robert putnam discovers what evangelical church planters have known all along
in sunday's edition of the boston globe* there was an article entitled the downside of diversity that focused on robert putnam's recent research. putnam is a social researcher and activist who has spent a number of years studying american's patterns of civic engagement. in bowling alone**, putnam's most well known work, he identified and discussed the growing social dislocation and subsequent isolation of individual americans.
in putnam's most recent surveys has found that ethnically diverse american communities have lower rates of civic engagement and interaction. interestingly, he has found that in these diverse communities individuals tend to not only distance themselves from individuals of other backgrounds, but also live increasingly separate lives from others of their own ethnicity. for putnam, who is deeply committed to the ideal of civic engagement, these findings are quite disturbing. as the article mentions, putnam is afraid the results of his research will alienate him from other social progressives and encourage the xenophobic tendencies of many anti-immigration activists and others on the far right of the political spectrum.
for my part, i found the study interesting because it appears to confirm a long held assumption in church planting circles that is known as the homogeneous unit principle. simply stated, the homogeneous unit principle asserts that since mono-cultural church plants grow faster than ethnically diverse christian communities - i read a short study on this years ago and this assertion seems to be true - churches should focus their ministry upon on one ethnic group. when i was first taught this principle in a church planting class at soybean bible college by a well-known mega-church leader i was shocked that the church growth movement would advocate an approach that appears to completely ignore the clear teachings of st. paul in ephesians and romans. in the previous epistle, paul identifies the "mystery" of the gospel as the fact that Christ has torn down the barrier wall between jew and gentile in order to create a new community. on account of st. paul's teaching i was disturbed by this principle and mentioned my concerns to my teacher. i am sorry to report that my teacher's response was quite simple: whether you like it or not the practice of the homogenous unit principle is a practical way to encourage church growth so we should apply this principle to church planting.
while i don't disagree with the fact that mono-cultural churches grow more quickly than multi-ethnic christian communities*** and have little doubt that putnam's disturbing findings correlate closely to our national reality i do not think that we should forego diversity in our communities or forsake our hopes for fully integrated church communities simply because such initiatives are difficult. surely Christ's abolishment of the wall of hostility and the better angels of our participatory democracy suggest that we should continue to invest ourselves in the difficult work of diversity and so embrace dr. king's dream as our own.
* if you live in massachusetts and consistently read the other major daily, you're incredibly stupid. you heard it here first...
** yeah, i haven't read it either.
***if you disagree take a minute and think about the number of well-known, non-pentecostal mega-churches whose attendance mirrors the diversity of their communities at large.