dThis week, I reread search16’s testimony about UBF, and this bit in particular caught my attention: “While I lived in common life, I was always under a lot of pressure to conform to UBF standards, and I never felt good enough, so I honestly remember many nights of hopping into my car after testimony sharing and wanting (sometimes trying) to crash my car into a wall.” Yes, testimony sharing, [called “sogam” in the past or more recently “reflection writing”] — the weekly ritual of sitting through three or four hours of identical, pre-written reflections on the same message.

Are you a lukewarm Christian?

While I was in UBF, this practice was often praised as something that set the ministry apart from the “lukewarm” mainstream evangelical world. Yet, rereading this passage has prompted me to take a closer look at testimony sharing, as search16’s comments resonate deeply with my own (and I suspect many others’) personal experiences in UBF. Reflective of UBF as a whole, the testimony sharing ritual can have a very destructive, manipulative and unbiblical influence on its participants.

The pressure’s on!

The key to the intensely emotional effect of testimony sharing is pressure. The process of writing a testimony actually has very little to do with the passage of scripture being studied. Rather, the main focus is on how the “shepherd”—that is, the discipler coaching the lower-class “sheep”—superimposes the passage onto the sheep’s life to coerce him or her into submission.

The various pressures exuded on sheep include to denounce their “old lives”, to work harder at UBF activities to secure God’s favor, and to give up “pleasures” (which can include almost any normal activity that interferes with UBF). Then, no matter how difficult or painful these directions may be, the sheep is expected to write them down in his or her own “testimony” and share them publicly in front of a group of peers. Thus, Friday night testimony sharing becomes, essentially, four hours of grueling emotional onslaught, with each sheep’s “confession” of disobedience compounding the guilty feelings of everyone in the room.

Feelings of depression and fits of crying are common at these meetings. High-ranking shepherds usually dismiss these bouts: “they are being moved to tears by the Word of God.” Yet, the tears are usually not in response to God’s grace, but from the overwhelming emotional burden.

Two examples from my own experience

First, there was a young, single mother in my fellowship group who had only recently started sharing testimonies. Yet, almost every week, she would break down in tears as she read about how it was God’s will for her to cut down any time she spent with her infant son in order to go “fishing” for Bible students.

As another example, a Korean woman would always tear up when she had to admit that everything about her “old life”—her culture, her family relationships, her dreams—was completely worthless and ought to be thrown away.

Destructive, Yet Oddly Addicting

If these meetings are so emotionally traumatizing, why do shepherds and sheep continue to insist, sometimes with great excitement, on their merits? The answer lies with emotional volatility: the extreme level of negative pressure and depression brews the perfect recipe for intense emotional experiences.

Consider a sheep who feels terrible for 95% of the meeting. This causes wild changes in body chemistry: heartbeat quickens, adrenaline spikes, hormones rage. The result is an extremely intense, almost meditative, emotional state. I remember some meetings during which I would do little more than stare at my feet as the speakers presented, bathing in the sea of weird emotions that the atmosphere bred. Then, in that single moment where the sheep does the “correct” thing—admits that one sin, gets praised by the chapter director, cracks an awkward but successful joke—there is an equally strong emotional experience on the other end of the spectrum.

When one is finally released from a testimony sharing meeting, the effects linger, either in the form of intense relief or relentless distress.

Repeat this ritual for months or years and it can be almost addictive. The problem with this result is that it is the perfect storm for emotional manipulation. Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with emotional experiences; tent revivals are a great example where very emotional services have furthered the gospel and edified Christians. The problem is that this controlled emotional state is reproduced every week, along with the same repetitive demands to submit to UBF praxis. In technical terms, this is “thought control”: a repetitive dictation of what and how to think accompanied by intense, addictive, and mentally binding emotional experiences.

This same practice—with different vocabulary of course—has been used by cult groups like the ICC, the Moonies, and even manipulative government regimes for years; it’s nothing new. What’s even more terrifying is that participants—even leaders—are rarely even aware of the nature of these practices.

Furthermore, the Bible warns against dependence on these kinds of emotional rituals. Remember Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 6:7: “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.”

The same applies to repetitive and increasingly long testimonies. Writing more words will not secure favor with God, and there is a particular danger in man’s attempts to artificially recreate intense experiences.

The Alternative

When I left UBF after testing all of these practices and finding them highly concerning, I chose to become a member of a friend’s church, and what I discovered about true Christian fellowship was a bit of a shock after all of my time in UBF. In community group, there is a sense of freedom and equality among all members—from the leader to the newcomers. The time is not spent monotonously repeating the Sunday message and generating an atmosphere of fear, but exploring ideas about faith, love, and discipleship through open discussion and prayer. We build each other up rather than tear each other down. We acknowledge the presence of God even in our day-to-day lives outside church activities.

More recently, a member was moved to tears during a meeting, but not the UBF kind of tears; rather than creating a mood of dread, it was genuine thankfulness for the grace of God. For some closing thoughts, my pastor told me not long ago that conviction from God never creates burden or stress. It is a “sweet” conviction; a freeing motion of the Spirit as God makes us aware about some flaw in our being. Jesus did not come to lay on us burdens and bring us inner conflict; “whoever the Son of Man sets free will be free indeed.”

Do these observations match your own experiences with testimony sharing? How can you see these processes played out in other practices? How can we both as individuals and as a Church watch out for these practices in our own communities? Can “testimony sharing” be redeemed into something that is healthy?