Earl Potts, retired Ala. exec, dies at 93

A. Earl Potts, retired executive director of the Alabama Baptist Convention State Board of Missions, died Dec. 25 in Birmingham. He was 93. Potts led the state convention from 1984 until his retirement in 1990. He had been pastor of McElwain Baptist Church in Birmingham 21 years before joining the State Board of Missions as director of church ministries in 1970.

Resolution or Revolution? ~ A New Year’s Meditation

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. ~ 2 Corinthians 5:17

January 1, 2014 is upon us. In what has become a tradition in our culture, many people will use this day to make a new year’s resolution, in which they vow to make a significant change in their life for the coming year. For some it will be to lose weight, to eat better, to work less, to work more, to fix a certain relationship to…you get the picture. In fact, you may have even made some resolutions for the new year.

Sadly, though, what tends to happen is that people start out with good intentions. Things will be different! But somewhere deep down, we forget that for better or for worse—often for worse—we tend to be creatures of habit. The resolution was made, but the resolve doesn’t last. And suddenly our list becomes as void and outdated as all the ones we made before.

What we need is not another year of vowed resolutions that have failed; but if we are in Christ, we need to live in the revolution that has already taken place in our hearts. The on-line dictionary, dictionary.com, offers this as a definition for “resolution”: the act of determining upon an action or course of action, method, or procedure, etc. So, we make a decision and we’re going to act on it. Maybe. We hope. Probably not. A “revolution,” instead, is this: a sudden, complete, or marked change in something.

Read that verse from 2 Corinthians above. If we are in Christ—meaning he is the object of our faith and devotion, and therefore the source of our salvation and life—then, we are new creations. The old life of sin and rebellion against God has passed, it is no more; and instead we have new life. This is Paul’s way of saying what God already promised through Ezekiel:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. ~ 36:25-27

God has accomplished all the work, and it is ours only if we trust in and follow Jesus—an act which results in a personal revolution. Jesus changes us as his Spirit dwells within us. The question is for you: will you walk in the newness of life according to the newness of your nature?

Go, pick up your Bible, and read Colossians 3:1-17. Paul, there, gives us several characteristics of what it means to live as a new creation, couched in the language of “put to death” and “put on.” First, we must keep a proper mindset (3:1-4). Paul says to set our minds on the things above and to seek the things above where Christ is and where our lives are hidden. This is a commitment to daily worship. We wake up each day and choose to let our minds focus on the things of God and let his will determine our actions. For some, you may need to wake up and have a morning devotion in the Bible and prayer over coffee. For others, you may need to wake up and listen to or sing some songs of praise. For others, you may need to write some Bible verses on sheets of paper and tape them to your ceiling or bedroom wall so they’re the first thing you see in the morning, allowing your mind to meditate on those truths. Be creative as you think of your own strengths and weaknesses and do something to help you start your day with a proper mindset (and hopefully keep it throughout the day).

Second, we must repent from our sins (3:5-11). Paul uses a very strong phrase: “Put to death what is earthly in you.” He then lists several things from sexual immorality to covetousness to anger to lying, etc. The author of Hebrews calls sin a weight that clings closely or easily entangles us (Hebrews 12:1). The point is that if we don’t learn to master our sinful habits and tendencies, they will drag us down. The beauty is that as new creatures in Christ, we do not have to be controlled and enslaved to our sin (Read Romans 6). We overcome sin by praying to God for strength in the face of temptation, while fleeing from as many temptations as we can; by confessing to God when we fail, as well as to those we have sinned against as we seek their forgiveness, as well as to other faithful Christians we trust who can keep us accountable; and by staying constant in fellowship, the word, prayer, and praising God.

Third, we must pursue love, reconciliation, and unity as brothers and sisters in Christ (3:12-15). Even among the church, some people seem to have the attitude: “I’ll forgive you, but I don’t have to like you and be your friend.” Or, one of my favorite lies from hell: “I’ll love you but I don’t have to like you.” There’s also plenty of unforgiveness and unwillingness to move beyond hurt feelings. If we truly have new hearts, it is time to stop acting like bitter, angry, selfish, bratty sinners who by our actions and attitudes enjoy the company of Satan more than the company of Jesus. When we read Paul’s words here (and what the Bible says plenty of places elsewhere), we see: compassion, kindness, humility, patience, forgiveness, love, harmony, peace, and thankfulness. If we took these ideas personally and seriously, the church would look a lot less like the world and a lot more like the Kingdom of God of which it is a part. When we die and stand in the presence of Jesus the only thing that really is going to matter is relationship. Do we have a relationship with God through Jesus and his Spirit? And if so, do we have a relationship with others that reflects Christian unity and love, and that reflects Jesus’ heart for the lost, poor, and needy?

Fourth, we must worship God with other followers of Jesus (3:16-17). Individual worship is important, but there are far too many (one is far too many, by the way) people who call themselves Christians who lock themselves away from regular fellowship with others in the gathering of the church. “I love Jesus, but I don’t love the church.” Either verbally stated, or by attitude and action, it is another one of my favorite lies from hell. “Man, I love you, but I just can’t stand your wife.” Tell that to a married man you know and see how he reacts. Jesus is the one who loves his bride, his church, enough that he voluntarily gave up his life by taking on all her faults and sins and giving her all his righteous perfection (Ephesians 5:22-33). You cannot at the same time love Jesus but not love his church. Corporate worship matters, greatly. According to Paul, this involves teaching the word (the Bible) to each other, signing together, and praying together with corporate unity. If you are not in the habit of regularly worshiping with other followers of Jesus as a church body (Hebrews 10:24-25), and it’s not due to issues of health or some extreme burden beyond your control, then do away with your excuses and make the changes you need to make to be with others who love following Jesus.

Don’t live in another year of failed resolutions. Instead, live a life that reflects the revolution God has given your heart and life.

A Biblical Evaluation of the Homogeneous Unit Principle, Part 1

INTRODUCTION

In 1955, Donald McGavran, in his groundbreaking book The Bridges of God, laid out many of the fundamental principles of what would later come to be known as the Church Growth Movement. Among these principles, the most controversial is the homogeneous unit principle (HUP).1 Though he articulated and defended the key ideas underlying it in The Bridges of God, the most succinct and well-known summary of the HUP is that found in McGavran’s Understanding Church Growth: “Men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers.”2

As a sociological observation, though there are certain exceptions to the rule, the general accuracy of the HUP is practically incontrovertible.3 But it is not as a sociological observation that the HUP has elicited such controversy. The pushback has come when the HUP has been promoted not only as an interesting and instructive description of human behavior, but as a prescriptive guide for missionary and church growth strategy. In The Bridges of God, McGavran plainly stated, “The normal clannishness of the new group being discipled must be cheerfully accepted and, indeed, encouraged.”4

While it is evident from his writings that McGavran himself was not personally racist,5 the accusation has been leveled by more than a few critics that the implications of the HUP have been responsible for a de facto racism and failure to live out the unity of the gospel among many groups of Christians around the world. The claim of HUP advocates is that it is a helpful tool for working toward the fulfillment of the Great Commission, and it is evident that McGavran’s principal motivation was indeed that of “discipling the nations” in a more effective manner. Among other developments, McGavran’s articulation of the HUP led to the contemporary emphasis on identifying unreached people groups and targeting them for special evangelistic efforts.6

SCRIPTURAL BASIS

In their defense of the HUP, the proponents of the Church Growth Movement have been accused of starting with a sociological premise and then seeking a posteriori a theological justification to back it up.7 Though there may be some degree of legitimacy to this accusation, McGavran and his colleagues do attempt to back up their claims with scriptural exegesis. There is some question, however, as to whether McGavran in his defense of the HUP as a missiological principle correctly understood the Great Commission, and whether a prescriptive practice of the HUP in missionary and local church contexts is truly biblical.

McGavran’s Understanding of the Great Commission

The primary scriptural basis adduced for the HUP in the writings of McGavran comes from the use of the phrase matheteusate panta ta ethne (“make disciples of all nations”) in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20. According to Bosch, however, “On the slender basis of the interpretation of Matthew 28:19 as meaning that Jesus commissioned the discipling of separate homogeneous units, the Church Growth movement has erected an imposing superstructure.”8

The Meaning of Ethne

For McGavran, the key component of this passage is the command to disciple the various ethne (or “nations”) of the world, which he understands as referring to ethnic groups rather than to geopolitical nation-states. Though there is not an exact correspondence between the “homogeneous units” of the HUP and the ethne of the Great Commission, the command to disciple the ethne forms the proposed biblical basis of evangelistic and missionary strategies targeting specific homogeneous units.

Wagner, widely credited with taking McGavran’s principles and fleshing out their practical implications for missionary strategy, provides a definition of homogeneous unit that is somewhat flexible and nebulous: “The rationale upon which a homogeneous unit is determined is a group in which people can ‘feel at home.’ They know they are among ‘our kind of people.’”9 McGavran himself, who served for 38 years as a missionary in India, identifies ethne as functionally equivalent to Indian jati or castes.10 He defines a “homogeneous unit” as “a section of society in which all the members have some characteristic in common.”11 He further stipulates that homogeneous unit lines are normally drawn according to socially acceptable lines of intermarriage within a given community.12

The Meaning of Matheteusate 

A second key concept underlying McGavran’s understanding of the Great Commission is his definition of the imperative verb matheteusate, alternately translated “teach,” “make disciples,” or “disciple.” In keeping with his understanding of panta ta ethne (“all nations”) as referring to ethnic groups, he postulates that to “disciple” an ethnic group basically means to “Christianize” the society of that ethnic group. Though he does not deny the reality and the necessity of individual conversion, McGavran sees the discipling of ethne as a collective process:

According to the Great Commission, the peoples are to be discipled. Negatively, a people is discipled when the claim of polytheism, idolatry, fetishism or any other man-made religion on its corporate loyalty is eliminated. Positively, a people is discipled when its individuals feel united around Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, believe themselves to be members of His Church, and realize that ‘our folk are Christians, our book is the Bible, and our house of worship is the church.’13

McGavran’s concept of Christianizing the ethne of the world is closely tied to his church growth theories regarding “people movements.” In contrast to the “one-by-one mode” which he claims is more typical of the pattern of evangelization in the West, McGavran claims that, “Across the ages and in all six continents God Himself has caused most first-time decisions from non-Christian faiths to come by way of people movements.”14 Indeed, in his opinion, “Christward movements of peoples are the supreme goal of missionary effort.”15

“Discipling” and “Perfecting”

All this is further complicated by McGavran’s understanding of the Christianization of an ethnic group as a two-stage process, which he describes as consisting of discipling and perfecting: “The removal of distracting divisive sinful gods and spirits and ideas from the corporate life of the people and putting Christ at the centre on the Throne, this we call discipling. Discipling is the essential first stage. Much else must, however, follow.”16 “The second stage in the establishment of a Christian civilization is ‘teaching them all things.’”17

It is this division of the Christianizing process into two stages which paves the way for a comparatively lower degree of expectations with regard to moral and ethical standards for newly “discipled” people groups, including their approach to racial and social-class segregation. HUP proponents in general agree that the ideal toward which Christian discipleship, both on an individual as well as a collective basis, should point is one of full equality and unity across racial, ethnic, and social-class lines. According to McGavran, however, “Jews and Gentiles—or other classes and races who scorn and hate one another—must be discipled before they can be made really one.”18 As a result, it is asking too much to expect people groups to give up their natural proclivities to relating primarily to “people like them” as a requirement for initial discipleship. Growth in that area, according to McGavran, comes later, once people have already embraced Christianity as their religious preference.

(to be continued…)

—————————————–

1. Antonio Carlos Barro, “Unity and Diversity in the Family of God” (Faculdade Teológica Sul Americana Londrina, Paraná, Brazil, 2003), http://www.ediaspora.net/ACB_article3.html.

2. Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Revised ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 223.

3. See, for example, Charles H. Kraft, “An Anthropological Apologetic for the Homogeneous Unit Principle in Missiology,” Occasional Bulletin of Missionary Research 2, no. 4 (October 1978): 122. Edward R. Dayton and David A. Fraser, Planning Strategies for World Evangelization (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 130–31.

4. Donald A. McGavran, The Bridges of God (Revised; New York: Friendship Press, 1981), 130.

5. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 239. C. Peter Wagner, McGavran’s colleague in the Church Growth Movement, and fellow advocate of the HUP, shares his views on racism. See, for example, C. Peter Wagner, Our Kind of People (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979), 153.

6. “McGavran’s understanding of social units paved the way for the growing awareness of the unreached people’s concept, but this concept was developed, set forth, and popularized by Ralph D. Winter.” Kenneth Mulholland, “Donald McGavran’s Legacy to Evangelical Missions,” EMQ 27, no. 1 (January 1991): 64–70.

7. See, for example, C. René Padilla, “The Unity of the Church and the Homogeneous Unit Principle,” in Exploring Church Growth (ed. Wilbert R. Shenk; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 301; George W. Peters, A Theology of Church Growth (Zondervan, 1981), 10; Dayton and Fraser, Planning Strategies for World Evangelization, 130–31.

8. David J. Bosch, “The Structure of Mission: An Exposition of Matthew 28:16–20,” in Exploring Church Growth (ed. Wilbert R. Shenk; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 236.

9. Wagner, Our Kind of People, 75.

10. Donald A. McGavran, Effective Evangelism (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1988), 47.

11. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 85.

12. McGavran, The Bridges of God, 1.

13. Ibid., 14.

14. Donald A. McGavran, Momentous Decisions in Missions Today (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 108. See also McGavran, The Bridges of God, 8–12.

15. McGavran, The Bridges of God, 82. Yoder, however, provides a devastating critique of people movement missiology: “Can there be a ‘Christianization’ of a whole population that is so superficial that they are not really Christian at all? In The Bridges of God, pages 36–40, McGavran is very affirmative about the age of Constantine and Charlemagne, i.e., of the historical Christianization of Europe by the prince. He calls that a people movement. I trust there are people movements that are more valid than that. But how can you tell the difference between a prince saying, ‘now all you people will be baptized,’ and a village collectively deciding in such a way that they say ‘we decided’? If Clovis says, ‘I’m going to have all troops run through the river,’ that’s not a valid decision for baptism. It is not clear how McGavran can tell them apart.” John H. Yoder, “Church Growth Issues in Theological Perspective,” in The Challenge of Church Growth (ed. Wilbert R. Shenk; Missionary Studies No. 1; Scottsdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1973), 42–43. Peters adds the following insightful comment: “It must be admitted, however, that to a great extent this expansion of the form, profession, and name of Christendom has little resemblance to the Christianity defined in the New Testament and the church portrayed in the Book of Acts. In many ways the expansion of Christendom has come at the expense of the purity of the gospel and true Christian order and life. The church has become infested with pagan beliefs and practices, and is syncretistic in theology as evidenced in the larger and ancient branches of Christendom. Large segments have become Christo-pagan.” Peters, A Theology of Church Growth, 24. Olson links McGavran’s theories on people-movement conversion to theological presuppositions rooting in “the baptism regenerationist overtones of his Campbellite background” and his “postmillennialism.” C. Gordon Olson, “What about People-Movement Conversion?,” EMQ 15, no. 3 (July 1979): 133. Ironically, Wagner makes a counter-accusation of denominational bias, insinuating that those who oppose the HUP do so largely in keeping with “the Anabaptist or so-called radical Christian model for doing theology [which insists] that a change in one’s loyalty to culture or society is necessary in order to be an obedient Christian,” and identifies this position as representative of the “Christ against culture” position described in H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture. Wagner, Our Kind of People, 100.

16. McGavran, The Bridges of God, 14.

17. Ibid., 15.

18. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 239.