University Bible Fellowship (UBF)

Since the appearance of the so called “youth religions” (new religions, cults and psycho-groups addressing the youth) a change in the estimation of religious phenomena took place. Indeed, there have always been more extreme religious groups, in which authoritarian structures, legalism, inner coercions etc. prevailed. But since the 70s the controversy around “destructive cults” has got an intense public impact. The occurring problems have been examined more, including the psychological and sociological aspects. Out of that came certain ideas what the characteristic marks of a “cult” are. Such characteristic marks which had been determined regarding extreme groups later became measure sticks for the evaluation of religious phenomena whatsoever. Of course you have to be careful in doing that, because it can lead to prejudiced results. Under certain conditions “destructive” characteristic marks can be found even in fellowships in the church or active groups, which take it serious to follow Jesus and are living a committed devoutness, putting personal needs last. Every conversion, a tighter practice of shrift, committed forms of faith can be interpreted as “indoctrination,” “thought control,” “brainwashing” etc. Therefore it is important to comprehend every group regarding various aspects. This shall be done in the following with UBF – an evangelizing student organization coming from Korea, which aroused quite different opinions here. On the one side it is evaluated as an “evangelical” group with which it is possible to enter into a brotherly relation, on the other side it is assigned to the “so called youth cults.” From UBF brochures and informative literature, through contacts with the responsible persons in UBF, attending events and meeting former UBF member, we tried to picture this fellowship to ourselves on our own.

The Korean origin

»University Bible Fellowship,« not very well translated into German as »Universität Bibel Freundschaft,« originated in Korea in 1961. Samuel Lee, who was ministering in a small church in Korea, met Sarah Barry, who came as a missionary of the US Southern Presbyterian Church to Korea. Both “recognized – under the impression of heavy student riots – the spiritual need of the student youth … and established Bible classes at the university.” The organization which came into being thereby grew quickly. In Korea 8000 Students in 100 colleges are joining now (1988) the Bible study in UBF. About 450 co-workers have been sent to about 20 countries so far. Here in Germany around 90 Koreans are active.

UBF came as a Korean mission to the Federal Republic of Germany in 1969. At first it had been women, who found jobs here working as nurses and evangelized mainly among other Koreans in Germany and among their colleagues. Men followed, a part as husbands of the already here living nurses. They received the residence permit mostly as students. Since 1978 they are focusing on campus mission here as well. The currently about 10 campus groups are maintained by Koreans. Around 100 Germans decided to be co-workers. Presently between 200 and 300 students are coming to the Bible study every week.

The leader in Germany is Abraham Lee in Cologne, where the German headquarters is located. He studied Biology and finished a training course in a reformed theological seminary in Seoul.

Evangelical Background

In a little UBF brochure the “object” is phrased: “The University Bible Fellowship is an evangelical student organization, which focuses on campus evangelization. Our main issue is to help students to study the Bible and live according to it’s teachings.” – they are invited to a “personal Bible study,” where “two people go passage wise through one book of the Bible at a time.” – “We are students and have experienced, that this gospel is saving us from the power of sin and death. Therefore we want, that this gospel is made known among the students. Our main issue is to teach the Students the Word of God, the Bible, and help them getting to know Jesus Christ personally.” These passages perfectly could come from other evangelical student groups such as »Campus Crusade for Christ,« »Student Mission Germany« (SMD) or the »Navigators« (who also are using the method of 1:1 Bible study with given material).

Yes, regarding the overall teaching UBF is little different from other traditional Christian groups (you can notice the reformed background sure enough). Their eleven summarizing points of faith (What we believe) match evangelical-fundamentalistic credos, which other mission groups have expressed similarly and constituted in the base of the Evangelical Alliance. In a introductory clause these points are related to the Bible: “We believe, that the Bible teaches the following fundamental Christian truths.” After the credo to the triune God as well as to the inspiration of the Bible by God and it’s authority over faith and life the passages are following the scheme of the Apostolic Credo: God as creator, as sovereign ruler, savior and judge; the salvation ministry of Christ through his sin offering (“he alone can save us from sin and judgment”); the work of the Holy Spirit as needed regeneration (the terms “rebirth” and “sanctification” don’t appear); church as body of Christ; parousia of Christ for judgment. In a separate point the sinful nature of men, the wages of which are the judgment and wrath of God, is emphasized.

UBF understands itself here among us as an evangelical group (willing to cooperate) and is even partially accepted by other evangelical organizations. In Stuttgart, e.g., UBF is working together with the students groups ministering there, and members UBF have joined the Evangelical Alliance not only there. The basis for such cooperation is mainly the common issue of mission. The possibility to pray with each other increases the feeling of unity.

However, there is also information, that certain contacts which had existed for a while have been abandoned. The at the beginning in Korea practiced closer cooperation with »International Fellowship of Evangelical Students« (IFES) or the »Scripture Union,« which is pointed out even in newer UBF representations, for example does –according to information of these organizations – not exist any more today, because UBF developed too one-sided. On the other hand UBF had been admitted in Korea to the »Korean Council of Christian Missions.«

How the relations to the Christian churches look in detail in Korea can hardly be investigated from here. The wording given by UBF “UBF works under the roof of the Presbyterian church of Korea as an independent community” and the fact that in 1988 two UBF missionaries ministering in Germany, one of them being the German leader Abraham Lee, have been ordained as Pastors by Presbyterian Koreans, do not say very much out for it is known that there are many Presbyterian churches and splitting groups in Korea. The Presbyterian church with which the EKD has a relationship at least knows nothing about positive relations to UBF in Korea. It was reported to us also from other sides that UBF stands quiet isolated in Korea and doesn’t have any contacts to the traditional churches.

Living together and practicing of faith in the UBF groups

If you look at UBF under the presumption that it is an evangelical student organization, which you can judge and classify according to the contents of it’s teachings, you can’t yet approach the nature of this group. Since the co-workers active in mission practice a close community life at UBF, the question about the practicing of faith and the structures of the living in the group of co-workers and also the way co-workers are acquired, play a decisive role.

For the one who newly joins UBF the Bible studies are the first way to enter. As a rule, one is invited to it by a coworker personally, with whom one then performs the 1:1 study, apparently often in the student dormitory or apartment of someone of the group. Usually, single biblical books are worked through successively verse by verse, using predefined material as basis (with questions on the text sections). The basic character is biblical-evangelistic, the interpretation is carried out in a strongly personal way and addresses also questions about faith and life.

The 1:1 relationship between teacher and pupil – here termed “shepherd” and “sheep” – implies an intensive form of being together and of course also opens the possibility of a very direct influencing, for instance if personal decisions shall be taken by faith. How this is handled in detail is not only a question of the “theological” and “counseling” abilities of the respective “shepherds.” It rather is part of the system that his 1:1 relationship implies a subordination of the pupil under the teacher. This obedience relationship runs through the whole structure of the group. You learn what the will of God is with regard to questions of the personal life (marriage, family, apartment, work, usage of money, lifestyle etc.) from the shepherd.

This system can be easily understood from the Far Eastern background: The whole society in Korea is, starting in the families and societies and running up to the enterprises and work conditions, hierarchically structured.

In the Christian realm in North America a special movement within evangelical and primarily charismatic circles exists since the 60s which works according to the teacher/pupil principle. This means that “every disciple subjects almost every area of his life to a shepherd and every shepherd subjects his life to another shepherd in a pyramid like structure” (Watson, Discipleship). This »Discipleship Movement,«also known as “Shepherding,” has partially led to disputes in the churches and groups. Among other things the movement is accused of restricting the decision ability of the individual members too much, that the “shepherd” can become a megaphone for the will of God, that the hierarchical and authoritarian forms cannot be derived from the Bible. Whether UBF has been also influenced by this American movement, isn’t known to us any further.

A UBF peculiarity is the so-called “sogam.” This word coming from Chinese language indicates so much as “(to express) one’s personal impressions, thoughts, one’s own mindset.” “Sogam” is in UBF a personal statement, a biblical interpretation related to the own situation of life and faith which is worked out in writing. The individual person expresses what the text of the Bible means to him or to her. As a rule, a sogam contains a confession of guilt: the admission of not having applied the required obedience to God, of not having completely handed over oneself to Jesus, of having been idle in the missionary service, or of having not opened enough to the love of God. Such sogams are already worked out by the “sheep” in the context of the Bible study and are discussed and corrected – often in repeated procedures – together with the shepherd. When the sogam has reached a certain “spiritual maturity” – which apparently means that is corresponds to the ideas of UBF in it’s form and statement –, it can be shared in the meeting in front of the other members.

At the meetings – at the Bible evening or at the meetings of the co-workers – the individual co-workers one by one read off such prepared Bible interpretations from the pulpit, usually quite indifferently and expressionlessly. Since these sogams are regarding form and content quite similar, such a meeting conveys the impression that compulsory exercises are gone through here. How far such personal statements and confessions come from a genuine relationship to God and how far they are defined by the predefined pattern, can hardly be found out. Anyway, the UBF co-worker, who has to deliver his sogam every week, lives permanently with the feeling, to justify his deeds and omissions, his thinking and feeling not only in front of God but also in front of the group. Whether he or she perceives this as a compulsion or as a help to get further in his or her spiritual life will be hardly investigate objectively. It is beyond question that the sogam practice, particularly in the combination with the relationship with the “shepherd,” can become an instrument with which spiritual pressure is applied. With reference to the authority of the Bible all possible decisions can be issued as being of the will of God and therewith get a corresponding authorization. It has to be observed that in the biblical interpretations a special emphasis lies on succession, obedience, discipleship, sending and mission. The co-workers are permanently molded in this direction.


How does somebody become a co-worker at UBF now, who belongs to the group of co-workers? Apparently an “admission” to the community – as a conscious step with a corresponding obligation – doesn’t exist, the responsible persons particularly emphasize this. One rather becomes gradually stronger and stronger committed, corresponding to the Far Eastern type of a gradual introduction to respectively higher degrees of cognition. The decision to start co-working in UBF can be expressed in a sogam, but this isn’t a rule.

By different sides the fact has been attested again and again that already the Bible study is aimed on producing co-workers for UBF. It even is claimed that UBF doesn’t have particular interest in people who are out of the question for this ministry – for instance because they are already older or are already bound by marriage and family. Using the Bible, the Bible pupils are brought to the conviction that God wants to appoint them to the ministry of campus evangelization. This is again and again included in the prayers, and is even prayed specifically for certain people who are supposed to decide for co-working. That increases the pressure in this direction.

Being a co-worker you are at the same time a “shepherd.” This means, you actively perform mission, you attempt to contact individual students, primarily in the dormitories, you try to win over prospects for the Bible studies. In addition, you are supposed to attend the various meetings of the co-workers (several evenings in the week, Saturday afternoon, Sunday afternoon), as well as the prayer times (daily in the early morning before certain events, after the service on Sunday afternoon). Then there are larger conferences which are prepared intensively in the groups. Sogams and messages (addresses) must be worked out every week. For the missionary activities, for successes and failures you must give account within the group.

Who attends special courses becomes a missionary and can be sent out in other countries, too. (The Koreans working here in the UBF groups are all “missionaries”). As a rule, they earn their cost of living by working in their own jobs; they often are part time employees.

Obviously, the co-workers are kept busy heavily. They have to limit other relations and interests automatically, the family relationships becoming second-rate, too. They get tied into the UBF structures more and more strongly. The membership in UBF means to be at the group’s service fully and entirely and to get mixed up with a high degree of commitment. One fits in with obedience structures in which also forms of punishment are accepted as they might hardly occur here even in the nursery school (locking in, standing-in-the-corner, beating). Existing friendships are cut off if the partner doesn’t want to get in lane with the UBF system. Yes, one even lets it happen, that the future spouse is determined by UBF. This practice of “marriage” – in the Korean society even today still largely customary – doesn’t seem to be an unconditional rule in Germany, however, the persons responsible aren’t denying it either. Corresponds to it, personal feelings are suppressed at all. It is reported that you even after quite a long time don’t notice that married couples are among the co-workers with whom you meet almost every day! Every initiation of friendships between the sexes is stopped. “Lustful feelings” are “confessed” in the sogam. Presumably there may not be passion in the marriage either. In any case the marriage and family life is subordinated to mission.

It is therefore understandable that because of all these experiences UBF is intensively criticised and that one draws parallels for the so-called “youth religions.” Accordingly pastor Joachim Keden treats UBF in his little book about »So-called Youth Cults and the Occult Wave« under the category of “Twilight Mission” and gives corresponding dangers and points of criticism. In the 5th just published edition (Aussaat Verlag Neukirchen-Vluyn 1989) Keden has refined his representation of UBF and supported by several authentic testimonies.

UBF – action group, community, church?

In view of the very close community relationship the question is whether UBF is correctly defined as a “missionary action group.” Doesn’t a comparison with fraternities or communities seem to be more meaningful? As in the case of UBF the members of fraternities or communities commit themselves completely to the ministry of discipleship, largely do without freedom and room for development and abandon financial independence, adaptation to the community and subordination is expected by them, they fit in with a fixed spiritual order usually also including a stricter confessing practice.

However, there are vital differences: A prospect for a fraternity knows what he gets into. Long preparation times (noviciate) with conscious decisions up to the final “vow” comply with the weight of such a step. In UBF you gradually run into a closer and closer relationship of dependence without learning without coming to know what is behind this community actually. A fraternity represents a solid life community, a closed system, as it were, in which special forms of life and faith can be justified. Moreover fraternities offer a completely different social security for it’s members and bear responsibility for instance in the case of illness and for the old age, which isn’t possible for the co-workers of a relatively loose organized community like UBF.

The question whether one can consider UBF a “church” – and hence an denomination on it’s own or a religious community – is self-evident, because UBF co-workers themselves speak of a church: the leaders introduce themselves as church leaders, the co-workers say that they have joined a church. On handbills you find the declaration: “The UBF is an international and non-denominational student community …” or “… an international student church …” On Sunday services are ministered (tough they take place in the afternoon and there is formally the possibility to attend regular church services in the morning). Concerning the implementation of official duties a certain development seems to be begin. The Holy Communion is “not yet” celebrated in the groups as responsible persons were saying; baptism will be performed if somebody isn’t baptized as a Christian yet (that is recognition of the infant baptism); weddings are celebrated greatly.

Although characteristics of church structures are definitely existing then, the co-workers of UBF don’t enter the UBF community formally. Normally they keep their traditional church membership; leaving the church doesn’t play a role as the persons responsible emphasize themselves. But the UBF community practically becomes their inner and “churchly” home. In view of the utilization of the time it should be impossible to maintain relations to another churches, anyway.

However, if it is the case that UBF assumes for it’s members the function of the church, that is the community of faith, the engagement which is lived here then is too one-sided. In a church various gifts must be able to develop, it must have an abundant supply and must contain all generations. A group which consists only of co-workers active in mission – in fact only working in the student mission – cannot be considered a church, and particularly not a church in the biblical meaning.

So what is UBF? A missionary action group – but with a close community relationship; a religious group with a high commitment – but without the shelter of a “fraternity”; self-acclaimed church – but not as an enabling for a comprehensive Christian community and for the development of various gifts and strengths. These discrepancies aren’t just of formal type, rather far reaching conflicts are based thereon.

The human side

It would be certainly interesting to follow the motives in detail which persuade young people of co-working in UBF or which would drive them out from the group again. For this, a few of final observations.

Certainly there always will be people who are interested in a Bible study: Christian motivated students, seeing a possibility here to deepen their Bible knowledge; but also people more remote wanting to get to know the Bible. And there are young people who respond to personal care – perhaps because they are just in a crisis situation. The Bible studies have certainly led some to a personal faith, others may have also found the biblical deepening they expected for themselves. Many will leave again because the style is too schematic or too authoritarian for them, because they don’t want to be addressed in such a personal way in questions of faith, because they are already engaged elsewhere in a Christian church or fellowship and want to stay there, or simply, because they are changing the university.

Therein there may be people who decides quite consciously to co-work in UBF because they have found the type of commitment and engagement here, which they, as they say, have searched or which corresponds to them. Some may stabilize inwardly and develop themselves positively in the protective surroundings of the firm group.

In any case it is more difficult for weak and unstable persons, who usually are particularly attracted – especially if they are just in crisis situations – by authoritarian groups. They do find the leadership, which they just need, however, get in to dependences deeper and deeper and don’t have the strength therein to break loose from the narrow group relationship again. By legalistic demands and mental pressure, also simply by strong pressure to do well, emotional damages can arise. In connection with this, it has to be asked primarily whether the “shepherds” are prepared for this responsibility in counselling so that they can give attention to persons who emotionally are unstable or ill correspondingly. But even if a community sees itself obliged to mission as a matter of priority, it cannot simply escape these human tasks.

It is sure that, evaluating a community like UBF, the human and practical sides definitely must be taken into account, too. Regarding the evangelical basis of teaching and the target of mission there do exist many correspondences with other evangelical congregations which are working on the basis of the alliance. But we don’t want to see UBF put onto the same level as perhaps »Student Mission Germany« (SMD) or »Campus Crusade for Christ.«