Sprechen Sie UBF?

People in UBF speak an unusual dialect. Our conversations and writings are full of UBFisms which are immediately recognized and understood by longtime members of the ministry but sometimes indecipherable to those on the outside. There is nothing unusual about this at all. Think of any academic field or profession. Or a group of teenagers communicating by email and text messaging. Wherever people share interests and experiences, a common language will start to emerge. In some respects this is good sign. It shows that we are a real community with significant interpersonal relationships. But if we are not careful, UBFisms can lead to unnecessary friction and misunderstanding.

Some UBFisms reflect our ministry’s Korean origins. Think about how we attach titles (Missionary, Shepherd, Doctor, …) to peoples’ names. This was an attempt by Korean missionaries to implement in the English language the polite honorifics of spoken Korean that acknowledge differences in seniority between a speaker and listener. Many North Americans in UBF have grown accustomed to this, but to newcomers it can be disconcerting. In Korea it may be helpful to refer to a newcomer as a sheep. A sheep is someone to be treasured, treated with deference and love. For students in Korea who value group loyalty and sense of belonging, being called a sheep could make them feel special. But for students in America steeped in free expression and individuality, being called a sheep can be humiliating.

Other UBFisms function as theological terms: “manger ministry,” “common life,” “life-giving spirit.” You are unlikely to find these terms in any theology text. But they are real theological terms, because they represent significant spiritual ideals that we try to implement. I’m sure that we can find better names for them. American evangelicals are always coming up with cool names like “seeker-friendly,” “incarnational ministry,” and so on. By comparison, some of our UBF terms sound lame, but I don’t think the ideas behind them are lame. In fact, I think we ought to take these terms more seriously. If we believe in something and practice it, we should know what it means and be able to explain it. Lack of explanation can give the wrong impression and mislead our own members and people who don’t know us well. If we don’t clearly define our terms, then other people may define them for us in a way that distorts what we actually believe and do.

The quintessential example of this is “marriage by faith.” The term expresses our belief that marriage is ordained by God and that Christians should earnestly seek God’s will in deciding whom to marry and when. It also expresses our belief that marriage is not purely a personal matter, and it is good and proper for godly parents, pastors and spiritual elders to take a prayerful and proactive role in counseling young people throughout the courtship and marriage process. When UBF leaders neglected to define this term, critics seized upon it and mischaracterized it, claiming that we force people to marry whomever we want. “Marriage by faith” is a wonderful ideal to which we ascribe, even though in practice we fall short of the ideal. When discussing “marriage by faith,” we needn’t fall into the trap of trying to defend everything that everyone in UBF has ever done. Helping real individuals and couples with tough decisions is a messy business, and plenty of mistakes have been made all around. But we should be ready to define the ideal and discuss it intelligently, because this ideal is biblically sound and defensible, and because on this specific topic we have much to teach and much to learn.

UBFisms also crop up when messages and reports are translated from Korean into English. Following the 2008 Purdue conference, our UBF headquarters website posted an article from a Korean publication containing an interview of Dr. John Jun. Here’s one sentence from that interview:

We focus on digging out the words of God, making new living water rather than having a new technique so that we can receive God’s grace and feed sheep.

I have no idea how this sounds in Korean, and I certainly don’t want to pick on my good friend Dr. John Jun. But the direct translation into English has so much jargon and mixed metaphors that an uninitiated reader is left scratching his head and wondering, “What the heck does that mean?”

There are some UBFisms that I’d really like to abolish. How about this one: “marriage problem.” This expression is usually applied to an unmarried person, as in “She has a marriage problem.” Translation: She wants to get married but has no prospects that are currently viable. Tossing around terms like this can be a cheap substitute for really empathizing with people and trying to understand what they are going through.

Many UBFisms are local Scripture-based idioms that have gone stale. Here’s an example. A few years ago, I delivered a Sunday message on John chapter 9, in which Jesus heals the man who was born blind. In one part of the message, which was subtitled, “Jesus makes mud,” I discussed how Jesus spit on the ground, made mud with his saliva, put it on the man’s eyes and told him to wash. This was an example of how Jesus carried out his ministry by creatively using the resources that God gave him. I encouraged our members to look around, find the resources that they have, and apply them to God’s work in new and creative ways. The punch-line was, “Let’s make some mud!” That week, as our members shared written testimonies about this passage, they used the term “mud-making ministry” and described how we could put this idea into practice. Because of our shared experience, the term held a rich meaning for us at that time. Using an idiom derived from our Bible study is appropriate in these small group settings. But as days and weeks pass, the meaning of the idiom starts to wear thin. Outside of our immediate circle, how could anyone know what a “mud-making ministry” is? Clinging to stale idioms may eventually become a symptom of laziness and superficiality in our study of Scripture when we encounter the same passage again in the future. Here is a principle that I have found helpful: When you approach a passage from the Bible that you have studied before, throw away the cute expressions and sayings that you have used or heard in the past, and ask the Holy Spirit to give you fresh new insight.

Finally, there are some UBFisms which at the surface seem grammatically correct and normal, but on a deeper level reveal a carelessness that can be disconcerting. One example is, “From God’s point of view…” This came up recently when someone drafted a report on UBF missions in Latin America. The report included a few lines about the history of Spanish conquest, when Roman Catholicism was spread to the region by forced conversion and sword. This is indeed a dark spot in the history of the Church. The pivoting sentence in the report was, “But from God’s point of view, this happened so that…” It was just an innocent attempt to express how God may have been working through an apparently bad situation to further his redemptive work, and to explain that despite this dark history God has still prepared the region as a mission field ripe for the gospel. But if you stop and think about this expression for just a moment, it reveals a disturbing degree of hubris.How can we claim to see from God’s point of view? How can anyone, on this side of eternity, declare that that he truly knows what God was doing? Perhaps it’s unfair to call this a UBFism, because everyone at times is guilty of sloppy and uncritical thinking. But if expressions like this appear too often in our discussions and writings, it reflects poorly on us.

Should we be trying to purge UBFisms from our writing and speech? For the most part, I would say, “Yes.” As I write and speak, I consciously try to get rid of UBFisms for the following reasons.

  1. UBFisms can be irritating to our young people. When they hear us say these things, they roll their eyes and think, “Omigod, I can’t believe he said that.” They want to identify with our ministry, but they also don’t want to be feel stigmatized by going to a church where people talk strangely.
  2. UBFisms do violence to the English language and reflect a poor and lazy style of communication. By and large, we are a ministry of college educated and highly credentialed people. We take pride in the quality of our Bible study preparation, our musical and dramatic performances, and so on. So why should we tolerate and promote substandard English? Why would we place material laced with undefined terms, stale idioms, etc. on our websites, which are the highly visible public face of our ministry?
  3. UBFisms make it difficult for us to connect to other parts of the Body of Christ. When other Christians come to our meetings or browse through our material, they have trouble understanding who we are and what we actually do.
  4. UBFisms run counter to our missionary calling. A missionary who goes to a foreign land cannot expect the natives to learn his language; he should adapt to their language and find a way to communicate the gospel in their culture. Similarly, we who are longtime members of UBF should learn how to clearly express our faith to those who don’t speak UBF.

Please don’t misunderstand. I do not want to stigmatize our missionaries who are struggling with the English language. My comments here are aimed primarily at native English speakers in North American UBF chapters. I believe that we have a duty to help our brothers and sisters from Korea to assimilate and become more effective witnesses for Jesus. We ought to make it easier for them to write and speak standard English, not hinder them by perpetuating a peculiar dialect.

Perhaps those of us who have been in UBF for a long time are no longer aware of how our language sounds to those on the outside. Could this be a symptom of a deeper problem? In Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary (Zondervan, 1993, p.15), Lee Strobel wrote:

You may have found that since you’ve become a Christian, your unbelieving friends have drifted away as you’ve become increasingly involved in the social network of the church. It has been said that within two years of becoming a Christian, the average person has already lost the significant relationships he once had with people outside the faith. Without frequent heart-to-heart conversations with unchurched people, it’s easy to forget how they think.

Excessive use of our own local jargon could be a sign that we are losing touch with the very people we are supposedly trying to reach.


  1. Brian Karcher
    Brian Karcher

    Joe, you bring up an important question: how do we handle our “isms” or “jargon”? Using specific terms in communication is a natural, human characteristic. As a technology geek, I can hold a conversation with another developer using mostly 3 letter acronyms, and understand the meaning. As a fan of Office Space, I can speak with another fan and understand things like “PC load letter…”

    I enjoy having those kinds of conversations because I don’t have to take the time to explain every last detail, and there is a sense of belonging. But from an outside viewpoint, such conversations can be viewed as arrogant and exclusive. In a religious setting, an “ism”-filled conversation can be misinterpreted and misused, and often seems mysterious or even dangerous.

    I think the area most sensitive to this is in ministry is in delivering a Sunday message (er.. I mean sogam… I mean sermon).

  2. Hi, I promise to write a better comment later, but I just wanted to let you know that I read this and you raise a very very good and important point. I happen to be one of those ‘young people’ referred to in point #1. UBFisms make UBF seem cult-like, uneducated and just plain… weird. If we want to embrace non-UBF people, we have to speak like them.

  3. Ben Westerhoff

    One ism I always get a kick out of is “pioneering.” “I’m going to pioneer the Bible Belt!” “I’m going to pioneer Texas!” “I’m going to pioneer Wittenberg!” In places where the gospel has gone before a person who wants to “pioneer,” the phrases “church plant” or “launching a new ministry” might be more appropriate. All of those places, by the way, need the gospel as much any other place. I need it too. Everyday.

  4. Joe, i think this article is indeed the right answer to Paul’s comment. It is provoking but i agree that there must be more awareness of how we use language in UBF. I have to be more aware of it.
    Another UBFism i came across (well, there are so many) is “power station” for world mission. It becomes a little bit more awkward when people try to translate this term into German. Yet another thing that bothered me is the almost inflational use of the word “historical”. So many conferences have been termed “historical”. Similarly to the use of the term “from God’s point of view”, it is difficult to know in advance whether something is truly historical or not. and it takes a while until history tells us…

    Ben, the word “pioneering” has unfortunately a very negative connotation for some people i know. This word has also been used in an unfortunate way when the reason of “pioneering” was in fact a church split. In my opinion, it would be healthier and more honest to say that there has been church division rather than saying that family XYZ went out to pioneer.

    • Ben Westerhoff


      I see where you’re coming from. The situation may be, “I can’t do ministry with this person anymore. I’m going to ‘pioneer’ a new one.” Being upfront about the split is healthier, I agree. That’s church history for you.

    • Hi Henoch. =)
      Somehow I agree but also disagree with you.
      On December last year one of our two missionary families left to another town. My parents told me of course that they went ‘pioneering’ this place. But the statement displeased me very much because I knew there had been problems between the leader and this missionary. It wasn’t like there had been any conflicts or misunderstandings but the ‘teamwork’ just didn’t work out very well… At that time I thought it better to say honestly there had been a church division but on the other hand it sounds very… well, tough and offensive like putting the blame on somebody.It also awakes the impression that this church split has been to 99,9% wrong. I think it might be better to find an expression which includes both: that there has been a church division as well as the foundation of a new UBF ministry…
      Another UBF-ism I don’t really like is the very very common word ‘missionary’. This word has become fully natural to us. But when I told some of my classmates my parents came to Germany as ‘missionaries’ they were stunned. I think when young Germans hear the word ‘missionary’ they instantly think of the missionaries of the 17th and 18th century. And they don’t always have a highly positive image of them I suppose…
      Anyway I agree this is a very important theme to discuss – not only in big but also in small UBF ministries. Great article!

  5. Tuf Francis

    While I agree with all points made – and trust me, no one hates jargon and cliches more than I do – I think it is safe to say all cultures have a jargon.

    For instance when I got to grad school, I had to get used to words like theoretical framework, epistemology, unpacking concepts, seeing things through different lenses, paradigms, and so on. My advisor had to tell me about the culture I was entering and how I needed to learn the terms and speech patterns. Entering any established culture would be the same.

    I liken our terms to this. While I think we need to drop many of them, it is not abnormal for each culture to contain very specific terms that only members understand. For some reason, however, ours just comes off a little weirder than others, not sure why…

  6. Tunde Adebola

    Last week, my wife told me I spoke Korean-English a lot these days…hehe Though I was taken aback by her rebuke, I realize she is correct.
    Some of the afore-mentioned UBFisms in the article are terms that are very simple to use and remember (no wonder they came to stay:)), but at times they sound simplistic and may even be wierd in the context of a new/different culture.
    Terms such as “pioneering” and “marriage problem” can be replaced with more appropriate terms like “Church planting” and “In need of a spouse” respectively (if anyone has better terms, please suggest). To say someone has a mariage problem sounds to me like the marriage is about to break up, when in fact there is no marriage at all.
    In my opinion, our Korean Msn have done exceptionally well as missionaries speaking English as a second languages. But sometimes they do have a real challenge communicating ideas clearly and we ought to respectfully help them speak better and clearer.
    Native Americans generally articulate ideas clearly and well (with as few words as possible…I think this is very good and I’m still learning to adjut my language accordingly)
    As I said earlier, I realize form my wive’s rebuke that we who have spoken English all our lives are the ones who should influence those who speak English as a second langusge and not the other way around.

  7. Hi guys! I will talk on English-Russian-Korean-UBF :).
    I like the article. Thank you, Joe! In Ukraine and Russia we have the same problems. And not just some specifically words or phrases, but even a manner of talking. I am used to hearing from students that I have an abnormal accent, and even that I’m foreigner :). Especially we have very unequal voice tone while studying the Bible or talking about something spiritual:), almost every person – the same.
    David, Kharkiv UBF, Ukraine.

  8. Brian Karcher
    Brian Karcher

    Welcome David and Tunde! I am very glad to see your comments. I hope you will continue to comment and contribute. Too often our ministry is characterized as just a Korean movement. God is much bigger than that. There is much to learn from cultures around the world.

  9. Thanks, Brian!
    I hope so. I’m happy to learn from you and to share with you our faith as well as our challenges.

  10. Tunde Adebola

    Thanks Brian. I’m very happy to meet you. And you too David!

  11. Yup. Good to meet you, Tunde!

  12. Hello! Whoa great post!
    After reading this I thought of two passages.
    1 Corinthians 10:23 and Romans 14:13-21.
    This post has shown me that my speech can make newcomers (christian or non-christian) feel uncomfortable and misplaced. Whenever I visit a church or fellowship I want to feel welcomed. If getting rid of UBFisms and idioms will make UBF into a welcoming place for newcomers, I’m all for it! In everything we must act in love!

    *Great job with the website! I still consider myself new to UBF (I’ve been attending for about 2 years), but this will be a great tool to unite the body of Christ!

  13. Abraham

    Hi Joe! I enjoyed your article. I am going to “pioneer” a chapter from tomorrow. When I thought about my habitual UBFisms like “pioneering” I laughed especially thinking about my bible students (or “sheep”) who have no idea what “pioneering” means.
    In India, communicating the gospel is even more challenging because almost each state has a different language and culture.
    I wish to grow as a bilingual speaker and learn how to present the gospel in Indian context.
    Thanks again.

  14. Hello, Abraham. Good to meet you. I’m David, “pioneer” :) in Ukraine. Glad to hear that you are going to open a new chapter to do God’s work in India. Pray for you!

  15. Thanks David. I am glad to meet you too.

  16. Joshua Yoon

    Thanks Joe for pointing out the errors made by Korean missionaries. In many chapters missionaries are in leadership position to influence natives in both positive and negative ways. In recent years, our chapter made considerable efforts to make the terms and languages we use more friendly and less strange to Canadians. For example, we don’t call people by titles. I avoid using the term fishing. Instead I say, “I went to the campus to talk to students about Jesus.” The problem was that some of our new students who did not hear UBF terms in our chapter were puzzled when they heard them for the first time at the joint conference with other chapters, especially spoken by other chapter native leaders. It is sad that some native leaders have been so much influenced by Korean missionaries that they use certain strange terms more than I do, for example they say singspiration time instead of saying praise or worship time used by most North Americans. As Joe pointed out we should overcome laziness and need more critical thinking. We should not be self-centered but be more considerate of the audience and new comers. We may feel disconnected from UBF at first if we use the languages commonly used by most North American churches but gradually we will feel more and more comfortable using North American languages. We need to remember our Lord Jesus did not use heavenly languages but earthly terms and parables people understood without much difficulties.

  17. Joe Schafer

    Hi Joshua, Thank you for your helpful comments and sharing your experiences in Waterloo. I just want to clarify something so that no one misunderstands. I am *not* trying to point out errors made by Korean missionaries; my article was directed primarily at native North Americans who have accepted and perpetuated the use of nonstandard terminology that confuses people and makes it difficult for us to communicate with the culture. I believe that North Americans in UBF need to take the lead in bridging the gap between our church and the culture, because we are the ones who instinctively understand the culture.

    Lesslie Newbiggin, the father of modern missiology, was a British man who lived much of his life as a missionary in India. He experienced firsthand the difficulties of missionaries who are trying to preach the gospel in a culture different from their own. He wrote about the interesting dance that takes place when the missionaries’ converts grow up and begin to notice that some habits they picked up from the missionaries are not mandated by the Bible but reflect the idiosyncracies of the missionaries’ own culture. Newbiggin suggested that when this occurs, it is not the task of the missionaries to change and adapt their ways to the mission field. Rather, it is the task of the *converts* to go beyond what they learned from the missionaries, to look at the Bible with fresh eyes, and to contextualize the gospel in their own native culture. And it is the task of the missionaries to allow the converts to do this without making them feel disloyal and disobedient.

    The challenge that we face right now in UBF is how to change in appropriate ways without causing unnecessary conflict and disunity among our members. Some people don’t like to talk about cultural issues because they make us uncomfortable, because talking about it seems to pit Koreans and Americans against each other. I do not want to stir up disunity. Rather, I want to foster the kind of unity among us that is realistic about the differences between cultures yet allows us to be one because we are all in Christ.

    We shouldn’t gloss over the fact that Korean and North American cultures are different. These differences are obvious and strongly felt by all of us whether we talk about them or not. Americans like myself who have remained in UBF for a long time (in my case, nearly 30 years) have done so by adapting ourselves to the cultural expectations and mannerisms of the missionaries. We allowed ourselves to become Koreanized, even as the missionaries were struggling to adapt to American ways. Now that this ministry has grown and matured, it is time for us to discuss this among ourselves and make some conscious, intentional decisions about which practices we will keep and which ones we will change. This is taking place in UBF chapters at the local level, some more than others, and this creates some tension and awkwardness when our chapters get together at conferences. By talking about these things on UBFriends and elsewhere, I hope that our members can learn from one another and gain new perspectives so that we can retain our unity while necessary changes occur.

  18. Joshua Yoon

    Thanks Joe for your deep concern for unity and for your understanding of the roles of each group. While talking with Andy last night I shared my perspective of God’s work in North America. God used Korean missionaries in laying the foundation and putting some structure for the gospel ministry. It is time for native leaders including second (third) gens to complete the house by making it beautiful and fit for the culture. Of course, missionaries do not have to fade out. We need collaboration with each other. I hope North American leaders will take more leadership in bringing necessary change to the evolving ministry of the gospel of Jesus. I also hope missionaries will be more aware of the impact of the culture we bring on the ministry.

  19. Interesting article here, I just came across it because of Sua’s comments…Just the other day, I was telling a member of my current church about how I used to write testimonies when I was at UBF and they said, “What is a testimony? You mean you wrote about how you came to Jesus?” Then I remembered that even the word “testimony” has a much different meaning outside of UBF! Or how about this one, I remember people always saying “Anyway” after every couple sentences too :) Has there been any talk about “the UBF  accent” on this site? Because that is the think that my parents were always worried about when they first came to visit UBF, they were like “Why do the people here talk to us like we are babies, or stupid?” I said no mom that is just the way they talk, thats all…and funny enough, after years of being in UBF I think I developed an accent too…I had to consciously NOT talk like that after a while.

  20. Oops meant to say, “that is the thing that my parents” in my last post:)