Church Planting - Homogenous Units Principle or mixed social Stratification


Church Planting - Homogenous Units Principle or mixed social Stratification

Eberhard Werner (werner(a)

Where are we in Church planting in regard to the representation of the Churches social stratification? A big difference regarding the church history can be found in

  • the State Church principle of Europe (Roman Catholic, Protestant and Free Churches), South America and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS; Russia; Orthodox Churches)* and
  • the launch of independent non-denominational churches.

Whereas a State Church by definition is expected to represent all social groups of its area of influence, the independent churches are focusing on a mixed social stratification, but often they attract specific elements of a society. In the sixties and seventies of the last century the main idea of Church planting - including the absorption of the spiritually unsatisfied members of the State Churches was to represent the whole social stratification of the surrounding society. The missiological discussions in these days moved around this idea in disciple making, evangelization, Church leadership and Church planting strategy. However, this was far from the reality. It became obvious, although not seriously recognized, that church planters and their team mainly attract specific social elements. 

In contrast to this idea Indian-born and raised McGavran (e.g. 1955) promoted, at least for abroad evangelisation, to focus on what he called homogenous units. He had in mind that the Indian caste system would not allow to include inter-caste participation in the Church. So, the focus should be laid on units that show a strong social affinity. His idea was later critizesed by South African missiologist David Bosch who called it racism (1992). Bosch argued that in his country such a focus would support Apartheid. So far missiology still sees a value in the approach taken by McGavran (e.g. Frost & Hirsch 2004).

What do we face? The State Church loses members from very specific social sections. It is the in-baptized (enfant baptism) members that leave the Church after 30 to 40 years because they don't participate in the Churches life. Younger people found outside options to get spiritual input. That leaves those older people that did not leave as the backbone of the Church. However, the conservatism and inflexibility of Church panels disattracts potential new members. Feminism, Liberalism and Inclusion (social marginal groups, handicapped, other sexual orientation) attracts specific social elements, not just members of these groups but sympathizers and "searching" liberal people in general (e.g. parents of handicaped children). Free Churches on the other hand from the very beginning either focus on

  • the middle class of society as the most stable socially and financial representation of society (e.g. brethren churches, baptist shurches), or
  • specific social groups, such as the young generation (e.g. Jesus freaks, ICF), poor or homeless (e.g. salvation army) or
  • social needs or orientation (e.g. sexual orientation, gaychurch**).

Either way Free Churches seldom hold a membership that mirrors the social environment. In most cases it is the targeted group, attracted by the church planting team that in itself limits the potential members due to theological, ideological or personal preferences. As always in the formation of social groups a peer-group dynamic takes in, attracting those of the same binding affinity. Due to persons crossing boundaries, called "fuzzy edges" (unscharfe Ränder), a small percentage, normally 3-5%, of social stratification can be observed. These people search for acceptance, wider relationships or just getting used to be attractive to other social groups. The peer-group itself invites and cares for these boundary-crossing members to proof its openness to "all" members of a society. However, every local representation has different limitations to include such fuzzy edge persons due to theological, financial, personal and political reasons. Persons with a handicap face these limitations often by ignorance (his/her own fault/sin), over-pitying (poor family) or open discrimination (we don't want a handicaped pastor s/he not even able to get on the podium).

The limitations given to a church is based on the Church-conscience formed by the theological, ieological and personal interests of the leaders. It is often represented by the creeds, church constitution or rules of faith. The Church-conscience is dependent from the cultural, linguistic, exegetical and hermeneutical interpretation of the Biblical content. A Church functions on the assumption that its members more or less follow these guidelines and ideas.  

Having these observations in mind some conclusions, open to discussion, should be made:

  • Churches develop through the process of generation-inclusion. The second and third generation of a church is attracted and attracts the financially and political stable elements of society, which is the middle class. Unstable and conflictous churches are shunned. The fuzzy edge phanomenon of peer-group dynamics leads to the inclusion of few boundary-crossing persons (upper and lower class), limited by the ideological and financial cpacity of the church.
  • Fluctuation and church hopping allows to form a (relatively) stable church body that develops its leaders, elders and pastors. This group is mainly threatened by shame conflicts such as divorce, personal conflicts, financial infidelity or theological controversies. It is this group, which performs the (un-)conscious conservatism and (un-)attractiveness of a local representation of the body of Christ.
  • Focusing on the stable middle class must allow for activities outside of the routine chuch live (service, regular meetings). It is the responsibility of the stable church body to develop and allow activities for the youth, marginalized social groups (other nationality, other sexual orientation, handicapped), evangelisation and Christian welfare and social work. 

Discussion welcome: [email protected]

*Russian: Содружество Независимых Государств, СНГ, tr. Sodruzhestvo Nezavisimykh Gosudarstv, SNG), also called the Russian Commonwealth.



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