Missions Sunday: From Homogeneous to a Heterogeneous Unit Principle
Where would you expect to see a gathering of people from twenty different nations—each in their traditional dress, holding hands, dancing, and singing Psalm 133… in Hebrew, “Hine matov umah-nayim shevet achim gom-yachad” (Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!”)? Would you believe Minneapolis, Minnesota? How did such a church come into being? One might expect to see such churches in Los Angeles or New York, but Minneapolis?
This was the scene at the one-year celebration of a new church plant called New City of Nations Church (NCNC). What motivated us to start such a church? And what is attracting a growing number of people from nearly two dozen nations to continue fellowshipping together in such a church?
The Twenty-First Century Context: A Microcosm of Global Urbanization
If you were to ask the average American what the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul are best known for, some might think of the largest mall in America or its title as “the land of 10,000 lakes.” Not many would know that these cities are now home to the largest Muslim mosque in America, the largest Cambodian Buddhist temple in America, and the largest Hindu temple in America (Mayer 2010, 24).
From the early 1990s to the 2010s these cities have become home to the largest Hmong, Somali, Liberian, Karen, Anauk Sudanese, and Oromo Ethiopian populations in the United States (Mayer 2010, 24). There are approximately eighty different people groups living in the Twin Cities area. At least eighteen of these people groups can be categorized as “unreached” (i.e., less than two percent of the population is Christian; Mayer 2010,52-54). And at least two of these people groups may be considered “untargeted” (i.e., there is no church or church-planting strategy being pursued).
There are many evangelical Christian churches in Minnesota that are aware of these facts and are pursuing new outreach efforts among these ethno-religious groups. However, a harvest of new Christ-followers from among the unreached in our midst remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, committed Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists who come to these cities are establishing their own places of worship. The impact on the religious landscape of the Twin Cities is stunning. In 1991, there were four known mosques in the Twin Cities. In 2013, there were about 110 mosques (many meet in storefronts or community buildings) and about 150,000 Muslims.
And these Muslim immigrants are actively evangelizing. It is estimated that about 5% of the 167,000 Hispanics in the Twin Cities have now converted to Islam. There are 2,500 Tibetans living in these cities (primarily Buddhist), the second largest Tibetan population in the U.S. And there is only one known Christian among them (Mayer 2010, 24, 52-54).
How will the American Church respond? Should they send and support new missionaries to work locally? Or is there a better way? What if we sent out missionary churches, rather than a few missionaries?
A Journey from Missions-Minded Mono-Ethnic Church to Multi-Ethnic Missional Church
I served as global outreach pastor for a multi-site mega church in Minneapolis from 2002 to 2012. A significant part of my ministry involved preparing, sending, and caring for our predominantly Anglo-American missionaries sent to countries outside of North America. Our missionary preparation program required missionary candidates to be engaged in local language and culture learning among a local people group as a pre-requisite for service abroad.
My aim with this requirement was two-fold: (1) to help the aspiring missionary practice the same language and culture learning skills that he or she would use abroad, and (2) that the result of this relational language and culture learning approach would strengthen the church’s reputation as a caring and welcoming fellowship for all peoples. My hope was that this would eventually translate into more ethnically diverse people attending and becoming members of our Anglo-dominant church.
However, ten years and over two hundred missionary candidates later, the church remained ninety-five percent Anglo. The conclusion I draw from this is that a church which simply plans to have a mission department (even a strongly supported one!) and sends/supports many missionaries (even local and short-termers) will not automatically become a church for all peoples.
Many churches may be satisfied with defining “a church for all peoples” as meaning, “a separate church for each people group.” But I found it increasingly difficult to justify this position with biblical injunctions such as Mark 11:17, Romans 15, and 1 Peter 2:9-10, which clearly advocate multi-ethnic inclusion within the local church. I was also convicted by the testimony of many new immigrant Christians who did not feel welcomed in the Anglo-dominant churches of America. Jehu Hanciles writes:
If the changing face of American Christianity is not as apparent as it could be, this is partly because the new immigrants tend to form separate congregations. This also makes it easy to overlook the fact that many immigrants experience rejection and discrimination when they seek membership or participation in American churches—even when they are committed Christians or seasoned ministers who speak excellent English. (2008, 289-290)
My wife and I participated in an international ministry at our church called All Nations Fellowship (ANF). ANF was a Sunday School gathering of about fifty to sixty believers and seekers from over fifteen different countries. English was the common language of communication, but other languages and cultures were acknowledged and honored in various ways. The fellowship was comprised primarily of first and second-generation immigrants. Some came as refugees from war-torn countries. But most came to the U.S. as university students.
For many years, the common assumption of international student outreach in America was that these students would eventually return to their country of origin and become missionaries among their own people group. However, we discovered that the vast majority chose to stay in the U.S. after graduation (some estimate up to 80%).
They were finding jobs, getting married, and establishing families. Nonetheless, many of these international students were very open to the gospel message. In fact, within a decade ANF had seen at least fifteen students come to faith in Christ from China, Taiwan, India, Korea, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. Most of these were coming to faith in Christ through the testimonies and Bible studies led by other international students.
As exciting as that sounds, not many of these converts became members of the Anglo-dominant church. Most chose either to make ANF Sunday School their whole church experience, or joined a church where they felt more included. The ANF leaders and I were not satisfied with this. What could we do to make disciples of all nations who would feel welcomed to continue growing in the church of those who brought them to a faith in Christ?
From Homogeneous to Heterogeneous Unit Principle
Perhaps it was naïve of me to think non-Anglo peoples would want to become part of a very large Anglo-dominant church. Besides, weren’t we all taught the Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP, which was first proposed and promoted by missiologist Donald McGavran in the 1960s) as the best way to start and grow a church? People of the same language, ethnicity, and culture are the best at reaching their own people. And all humans prefer to be with people of their own ethnicity and language group.
But how do evangelical pastors and missionaries who promote the HUP explain texts like Isaiah 56:3? Jesus quoted this passage as he cleansed the temple of the moneychangers in the court of the Gentiles saying, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations…” (Mark 11:17).
And how would a mono-ethnic church explain Romans 15:5-7? Here, Paul exhorts the ethnically mixed Roman church to, “live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In fact, I could not find a single example or admonition in the New Testament for starting and growing mono-ethnic churches.
Of course, we all understand that the HUP was intended to prevent people from thinking that they must adopt the language and culture of the missionary, or any other people group, in order to receive Christ and grow in their faith. We also recognize that people movements happen as the gospel flows through the language and family networks of a particular people group.
But does that mean that such mono-ethnic churches should remain perpetually mono-ethnic? Could it be that perpetual mono-ethnic churches are the unintended consequence of the HUP approach? I say “unintended” because it was never the ultimate goal according McGavran, the original author of the principle. He wrote:
In applying this principle, common sense must be assumed. The creation of narrow churches, selfishly centered on the salvation of their own kith and kin only, is never the goal. Becoming a Christian should never enhance animosities or the arrogance which is so common to all human associations… The Church will seek to moderate their ethnocentrism in many ways… The one thing she will not do—on the basis that it is self-defeating—is to substitute kindness and friendliness for the gospel. (McGavran 1970, 242-243, 223)
How have our churches and church-planting efforts, particularly in multi-ethnic urban settings, sought to “moderate their ethnocentrism?” I was told by a pastor of a large mono-ethnic church that “HUP is the way churches grow. It is just a fact.” But is it possible (or even commendable) for churches to pursue a heterogeneous fellowship from the beginning?
Based on his analysis of the declining American Church, David Olson offers the following challenge to mono-ethnic churches:
In the mono-ethnic world, Christians, pastors and churches only had to understand their own culture. Ministering in a homogeneous culture is easier, but mono-ethnic Christianity can gradually become culture-bound… pastors need to operate under the rules of the early church’s mission to the Gentiles… As the center of (global) Christianity moves south and east, the multi-ethnic church is becoming the normal and natural picture of the new face of Christianity. (Olson 2008,170-171)
Alan McMahan appropriately warns the American Church that:
Without relearning new ways to carry out ministry in an increasingly pluralistic, multi-ethnic world many churches will become insular, with shrinking congregations and community impact…yet missiologists have known for decades that geographically-displaced peoples experience a much higher level of receptivity to new ideas, beliefs, and lifestyles. (2009,17)
The fact that tens of billions of U.S. dollars go out of the U.S. in remittances from immigrant populations each year  indicates that most immigrants maintain significant relational connections with family and friends in their homeland. Consequently, the opportunities for the American urban Church to connect its local mission with its global mission are unprecedented.
The Need and Means toward Adaptive Change
The leaders of NCNC believe that a heterogeneous unit principle should be the strategic aim of both local and global urban missions into the twenty-first century and beyond. Our conviction is not based solely on current demographics, but on the biblical descriptions of God’s desire for his people from both Old and New Testaments (some of which were noted above).
After studying and reflecting on these issues over the last decade, we believe that mono-ethnic churches in America can and should grow in ethnic diversity. But we also realize that this is easier said than done. After many years, the leaders of the ANF Sunday School and I realized that it is far easier to start a multi-ethnic church than to transform an old and large mono-ethnic church into one. Therefore, we sought the blessing of the church leaders to send us out as a daughter church plant. They were extremely supportive of our calling and vision, and sent us out with a great amount of support in prayer and finances.
Having just passed our one-year celebration as a new church, we have grown from a core group of thirty people to one hundred people from over twenty nations. While we have much more to learn, here is what we have discovered to be the necessary elements to start and grow a Christ-exalting multi-ethnic church:
Purpose and vision clarified. Our mission statement is, “To advance the reign of Christ among all peoples, through a redeemed community of all peoples.” Our vision statement adds the long-term aim of being a “3M church” (Missional, Multi-Ethnic, and Multiplying) both locally and globally. Lord willing, we aim to plant other churches with this DNA within the next few years.
Plurality of ethnically diverse elders. An ethnically diverse church starts with ethnically diverse leadership. We found that people feel more valued and welcomed when a respected leader from their own people group shares an equal level of authority with the other ethnic leaders. While our lead pastor is an Anglo-American (me), the associate pastor is Congolese. The other elders are Chinese (Hong Kong and Taiwanese), Japanese, and African-American. No single people group dominates the leadership of NCNC.
Pulpit sharing. The preaching team consists of me, my Congolese associate, and our Japanese elder. Occasionally, we may have a guest speaker from another ethnic background. The point is that ethnically diverse preachers bring different cultural perspectives and insights when expositing biblical texts. This helps members of the preacher’s ethnic group feel understood, while also encouraging people of other ethnic groups to consider new ways of seeing the gospel applied to other cultures.
Propagation. We want to build a missional mindset into the DNA of every believer and ministry of the church. We repeat this phrase often: “We aim to be a missionary church, not just a church that has some missionaries.” By that we mean that every believer at NCNC should be equipped to make disciples cross-culturally. We are currently experimenting with a contextualized version of Ying Kai’s T4T (Training for Trainers), and some aspects of Disciple Making Movements. We ask every believer to seek opportunities to share the gospel with someone of a different ethnicity. We are even encouraging our youth group members (consisting of Africans, Americans, and Asians) to see themselves as missionaries. It is good and natural to evangelize those of our own language and cultural background. But even in the multi-ethnic church we are tempted to greet and relate exclusively with our own people group. However, this tendency is more often challenged by an ethnically diverse church community than it would be in a mono-ethnic fellowship.
Language and culture appreciation. While we function primarily in English, we sing worship songs in multiple languages (with English translation), led by a multi-national worship team. So when it is time for a song in Swahili or Lingala, some of our Congolese members begin to dance, or cry out in prayer. When it is time for a Korean or Chinese song, a member from that language group helps us pronounce the words and explains the meaning beyond what a literal English translation may offer. We also provide a “Quick Reference Language Guide,” a grid of common greeting phrases in the primary languages spoken by our members, and Bibles in multiple languages. Finally, we end most of our sermons with an application question and ask the congregation to form small groups to answer the question. Some of the small groups will be language-specific for those who struggle with English. Other groups are diverse and learn how the scripture may apply in various cultural contexts.
The beauty of the multi-ethnic church is that all the members are continually learning from one another how to appropriately relate to people of other languages and cultures. Prejudices and traditional ethnic animosities are challenged with the gospel that beckons each of us to “welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7) and “forgiving each other as the Lord has forgiven you” (Col. 3:13).
We are still young and perhaps overly idealistic. But our desire is to become the kind of multi-ethnic church that the Apostle Peter wrote to among the Jewish diaspora:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Pet. 2:9-10)
To God be the glory as Christ continues to build such a Church until it reflects our eternal destiny, a new city of nations (Rev. 21:22-26).
 According to Int. Monetary Fund (IMF) of World Bank, in 2003 about $100 billion in remittances from all global workers… about one-third came from the USA ($34 billion). In 2012, about $350 billion in remittances… estimates are up to $500 billion by 2014. That could mean $160 billion from the U.S. alone. See www.remittancesgateway.org.
- Hanciles, Jehu. 2008. Beyond Christendom: Globalization, African Migration, and the Transformation of the West. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
- Mayer, John A. 2010. CITYVIEW Report. Minneapolis.
- McGavran, Donald A. 1970. Understanding Church Growth. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Co.
- McMahan, Alan. 2009. Church Growth by Another Name: Challenges and Opportunities for the future of a Movement. Great Commission Research Journal 1(1): Summer.
- Olson, David T. 2008. The American Church in Crisis: Groundbreaking Research Based on a National Database of over 200,000 Churches. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 2, pp. 226-232. Copyright © 2014 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved.