The Servant-Leader and the Homogeneous Unit

Sam Rainer

December 8, 2007

I learned something this week. It was the best kind of learning – the one where you see academic theory played out in real life. I love to teach, but I’m not one for classrooms. I love to learn, but I don’t need academia telling me what’s most important. But the intelligentsia does get some things right every now and then.

In his book Understanding Church Growth, Donald McGavran discusses a somewhat controversial subject: the homogeneous unit. This unit is simply a section of society in which all the members have some characteristic in common. The basic principle is that people congregate with others like them. People naturally build barriers. By default, groups of people will erect invisible societal walls. These walls can be harmless, like with a group of college students hanging out with people their age (in lieu of senior citizens). Or these walls can be horrible blights upon society, such as the Indian caste system or slavery.

Perhaps one of the better aspects of this principle is that it reveals how people do not like to cross social barriers (linguistic, gender, class, ethnic, etc) when accepting Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. In other words, the best way to reach culture is to meet them where they are instead of pulling this culture towards where you are.

In some small way, I saw this last week how homogeneous units can play out for good.

The one calendar event for our church that I was dreading was upon us: the ladies’ Christmas tea. I don’t have a problem with teas, but the part I was not looking forward to was the fact that I had to be a waiter for the tables. The event goes something like this: 100+ women in a fellowship hall sitting at elaborately decorated tables politely asking the staff and other male leaders in the church dressed in suites and tuxes to get them “this and that.” Estrogen levels in the room were maxed out.

But something happened that night. We had dozens of female guests that otherwise would not have come to our church. They came because it was a non-intrusive way to get to know others in the church who were like them. They came because they knew they would be with others with similar interests and backgrounds. They came to hear a woman speaker talk about issues specific to them. They came to a church that was serving their particular needs.

They also came because the staff and other male leaders were going to cater to their every request (within reason). I’ve never worked so hard in my life! Those ladies put me to work (in a loving and gracious way, of course). And I had a wonderful time with them. My fears for the event were totally unsubstantiated.

So not only did I see how ‘homogenous units’ can be used for God’s glory (a few ladies insisted that they would be at our church on Sunday), I also saw how servant-leadership aids the process of breaking down walls. You won’t ever lead people unless they trust your leadership. And you build their trust by genuinely serving them. This service reveals your heart – they see that you are willing to be vulnerable and open on their behalf.

What’s a good way to reach your community? Understand the walls your church has built. Realize that others build walls too – some are bad, others are harmless. And then look to serve these people where they are. Be open and honest with them. You’ve got to get behind these walls before people will listen to you. You will never lead them unless they buy in to your leadership.

By the way, religious wrecking balls only make people incensed that you’ve tried to destroy their wall. So serve the people, pray for them, know where they’re coming from, and then watch your church grow the way God wants it to grow.

6 comments on “The Servant-Leader and the Homogeneous Unit”

  1. Ed says:

    Great thoughts. I had the same experience as you, in a way, when I was the speaker for a denominational camp over several different sessions.

    The second time (of three) I went to speak at this camp, one of the kitchen staff was suddenly ill– and it happened to be during the Christmas holidays (it was a conference that started the day after Christmas, an end of the year sort of thing). So they were short-staffed for the week. I had done a good bit of restaurant work during college, so I volunteered to help out a bit (in addition to my speaking duties). Among other things, I ended up working the serving line every meal.

    It was great– I got to personally speak with every student there multiple times a day, and they saw me serving them regularly, as well. It totally underscored the Gospel for them in a way I could never have anticipated.

    This was so great, in fact, that when I went back the following summer, I asked if I could do it again– even though they weren’t short-staffed at that time. They were willing (though reluctant, until they saw the impact it had), and I served the line again. Every meal.

    It was a cool experience. Now I look for new ways to reproduce this. Tomorrow, our church will have a pot-luck dinner; I will stand at the end of the line and fix drinks for everyone, until all are served. If there are other ways to do this, I’d love to hear them– I love the Ladies’ Tea idea. Got more?

  2. I have always felt that the best way to reach a community is to see what the needs are and then find ways in which we as the body of Christ can meet those needs. Those outside our churches often think we are just full of rhetoric rather than action. It is when we serve that we start to see hearts softened and walls get torn down.

    Regarding homogeneous units – you see this in youth ministry all of the time. Some youth ministries have tried to stop fighting it and use it as an evangelistic tool – ministry to skaters, goths, etc.

  3. kdb1411 says:

    Excellent modern-day grasp of the HUP.

  4. Sam Rainer says:

    Ed – another way in which my church has served the community is through handing out packets of goodies about our church, including a 9-volt battery. We do this in the Spring to remind people to change their smoke dectectors. It’s an idea that’s been around for a while, but we’ve had quite a bit of success with it.

  5. Sam Rainer says:

    Shane – mmmm…all rhetoric and no action…sounds more Pharisaic than WWJD. I agree with you on Youth Ministry – they certainly can build walls, but when you break through to them it can change lives.

  6. Sam Rainer says:

    kdb1411 – thanks! The HUP’s been known for some time, but it still has applicatoin today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *