Against the HUP

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Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that the most segregated hour in America was Sunday morning worship. I am reminded again of that reality thanks to Martin Luther King Day in the USA this past Monday. Sadly, King’s observation is still probably true today. Churches in North America are still highly segregated according to ethnicity – not just black and white but also, Chinese, Koreans, Philipinos, Latinos, Caribbean, etc. Unlike in the past, however, churches today self-segregate along these ethnic lines. Why? There are a variety of reasons (racism probably being one) but one popular justification is the Homogenous Unit Principle or the HUP. Recently, I wrote a guest editorial denouncing the HUP. This was published in Christian Courier, Dec. 27, 2010 issue. Below is what I wrote:

For decades, churches have bought into the homogenous unit principle (HUP) popularized by the Church Growth movement. The HUP basically suggests that the fastest and easiest way for churches to grow is to capitalize on the sociological fact that “birds of a feather flock together” by building homogenous communities, e.g. Korean churches reaching out to Koreans, Chinese churches to the Chinese, Black churches to Blacks, etc. The HUP is still a very influential philosophy. Even innovative forward-thinking church planters like Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch wrote in their otherwise fine book, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church, that “we believe that the only way forward is to embrace the HUP as a mission strategy, while working toward heterogeneity with mature Christians in community. In other words, heterogeneity is a discipleship issue, not a missional one.” (p. 52)

Theologically, I disagree. I believe that God has an inter-cultural and a heterogeneous vision for the church. By inter-cultural, I mean a community where members from different cultures inter-relate and inter-depend on each other. We must remember that Jesus commissioned his mono-cultural group of Jewish disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt.28:19), where “all nations” is shorthand for Gentiles. So, Jesus was really telling his Jewish disciples to “go and make disciples of Gentiles”. The Great Commission is originally and inherently a cross-cultural commission! I don’t know how Frost and Hirsch can separate discipleship and mission when the mission is to make disciples. And I don’t know how they can separate heterogeneity or diversity from mission when the mission is inherently cross-cultural, and hence, inherently engaging diversity. I believe Jesus intends his church to be inter-cultural by default.

So often, churches are tempted to do what works rather than do what’s right. Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating that we ditch sociological facts in thinking about church and mission. What I am advocating is to be theologically critical. Is this sociological fact rooted in our created nature or in our sinful nature? Is how we carry out the mission as important as the results we get? Qualitative results matter as much as quantitative results: what kind of Christian faith are we nurturing among new believers if we divide discipleship (following Jesus) from mission (working with Jesus)? What kind of faith are we suggesting when we make engaging diversity optional to following Christ, as something only more mature Christians do?

The HUP is not only problematic in terms of ethnic or cultural diversity. Where do we draw the HUP line in terms of its logic? Already, we see suburban churches that mainly cater to middle-class folks, and inner-city churches catering to lower-income peoples. In fact, in Frost and Hirsh’s book, they even seem to suggest through their examples churches or groups based on common interests, like model airplane flying, book clubs, beer drinking, community service, etc. For the sake of “mission” or “outreach,” where do we draw the line to this ever segregating homogenous unit principle? Why not all-male and all-female churches then? Why not a people with disabilities and their caregivers only church?

Of course, there is a time and place for everything, including a time and place for gathering with those of common interests or backgrounds or gender. But these can easily be incorporated as specific ministries/small groups within a church plant that embraces the full diversity of humanity in its community.

Finally, I take issue with the implicit reductionism of God’s mission that the HUP assumes and promotes. From my Reformed Christian perspective, God’s mission is “to reconcile to himself all things” through Jesus Christ (Col. 1:20). This vertical reconciliation with God inherently involves a horizontal reconciliation among divided humanity (Eph. 2:11-22). Both vertical and horizontal dimensions, so to speak, are part of God’s mission. The HUP assumes that mission only deals with the vertical relationship making the horizontal reconciliation a “nice bonus”. Once again, the HUP tears apart what God has joined together.

Can we finally lay to rest this harmful HUP idea and re-embrace God’s vision of diversity for his church?

4 thoughts on “Against the HUP

  1. To more West Europeans I think this Homogenous Unit Principle looks something reprehensible. Having people from the same breed or race flocking together is not improper, but trying to get only certain people into ones church is not following the teachings of Jesus the Nazarene.
    It could be interesting to have churches or groups based on common interests, like model airplane flying, book clubs, beer drinking, community service, etc., but the main and common interest for those gathering in the church should be the Word of God, which is the Word for everybody.


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