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People Groups and the Homogeneous Unit Concept
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
In recent years, Christian mission strategy has focused more on “people groups,” or ethnic identity, in contrast to geopolitical areas. The stated intention of this approach is to insure that each ethnic entity (tribe, nation, people, people group) has an opportunity to clearly hear the good news in their own language and in their own cultural context.
This is consistent with the earlier popular mission strategy of church starting by the “homogeneous unit” principle. That is, people can respond and a church can be started best in a context of one ethnic identity where the people share a common worldview and social structure, including decision-making patterns and personal relationships.
Some people have expressed concern that the people group (homogeneous unit) approach to Christian mission may have a divisive effect, heightening ethnic identities and rivalries. This addresses a primary component of Mission, relating to the Biblical teaching of the unity of all believers and the doctrine of the New Creation presented in Ephesians that God is recreating a New Humanity by uniting all the peoples of the world in Christ.
This concern appears to misconstrue the people group concept in regard to the multi-ethnic character of the church and its mission. Involved here is a confusion of two stages of spiritual development in reference to the gospel of Christ.
Thus the People Group (Homogeneous Unit) concept addresses the initial question of Access to the Gospel. The People Group issue is an Evangelism issue – addressing strategies for providing access to the Good News.
How can one best communicate with the individual and the family, clan or ethnic group that individual belongs to, in light of their unique self-identity, their previous experience and their unique worldview? This is a Real-World issue – how the people exist in their own self-identity.
We must start with people where they are – just as Jesus did. Note, for instance, that Jesus demonstrates differences in addressing “children of Israel,” religious leaders of the Jewish formal religious system, Greek or Roman officials, and Gentile enquirers.
Access strategy entails a different set of factors from the question of the multi-ethnic unity of the church. Access strategy deals with Communication and self-identity issues. What is presented must be heard as Good News in the worldview of the hearers, in the language of life and decision-making. Otherwise barriers are encountered, and even produced by the gospel worker’s efforts.
In the book of Acts, we see the movement of the gospel from one ethnic group to another, illustrating the way a group with the same cultural identity respond as a group, then grow to understand the need to go across cultural boundaries to other ethnic groups.
This is illustrated classically in the Church at Antioch, which sent out the first “official” missionaries as a congregation.
Likewise when Paul went to a new city, he would first go to the synagogue, meeting with the Jews. Then he would speak to the Roman or Greek inhabitants who became interested.
Growing beyond the limitations of human cultural identity deals with Discipleship issues, related to concepts of spiritual growth. In short, changes brought about by the gospel in believers and the gathered groups of believers in their own language lead to awareness of areas of culture that must be changed to fully follow Jesus.
This is a question of Discipleship. The progress and stages of awareness are depicted in the book of Acts as the gospel reality took hold in first one ethnic group then another.
Both these dynamics are dealt with in the first council of the church, recorded in Acts 10. The first church had to decide how to treat persons of another ethnicity who had received the gospel. Both Peter and Paul approached the Gentile peoples in a manner different from the Jewish identity and way of doing things. But the unity of all believers was affirmed and preserved in acceptance of a common faith, not in a prescribed unity of the forms of outreach or worship. This difference was accepted and affirmed by the Jewish church.
When we deal with concepts of access, the critical group is the largest discrete unit within which the gospel (or any change mechanism) can be communicated and transferred without encountering significant communication barriers. Evangelism is primarily a communication question – facilitating access, starting initial communication, building relationships, gaining credibility.
By communication, I mean the process of making sense at the basic decision-making level of a people in their worldview. A gospel communicator's goal is to facilitate a basic understanding of the gospel. This must be "understanding" in the language and culture of the group, just as any other important information is communicated within that culture.
Every culture has its own communication and information formats. Thus it is not only a convenience, but a necessity, to understand the communication formats and cultural decision-making patterns of a people.
Thus the more homogeneous the “target” group is, the more effective the communication can be. Communication strategies must consider the worldview realities of the people. The social reality is just as critical. This is what the concept of homogeous unit" attempts to account for.
The new growing community of faith, worshipping in their own mother tongue, will eagerly learn what the gospel really means in their relationships to the greater world. From the beginning, a basic component of this is the multi-ethnic aspects of the gospel and of the broader kingdom including all believers of all ethnicities.
The gospel is greater than my family, greater than my clan, my tribe, my cousin tribes, my enemies, the world.
Communication of any new concept and/or suggestions for any social change must start where the people are. This requires a “people group” (ethnic, homogeneous unit) concept.
The oneness of faith becomes a shared value of all "peoples, tongues, tribes and nations" who believe, then contribute their unique cultural worship to the broader felllowship. Likewise, their testimony of faith will reach across the ultural boundary as they share this testimony with different peoples of different cultures and worldviews, just as they received it from outsiders.
As the new believing group comes together in their new faith, they will learn the implications for life and attitidues. From the start, spiritual growth and discipleship will inlcude a focus on the unity of God’s kingdom across all cultural barriers. This entails a cross-cultural outreach to express their new faith to other ethnicities.
For those outside the family, the priority is clarity of concept in communication, telling those who have not heard.
For those within the family the priority is unity of worship and outreach, celebrating with those who have believed and cooperating to get the word to those who have not heard.
Originally posted 12 March 2003
Last edited 07 December 2006
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2003 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.
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