Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Anton S. (former Chicago UBF)

Testimony of Anton S.

(Anton S. was a member of UBF Chicago from 1996 to 1999. His testimony was published in the year 2000 on the RSQUBF web site.)

“Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.’” (Luke 22:25-26)

I first started attending the [Chicago] University Bible Fellowship at their annual Christmas Worship Service in 1996. Up until that point I had spent the last four months studying the Bible with a missionary from Korea, who was employed by the church as a full time Bible teacher to college students. I was 18, a freshman, and had a genuine interest in learning the teachings of this Jesus I had heard so much about.

You could say that I wasn't raised in a very Christian household. Although I was read the Bible stories while I was young, and had been to church a handful of times in my life, I was basically an agnostic – I believed there was a god but had no clue who he was. Because of my background I had little or no idea what the typical healthy Christian church was supposed to look like. At first the UBF seemed like a great place to be at – I loved my weekly Bible study time with my teacher, everyone there was very happy to see me and seemed genuinely joyful, and the people there seemed really dedicated to living a genuine Christian life. But after some time I would find out that these attributes were only surface deep, and that there were many underlying problems in this church, especially with the leadership.

The UBF system can basically be described as a discipleship ministry, which means that each new student is taught the Bible with the hopes that soon they will commit their lives to God and become a disciple of Jesus. This UBF system is also referred to as Shepherding, which means that each new student is a “sheep” and their Bible teacher is their Shepherd. I would soon find out that under this system every student would eventually find his or her shepherd involved with every aspect of their life, in somewhat dictatorial relationships.

Why I Left UBF

In total I spent three years as a member of the UBF church, during the last two I was heavily involved with church activities. I started out slowly but by the time I left UBF I was really involved – leading group Bible studies weekly with our college group, delivering key messages at the small conferences held each year, and singing in a Gospel quintet each Sunday during the Worship Service among other things. But as I got more and more involved with the church I started to find out about so many unspoken rules, secrets of the leadership, and unethical behavior behind the scenes. I began learning about the different kinds of “training” which were given to members of the church, which often times seemed harsh and excessive, and I began to see how these people seemed to be more interested in political power and looking good, rather than really caring about living a life which resembled Jesus’.

By the summer of 1999 I was really praying about leaving this church when I came across information which would be crucial in my final decision of departure. I came across the information presented in books such as “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse,” and “Churches that Abuse” which were revelatory to me at the time. I began to see that my church was throwing up some very obvious red flags when compared to other churches which are defined as aberrant or abusive. I began to see that the leadership there was in fact abusive, and that so many students who became involved with UBF were leaving hurt and abused by their shepherds. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that UBF is a cult, but it definitely falls under the categories of abusive and aberrant in nature.

I would like to briefly go over the eight signs of aberrant churches that I found, and how each of these is acted out in UBF. Not all aberrant churches will display all of these signs but if a church displays several of them it should be enough to cause some alarm.

Definition: Aberration – Fringe doctrine, or a group of persons holding doctrine that is not necessarily separate from the orthodox Church. This is often an anti-conformist group, sometimes led by a charismatic leader. Often has as its main principle some aspect of orthodox faith that is being neglected. In other words it is a Bible believing church which is basically orthodox in doctrine but which acts out of the norm. It’s not a question of what they believe, but more so how they choose to act it out.

The Signs

1. Power Posturing:

This means that the leadership spends much of its time focusing on and reminding the congregates of their own authority. Because their spiritual authority is not real or genuine, it has to be postured and backed up by threats.

The UBF connection:

At the heart of the UBF system is its founder and current leader Dr. Samuel Lee, who has strict control over his Korean Missionaries, and has no higher authority or council to check his power. Any time his power is questioned, he reacts immediately and harshly, firing missionaries immediately when they disobey him and using other fear tactics such as nailing the missionaries doors shut while they are out of there homes etc. Although these actions are not known to the young students they send a powerful unwritten message to the missionaries in the church – obey or suffer the consequences.

2. Performance Preoccupation:

This means that in an abusive system the leadership will be preoccupied with the performance of their members: worthiness = performance.

The UBF connection:

From the beginning students who become involved with UBF are strongly encouraged to participate in almost every activity of the church. This is often accomplished by making the students feel ashamed for not giving their all, asking questions like “You want to be like Jesus don’t you, don’t you want to obey his word?” The end result of this system is that students are not helped in the real problems of their lives but forced to blindly participate and produce numbers for the church.

3. Traumatic Departure:

Leaving an aberrational Christian group is always a painful process. While healthy churches will choose to bless the person who wishes to move to a new congregation, the aberrant church must curse the one who leaves.

The UBF connection:

One of the most disturbing aspects of UBF, is the consistent threats its leader Samuel Lee levels against those who leave the church. Many times during the Sunday sermon, stories were told of people who left UBF and soon after found themselves victims of car accidents, cancer, retarded babies etc. While Lee never outright said, “If you leave this will happen to you.” The unspoken message was nevertheless loud and clear. “If you leave this church you will be leaving God’s will for you, and bad things will soon happen.”

4. Separation/Isolation of the Membership

Often times an aberrant church will encourage and pressure their members to separate from their family, friends etc.

The UBF connection:

Through the "shepherding" system students are often counseled to totally separate from non-church relationships. Many times foreign students are encouraged to cut off relationships with their parents. Also students are often encouraged to move out of their parents homes and live together in apartments with other members. Any involvement with other churches is severely looked down on with questions like "Don't you think it is God's will for you to take root in this church so that you can grow as a disciple of Jesus" The end result is that students soon find themselves with in the church’s subculture and have no real friends outside the membership.

5. Us versus Them

Many times aberrant church groups have a strong distaste for outside Christian groups. This is usually backed up by a sense of spiritual elitism because the other churches are not really fulfilling God’s commands as the aberrant group sees them.

The UBF connection:

UBF is not involved with any other church outside of itself. As I said before, membership participation with other churches is strongly discouraged. Often times other churches are seen as persecuting UBF, fostering the us vs. them mentality. Other churches are seen as being lukewarm, weak and lazy. The end result is a feeling that other Christians probably are not saved, and the unwritten message is that salvation is not assured outside of UBF.

6. Uniformity of Lifestyle

Many times aberrant churches have strict codes of conduct and uniformity, whether spoken or unspoken. This includes dress, language, beliefs and living conditions.

The UBF connection:

This uniformity of lifestyle can plainly be seen in the UBF staff and church members. It is interesting to see that the most dedicated members take on all of the mannerisms of Samuel Lee, in dress, speech and beliefs. When one student was asked, “If you are American, why do you speak broken Korean English like Samuel Lee?” His reply was “I don’t want to be Korean, but we should imitate and learn from the servant of God!” This may sound silly, but it shows an underlying trend of thought conformity. The main problem here is that the goal of any Christian is to become Christ-like, whereas UBF seeks its members to become disciples in the image of the leadership.

7. Pipeline to God

Another attribute of the excessive control of the leadership is the direct pipeline to God mentality. This means that the leadership/leader is the one who knows what God’s will for the congregation is, and to question this is to question God himself.

The UBF connection:

As I mentioned before the power of UBF’s leader Samuel Lee is unchecked and total. I found it especially disturbing that Samuel Lee would make some of the most intimate decisions in a person’s life from where to work or go to school, to how many babies a family should have. I found it strange when Lee would make a decision for someone such as where to live and soon enough you would hear them say “Well it was God’s will for me to move.” The end result of this system is that members eventually abdicate all of their decision making powers to the church and have a tough time adjusting to life when they leave. Another problem for Christians is that the Holy Spirit takes a back seat at UBF; instead of people having and intimate relationship with God, they rely totally on the leadership – which makes for a form of spiritual idolatry.

8. Shame Based Relationships

Many of these churches thrive on using shame and fear as means to keep their members with the program. Public shaming and praising of members can be used to manipulate their emotions, and send messages to other members about which behaviors are acceptable.

The UBF connection:

Many students find that as long as they keep doing what the leadership says they will continue to win praises, but when a member does not obey they frequently find themselves being shamed in one way or another. These shame based relationships produce an environment of fear and manipulation which should not be found in any church or family. The end result is that members tend to find themselves serving a god which can only value them when they are acting “perfectly.”

After realizing that UBF shared many of these signs I had to make an ethical as well as spiritual decision. “Should I stay where I am so involved and have so many commitments despite the fact that I can see that there is so much that is so wrong?” In the end I prayed and found that I needed to move to a healthy environment, because I knew the truth and was ethically obligated not to associate myself with this church any longer.