The witness of heterogeneity

Riding the Waves of Intercultural Church

June 1, 2023 | Opinion | Volume 27 Issue 11
Joon Park | Columnist

The world has become heterogeneous. We live in an era of cultural boundarilessness. Go to the nearest McDonald’s and see who is sitting there. Tune into CBC’s My Farmland, in which a Chinese immigrant family move to rural Saskatchewan. (I also know a Korean Mennonite family, farming in the barren land of New Brunswick.) In this cross-cultural context, I see no excuse for a church not to be culturally heterogenous. To say, “No, our church is in a rural area or, no, our community is so small,” seems a bit thin.

Thom S. Rainer, the founder of Church Answers and author of Autopsy of a Deceased Church, shares his first-hand experience with homogeneity on his blog, On December 4, 2017, he wrote:

“I grew up in the racist world of the Deep South. We whites had our own churches, places of business and country clubs. No one else was allowed. If you went to the doctor, there were separate waiting rooms for whites and African Americans (“Coloreds”). It was abysmal. It was sickening. I know racism is not gone. But I am grateful that my children and grandchildren don’t even know why a person of a different colour should not be their friend or colleague. The culture has changed. We are living in a heterogeneous culture. But not all churches have changed. Those that haven’t will die.”

Seeing homogeneity as a form of segregation, he prophetically warned that it is not gospel-centric.   

But when it comes to the Mennonite church, another theory is heard, or at least seen in practice: Homogeneity is not absolute but is necessary in order to maintain a 500-year-old Mennonite identity. Too often, worship styles, pew arrangements, potluck menus and church politics rigidly reflect homogeneity. It is a lamentable fact that there are still many Mennonite churches in the 21st century where the spirit of homogeneity is living and active, preserving Mennonite identity.

Do we have to return to Daniel Kaufman’s Manual of Bible Doctrines, published in 1898, which formulates Mennonite faith in all possible aspects, including uniform dress and deportment?

In the 1970s, the word homogeneity went viral among North American evangelical churches struggling to adjust to the changing, multicultural demographic that asked for accommodation and integration. Racial integration was very limited. It was resisted. Many people held a fear rooted in the assumption that heterogeneity would lead to disunity.

In this context, a new homogeneous church model was birthed. It proclaimed: It is okay not to necessarily mingle with other cultural or racial groups at church. We know people like to gather with those who look, talk, think and act like them. Church is a place for the similar or likeminded. Its goal is to make disciples first, not take a risk to integrate, making people uncomfortable.

“People understand the gospel better when expounded by their own kind of people,” wrote Donald McGavran in his popular 1970 book, Understanding Church Growth.

McGavran was a pioneer of this movement. A third-generation missionary to India, he spent more than three decades prioritizing his missional focus on the Great Commission, converting over 1,000 people without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers, focusing only on the Satnamis caste. He later turned his experience into a new church growth theory called the “homogenous unit principle” (HUP).

Thirsty for church growth and stuck with growing multiculturalism in the 1970s, North American churches welcomed this expedient and practical theory with great enthusiasm, regardless of its weak biblical foundation. The example and teachings of Jesus do not support isolation, stratification and separation as a path to church growth or preservation of Mennonite identity.

A half century has passed and there have been countless critiques of the homogeneity model. Today, it seems that no one defends it. It is regarded as a cold reality rather than an ideal for growth. Now, the unfulfilled space it left is being filled with the success and faithfulness of many emerging heterogeneous churches, whose ultimate goal is to “anticipate on earth the life of heaven,” breaking down any walls through “cultural richness and heterogenous fellowship” among all people, in contrary to building walls up, as stated in a document called the Pasadena Statement, which came out of the Lausanne Movement.

The old belief that heterogeneity is impractical and unachievable is wrong. The HUP is long gone. We now enjoy an era in which heterogeneity is the norm, the new hope—biblically right and ecclesiastically hopeful.

To adapt Song of Solomon 4:16: “Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; Blow upon my [Mennonite] garden, that the [heterogeneous] spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.”

Joon Park serves as intentional interim co-pastor at Holyrood Mennonite Church in Edmonton.

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