Individualism, Collectivism, and UBF

At a meeting of the Evangelical Missiological Society (EMS) back in 2008, one of the presentations that made an impression on me was given by Professor James Plueddemann of the Mission and Evangelism Department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He gave a fascinating talk on the difficulties in leadership that arise when gospel workers from different nations and cultures work together on the mission field. Cultures vary in so many ways, but one of the most important dimensions to consider is individualism versus collectivism.

In a nutshell, the difference is this: Individualists believe that a group exists for the benefit of individuals, whereas collectivists believe that individuals exist for the benefit of the group.

Notice that “group” appears in both of these statements. Individualists come together to form groups, just as collectivists do. But the interpersonal dynamics within a group of individualists is very different from what goes on within a group of collectivists. Individualists value free expression. Decisions are likely to be made by consensus or democratic vote, and dissenting opinions are not seen as threatening. In a group of collectivists, on the other hand, decisions are more likely to be made by a single leader or small group of leaders. Agreeing with leaders’ decisions for the sake of unity is seen as a virtue. Putting aside personal interests for the benefit of the group is praised. The bottom line is that individualists and collectivists have radically different notions about how a group should operate. And they have radically different notions about what constitutes good leadership and decision-making.

It is natural for the members of one culture to observe the practices of another and think, “Our way is better.” An individualist may look down on a group of collectivists, seeing their leaders as authoritarian and the followers as lemmings or mind-numbed robots. A collectivist may think that individualists are self-absorbed, undisciplined, arrogant, or rebellious. In our ignorance and pride, we tend to see cultural differences in terms if good versus bad, right versus wrong. But I think we need to resist this tendency, because no culture has a monopoly on Christian virtue. Neither individualism nor collectivism is inherently better. Both exist in the Bible and in the kingdom of God. A good example of collectivism appears in Deuteronomy chapter 3, where the Lord commanded the able-bodied men of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh to cross the Jordan River and fight alongside the other tribes of Israel, even though God had already given them their land. A teaching that upholds the value of the individual appears in Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep in Luke chapter 15, where the shepherd leaves ninety-nine animals in the open field to chase after one who wandered away.

One of the most individualistic cultures on earth is found in the United States. The seeds of America’s individualism are evident in the writings of our founding fathers, which emphasize the sacred nature of personal liberty. And one of the most collectivist cultures in the world is found in South Korea. That is not surprising, given the country’s demographic composition (monocultural) and its religious, political and military history. In our UBF ministry in the United States, God has brought together these polar opposites to build a new community to advance his kingdom. The same could be said of UBF in Canada, the UK, Western Europe, and Australia.

Differences between people with collectivistic and individualistic mindsets have led to misunderstandings and conflicts within UBF, and also between our ministry and other parts of the Body of Christ. In the early 1980’s, when I first started to attend UBF fellowship and leaders’ meetings, I was struck by the apparently high level of conformity. As people shared their testimonies on Friday night, they sounded eerily similar. They repeated many of the same points and even used the same words and expressions that appeared in the published manuscript of the Sunday message. The Korean missionaries seemed to have a high degree of tolerance, even a fondness, for uniformity. As an American, I was perturbed by this, thinking it was unholy and dangerous. When I began to write and share my own testimonies, I deliberately tried to make mine sound different from the rest, just for the sake of being different. I was determined to always assert my individuality. For the record, no one ever pressured me to write my testimony in any particular way. UBF members really did accept me as I was. But I’m sure that some Koreans saw my American tendencies toward individualism as a weakness, just as I saw their tendencies toward collectivism as a weakness.

Isn’t it funny how God called people from such diametrically opposed cultures and united them for the sake of the gospel? In high school chemistry class, my friends used to wonder what would happen if we mixed francium with fluorine to create “francium fluoride.” Those two elements lie at opposite corners of the periodic table, and the exothermic reaction that would result if they were brought together would be explosive. UBF seems to be one of God’s most explosive experiments. What an overwhelming challenge it has been for Korean missionaries to understand and disciple individualistic Americans. And what a challenge it has been for Americans to accept and respect collectivistic Koreans. There have been so many mistakes and misunderstandings on all sides. The clash between the collectivist Korean and individualistic American cultures has surely been an obstacle to ministry growth. Many Americans who came in those early years, and even some who came more recently, found the cultural differences so uncomfortable that they could not remain in the ministry. But for myself and others, the discomfort and disorientation that I experienced was actually helpful; it opened my spiritual eyes to see beyond my American-ness and accept the universal message of the gospel.

In retrospect, many of the cultural conflicts within UBF over the years might have been avoided. But we cannot remake the past. As President George W. Bush once said, “Hindsight is not wisdom. And second-guessing is not a strategy.” We need to move forward. But we also need to learn from the past if we are to grow, both as individuals and as an organization. I believe that learning about and discussing these cultural differences in a non-judgmental way is going to be crucial to the future of UBF as our ministry becomes more international and multicultural. Management styles and practices that worked in Korea will not necessarily be effective in other contexts. American styles and practices may also not generalize well to non-Western settings.

Here is North America, the next generation of UBF leaders will be American. They must help us to do a better job of discipling Americans. But they should not simply try to Americanize the ministry, because as the gospel embraces every culture, it also challenges every culture. As Jesus Christ welcomes people of every nation, he continually challenges all of us to stretch ourselves beyond what is comfortable.


  1. Thanks, Joe, for the excellent contrast of collectivism, exemplified by Korean culture, and individualism, exemplified by American (and Western) culture, with the important statement that neither culture is better or worse, since culture is neutral.

    Perhaps, in many of Paul’s 13 epistles, he alluded to the Jews inclining toward collectivism (and legalism), while the Gentiles tending toward individualism (and liberalism). The senior collectivist Jews tried to enforce community through conformity by circumcision and the Law, while the junior individualistic Gentiles likely insisted on their freedom of expression in community. Fortunately, they had Paul as their advocate.

    As you aptly said, surely the wise (and humorous) God brought the 2 humanly incompatible cultures of Koreans and Americans to love each others’ (inwardly infuriating and annoyingly idioyyncratic) differences in UBF USA! :-)

    Practically, what can we do? I think that all differences need to be addressed prayerfully and gradually, rather than buried. There needs to be a “death and resurrection” or sorts, not a vague hope of things just gradually improving (which in reality I don’t believe happens). Like a good marriage, both spouses need to be able to speak what’s truly on their heart and mind in a gentle, wise, understanding, and respectful way so as to be able to articulate what’s truly bothering us. Otherwise, that marriage will go south. Likewise, in a church, we should pray for inceasing openness and trasparency, as exemplified by the Trinity, who as I’d like to say are “BFF.” And so can we, despite our differences in our culture, only by the grace of God.

    Thanks again for a great and timely post!

  2. Maria Peace

    Joe, thank you for this insightful article. As an American Missionary in UBF it has not been easy to co-work. We face so many culture differences, like Ukrainian culture, American culture and Korean culture and my girls are in a Turkish culture. Thank God that the gospel is beyond cultures. I was moved by our Bible Study on Mark 2 during the recent Midwest Conference about the four friends who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus. Because they were four of them it was easier to carry their friend and when they faced difficulties they were able to overcome it and complete their task of helping their friend. The four had a mutual concern and love for their friend so they were able to co-work. If they criticized one another for their differences, I think they would have left their friend a long way off already. For the sake of the gospel and for the love of God’s flock we can overcome our cultural differences. Because of the cultural differences, John and I face in the mission field, we could struggle more to come to Jesus. There was one time we were ready to call it quits but other friends in Jesus really helped us. We felt we were the ones being carried to Jesus. Though conflicts are hard and difficult and painful, it helps us to come to the cross of Jesus.

  3. OK, no culture is better than another, and the gospel transcends culture, but surely using the predominant native cultural norms to contextualize the gospel and minister to the people we’re trying to reach is more effective than using a foreign or non-native culture, n’est-ce pas?

    • Joe Schafer

      Yup. But the main point of Jim Plueddemann’s talk was more subtle. In the present day, missionaries are flowing from everywhere to everywhere, and multicultural mission teams and mission fields are becoming common. The important thing is for us to recognize the different expectations placed on leadership by different cultures, to articulate expectations and agree upon them after prayerful dialogue.

    • Joe, I think you’re right. Expectations are a key issue. If assumed high expectations are placed on someone who doesn’t want them, that person may just end up leaving without saying good bye. The expectations, as you say, need to be recognized, articulated and understood. Even then, everyone may not agree, but at least there won’t be deceit in the assumption of expectations.

    • Mark Mederich


  4. Maria Peace

    But the problem in UBF is that there is no open communication. When we tried to talk in a group, we were considered young missionaries who should learn from the elder missionaries who have been in the field longer than we have. Meaning shut up and put up. We have been in UBF for almost 30 years and in the mission field for 7 years but we are always considered as young missionaries. Because of the hierarchy system it is hard to talk as friends and lay out our expectations amongst each other. I love our Korean missionaries. But unless UBF let go of this hierarchy system we can never see eye to eye. As Jim P. said our missions are becoming more and more multicultural. This means we need a more open communication to become a vibrant and growing body of Christ.

  5. But couldn’t we think here what is good in collectivism and what is good in individualism. Or what is dangerous or weakness of one and other? Let me express few thoughts.In UBF we were used to do everything together and tried to live the really common life and maintain really common spirit – one thoughts, one hope, one vision so on. We tried to spend together as much time as it possible and even a bit more. We were able to avoid many unnecessary controversies. At the end we were able to establish close community and to develop some activities and reach some goals. In my understanding – this is our collectivism or the result of our collectivism. But isn’t it what church should be? And wasn’t it the Jesus’ method of disciple making? (Mk. 3:14)
    On the other hand, the people are different, they have different life issues and stories. In this system the person which is different, or should act different couldn’t feel comfortable. Any time when I had have to do something else while church had some activity I felt uncomfortable. And inspite of that our ministry is the different ages, each of us should be engaged in student mission. There is no legal alternative for the persons who don’t want be engaged in it.
    Other issue is the spiritual growth. As M. Maria mentioned above – they felt always to be considered as younger missionaries. And we also are considered as disciples. Disciple always should listen and learn. Is it right? What have I learned for decades being in UBF while I still could not have my opinion, or express it freely? In such atmosphere it is not easy to have the widest sight of view and have a field for creative ideas.
    Everything above – are just common thoughts, while I do not address them to anyone from UBF in particular.

  6. forestsfailyou

    At dinner the other night I blew a missionary’s mind when I mentioned that flag burning cannot be made illegal because it’s protected under freedom of speech (and is held up by the US supreme court). He said it is illegal to speak badly about the south Korean president.