On the Ministry of Reconciliation

shatteredYesterday, a friend called my attention to an article titled, An Open Letter to the Church: How to Love the Cynics. The author, Addie Zierman, writes from the standpoint of those who have left their evangelical churches.

The article begins very abruptly:

You should know, first of all, that there’s no quick-fix here. There are not ten steps. There is no program that you can implement, no “Young Adult” class you can start.

This is not about your building or your music or your PowerPoint slides.

There is not a trendy foyer in the world with the power to bring us wandering back.

After all, there’s not much you can say to us that we haven’t already learned in some Sunday School classroom somewhere. We know the Bible stories. We heard them over and over, year after year until they became part of our blood, part of our bones.

Zierman explains that those people who left your chuch are not all the same. They left for many reasons and in many different circumstances of life:

We left quietly at age 14 when we joined the drama club, and it felt more like family than youth group ever did. We left in a huff at age 17, angry and rebellious, slamming the church door behind us. We left at 19 when we gave in to passion in some parked car somewhere – left after a dozen sermons and well-meaning Christian speakers told us that in surrendering our virginity, we had surrendered our worth. That we were broken beyond repair.

We stayed the course for a long time. We led the small groups, sang on the worship team, and you told us that we would change the world for Jesus. And then we went to Christian college, where people looked at us side-eyed and dared us to prove our faith. We turned inward, faded out, faded away.

We left after long hours praying for healing that never came. We left when the Christian Girls and the Mean Girls were the same girls. We disappeared into Depression. We walked out of a funeral service of someone too young, and we never stepped foot in a church again.

We left for a hundred different reasons, none less real or important than the other.

Each person who left UBF or any other church has his or her own reasons for leaving. Their testimonies are their own sacred property. Just as they cannot explain why I have stayed, I cannot explain why they have left. The stories must be told firsthand. Those stories should be received with reverent fear and should never, ever be dismissed. There is no guarantee that reconciliation will take place. But I can guarantee this: there will never be reconciliation without careful, patient and painful listening that draws the listener to a state of grief.

Zierman vividly describes what it is like to be an insider-turned-outsider:

So we sit, arms crossed at the edge of it, hypersensitive to your failures and your faults. We have spent the last several years honed in on our bullsh-t detectors, critical and cautious. We are constantly aware of the darkness: yours and ours. The whole wide world, broken and dying, hurling herself into the abyss.

We hear your bewildered conversations about how so many of us have left the church. You are head-scratching, writing books, trying to pinpoint the problem. You are feeling powerless to stop the mass exodus of a generation.

The article continues with some thought-provoking advice about how to approach the ex-member. Rather than spoiling it for you, I encourage you to read the full article here.

In the last few years, I have spent significant time talking to those who have left UBF. For reasons largely beyond my control, this website has become a place where current and ex-members talk to one another. Sometimes we do it pretty well. Sometimes we do it very poorly. Beautiful and ugly, it shall continue. We are all fumbling around, because of us has ever done this before.  But we want to do it better. I believe that we are in the process of doing it better.

If any current UBF members would like to join in the conversations with ex-members — either on this website or in private — I would like to suggest one thing that Zierman doesn’t mention.

Please don’t try to encourage them by talking about all the wonderful things that are now happening in your church. It will not encourage them. It’s as though you are suggesting that, now that they and those other bad apples have left, the problems have also gone away, and while you are inside reaping the benefits, they are left standing outside in the cold.

Imagine that you are attending a wedding reception. For whatever reason, an ugly fight breaks out that involves you or people close to you. Perhaps you get thrown out, or perhaps you decide that you have no choice but to leave. After you go, someone sends you a text message to say the party is going on merrily without you, and in fact has gotten better. How would that message make you feel?

Of course, Zierman’s whole article is built on the premise that the church reaches out to its ex-members. In the present climate, there are some who think that such outreach is unnecessary, that we ought to just forget about the ex-members and leave them behind because, after all, one day we will all be reconciled in heaven.

If you actually believe that, then please explain to me how it squares with Matthew 5:23-24 and Matthew 5:25-26. Seriously. I want to know.






  1. Joe, thanks for the link to the very relevant essay. The most poignant part that resonates best with me are her words, “Maybe we can face our darkness if you are honest about yours.”

    To be honest, to have honest conversations, to listen and accept what the other is saying, to be willing to admit failures beyond blanket statements, and to acknowledge specific struggles—this is the kind of dialogue that I think Addie is pointing towards. It is the kind of soul-to-soul connection that the broken ones who leave are yearning for. We are people. We may not be your coworkers any longer, but we are your brothers and sisters. We don’t want to live-and-let-live. We don’t want to be seen as past coworkers who are gone, but as family members who are hurt. We don’t want excuses, or apologies, we just want to be embraced, treated as your precious brothers and sisters whom you love. We are not in your ministry any more, but we want to be in your lives. But by and large, the steadily-marching “Onward Christian Soldiers” are plowing forwards, leaving us trampled underfoot, unwilling to look backwards at the ones who were just hit-and-run.

    • Joe Schafer

      Thanks, Joshua. You are my friend and brother, and I will never throw you under the bus.

      UBF has often been compared to an elite military unit, like the U.S. Marines. The Marines have a motto: We will leave no wounded soldier behind. In fact, every soldier in every branch of the U.S. military takes an oath to never leave a fallen comrade.


      As far as I know, there is no other nation whose military has this policy.

      This is a policy that befits a soldier of Christ.

    • This is awesome Joe! I cringe when I hear an oriental person talk about military paradigms. Why? Because I know that in many oriental armies, the leaders shoot and kill the weak in battle. Anyone who detracts or retreats is shot by the soldiers forming a line behind them. The thought is to keep the army moving forward.

      But that’s a concept that doesn’t exist in the USA army. “No soldier left behind” is one reason I am proud to be an American.

  2. namuehling

    I love the way she begins. It points to a fault in American churches. I’ll make the claim that most American churches (and, I’m sure churches in other countries) follow a business model. There is a bureaucratic hierarchy. There is a mission statement. There is a focus on external, tangible goals. These goals are examined in meetings that often resemble business meetings.

    Churches that follow this model can be further divided into two categories-business management and business marketing. Business management churches focus on managing people and changing their behavior. Business marketing churches focus on drawing people into their church. This is, of course, a broad generalization, but one that reveals cultural characteristics of American churches that we take for granted after long years of exposure.

    I think there is a growing dissatisfaction with both approaches that is reflected in this article. Marketing is no longer going to draw us into a church. We will no longer accept another sinner trying to change us. We want an honest relationship with God and with others, relationships where the chief characteristic is an unconditional love. Such relationships do not have an agenda.

    The problem with the two business approaches are that they get in the way of these types of healthy Christian relationships. They provide agendas. They overemphasize the work of people and deemphasize the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit.

    I’m left wondering what the best model for a church in our context would be, and how much of the old business models need to be simply discarded.

    • Joe Schafer

      Nick, your comments are so insightful. You and Sandy are in our hearts and in our prayers. Congratulations on being accepted to the PhD program. We hope to see you sometime soon.

    • namuehling

      I want to qualify one statement I made, “We will no longer accept another sinner trying to change us”

      What I meant was that we will no longer accept another sinner trying to change us outside of a healthy loving Christian relationship. I think I learned this lesson to a great extent through teaching high school students.

      In the beginning of my teaching career, I was having a great amount of difficulty and experiencing a great amount of frustration. I knew the material well. I understood good teaching practices to some extent. However, my students were simply not responding. And I was responding poorly. I yelled, even screamed, quite a bit. It was a miserable experience.

      I went to Tuf and Emily Francis for some advice, since they had quite a bit more experience than me. After explaining what was going on in the classroom, Emily asked me, “Do you love them?” I could honestly answer, “No-some of them I downright loathe!”

      The following year, I was assigned to a different school that did not have a great reputation. However, I was committed to simply loving my students. This seriously was the turning point in my career as a teacher. I had a wonderful year and students really responded well. I really found that my teaching would never be effective, even though I had all of the correct knowledge, unless I loved my students and they could see that love.

      My point is therefore, that teaching, encouraging, rebuking, and correcting are activities that are useful and effective only when built on a solid foundation of unconditional love and respect. I listened to Tuf and Emily because I loved them and respected their work as teachers, and also because I recognized what they said as true. My students listened to me only when they could see that I truly loved them.

      So what I really meant was that I would no longer accept an unloving manager/director/teacher.

      Thanks for the congratulations Joe! I’m a little anxious, but very excited. Hope to see you guys soon as well.

    • It’s so interesting Nick, that you tell that story in relation to this article. Because in essence, that was the same thing Tuf and I were trying to say for years to UBF, but no one was listening. Or respecting our view. Or understanding how much we had to offer as professionals who work in this kind of environment every day. People respond to love, to respect, to genuine care and concern, and that’s it. I can’t tell you how many angry inner-city girls I have silenced in my classrooms by responding to their disrespectful outburst with a simple, “You seem very angry right now.”

  3. This hits home to me: “There is no program that you can implement, no ‘Young Adult’ class you can start. This is not about your building or your music or your PowerPoint slides.”

    It’s not about making a checklist of spiritual abuse, or forming new committees, or punishing the abusers.

    What is “this” about? Frankly, it’s about proving that I’m not dead. Seriously, I did’t die when I left ubf. Nothing exceptionally bad happened to me, no tragedy, no illness, no punishing judgment. I am still alive. I love God. My faith is in Jesus Christ. I want to find and serve the ministry He has for me.

    One person told me they wished the people who left with me would have stayed and offered suggestions on what to do better. This is highly ironic because most of use feel we were driven away because we offered suggestions on what to do better and expressed our honest thoughts on the ministry.

    Some of my friends had been making small and large suggestions for improving the ministry for over a year. Finally those in leadership just couldn’t hear about any more suggestions and just wanted to get back to “God’s mission”.

    • Joe Schafer

      Yes, that is highly ironic. Perhaps someday we will laugh together about the many ironies we have experienced. Today I will cry because the Body of Christ is broken.

  4. Thank you Joe for an excellent article. Thank you to Joshua, Brian and Nick and everyone else who continue to share their heart and mind to this website. I cry with you Joe and acknowledge that God’s household, the body of Christ is broken, so long as our brothers and sisters have not received a sincere request for forgiveness for specific acts of spiritual abuse or misconduct.

    • Joe Schafer

      Fully agreed. The key word is “sincere.” Sincerity cannot be manufactured and it certainly can’t be driven by a political process. It will have to be driven by the Spirit of God.

    • Mark, you’re completely right with that. Emiliy is also right in noticing that “the same kinds of stories come out of people who grew up in evangelical churches”. It is true that spiritual abuse happens in many Evangelical churches to various degrees (books like “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse” have not been written with UBF or any extreme group in mind, this is a much broader phenomenon).

      But I think the problems mentioned in the article are not even caused by real spiritual abuse, but by problems inherent in the traditional Evangelical Christianity itself. These problems, many of which have also been discussed on this website, come on top of the even more serious particular problems of UBF style Christianity which includes personal shepherding, marriage by faith, spiritual order and many cult-like practices and behaviors that do not exist in ordinary Evangelical churches. Again, please read the 1976 open letter and other testimonies or the newspaper articles recently posted by Brian. You won’t find such things in ordinary Evangelical churches; they are something only known from extreme “shepherding/discipling” groups (such as the ICOC or the “Lauderdale Five” who have meanwhile renounced these teachings though). So in my view, UBF has to struggle with three problems: 1) The special UBF “heritage” which is a bundle of practices and teachings that is highly problematic as it is not in line with the Gospel and inevitably leads to spiritual abuse 2) the fundamental, general challenges of fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity addressed in that article, and 3) the problem of reconciliation of the hurt and division that has been done in the past, and the admittance of and repentance for past sins and wrongdoings.

      As you say, reconciliation and sincere apology is necessary. But if the old practices and teachings are not officially renounced and abolished, the same abuse will happen again. You don’t need to be a prophet to be able to predict this. What people need to recognize is that there is something deeply and fundamentally wrong with the UBF “system”, with many of its core practices and teachings. And we really need to discern these particular issues of shepherding/discipling from the other more general problems of many Evangelical churches.

      By the way, when I say the serious issues are in the system, not in the people, and if we deeply recognize that, this will facilitate reconciliation. In my view, Samuel Lee did some evil things not because he was an evil man, but because he too was a victim of the system he created, a system in which the leaders were only flattered, never controlled, never held accountable and in which they had virtually unlimited power over “their” sheep. “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” as the saying goes. This system that gave people such absolute power and which was not in line with elementary teachings of Jesus (like those in Mt 23) is the real problem that needs to be tackled. What makes people like Brian so furious is that instead of finally recognizing and admitting that, UBF endorsed and confirmed their bond to that system on their 50th anniversary. In my view, all attempts to reconcile won’t really solve the problem if the old leaven is not purged out with an “absolute attitude” (to use UBF jargon).

  5. Yes, I was so moved by this article. And I have been fascinated to hear these same kinds of stories come out of people who grew up in evangelical churches. Similar problems, similar kinds of abuse.

    But I do want to talk about the end. I think it is the best part and may be the key. Or at least maybe was the key but I am wondering now if the time for listening has past. Because at one point we were begging for someone (anyone) to listen, screaming for someone to listen, but now, now I just want to work through my own healing and move on.

    As a mother, wife, friend, human, I am keenly aware of how my actions are probably hurting those around me all the time. So I just do not understand an entire culture of people who cannot even fathom that their actions may have caused harm to others, even when others explicitly explain that to them.

    And yes, a culture that is supposed to be different.

    • Joe Schafer


    • Joe Schafer

      if and when reconciliation comes, it won’t be because you need it, but because they do

    • “…I am wondering now if the time for listening has past.”

      Emily, I would say that the time for listening to “shepherds” has indeed past, way past in fact. There’s no more orientation or understanding or “praise God’s” needed. The 50th Anniversary material speaks loud and clear. We know what the ubf mission is. We know what obedience looks like. We understand what loyalty and devotion look like.

      But the time for listening to “sheep”? That time has just begun. The time for listening to former members past and present is also just starting.

      And as I speak up (yes sometimes with messy dialog), what I seek from ubf members is in the end of the blog article mentioned above:

      “Remind us what Jesus looks like: arms open, eyes full of love. Help us see him there, sitting with us in the anger, waiting.”

      I want to see what Jesus looks like.

      That is what I’ve been seeking these past two years! And I found it in an American church. But what did I see and hear in ubf? I heard “go away” [but I won’t go away]. I heard “leave us alone” [but I love you and won’t leave you alone]. I heard “tell us what to change” [but activities and programs are not the problem]. Some of us heard “you’re a good-for-nothing sinner”, even as recently as last Friday [but how does this show us Jesus?]

      I wouldn’t be so harsh on ubf if they didn’t claim to have “the best ways” of making disciples. Anyone who claims to have a Christian mission or to be a Christian missionary must find a way to show others what Jesus looks like! And then maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t be so cynical :)

  6. Emily, I’m glad you expressed this confusion: “So I just do not understand an entire culture of people who cannot even fathom that their actions may have caused harm to others, even when others explicitly explain that to them.”

    Here is my insight from when I was a ubf director and “mr. ubf” going around the internet defending ubf profusely:

    I knew our actions in ubf caused harm to others, but I didn’t realize the following.

    I didn’t realize how deeply and profoundly hurtful our actions had been, and I didn’t want to find out. Former members told me about their pain, but I lived in denial that I was in a religious machine that was shredding people on a daily basis.

    I didn’t realize how often the pattern had cycled itself; the pattern of finding new students and shunning leaders who left. I thought all the problems were new problems, not realizing the same problems existed 50 years ago.

    I didn’t realize how many, many, many ubf members were united around the world in their feelings of fear and concern about the excessive control and manipulation that exists in the permanent shepherd/sheep relationships. I thought I was alone in my feelings, so I suppressed them.

    And most importantly, I didn’t know how to articulate the gospel of Jesus. My flawed understanding of the gospel lead me to turn a deaf ear to my friends who left, to look the other way when I saw actions that bothered my conscience, and to arrogantly hold fast to what I thought was the only and best expression of God’s mission.

    As mr. ubf, I needed to be knocked off my horse! And thankfully that happened.

  7. So getting back to the article’s topic of reconciliation.

    For the past year or so, I have been acting based on my personal plan of reconciliation. I came up with this plan after discovering the realizations above and also after being inspired by reading “Once An Arafat Man“. Tass Saada’s roadmap for peace inspired me to do my part in the ministry of reconciliation. Except for a few rants and raves here and there, this is what has been guiding my actions.

    1. Demonstrate how deep and profound the wounds of former and current members really are.

    2. Explain the pattern of work that has hindered the ministry of reconciliation.

    3. Communicate to ubf and ex-ubf people around the world that they are not alone.

    4. Articulate a deeper and more clear understanding of the magnificent, wondrous gospel of Jesus.

    I am sensing that these four actions will never be fully completed this side of Heaven, and yet I also sense that my role in this plan is over.

    I don’t know what new role I’ll now play, but I will certainly continue to do one thing: listen to ubf and ex-ubf people.

  8. I was recently thinking a lot about Job and his friends. Job says, at one point, that

    “A despairing man should have the devotion of his friends, even though he forsakes the fear of the Almighty. But my brothers are as undependable as intermittent streams…” (Job 6:14-15a)

    It sounds to me as though Job is saying a person’s friends should remain committed to him/her even if he/she stops fearing God, and even positively forsakes the fear of God. Such a person would be explicitly rejecting God and His ways, intentionally and openly defying God. We have been tempted to stop being devoted to other people even just because they’ve left our church/ministry. But even if they forsake the fear of the Almighty!!! Wow.

    I found myself asking whether this is really a “biblical” statement of something that’s true, or whether it’s only Job’s opinion. I believe this is in line with the kind of priority Jesus puts on love and relationships when He tells us (for example),

    “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” (Mt. 5:23,24)

    Jesus let Himself become guilty and completely offensive to God on the cross (He became sin and a curse for us) in order that His brothers and sisters could be reconciled to Him. Amazingly, in doing this God vindicated Him by raising Him from the dead.

    Our worship of God and our service to God may be meaningless if we don’t make reconciliation a major priority. I find this to be very intense, and I want to grow as a person who prioritizes in practice what God prioritizes, though it is too hard to accomplish on my own. I also pray for grace and discernment for those who need to be reconciled to find out how we can do this, especially in the cases where the hurt runs so deep that it seems naturally impossible. Have mercy, Lord Jesus.

  9. What a great discussion. Like Andy and all of you, I’m learning just how deep the hurt is in all of us, and how deep I must be willing to go with Jesus, to be loved by Him, love Him, and love as He loves. If you get a chance, read Addies article on the “mad season” –


  10. Thanks Joe, guys, gals!

    Wanting to be a “tough sh_t Dirty Harry,” it was hard, shameful, embarrassing, weak, vulnerable, impossible and unlike me to ever say that, “Yes, I was hurt by UBF (one or more people).”

    Every bone in my body screamed out, “I cannot and will not say I was hurt. I am a man. I believe in Jesus. I cannot show that I was hurt. I am just going to take it and show them.” Perhaps, others too egged me on to remain this way, or to make me feel shame for feeling, thinking, saying that I was hurt.

    But strangely, the moment I could say clearly and boldly and loudly and openly and transparently and continually that “Yes, I was hurt by UBF,” God began to touch my soul. Probably, it was because I cared.

    In some sense it is as though “God saved me through UBF. Then God saved me from UBF (even if I am still in UBF).” I never ever saw this coming. It is a mysterious, marvelous, magnificent and majestic grace. Truly.

  11. Joe Schafer

    Ben, it’s interesting that you say this. In my case, the theology and values that I was taught — for example, our local interpretation of Jesus’ command to deny yourself — made me believe that my emotions were irrelevant and that I should ignore them. For that reason and for many other reasons, over time I became more and more disconnected from my emotions until I no longer knew what I was feeling and why. Trying to identify how I feel and why has become for me a very important spiritual discipline. How can I be truly aware of how God is working in my life if I don’t even know what I feel? Identifying one’s emotions is not selfish. It is a normal part of being a human being who is fully alive, as God intends for us to be fully alive (Jn 10:10).