As a freshman at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I was often the target of an aggressive proselytizer. A couple times a week, a Korean man would approach me with a broad smile and invite me to study the Bible. I had no idea that he was among hundreds of Korean missionaries spanned across college campuses trying to win the country for Christ. I didn’t know that the headquarters for University Bible Fellowship (UBF)—Korea’s second largest missionary sending agency—was just a few miles away.

I did know that UBF was seen as intense and cult-like. This was significant because I was part of a similar campus group: The Local Church, where I had grown up. Like UBF, The Local Church was an Asian Christian movement that had been evangelizing in America for decades. We also invited strangers to study the Bible—and we were also accused of being a cult. At UIC, we were in competition.

My parents had come to faith in The Local Church in the 1970s. But my experience of the church differed significantly from theirs. The structure that they had embraced began feeling intense and heavy-handed during that freshman year, and I grew uncomfortable with bold overtures like inviting strangers to Bible studies. Other members of my campus group struggled to embrace the culture of The Local Church, a culture heavily flavored by its Asian heritage. By the time I left college, I had also left The Local Church, the place where my faith had been nurtured in its early years.

Like me, Rebecca Kim grew up in the embrace and shadow of Asian Christianity in America. In her new study, The Spirit Moves West: Korean Missionaries in America, Kim, a Pepperdine University sociologist, describes the initial wave of UBF missionaries. Because that wave included her parents, Kim had both unique access to the group and a deeper understanding of the challenges of doing missions in America.

A ‘Soldier Spirit’

Even in Korea, UBF is seen as unique, though it is a mainstream evangelical group. Kim says repeatedly that its members “are hyper-Korean evangelicals—Korean evangelicals on steroids. They are more theologically conservative, intensively devotional, enthusiastic about evangelism, and more hierarchically organized than most of all the other already conservative, devoted, and hierarchically organized Korean evangelicals.”

This devotion has inspired thousands of missionaries—especially those who were formed by a militarized culture that feared war with North Korea. Without any financial support, they sacrificed a great deal in order to evangelize on American and other Western college campuses. Kim interviews doctors and other professionals who gave up careers in Korea to become janitors in America, all in the hopes of finding converts who could lead America back to Jesus.

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UBF maintains high demands for its missionaries. They hold full-time jobs rather than receive support, and missionaries use their off hours, holidays, and vacations to evangelize on college campuses. Their training is military-like, requiring a “soldier spirit.” Missionaries described training as “boot camp,” complete with jogging and pushups, but also intensive Bible study and evangelism. Early missionaries had to report in public meetings the number of students they invited to study the Bible, how many accepted, and how many students were currently studying the Bible with them. Missionaries who had the most “sheep” were raised to leadership positions.

Members also gave up comforts available to other Korean missionaries in order to evangelize cross-culturally. Unlike most Korean missionaries in America, UBF will not evangelize fellow Koreans, even shunning them. They want to make disciples of America’s “future leaders,” in order to change the world by evangelizing its leadership. So UBF pursues white Americans. They work hard to make their services friendly to Americans by speaking only English and never serving Korean food. UBF’s Korean leader was known to eat hamburgers every day.

Despite massive sacrifices and intense efforts, Kim laments that UBF has not been incredibly successful. After more than four decades of ministry, UBF today has 105 chapters on U.S. campuses. UBF’s largest Sunday services are near UBF world headquarters in Chicago, averaging 380 attendees in 2009. The Los Angeles chapter followed up with an average attendance of 142. Compared to larger campus organizations like Cru or InterVarsity, UBF’s numbers may seem small. But their powerful drive for success may color their sense of accomplishment in what is already a difficult mission field.

Kim’s analysis is most interesting when she considers how UBF is adapting after decades of missionary work. As Kim explains it, the organization follows the pattern of a sect’s second generation. “The sect starts operating more like a church where members are born into the organization, instead of joining as a result of a pronounced religious experience or conversion.… As the less fervent second generation succeeds the first generation of sect pioneers, it becomes more difficult for the organization to remain isolated, and compromise with the ethics of the larger church becomes inevitable.”

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As a member of the second generation growing up in The Local Church, these observations hit home. As a young adult, I felt these tensions. Over the last 20 years, now as an outsider, I have watched this process. For UBF, this shift has left the organization without a niche, as it becomes a Korean version of American evangelicalism. Kim writes, “White Americans are not going to join a church full of Korean immigrants that otherwise tries to mimic white evangelical churches.”

Kim tries to place this study within the larger paradigm of “global South” churches sending missionaries to the decadent West in North America and Europe. She presents a theory and coins the term “American global Christianity” to describe how ambitious missionary efforts like UBF will inevitably Americanize under U.S. cultural pressure. She suggests that fiery intensity inevitably cools in the frigid landscape of Western materialism—no matter whether it comes from Rwandan Anglicans, Brazilian Pentecostals, or Korean and Chinese sects.

But perhaps the challenges facing UBF now and in the coming years aren’t primarily a consequence of American secular materialism. Any upstart organization transitioning to a second generation of leadership will experience its share of difficulties and tensions. UBF’s new leaders may have identified ineffective tactics, but they’re struggling to find better alternatives.

Evangelistic Ardor

Despite my high level of engagement with the subject matter of The Spirit Moves West, I found its repetitiveness taxing. Instead of stating and restating her theories, Kim could have answered some obvious questions: How does UBF operate and structure itself when its missionaries are all lay volunteers working full-time jobs? Are UBF campus chapters and Sunday congregations the same thing? What happens in a Bible study? Exactly how ineffective is its method of “cold calling” college students? Despite her years spent investigating, Kim merely hints that this method doesn’t work well. She quotes missionaries and UBF leaders, but without any longer profiles, the reader lacks a clear sense of who these Korean missionaries are.

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Still, there are few such investigations of the growing phenomenon of “global South” Christians coming to the West to evangelize. The missionary movement is no longer a one-way street, and American Christianity will change as it incorporates Christians who come from very different cultural and ecclesial settings. This cultural sharing brings complexities and misunderstandings, but also a greater sense of the vastness of the body of Christ and the unique contributions of its many parts.

Whenever I made reporting trips for Christianity Today to Korea and China, I felt a strong spiritual connection with the Christians there. Though I no longer attend the church of my childhood, I count its Asian influence as a great gift. Whether through the evangelistic ardor of UBF or another global Christian group, the American church can benefit greatly from receiving and appreciating the deep spirituality of the Korean, Chinese, and other churches sending missionaries to these shores.

Rob Moll is CT editor at large. He is the author of What Your Body Knows About God: How We Are Designed to Connect, Serve, and Thrive (InterVarsity Press).

The Spirit Moves West: Korean Missionaries in America
Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Book Title
The Spirit Moves West: Korean Missionaries in America
Oxford University Press
Release Date
February 2, 2015
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