Guest Post: Why we DO want to plant homogeneous churches

This is a guest post by David Skinner, an elder at Oldham Bethel Church. It was written in response to my recent articles on cultural diversity in the church. You can read those posts here, here and here. Views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of this blog.

This title has been chosen deliberately as “click bait”. As a co-elder in the same church as Steve Kneale, am I trying to cut across everything that he has been saying in his excellent blogs against the HUP (Homogeneous Unit Principle)? We often disagree on things within our eldership. One hopes that it is iron sharpening iron as we are forced, through debate, to dive deeper into the Scriptures to see if our position is the best understanding and application.

Steve invited me to write a guest blog – and I feel greatly honoured to do so (no irony) – because of the following comments I made on the Facebook post:

Of course, one could say that we do want to plant “homogeneous” churches because homogeneity in Christ is the only way to break down the barriers you mention. Focus on the one Gospel that saves anyone from anywhere moves our eyes beyond the surface of language, culture, preferences, etc. While our church is hard work at times, there are clear benefits to being non-homogeneous in the cultural sense. 1) We’re reminded of the degree of our imperfection as a church 2) We’re reminded of our common human joys and fears 3) We’re reminded of the inherent sinfulness of all of us 4) We’re reminded that the Gospel can be received with power by the Holy Spirit even when much of the communication is poorly transmitted/received at an intellectual level.

Let me flesh out each of these 4 comments.

We’re reminded of the degree of our imperfection as a church

A great enemy of the church is success. We grow numerically and in depth of understanding, we have great preaching and involvement in ministries across the body of the church. Then pride kicks in. Yes, we may give thanks to God and give him all the glory in our prayers and communications but we cease to be those desperate people utterly dependent on our Sovereign Lord. When the church is going so well it’s hard to pray like Isaiah “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees” (35:3).

It would be obviously ridiculous to generate problems just to keep ourselves humble but we should embrace the problems the Lord sends us because it keeps us on our knees in weakness and dependence.

In a cross-cultural, multilingual church we are constantly aware of how imperfect we are. Take pastoral care amongst the Farsi speakers as an example. Oftentimes we need to take a translator with us. He/she may not be a deacon even. I’ve even been in urgent situations where the only translator available was not even a church member. So, imagine you’re in a conversation with your pastor/elder about something that is really painful and sensitive. In fact, even your spouse doesn’t know. You trust your pastor/elder and you want to pour it all out to him. But who’s this sitting in the corner? Apart from any issues of translation accuracy there is a huge confidentiality problem.

We have many blind spots as elders when it comes to our Iranian folks. We don’t get the gossip until the smouldering kindle has become a raging fire. OK, that doesn’t happen every week, but it has happened more than once.

We’re reminded of our common human joys and fears

How do you have a laugh with people who don’t speak the same language? Try Benny Hill slapstick? Hopefully not. I’m not sure I know the answer to this in terms of being able to give you a process to follow. However, my experience is plenty of laughs and fun without clever words.

I’ll risk an example that might bring the SAS crashing through my roof but here goes. We are sat around the table in our home after lunch one day with a couple of the Iranian lads and a guy from Iraq. The conversation moves to which sports are the most popular in our respective countries. The usual sports – football, cricket, fishing (apparently in the UK!) and so on. Then the Iraqi guy pipes up with “BOMB” spoken in an accent that would do Peter Sellers proud. Everyone is in stitches. It revealed trust, openness and freedom to poke fun at what is tragically going on in our respective countries. We all laugh because we all feel the same emotions, the same outrage and the same need for light relief.

I’ve seen big guys cry like babies because they are in the UK as an asylum seeker and their wives and children are in Iran or Afghanistan. You don’t need to speak Farsi or Dari or understand nomadic cultures in the foothills of the Afghan mountains to know how it might feel to be separated from those you love most. I’ve been to A&E several times in the middle of the night because another asylum seeker has tried to take their life. We’ve shared the joy of an immigrant family when a new baby comes into the world.

Although we are under the curse of Babel we share the common divine image in our humanity.

We’re reminded of the inherent sinfulness of us all

Cultural stereotypes contain elements of truth otherwise they would not endure. Paul quotes one in Titus “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (1:12) and he goes on to acknowledge the truthfulness of this testimony in the next verse.

Each culture has its own “That’s acceptable” and “No way” lines. Even in churches. Most churches in the UK are OK with alcohol consumption (within limits of course) but we would run a mile from offering bribes to the local police force. In Myanmar, the reverse is true. Bribes are called “love gifts” while a pastor drinking alcohol would be removed from office.

In pastoral situations we get told that this is the way of the Iranian people when a sinful practice has been called out. When that happens, we need to be absolutely clear that we don’t replace a sinful habit that is culturally acceptable with another habit that we accept in our culture.

“The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies and things like these” Paul writes in Galatians. The way the sinful inclinations of every human heart manifest themselves may differ according to culture but they are always there lurking.

We’re reminded that the Gospel can be received with power by the Holy Spirit even when much of the communication is poorly transmitted/received at an intellectual level.

Many churches envy the number of conversions and baptisms that take place in our church. But, in truth, it’s a real headache.

An asylum seeker may have very ungodly reasons to be baptised. We are requested to appear as witnesses in court to testify to the person’s true Christian faith. For many reasons, the most important of which is the integrity of the church of Christ before whom we will have to give account as elders, we try to be as diligent as possible in verifying someone’s faith. Do they understand the gospel, have they repented, is there evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work in their lives? Simple enough, until you try to do it across a language barrier.

Even if the person speaks Farsi where we have good translators there may be doubt whether the person got the “wrong answer” because the question was translated word for word and lost its meaning. More worrying is that the translator may be feeding the “right answer” to the person or giving it on their behalf. It causes us sleepless nights. It is tempting to put up high hurdles to jump over before we’ll go ahead with baptism. But then are we still being biblical?

And we do baptise people who later stray from the faith. I absolutely hate the truth of the parable of the sower. Nothing grieves my heart more than to see someone who has tasted the heavenly gift drift from the church and crawl back to the gutter of a sinful life. The truth is we never know. We can only act in good conscience on the evidence at the time and do our level best to disciple folks once they have professed faith credibly.

We invest time with people who come to the church to teach them the gospel. It is slow and awkward. Nonetheless, people do come to faith. And many, most, do persevere in their faith. We hear stories of those who have moved away hosting house groups. We see real growth in faith of those who stick around – lives changing progressively as the Spirit applies his Word to them.

And when that happens we know it’s not because of our eloquent words of wisdom. Even if we have such words, the chances of them surviving the journey across the lingual and cultural barrier are slim. It is both humbling and joyous to see Him at work.

The homogenous church we DO want to plant

Simply put, we want to stress the common faith that is ours. We don’t want to sweep cultural and lingual stuff under the carpet but we don’t want to be side-lined by it either. We want to focus on the word of the cross which is power to those who are being saved (1 Corinthians 1:18). It is power to trust God for the result of our preaching, pastoral care, evangelism and other teaching ministries. It is power to overcome our superficial differences. It is power to change sinful habits no matter what cultural wrapping they come in. It is power to say we haven’t got a clue what to do but to kneel in prayer in weakness.