Back to the City

By Kendi Howells Douglas

Our increasingly urban world requires a commitment to embracing diversity and pursuing reconciliation as we plant churches in cosmopolitan environments.

Our world is more urban than rural for the first time in history1, and in addition to rethinking how we prepare people to minister in an urban world, we must look at church planting efforts in light of this new reality.

In researching the history of the Restoration Movement in urban areas, I have discovered some factors that have kept many of our churches out of cities in the past. One issue was failure to be inclusive regarding ethnicity and socioeconomics.

Embracing All

Among churches really making a difference in urban areas, several common characteristics emerged, including ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity. Churches making an impact in cities across the U.S. are diverse in these ways.

dv256027This is interesting for a number of reasons, but mostly, in my opinion, because it contradicts a long-followed church planting guideline: the homogenous unit principal (though church planters may not want to call it that). This principle states churches grow faster if everyone looks the same; it was made popular by Donald McGavran during the heyday of church growth thinking 45 years ago.2

But the effective churches in urban areas today are demonstrating the opposite of that principle—they are embracing people of all ethnicities, languages, and socioeconomic categories and learning to worship together. And these diverse city churches are flourishing.

But my argument here is not based on what seems to be “working” currently, but rather on what Scripture has to say about embracing differences and learning to worship together, and how that better reflects the reality of the kingdom here and now and in its fullness later. Howard Snyder said it best:

All communities by definition must have some degree of homogeneity in order to exist. The gospel in fact has its own principle of homogeneity, and it is called reconciliation in Christ. Within the church, the degree of both homogeneity and diversity will, of course, vary from place to place, depending on the cultural context, as we see in the New Testament. But the key point of commonality, the glue that holds the church together (if it is true to the gospel) is reconciliation through Jesus Christ. Based on that reconciliation, diverse persons of diverse social situations are made one community, one body.3

City Centers

If the Restoration Movement wants to maintain its commitment to New Testament principles and model itself after New Testament churches, it should recognize those churches were often urban and diverse. As Roland Allen noted, “All the cities or towns, in which he (the apostle Paul) planted churches were centers of Roman administration, of Greek civilization, of Jewish influence, or of some commercial importance.”4 Examples include the church in Antioch (Acts 11:19), Lystra and Derbe (Acts 14:8, 20), Thessalonica (Acts 17), Corinth (Acts 18), Ephesus (Acts 19; Ephesians 1:1), Philippi (Philippians (1:1), and Colossae (Colossians 1:1).

Rodney Stark and Wayne Meeks have each described the urban nature of the early churches and the early Christians. According to Stark,

Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of special relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services. . . . No wonder the early Christian missionaries were so warmly received in this city (Antioch). For what they brought was not simply an urban movement, but a new culture capable of making life in Greco-Roman cities more tolerable.5

Visible Reconciliation

Additionally, if the church is truly committed to what the gospel of reconciliation says about unity, then the church should be working to bring visible reconciliation and healing in today’s diverse and hurting urban communities. Therefore, creating diverse, holistic, urban congregations in the Christian church in the United States is not straying away from the original vision of the Christian churches, but actually returning to and reaffirming it.

Curtiss Paul DeYoung and his coauthors echo this as they state the intention of their book, United By Faith,

If we claim to follow Jesus Christ and to have inherited the Gospel of our first-century church, we contend that our present-day congregations should exhibit the same vision for and characteristics of those first Christian communities of faith. Therefore, we even go so far as to say that a Christian, by biblical definition, is a follower of Jesus Christ whose way of life is racial reconciliation.6

The theological issues that arise in a discussion of targeting a certain group of people for evangelism and/or church planting are many and are far more important than any argument over pragmatic issues, for what is right is always a weightier issue.

To accent divisions that separate people is wrong. It is foreign to what we see in the New Testament. There was no “our kind of people”; we don’t advocate what someone likes to do, but what one must do. All growth must be in balance with all other aspects of Christian teaching and practice.7

Now, perhaps more than ever, racial and economic reconciliation needs to be modeled in our churches if we are to be salt and light. The events of the past year show that segregation, misconceptions, racism, ignorance, and violence are alive and well and the church has much work to do in a hurting society.

Our efforts should not serve to cement segregation, but demonstrate what life is like in the kingdom of God. Following Jesus’ example, we break barriers that have historically divided (i.e., the woman at the well) and we focus much more on the content of the message rather than who receives it and where.

I have heard this echoed in different ways recently in the work of two Christian church scholars, Dr. John Nugent and Dr. Les Hardin. Hardin says,

Jesus (in the parable of the sower) is telling a story about a farmer throwing seed without any care whatsoever for where it landed! He couldn’t care less if it landed in the field or in the grass or in the thorns, or in the rocks. He’s slingin’ seed without any care for where it lands. And that’s the point. There would have been an expectation in Jesus’ religious culture that he spread the word of the kingdom to the Jews in Judea, and not the heretics up in Samaria. But Jesus is slinging the word of the kingdom everywhere—to the common people, to the Galileans, to the Judeans, to the Samaritans, to the lepers, to widows from Nain, to beggars from Syro-Phoenicia, to the drunks, to the prostitutes, to the Pharisees, to the scholars, and to the fishermen and tradesmen.

Jesus identifies the seed as “the message about the kingdom.” He says this outright in the parallel version in Luke: “The seed is the word of God” (8:11). And Jesus is the one sowing the Word. He’s slinging this word all over, without a care for where it lands. Not always where religious people think he’s supposed to.

Those of us who have the message of the kingdom are to be throwing that seed all over the place, in as many ways and places as we can, without a care for where it lands. We can’t assume that the “fertile field” is the only place where we should sow the word of the kingdom. While the successes were many, one of the problems with the church growth movement of the 80s and 90s was its message that the most optimal chances of building megachurches was to set up shop in a highly developed suburb, near a major intersection or traffic artery, and that as the community grows up around it, then the church will inevitably find success. It’s sowing seed only in what we considered the fertile field, and our failure to sling the seed everywhere has, in some cases, left the inner cities spiritually impoverished.8

And in an upcoming book on ecclesiology and the kingdom, Nugent challenges us by asking,

What does our life together as the church say about the kingdom we proclaim? God’s kingdom grows in ways only understood by God; shows equality regardless of gender, race, age, heritage, or social status; loves without partiality; unifies through diversity; forgives and reconciles at all levels; esteems small, unimpressive beginnings; draws people from the margins; welcomes the underserving and unexpected; and assimilates the poor more easily than the wealthy. . . . Jesus’s kingdom vision functions like a rudder for the church. It determines our direction and guides all that we say and do. It provides the criteria for all the decisions we make. At least it should. New Testament authors implore God’s people to order their life together in ways that are worthy of their calling, consistent with the gospel, and befitting those who are in the Lord, Christ Jesus.9

My hope and prayer is that by planting and growing churches that embrace diversity, our churches live out the values of the kingdom.

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1State of World Population 2007: Unleashing the Potential of Urban Growth, UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), 2007, 6; accessed at www.unfpa.org.

2McGavran’s own words regarding homogeneous units are: “People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers.” Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1970), 163.

3Howard Snyder, The Community of the King (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2004), 127.

4Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1962), 13.

5Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 162.

6Curtiss Paul DeYoung, Michael O. Emerson, George Yancey, and Karen Chai Kim, United By Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 129.

7Francis Dubose, How Churches Grow in an Urban World (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1978), 126.

8Excerpt of a sermon by Dr. Leslie Hardin, July 2015; used with permission from the author.

9Excerpt from an upcoming book by Dr. John Nugent; used with permission from the author. Go to www.walkandword.com for more information, including release date.

Kendi Howells Douglas serves as professor of intercultural studies at Johnson University Florida, Kissimmee.

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First Responders

KENDI HOWELLS DOUGLAS is right. Demographic shifts and persistent racial wounds necessitate changing the U.S. approach to church planting/growth—away from the homogeneous unit principle (HUP). More importantly, the New Testament necessitates it, too. Jesus prayed for a visibly unified body (John 17:20-23), Luke described it (Acts 11:19-26; 13:1), and Paul prescribed it in his proclamation of the “mystery of the Gospel” (Ephesians 2–3).1

The HUP was never meant for church growth anyway. Donald McGavran’s concern was personal evangelism and discipleship. In 1978, McGavran wrote, “There is danger, of course, that congregations (misapplying the HUP) become exclusive, arrogant, and racist. That danger must be resolutely combated.”2 

We’ve failed to combat that danger. Thus, while some congregations grow larger, I question whether the kingdom of God—in the totality of its implications—is truly advancing. If our tactics don’t shift toward “planting and growing churches that embrace diversity,” as Douglas suggests, an increasingly diverse society will increasingly tune us out. After all, why believe in a gospel of God’s love for all people if it continues to be preached in segregated churches?

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1Mark DeYmaz, Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007).

2Mark DeYmaz, Should Pastors Accept or Reject the Homogeneous Unit Principle? (Little Rock: Mosaix Global Network, 2013).

—Travis Hurley, director of the Dream of Destiny (www.dreamofdestiny.com); vice president of development, Ozark Christian College (occ.edu)

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I HOLD Kendi Howells Douglas in high regard. So my comments aren’t toward her as a person, but rather, toward part of her reasoning. She argues, “Churches that are making an impact in cities across the U.S. are diverse,” whereas she holds that McGavran wrote that “churches grow faster if everyone looks the same.” 

11_Douglas-responders2_JN
From left: Travis Hurley, Doug Lucas, and Nick Parsons

First, McGavran wasn’t offering opinions. He was reporting evidence. I have a cherished 1954 copy of McGavran’s early manuscript for Bridges of God. In it, McGavran chronicles HUNDREDS of examples in which whole ethnic groups accepted Christ together, rapidly, as a tribe (or “people movement”), some in rural areas, some in cities. On page 23, he concludes, “Peoples become Christians fastest when least change of race or clan is involved.” This conclusion was based on studying centuries of evidence. But McGavran wasn’t suggesting that the church should STAY homogenous long-term. He was only observing that they often START that way. 

In fact, in Understanding Church Growth, McGavran voiced much of Douglas’s arguments a full 45 years before her time when he concluded that if congregations which bring together “all tribes and castes multiply like yeast cells throughout the city,” then it was time to “shift out of ethnic churches” (p. 328). No drama here.

McGavran’s formula was simple: Once churches are able to cross cultural boundaries, for God’s sake (literally), encourage them to do so. Just don’t FORCE them before they’re ready.

—Doug Lucas, president, Team Expansion (http://web.teamexpansion.org)

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IT WAS REFRESHING to read Kendi Howells Douglas’s article on the need for multiethnic and socioeconomically diverse churches in our increasingly urban world. I share her hope and prayer for more diverse churches and work towards that end at the Orchard Group. Her article was a great reminder of the ongoing work that needs to be done to fully reflect the true diversity of God’s kingdom.

The task of reflecting God’s multicultural kingdom will look different for each church. Many communities (particularly in suburban and rural areas) are seeing new ethnic groups move into their area in increasing numbers. Some cities, like my home city, San Francisco, are actually seeing a decrease in ethnic and economic diversity, as residents are being forced out because of increased housing costs. 

No matter what direction your particular community is moving, my hope is that our churches and institutions would not just reflect the diversity of their communities, but model for the watching world the diversity of God’s community. 

Douglas is right to ground our motive for diversity, not in pragmatic effectiveness, but in a desire to reflect the values of God’s kingdom and to follow the example of Jesus.

—Nick Parsons, director of recruiting, The Orchard Group (www.orchardgroup.org)

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