A Holy Nation is a Blessing to Others

Editor’s note: Dr. John H. Armstrong is the founder and president of the ministry known as ACT3, an acronym for Advancing the Christian Tradition in the Third Millennium. He served as a church pastor for more than twenty years and is now an adjunct professor of evangelism at Wheaton College Graduate School. He has authored a dozen books and hundreds of articles for Christian periodicals and websites. His most recent title, Your Church is Too Small (2010, Zondervan), is a passionate plea for unity in Christian mission. John publishes a new article each day on his daily blog and a longer, more scholarly article each week on the ACT3 website. It is a privilege for us to post this article which he wrote specifically for UBFriends.org.

My experience with UBF has been one of the great joys of my life over the last five-plus years. It began with a student in a graduate class of mine at Wheaton Graduate School. The student’s father has been a UBF leader for many years. This led to growing friendships with UBF leaders and invitations to get to know even more leaders and to speak for UBF. This created even more new friendships.

I wrote openly about these friendships with leaders and members of UBF and received quite a bit of negative feedback from unknown respondents around the world. I listened and prayed that I would be “shrewd as a snake and harmless as a dove” (Matt. 10:16, NLT). I answered each criticism and kept asking my own questions to my friends inside UBF. In the process I came to love these wonderful people, their vision and the mission that is called UBF. I believe the love that we have shared has been mutual and very beneficial. I know my life is better for knowing these dear brothers and sisters that I have met in UBF. I am open about these friendships regardless of what others might think or say. Loyalty is a high priority for me thus I am very determined to be a loyal friend to UBF.

At the same time I have been allowed to see UBF, as the saying goes, “warts and all.” Love is not blind. But true love “never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance” (1 Cor. 13:7, NLT). I have learned to interact with my UBF friends and thereby offer counsel wrapped in faith, hope and love. I have felt the same given to me in return.

I am delighted that members, and former-members, have found ways to address past hurts and to grow to new maturity in Christ. Not everything done in the past will be fully corrected in this life but Christians can work for the new day and “never give up.”

I discovered early on that one of UBF’s favorite portions of Scripture is 1 Peter 2:4–10. I have heard it prayed and quoted as much as any text within this movement. I love this text and still recall how preaching through it almost 25 years ago changed me and my congregation profoundly. We made it our goal to be the people of God in mission and to send our best into every place possible for the kingdom of God. This is how I was eventually launched into a worldwide ministry through a church that saw my gifts and gave me their blessing to use them as widely as possible.

Peter makes the point in this text that community is vitally important to Christians. UBF seems to have discovered this point very early in its history. In an individualistic culture, like that of North America, this comes as a breath of fresh air to young believers whose family life has been broken and who long for friendship, belonging and deep bonds of filial love. UBF, in my estimation has come to many such young adults as a drink of cool water on a hot and muggy day. One reason this has happened is because this very text has been so central to its mission. This, I believe, is where the Korean background of UBF contributes so deeply to the North American scene where so many families are in crisis.

Though each of us is individually converted to faith in Christ, and born of God to new life (cf. 1 Peter 1:23; 2:2), none of us is ever to remain in isolation. God has saved us for community. God’s design is to build us together “as living stones” in his “spiritual temple” (1 Peter 2:5). Whereas God inhabited a building, on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, under the Old Covenant he now resides in and among his people as a community. Think of it this way—the Triune God comes to lives in each of us! But he lives in us in order to live among US, to live in our midst, to actively share his life in our community of faith. If this were not so then why is there all the concern that we find in the New Testament letters about our oneness, about our unity and about our peace in personal relationships?

God promised to rebuild his temple (cf. Ezekiel 40–48). I believe this temple has been rebuilt through God’s dwelling among us, his New Covenant people (cf. John 1:14). We, i.e. our congregation whether large or small, constitute God’s holy temple in this age. When we join together in worship (from liturgy in the Greek, which literally refers to “the work of the people”) and minister to one another and the world we function according to God’s plan. When we function as we should we become God’s missional people, a community engaged in manifesting Christ to this age by the Holy Spirit. The New Testament refers to this as a “great mystery,” reminding us that this is a work of God.

This is why the church is (1 Peter 2:9) what Israel was, “a chosen people” (cf. Deut. 7:6), “royal priests,” “a holy nation” (cf. Exodus 19:6) and “God’s very own possession” (cf. Exodus 19:5). UBF is right to make this text so important. I love it when I hear this text recited, prayed and used so powerfully.

But with this emphasis comes a very real danger. Israel easily forgot its own calling. In some ways this is her story, forgetting who she was and what she was to be before her neighbors. She was called to proclaim God’s grace and glory to the nations but found ways to keep this truth to herself. She focused upon how she was so different from surrounding nations and prided herself in finding out the differences. She grew complacent in her distinctiveness and thus forgot her true purpose. She saw her strengths, as I put it, and lost sight of her weakness. She forgot “to show others the goodness of God” (1 Peter 2:9) and created her own forms and phrases, marks of what made her so different from those around her, and then grew comfortable that she was following God’s purpose for her in the covenant given to Abraham was to make him “a blessing to others” (Gen. 12:2).

The “holy nation” is to be a blessing to others. We are not to become a cul-de-sac where we talk to one another, learn from each other and stay close to each other without the input of the stranger and those who are part of God’s family from many corners of his kingdom. We must continue to humble ourselves before God and be reminded that we too can fall and fail. We must seek the mighty hand and heart of God for his renewing grace for each year, each month, even each day. A movement like UBF could well be a blessing to the nations for decades to come. Or it might well turn inward and promote its own distinctive insights over the good news of God’s grace for all, believing all the time that it was doing precisely what the Lord required.

If I have learned anything in six-plus decades of life and ministry, in many corners of the earth, I have learned that God desires us to never isolate ourselves from his people in order to faithfully follow him. He wants us to take what he has given to us, his love for our neighbors, to both our non-Christian neighbors and our neighbors who are brothers and sisters throughout the world. This begins in our own family, in our own community and in our own city. Who do you know and love that is really very different from you? Who do you associate with who stretches you beyond your comfort zone? Who do you share the vision of Christ’s kingdom with that is not exactly like you in the small things that we are all prone to turn into the big things because they are “our” unique contributions? UBF has a great future if it loves in this way. It has a limited future if it closes its borders to the whole people of God and promotes certain distinctive understandings of truth over the one who is Truth!


  1. Joshua Yoon

    Thanks, Dr. Armstrong, for your insightful and prayerful blessing on and advice for UBF ministry as UBFriends website launched. I enjoyed your book “Your church is too small.” As he pointed out, we are at a crossroad. It is time for us to less promote our own distinctive insights but to turn our eyes to God’s larger purpose and will for this world and the Church. We need faith to cherish our strength and humility to acknowledge and admit our limit, and courage to take steps for changes. I hope UBF ministry will be a blessing to many nations as a member of the Church and Body of Christ as Dr. Armstrong wishes.

  2. Joe Schafer

    John, I want to thank you again for your friendship to UBF and to me personally. Over the last several years, and especially the last year, I have been reflecting a lot on our UBF community and what we need to effectively complete the work that God has called us to do.

    I think your observations about UBF are spot-on. We have a distinctive history, culture and mission which makes us different from North American churches. We feel those differences at a very deep level; they have become part of our collective psyche, and without realizing it we emphasize those differences every time we meet together. (One example of this: the prayers we offer at our meetings and worship services focus very heavily on what God is doing in UBF.) But in the bigger picture, we are not so different. Every church and ministry has a unique story to tell. We need to tell our story to other parts of the Body of Christ, and we need to listen to their stories in return.

    We are approaching the 50th anniversary of UBF. God has done great things among us. We have enormous potential as reflected in the lives of members who display a very high level of personal dedication to the ministry and to the cause of Christ. God is still working among us and we are thankful for it.

    But we also need a reality check, because in many respects our ministry is not doing as well as we should. The reports that we post about our own activities are overwhelmingly positive, because we have trained ourselves to speak about ourselves in very positive, glowing (almost triumphalistic) terms. We ought to consider the very real possibility that our ministry could fail. The landscape of Christian history is littered with the remains of churches and communities that have fallen apart or made themselves irrelevant for the very reasons that you mentioned. If we fail to catch the fresh winds of the Spirit in this new generation, and if we fail to connect ourselves to the larger Body of Christ in meaningful ways, then the prognosis is not good. But if we humble ourselves to be obedient to the Spirit, to both serve and learn from other parts of the Body, then I have no doubt that God will bless and use UBF in exciting ways for many years to come.

  3. Tunde Adebola

    Thank you very much John for reminding us of what it means to be a blessing. The task ahead is more than what one church ministry can acomplish alone. So, I’m thankful God called us along with other christian groups all around the world to be real blessings to a hurting world.
    In UBF, we pride ourselves as a world mission church and our members serve in many different capacities across the globe. As an example, God used our ministry and has continued to do so to reach people in many disfferent part of the world by preaching the gospel, translating scripture into native languages, building a mission hospital in East Africa etc.
    For the most part, we work together amongst ourselves well, but as you pointed out there is a need for us to humbly embrace those who don’t share our unique history.
    No doubt, this inclusive approach may cause us to rethink our ways of doing things and re-evaluate our methods humbly, particularly when we meet other Christians who stretch us beyound our comfort zone. This requires humility from both sides – humility to accept that our sisters and brothers from the other ministry may have unique gifts and better methods than we do. Humility to learn from them, accept blessings from them and offer our own materials and gifts for mutual edification and to advance the Kingdom of God.
    This is what Jesus desired when he prayed the night he was betrayed that God help his disciples live in unity and not only them, but those who will believe through thier preaching. If this is Jesus’ desire and prayer topic (that Christians irrespective of our denominations, theology and background learn to work together), we must obey and humbly seek God for creative ways to work in our ministries and on our campuses with other people who share our faith and convition about the King and His Kingdom.
    I am not sure how this will happen (and I pray it does happen), but I’m persuaded that this is the will of God. Jesus has other sheep that are not of this sheep pen and he wants to bring them also, because they too listen to his voice and there shall be one flock and one shepherd…
    And John, thank you for being friends with us in UBF, I hope we can find ways to work with your church ministry often. Thanks again!

  4. Thanks, John, for your positive encouragements of what God has done through us in ubf over the past half century, yet with some warnings of our “blind spots” and our “warts and all” (that are very good), so that only by the grace of God, we may remain relevant and contextualized without compromising “Sola Scriptura.”

    Could it be that perhaps our ubf ecclesiology has become more dominant than our Christology? Doesn’t every great church and Christian movement incline toward exalting her own ecclesiology, thus assuming the gospel? So, we perhpas inadvertently celebrate what God has done in our church, more than celebrating God Himself, through Christ and through the Holy Spirit. This, as you alluded to, could lead to us to “turn inward and promote its own insights,” thus becoming sectarian and “tribalized.” Sometimes, it seems like even a global church movement like ours could behave like a fish in a fishbowl that is unaware that there is a vast ocean out there.

    It seems that every church that God has used mightily through out history has to prayerfully guard against this seemingly inevitable sequence of events: It starts out as a (1) Movement, which then becomes a (2) Method, then a (3) Monument, then a (4) Museum. This surely happened even with the “ideal” church in Acts.

    As Joe mentioned, we tend to be “triumphalistic” in our reports, newsletter and blogs, which then tends to ignor or avoid discussing real problems and issues, especially the painful, tragic and embarassing ones. Surely, we need to get out of our “comfort zone,” so that we can newly experience a “death and resurrection.”

    It’s surely also so easy to desire and default to feel security, stability and strength by assuming our own “rightness” in serving Christ. But Richard Lovelace wrote: “The culture is put on as though it were armor against self-doubt, but it becomes a mental strait-jacket.”

    Thanks again, John, for our 1st official and very appropriate essay on UBFriends.org. Thanks Joe, Brian, Mary and others who have provided this platform for us to be friends with “warts and all.”

    • Augustine J. Sohn

      Hello Ben,

      I am not big on big words. In order to understand your writing, I need to understand your sentence about ecclesiology. Could you explain ecclesiology (I am not sure even spelling is right) in a simple term so that ordianary people can understand?


  5. One thing I suppose we should be wary of is turning younger brothers who come into our ministry into older brothers (funny how the reverse is almost never true). We don’t simply want the Father’s things, i.e., blessings on our ministry, we want the Father himself. Everything else is debatable.

  6. Christian Misurac

    Dr. Armstrong,
    thank-you for your article. I am so thankful for your relationship to our ministry. I believe it is edifying and pleasing to God. It reminds me of how I have been thinking about (and struggling to practice) my own relationship to UBF lately: like a marriage (maybe because I am a newly wed:). As a wife I am to respect and submit to my husband. It is also my job to help him develop into the man God created him to be. Holding to the metaphor, as a wife (member of UBF) to the church I think I should respect UBF in public no matter how weird things get (as long as they are not blaspheming the name of Jesus or something). But in private, within the context of our committed relationship, after much prayer, I should be free to share my concerns with leaders openly. In fact it is my responsibility to do so. I want to have an edifying relationship with UBF like a wife to a husband so we can grow together into the church and believers God created us to be.

  7. Hi Augustine,

    Ecclesiology comes from the Greek work “ecclesia,” (or ekklesia) which means “assembly,” and it refers to the Christian church. So if our ecclesiology is stronger than our Christology, it means that we emphasize what we do in church more than what Christ has done for us. Thus, what people are moved by or remember in church is what the church and people in church do, or has done, or will do, rather than by what Christ has done for us, and continues to do for us.

    Because we Christians are all still quite sinful after becoming Christians, we default horizontally (to the church) rather than vertically (to Christ). All of Paul’s 13 epistles are dealing with “sinful” Christians, which includes us. As John Calvin said or implied (I’m paraphrasing), “We Christians are all partial non-believers until Christ comes again.” So, unless we make a conscious concerted effort we will inadvertently exalt the church and assume Christ, or at the expense of Christ. I think all churches, to whatever degree, does this. I don’t know if we in UBF do this any more than other churches.

    I hope this makes sense.

  8. John,

    It was refreshing to read your article again almost a year later. Your warnings and questions are vital to consider:

    “Who do you know and love that is really very different from you? Who do you associate with who stretches you beyond your comfort zone? Who do you share the vision of Christ’s kingdom with that is not exactly like you in the small things that we are all prone to turn into the big things because they are “our” unique contributions?”