and assimilate into a foreign, external, culture.5 McGavran defined a ‘people’ as ‘a tribe or caste, a clan or lineage, or a tightly knit segment of any society’.6 The 1977 conference of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelisation convened to discuss the HUP summarised this issue:

… the barriers to the acceptance of the gospel are often more sociological than theological; people reject the gospel not because they think it is false but because it strikes them as alien. They imagine that in order to become Christians they must renounce their own culture, lose their own identity, and betray their own people.7

However, if conversion led to people staying in close ties with their ‘people group’, and their Christian faith was not expressed as alien to their culture, then Christian conversion would grow within that group. Therefore, ‘conversion should occur with a minimum of social dislocation’.8

According to Wagner, the term ‘homogenous unit’ was further developed by missiologists and replaced with ‘people group’ or ‘people movement’, as part of a more refined and precise definition:

‘A people group is a significantly large sociological grouping of individuals who perceive themselves to have a common affinity for one another. From the viewpoint of evangelization, this is the largest possible group within which the gospel can spread without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.’ The ‘common affinity’ can be based on any combination of culture, language, religion, economics, economics, ethnicity, residence, occupation, class, caste, life situation, or other significant characteristics which provide ties which bind the individuals in the group together.9

From this brief outline of the Homogenous Unit it should be clear where the controversial nature of this missiological concept and ensuing practice lies: by evangelising ‘with a minimum of social dislocation’, the radical idea of Christ’s gospel breaking down all human barriers of ‘culture, language, religion, economics, economics, ethnicity, residence, occupation, class, caste, life situation,’ etc., is denied. As David Bosch succinctly puts it:

If Wagner (1979) is praised (on the dust cover of his book) for having transformed ‘the statement that “11A.M. on Sunday is the most segregated hour in America” from a millstone around Christian necks into a dynamic tool for assuring Christian growth’, then something is drastically wrong. The apostle Paul sought to build communities in which, right from the start, Jew and Greek, slave and free, poor and rich, would worship together, learn to love one another, and learn to deal with difficulties arising out of their diverse social, cultural, religious and economic backgrounds. This belongs to the essence of the church.10

Before continuing with a critique and evaluation of HUP, it is necessary to attempt some definition or understanding of fresh expressions and emerging church.

Fresh Expressions & Emerging Church

In defining both ‘fresh expressions’ and Emerging Church there has been a lack of clarity and overlapping use of the terms in much of the literature. Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger undertook a five-year research programme which leads them to define Emerging Church with an emphasis on practice:

Emerging Churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within post-modern cultures. This definition encompasses the(se) nine practices. Emerging churches (1) identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, and (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these three activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities.11

They also assert that EC is characterised by the following:

To follow the way of Jesus, emerging churches address all of reality. They travel to all spheres in society and make them holy, giving them back to God in worship. Emerging churches do not submit to the dualisms presented by modernity: sacred versus secular, body versus mind/spirit, male versus female, clergy versus female, leader versus follower, evangelism versus social action, individual versus community, outsider versus insider, material versus immaterial, belief versus action, theology versus ethics, public versus private. Instead they seek to overcome these divisions.12

Notwithstanding the valuable contribution their research makes, not least with the experiences of those involved in a variety of ECs, these definitions are highly contentious. Crucially, taking the nine practices, if the term ‘postmodern’ is deleted, there is nothing that could not equally describe existing churches andor their aspirations. This makes ‘postmodern’ their key to understanding EC, not the presumed uniqueness of the nine themes.

Gibbs & Bolger fail to acknowledge that society in the West has not moved wholesale from one monolithic culture, ‘modernism’, to a new one, ‘postmodernism’. They fail to acknowledge that within whole largely homogenous societies, there are many co-existing and overlapping ‘cultures at work’. They also assume that modernism and postmodernism are quite distinct, but as Ian Mobsby’s research showed ‘Postmodernity was found to be the epoch of time following the end of modernity but also the continuation of modernity.’ (My italics.) 13 They further suggest that modernity is problematic and has distorted the practice of existing churches, while implying that postmodern culture is unproblematic. This is seen in Gibbs and Bolger’s final list of the dualisms of modernity – none of which are the exclusive practice of ECs when compared to existing churches, nor the product of postmodern aspiration. I highlight just four.

First, its contention that ECs ‘travel to all spheres in society’. Their own research shows they don’t. The ‘emerging from’ discussion highlights which ‘spheres in society’ EC’s reject. Secondly, they set up a number of dualisms presented by a problematic modernity. This attack is contradictory within the EC practice they describe. They cite the rejection of dualistic structures such as clergylaity, yet clearly identify ‘emerging church leaders’ (as distinct from others) throughout their book. Similarly it rejects ‘sacred versus secular’ yet speaks of transforming the secular realm; etc. Thirdly, what they ascribe to modernity have centuries of antecedents: e.g. the separate callings of clergy and laity, and the exploitation of the latter by the former. Fourthly, while the problems identified by these dualisms do exist within existing churches, those Christians working to develop ECs learnt their critical values from Christians within the existing churches who have a wealth of experience in combating these dualisms’ ills. EC values and practices didn’t come from nowhere, they are founded on the work of existing churches.

Mobsby’s provides definitions based on in-depth research work with specific FX & EC groups.14 ‘Fresh expressions are forms of church that resonate and speak the cultural languages of the current culture, (whatever that is) in order to speak and embody the gospel within that culture.’15 He found that there

appears to be a common understanding about the meaning of ‘fresh expressions of church’ … It approximates to a grouping of the experimental typology listed in the Mission-shaped Church report, although there is evidence that few are ever just one of these descriptors and most are a mixture of these forms. ... There also appears to be a general consensus of understanding regarding the church’s role to emerge out of the interplay of engagement with contemporary culture.16

The twelve experimental groupings of FX mentioned in Mission-shaped Church range from ‘Alternative worship communities’, ‘Base Ecclesial Communities’, to ‘Seeker church’, ‘Youth congregations’, etc. 17

The main findings of Mobsby’s research included:

  • ‘a key purpose of ‘fresh expressions’ was to bridge the gap between contemporary culture and the church, that each generation had the responsibility to be church ‘afresh’ to their context.

  • ‘emerging churches’ sought to be relevant church to postmodern aspects of culture defined by consumption, uncertainty, immediacy and individualism. Postmodernism was understood to be a cultural shift caused by increasingly ‘postmodern sensibilities’ drawing on philosophical post-structuralist thought, post-Christendom values, the sociological effects of liquid modernity, advances in information technology and economic globalisation. Postmodernity was found to be the epoch of time following the end of modernity but also the continuation of modernity.’18

Apart from the questionable nature of FX as partly or exclusively ‘postmodern’ mentioned above, what is clear is that Fresh Expressions are a response to increasing segmentation of western society which gathered apace as the 20th Century progressed. Many factors have been cited as causes, but one stands out: the extraordinary changes in communication – both in media and in mobility. This has led to once relatively isolated individuals and discrete communities being exposed to a plethora of ideas and cultures. Another significant factor is that social segmentation has been responded to, and promoted by, commercial interests creating ‘consumer societies’: niche targeting of particular social groups is the strategic analytic tool in marketing. Fresh Expressions are rightly responding to this social segmentation but must be wary of reinforcing such segmentation to the detriment of the Gospel’s radical call to break down barriers of separation.

As John Drane has suggested, Fresh Expressions fall broadly into two types. First, one based on a genuine missiological enterprise within the traditional denominations to engage with an ever-changing contemporary culture, which asks a ‘fundamental question about the nature of the Church as well as about an appropriate contextualization of Christian faith that will honour the tradition while also making the Gospel accessible to otherwise unchurched people.’ Secondly, some emerging churches consist of Christians who are ‘disillusioned with their previous experience of church’ and therefore felt ‘they had no alternative but to establish new forms of church in partnership with like-minded people’.19 Drane admits this is a rough and ready distinction. More recently he observes there is a world of difference between the two, ‘one tends to define itself by reference to what it is not, whereas the other is engaged in a more open-ended exploration of key questions’ related to the critical dialogue between gospel and culture.20

Mission-shaped Church’ & HUP

Mission–shaped Church acknowledges the HUP controversy and reiterates the gospel’s central role of reconciliation and breaking down social barriers. The Report then posits three ‘positive’ arguments for HUP based on: 1) the diversity in creation, 2) the incarnation of Jesus in a specific culture at a specific time (which echoes God’s revelation in a distinct Hebrew monoculture), and 3) as a positive benefit to the poor and oppressed, because in mixed communities the rich tend to dominate the poor. The Report then advocates a partial accommodation in stating ‘The answer may be to accept initial cultural similarity while seeking gradual cultural diversity, expressed in interdependence between groups and one another.’21

Professor John Hull rather intemperately attacks the Report’s three rationales for HUP – and argues that the Report’s understanding of the HUP is a misrepresentation of McGavran. First, regarding the diversity of creation point, Hull argues ‘This … is to use the concept of diversity to argue for the separate development of races and cultures. It is the basic principle of apartheid.’ Secondly, on the incarnation point, Hull observes that ‘No reference is made to the creation of a community of inclusive love by Jesus, and the report seems unaware that its theology of apartheid makes nonsense of the ideal of the inclusive church, which is referred to elsewhere in its pages.’ Thirdly, on rich culture dominating the poor:

‘This is certainly a novel interpretation of God’s preferential option for the poor … So the poor are to be kept separated from the educated so that the educated will not dominate them. … Can it be good news to the poor to encourage them to stay in poverty? The complacency toward the economically powerful indicated by this part of the report is quite breathtaking. ... The misuse of one of the most prophetic insight into contemporary theology, the preferential option of God for the poor, is almost cynical in its nonchalance.’22

Hull’s charge of apartheid lacks substance. There has to be a particularly uncharitable reading of the Report to perceive it as advocating apartheid and ‘separate development’, etc. The Report says the opposite. For the Report’s authors’ state within the section on HUP ‘The New Testament sees Jesus as reconciler, breaking down barriers …’ etc., and then goes on to affirm Paul’s great dictum, that in Christ ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek …’. Hull fails to acknowledge that one legitimate way of combating social dislocation, is for such groups to develop a confident self-identity and concomitant ability to properly engage with other (dominant) groups. Which presumably informs the other non-apartheid affirmation by the Report that talks of cultural diversity ‘expressed in interdependence between groups and one another’, a practice unknown with apartheid.

Turning to Hull’s charge of misrepresentation, he states: ‘It is not even clear that the authors of the report have correctly understood what Donald McGavran means by the ‘homogeneity principle’.23 He points to McGavran’s preferred use of ‘people movement’, arguing that McGavran was talking of primal societies where conversion may take place communally rather than individually. Therefore, because Western people are only brought to conversion as individuals, the HUP concept of a people movement is impossible in a largely ‘Christian country’. This begs the question of whether people movements can only refer to ‘primal societies’. Doesn’t it also apply to the segmented societies of ‘western’ (post)modernity, where social groups may be formed around a whole variety of interests, mini-cultures, etc.? Contrary to Hull’s claim, McGavran does equate people movements to groups in the West, for example citing, Boston in the USA and university campuses.24 In discussion of people groups he talks of ‘Americans arranged in eight major groups (and hundreds of minor groupings) make up the unassimilated part of the American mosaic’, etc.25

In his criticism of the Report, Hull asserts that

There is thus no reason to think that Donald McGavran would have approved of a mission policy in England which ignored or even perpetuated the divisions between rich and poor; he would on the contrary have considered the overcoming of such distinctions an important part of what he called the ‘perfecting’ of the church in a society where poverty was already regarded as unacceptable, and would have encouraged churches to seek for the conversion of individuals and not the creation of homogenous movements.’26

It is true McGavran considered the overcoming social divisions ‘an important part of what he called the ‘perfecting’ of the church’. This is based on a dubious separation between what McGavran calls ‘discipling’ – meaning bringing people to faith in Christ, and ‘perfecting’ which means ‘teaching an existing Christian as many of the truths of the Bible as possible’.27 He stays that the Church has these two tasks and ‘neither should be slighted’.28 Despite that affirmation, McGavran states that ‘discipling’ always takes priority over ‘perfecting’ – even to the point of denigrating the latter: ‘Today’s great vision, which calls the churches to rectify injustices in their neighbourhoods and nations, is good; but it must not supplant the vision that calls them to make disciples of all nations’.29 In addition, he argues that the resolution of social injustices begins solely with conversion. ‘People Movements do not mean Churches permanently divided by caste-consciousness. They start keenly conscious of their racial heritage. They must start that way. In peoples without Christ, full of natural pride and class-consciousness, how else could they start? But, as Christ rules in the hearts of His disciples and the effulgence of His glory fills his Churches, racial divisions are destroyed and peoples are unified.’30

Contrary to Hull’s accusation of apartheid, McGavran’s affirmation of Christ working to destroy racial divisions and unite peoples, is clearly echoed in Mission-shaped Church. Despite my concluding that Hull’s critique is wrong on all counts, there is one important implied criticism: the means and strategies of mission, themselves need to embody the radical demands of the Gospel.

Virtues and limitations of HUP

From the studies cited above, it’s possible to make the following observations: 1) There is tendency for FX and EC to be overlapping terms, with FX preferred in the UK, and EC preferred in the USA. 2) FX tends to describe initiatives of ‘inherited churches’, while EC may describe initiatives which ‘emerge’ outside existing church structures. 3) Most, but not all, FXs in the UK cited in the literature (and in the DVDs produced by the Anglican-Methodist Fresh Expressions agency)31 are products of existing churches. 4) The FX initiatives are either based on activities located outside existing church premises; andor focussed on particular (segmented) social groupings which may or may not have a discernible ‘postmodern’ identity.

But crucially, all FX and ECs are culturegroup-specific initiatives. Some may be multi-generational such as Cafe Churches, or mono-cultural such as youth-based projects or culture-affinity groups for Goths, Bikers, or whatever. As such there is a correlation with HUP missiology with its attendant strengths and weaknesses. It is this point which necessitated inclusion of HUP in Mission-shaped Church.

In his reflections on FXECs, George Lings, following Hooker, describes the essential DNA of Church as the four elements: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.32 ‘A group may be called Church when a diverse community is formed by transformative encounter with Jesus Christ … shown in the following (four) ways’ one of which is: ‘knowing they are an integral part of Christ’s universal people, they love, learn form and support Christians beyond their own group’. Lings doesn’t intend the ‘four ways’ to be used as tests ‘which congregations may either pass or fail, but as a set of aspirations’.33

As noted, the main controversy around HUP is centred on one essential strand of the Church’s DNA – ‘being one’. HUP is seen as denying the reconciling nature of Jesus. As Tim Chester observes HUP ‘weakens the demands of Christian discipleship and it leaves the church vulnerable to partiality in ethnic or social conflict.’34

One response to HUP missiology would be to develop multi-ethnic churches. Professor Charles van Engen is a passionate advocate of multi-ethnic churches, in a North American context where the advocacy of HUP-based church growth strategies became dominant, and multi-ethnic ministries were under constant challenge. He posited this thesis: ‘Because God’s mission seeks careful and balanced complementarity between universality and particularity, churches … should strive to be as multi-ethnic as their surrounding contexts.’35

This follows Hull in arguing that the nature of the gospel is such that the Church’s mission in itself contains a radical challenge which goes against the ‘comfort’ of HUP strategy.36 So Van Engen affirms that ‘God recognises and values cultural and ethnic diversity. Yet within the particularity of ethnicity God loves all peoples and invites all to faith in Jesus Christ, each in their own special cultural and ethnic make-up.’ HUP affirms cultural identities, cultural particularity – and rejects ‘melting pot’ ideologies and practices based on assimilation which aims to eliminate such specific identities and cultures. But, mistakenly, HUP does not allow for a multi-ethnic approach to mission. Van Engen describes this as an ‘over-emphasis on particularity’:

‘the emphasis on homogeneous units tends to stress cultural differences to such a degree that oneness, togetherness, unity in Christ, church cohesion, the universality of the Gospel are in danger of being lost. … too strong an emphasis on the HUP makes its strengths – like cultural sensitivity, contextualization, ... become weaknesses … completely ignoring the ways in which all persons share common human traits within social structures that call for common sharing of resources and experiences.37

The Church Growth Movement’s emphasis on numerical growth, created a rejection of methodologies which appear to be locked into slow numerical growth. Van Engen rejects this, arguing that ‘models’ of multi-ethnic church planting, ‘should not be evaluated only on the basis of whether they grow numerically … I believe the primary criterion on which models are should be evaluated is the extent to which they are able in that context to preserve a contextually-appropriate balance between the universality and the particularity of the Church.’ 38

A key clause in Van Engen’s thesis is that churches are to be ‘as multi-ethnic as their surrounding contexts’: the mission should be shaped by the culture in which it is placed. Even multi-racial churches which demonstrate one aspect of heterogeneity, may nonetheless behave just like other homogeneous units in neighbouring churches. Their alike-ness being bounded by such things as social class, economic status, political affiliations, rather than ethnicity. For instance, some churches have mixed race congregations where the common factors are poverty, and also where they reflect the make-up of the immediate community in the parish. To all intents and purposes they are an Homogenous Unit, and therefore we have look beyond certain superficial categorisations, such as ethnicity, to understand congregational life and being. Chester rightly argues:

…most churches are homogenous to some extent. People choose churches on the basis of worship-style, denominational allegiance, theological emphasis and even cultural background. … The result of this in the UK has been to leave significant sectors of the population untouched by the gospel. … Homogeneous groups do seem to be effective in evangelism, but they are by definition exclusive rather than inclusive. 39

Those who correctly criticise HUP strategies for their exclusive nature, may appear to be arguing from the stand-point of unachievable perfection. However, Bosch, following Schleiermacher, is right in affirming that the Christian Church is always in the process of becoming. ‘Provisionality’ is the Church’s constant state. The Church is a collection of discrete units, which contain degrees of homogeneity based on cultural affinities. So,

Whenever the church takes seriously its mission in respect to the various human communities which stand in conflict with one another – whether these conflicts are doctrinal, social, or cultural in nature, or due to different life situations and experiences – there is an inner tension which cannot be disregarded. Rather, this tension calls us to repentance. … this is what the church is for – ‘to take up the deepest conflicts of the world into itself and to confront both sides there with the forgiving, transforming power which breaks and remakes the new community, with a new hope and a new calling’.40

HUP’s great flaw is taking an observational truth, and making it into a programmable mission strategy without due regard for the transformational aspects of the gospel based on the reconciling nature of God which see diverse communities acting as one in the cause of justice and love for all, irrespective of ethnicity, culture, gender, wealth, etc. McGavran has moved from the wisdom of his observations about people groups to a definition of ‘movement’ driven by utilitarian endeavour ‘which enable them to become Christians’. This is bound by an unquestioned individualism even though it is addressing ‘groups’.41 Indeed, McGavran and Wagner clarify their understanding of conversion by emphasising people movements as ‘multi-individual, mutually interdependent conversion’.42 However, as Vincent Donovan had to learn in his mission to the Masai: ‘group’, as distinct from ‘individual’ conversion is a reality.43

Positively, the observation that people should be able to become Christians without leaving their ‘people group’ to take on foreign, external, cultures should act as an impetus to appropriate inculturation strategies. Part of the strength of inculturation is its built-in dialogic principle. ‘ “Inculturation” is a term that denotes the presentation and re-expression of the Gospel in forms and terms proper to a culture, processes which result in re-interpretation of both, without being unfaithful to either.’44 It contains is the reality that the Gospel transforms from within a culture, and thereby moves to breakdown barriers to human relationships while celebrating diversity and difference.

The challenge

The old questions about HUP still apply to FX and ECs, just as they apply to every church. Hull was right to raise them, and continued silence on the issue doesn’t make them go away. The challenge for all Christian churches – inherited, FX and ECs – is to manifest the appropriate signs of ‘oneness’.

The Churches should be asking key questions such as: In what contexts and ways is ‘oneness’ to be expressed by Christian communities and initiatives? What might the signs be, by which all can know that Fresh Expressions are effective in transforming culture and not reinforcing partisan andor homogenous group interests? In any church community or Fresh Expression, what might be the indicators of a transforming gospel breaking down barriers? It is disappointing that Mission-shaped Questions didn’t take up the issue.


1 McGavran, D.A. (1990/1970) Understanding Church Growth [3rd edition revised and edited by Wagner, C.P.] Grand Rapids: Eerdmans p.163

2 Wagner is particularly significant in discussing the late McGavran’s work for three reasons: he was McGavran’s student at Fuller Theological Seminary; he revised and edited McGavran’s key volume, Understanding Church Growth; and together they were leaders in the ‘Church Growth Movement’ which built upon the HUP insight.

3 Moreau, A. S [Ed.] (2000) Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions Grand Rapids: Baker Academic p.455

4 McGavran (1990/1970) p.69

5 McGavran, D.A. (1955) The Bridges of God; a Study in the Strategy of Missions World Dominion Press [reprinted facsimile edition in 2001, Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock] p.49

6 McGavran (1990/1970) p.222

7 LCWE. (1978) Pasadena Consultation – Homogenous Unit Principle Lausanne Occasional paper No. 1 Lausanne Committee for World Evangelisation Available at:


8 Moreau (2000) p.455

9 Moreau (2000) p.455

10 Bosch, D.J. (1991) Transforming mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission Maryknoll: Orbis p.466

11 Gibbs, E. & Bolger, R.K. (2006) Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures Grand Rapids: Baker Academic p.44-45

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