Our context has a very high proportion of First generation South Asian, and British South Asian-heritage, Muslims. Our council ward of St Mary’s has c. 70% S. Asian population but if you limit the boundaries to our immediate area of Glodwick, that figure would jump up into the high 90s. Many would want to insist that the best way to reach our area would be to pull in some South Asian Christians and to get them to plant a church and reach their own people.
Likewise, within our church, we have a significant number of Iranian and Afghan Farsi-speakers. It has always been our intention to integrate our Farsi-speaking brothers and sisters as best we’re able, with a long term plan to raise them up to positions of leadership within our church. But there is no denying that translating everything makes life considerably harder. Some would argue that it is best, surely, to simply plant a Farsi-speaking church and allow folk to reach their own.
There are several reasons we disagree with that view. Today, I want to outline some of those reasons. Tomorrow, I want to offer some problems that transpire as a result of this position. I may well, after that, tell you where our intent as a church to avoid homogeneity is not expressed well in our practice i.e. where are we not doing so well on achieving that goal.
First and foremost, our reading of the gospel is that it is inclusive. All may come to Christ on the same terms, all are included in the covenant on the same terms, all are welcomed into the church on the same terms. Paul is emphatic when he says, ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3:28). It strikes me as entirely antithetical to the gospel to insist that our churches are for some and not for others. If we are all one in Christ Jesus, and our churches are any reflection of the invisible church, siphoning off people groups and intentionally creating homogeneous churches cuts against the gospel imperative to be unified (cf. Col 3:14, Eph 4:1-6, etc).
Denying the power of the gospel
It seems to me, we deny the power of the gospel when we insist on creating homogeneous churches. The dividing wall of hostility that has been broken down (cf. Eph 2:14) is denied when we affirm in practice that like can only reach like. Moreover, we deny the approach of the Apostles – particularly that of Paul – as Jewish men reaching Gentile people. The gospel that was to reach to the ends of the earth was not brought by people from the ends of the earth. It was specifically from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. It was through Israel that all the nations of the earth will be blessed. It was from a particular people, through a specific person, then via a set of ethnically bound people, that the gospel went out to the world.
As we look in the book of Acts, the churches that were planted were often ethnically and nationally diverse. Not only Jews and Gentiles, but a broad range of Gentiles from across the empire. Frequently, issues that arose within the churches were matters of cultural difference between the people who sat therein. Never was the solution proposed that those churches should split along ethnic or cultural lines. Instead, gospel principles where reinforced so that different cultures could live and worship together in the same place. The power of the gospel was to unite different peoples in Christ. Homogeneous churches can deny that gospel uniting power.
A third reason we are not inclined to plant homogeneous churches is that their reach is necessarily limited. I had some friends who were involved in Chinese churches. It was obvious why Mandarin speakers who came to trust in Christ were attracted to such churches. It is evidently more comfortable to worship in your mother tongue rather than a second language and eminently easier to forge friendships with people who share your cultural assumptions rather than having to contend with so many cultural differences. On one level, the choice was obvious and may seem like a no-brainer.
The problem was that those churches could never reach beyond their own constituency. They were necessarily limited. As natural as it was for Mandarin speakers from the English city we were in to attend, it was totally unnatural for anybody else to elect to go over and above the English-speaking churches they could attend. Their reach was limited to the relatively small number of people from their ethnic and cultural background.
Of course, English-speaking churches may well have to translate what they are doing and you may says, ‘doesn’t that limit English-speaking churches?’ Clearly, every church has its limitations. But in an English-speaking country, it is not unreasonable to expect either a working level of English or a desire/need to work toward learning the English language in which your daily life must operate. The same would be true in countries with different languages. Not only are the majority of people going to operate in the majority language but those who cannot yet are helped to do so. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of people – regardless of background, ethnicity or culture – can be reached by a church operating in a majority language in a way that operating in a foreign language cannot.
Aside from those the homogeneous church can reach as it is currently constituted, there is an inherent problem of future generational loss. Whilst it may seem entirely natural for a first generation, Pahari-speaking Pakistani to go to a Pakistani Church, their British born, raised and educated children and grandchildren very often feel quite differently. As younger generations are brought up in homogeneous churches that reflect the culture of their parents and grandparents, the church begins to feel as alien to them as an English-speaking, exclusively white British church would feel to their older family members. Many of my BME friends have never done more than had their parents or grandparents country of birth pointed out to them on a map. The culture of their grandparents home country is foreign to them and so to remain in a church that is bounded by that culture makes little sense to them.
Churches that have purposefully eschewed the Homogeneous Unit Principle have a better hope of retaining future generations because they are not bound together by a culture that will prove alien to those who grow up in their ranks. Naturally, different forms of homogeneity will not retain those who left other homogeneous churches because, to be frank, a British Asian leaving a Pakistani Church because they don’t belong is going to feel no more included in an exclusively white British church where nobody is like them and the culture may seem equally alien. Only a church genuinely committed to cultural diversity, that is not bounded together exclusively by a particular culture but by a commitment to transcendent gospel values is likely to retain a broad range of people.