Birds of a feather flock together: Are cultural churches valid?

Are cultural churches valid? By ‘cultural churches’, I mean churches who cater to a particular group of people—the Homogeneous Unit Church (HUC).

The HUC was founded from the Homogenous Unit Principle (HUP) and is part of a missiological strategy to combat sociological barriers inhibiting a person coming to faith in Christ. The argument is that people like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers. As such, cultural groupings make a people ripe for effective evangelism. Later, HUP was applied to healthy church growth. It was argued that HUCs could appeal to the lost in ways that were culturally appropriate.

The question of the validity of HUCs has affected me personally as I grew up in a traditional eastern church in Sydney as a first generation Australian. While I need to acknowledge the sociological realities of first generation migrants wanting to preserve their culture and worship in comfortable spaces, it is important to look at this issue through a theological lens.

The New Testament views the church as an earthly reflection of a heavenly reality. So, on earth this local gathering is a picture of the fellowship that Christians will enjoy with one another, gathered around the Triune God in heaven. In Ephesians 2, Paul’s outline of the gospel message becomes the context through which he explains the reconciliatory work of Jesus in creating the one new humanity, breaking down the dividing wall of hostility.

The book of Acts illustrates the practical outworking of this theology. By the time we reach Acts 10, Peter is given a vision that leads to the spread the gospel beyond Israel, into Gentile territory. And it is here that the heterogeneity—the diversity—of the church becomes evident: in Antioch, there is a plethora of peoples within a single church, and once Paul’s first missionary journey begins, Gentiles become a very real part of the Christian movement. We see diversity not only in the inclusion of Jews and Gentiles, but also amongst the Gentile echelons. The evidence points to the fact that the early church did not separate itself into like-minded units, but rather spread both laterally and vertically. So, the church is a fellowship of unity through diversity. It is pictured as an earthly illustration of the reconciliatory work of Christ, bringing together the different peoples of the world in worship, and therefore bringing glory to God.

HUCs perhaps contradict this picture of the church by melding ministry and church-function together into one category. If evangelism is the church’s primary function, then it would make sense that if a church belongs to Jesus, it is the duty of the church to carry out the evangelistic directive of Jesus to make disciples of all nations. Hence, the expectation would be that churches who are serious about Matthew 28 will grow and multiply. So it is important to differentiate between the fulfilment of the Great Commission and the New Testament purpose of the church.

In Ephesians 4, Paul speaks of the church as the body of Christ and of individuals as having received gifts in order to build up that body. In other words, our reconciliation with God through the death of Christ, and our reconciliation with each other through the death of Christ, are bothimportant aspects of Jesus’ sacrificial death. So, how can we maintain one, but deny another?

The thinking behind HUCs also seems to see evangelism’s greatest problems as sociological, not theological. There is a huge danger in downplaying of the significance of sin and the need for the Spirit to truly accept Jesus. While it might be true that like-minded people will generally get on better, that is not where our unity lies. It is in the blood of Jesus who bought us. And so, we work hard at living as his people, under his lordship, for his glory.

HUC advocates see cultural churches as a celebration of a diverse humanity and a means of avoiding the dangers of cultural imperialism. After all, if culture is part of God’s plan, then it stands that the cultural expectations of secular humanity should be a consideration in the church. This is a valid point. Even before the effects of the Fall, God commands humanity to procreate, fill and rule over the earth. At the tower of Babel, God illustrates both a judgement on a sinful humanity, but also a partial fulfilment of the cultural mandate that God established in Genesis 1:28.

From here, the development of culture well and truly takes shape. God gives Abraham the covenant promise, and later in Exodus, he sets Israel apart as a nation. Despite humanity’s sinfulness, the Old Testament points to an epoch of fulfilment in which Jesus will reunite his people to God, and each other. Ultimately, Jesus shows that God-created cultural diversity is more than a judgement on humanity which he will overcome, but part of God’s eschatological plan. So, yes, we want to celebrate cultural difference. But our togetherness in Christ—in the context of our cultural diversity—ultimately shows the glory of Christ in the power of his reconciliatory work.

Of course, to assume perfect diversity is possible in our churches would be to fall into the trap of over-realised eschatology. Yet despite the difficulties of bringing cultures together, the gospel unites. So, as we wait in eager expectation of Christ’s second coming, we need to continuously work towards reflecting a picture of Revelation 7, where an uncountable multitude will come together from every tribe, tongue and nation, and worship the Triune God.