About eighteen months ago I had a lovely married female graduate student, a mother of two young children, who took several of my classes at Wheaton Graduate School (apologetics and spiritual formation). She had grown up in a tent-making missionary family in the Hyde Park section of Chicago. She learned a missional lifestyle from her father and mother in their home. As she listened to my classes and read the assigned reading she came alive to the subjects and the impact of the ideas.
This student’s dad, a professionally trained man, felt a call to leave his native Korea many years ago in order to evangelize in the United States, especially at the University of Chicago. (He has recently uprooted himself to move to Boston to begin a new mission church work all over again. The courage and faith of this man humbles me to even think about this move.) My student did her B.A. at the University of Chicago before coming to Wheaton Graduate School. She will receive her M. A. in May. She had witnessed incarnational evangelism as practiced in her home from childhood. Through this relationship with this student I met her dad. Through this contact I was then invited to speak at the North American leadership gathering of University Bible Fellowship (UBF), held last February at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. This began a year-long process of learning about UBF and its varied ministries around the globe, all of which spring from the fruit of the Korean revival.
Shortly after I spoke for UBF for the first time I began to get some rather aggressive responses from a few former UBF members who insisted that this movement was a cult. They strongly warned me that I was being used by this group for very bad ends. Now I have been called a lot of things over the years, and made my share of enemies at times, but being charged with being used by a cult was a new one. My doctrinal convictions are so strongly orthodox, and most decidedly Reformed confessionally, that I wondered how I could have been so blind, at least according to the few people who wrote me (or wrote on this blog site). Some even made concerted efforts through other church leaders to stop my relationship with UBF. This seems especially odd given the fact that they have openly charged UBF with violating Scripture but then never made even the slightest overture to follow a biblical pattern for resolving the problems they sited to me, preferring to contact me and others through intermediaries.
As a result of all this fuss I read the statements of several of the critics very carefully, many of which can be found online via the usual search engines. I also read a lot about UBF from their own Web site. I had lengthy discussions with several seasoned and mature missiologists and devout Christian leaders who knew a great deal more about UBF first-hand than I did. I slowly became convinced that there were some problems in the past history of UBF with regard to how certain actions had been taken and how certain matters had been handled. A great deal of this was a result, in my view, of two factors: Korean culture and ingrown leadership. When I began to discuss these concerns with UBF leaders I found they were not defensive about these concerns at all. There was an honest recognition of the need to grow and to be more accountable. They admitted past mistakes. I then spoke to the large Chicago UBF "joint" congregation on a Sunday in the spring of 2006 and was also warmly received there. I shared a meal with the major leaders of the North American UBF team. Again, I asked honest questions and got very good answers. My friend Dr. Scott Moreau, the chairman of the missions department at Wheaton, spoke in Korea for the international UBF gathering in June. We have talked extensively about what he said there and how he was received. Dr. Robert Coleman, another friend, will speak to the same North American conference in February that I spoke at last year at the Graham Center. None of us feel the “cult” charges can be fairly and correctly applied to UBF. Look, real cults do not invite Scott Moreau, Robert Coleman and John Armstrong to be their plenary speakers. And no one at UBF had tied our hands or in any way hinders our freedom to speak as honestly as we desire.
Two things have totally convinced me of the credibility of UBF. First, my own personal relationships with UBF leaders. I have taken the time to get to know Pastor Ron Ward of the Chicago UBF very well. We have shared hours and hours of fellowship over the past twelve months. I know this man and I love his heart for God and for the gospel. He is a sound, humble, and Christ-centered servant. He is willing to admit his mistakes and is personally gracious almost to a fault. I have come to love him and I deeply admire him. When I pursued these charges with Ron he answered them in ways that I found convincing and credible. He admits that there were errors the group made in the past and more things will likely be discovered and need further correction in the future. But Ron seeks to grow and be faithful as a servant of the church. And he is both accountable and genuinely teachable.
The Chicago UBF church is not like most North American churches. The members are serious, reflective and deeply involved. (More than half of the members are Korean, though Ron Ward is not. He came to faith in Christ as a student at Oregon State University more than twenty-five years ago through an early UBF effort on that campus. He was mentored by the Korean leader of the North American work, who passed away several years ago in a tragic fire.) This unusual seriousness about the kingdom and world missions is where some of the problems arise in UBF, especially in an American culture that often treats individuality, and personal rights, as its highest ideals. UBF is focused on seeing Christ’s kingdom spread to every land and every UBF member is expected to engage in this goal. Some feel pressured and can’t live up to these group expectations. Sometimes UBF helps a young person to grow and then the person will feel the need to move on into a different ecclesiastical context in due time. Others, older and very well-educated in many instances, remain with the mission for decades. The group does practice church discipline and thus it treats relational sin seriously, qualities almost unseen in most American churches.
I spoke for the Chicago area UBF group leaders last Saturday evening. I was asked to speak on servant leadership. I openly addressed the types of dangers that cults, and strong leaders, can foster. UBF not only heard me but put the sermon on their Web site immediately. I spoke for a little over an hour and then took a Q & A time. They asked questions, very good ones and very tough ones, for well over 90 minutes. Some were not only difficult but quite refreshingly honest in a way that no cult would have ever allowed to happen with a guest speaker. The group is just different. They pray fervently, they talk passionately in one-to-one conversations about kingdom matters, they laugh at my remotely funny lines with real gusto, and they engage the speaker in ways more like an African-American congregation than a white suburban one. Frankly, I love preaching and teaching at UBF meetings. I feel “right at home.” I have rarely been shown such kindness anywhere in North America.
One of the consistent themes of UBF is the coming of Christ’s kingdom, or the already-but-not-yet nature of his kingdom. We sang a great song (Mercy/Vineyard music) last Saturday that reflects the real vision of UBF beautifully:
Father of creation, unfold your sovereign plan,
Raise up a chosen generation that will march through the land.
All of creation is longing for your unveiling of power.
Would you release your anointing? Oh God, let this be the hour.
Ruler of the nations, the world has yet to see
The full release of your promise, the church in victory.
Turn to us, Lord, and touch us, make us strong in your might.
Overcome our weakness, that we could stand up and fight.
Let your kingdom come (Let your kingdom come),
Let your will be done (Let your will be done),
Let us see on earth (Let us see on earth)
The glory of your Son.
I share that prayer, as expressed in this song, and I am thankful that God gave me friends like those I have made through UBF. These people do not do everything right but then what church really does? They are quite culturally formed by their past but they are learning how to better reach into the wider North American culture with greater and greater freedom. The main thing is this—these friends are hungry for God and for his kingdom and they are truly sold out to extending that kingdom to the ends of the earth. This ministry is the fruit of the Korean revival and I pray that the spirit of this type of ministry will touch many other churches and groups around the world. Such a movement of God’s Spirit is still our real hope for major change in America.