Saturday, September 24, 2016

My Testimony

Hello, my name was Shepherd X. I was born into a nominal Christian household and lived in spiritual apathy until God led me to UBF. Then, I became born again by accepting God’s true calling for my life and teaching the Bible one-to-one on my college campus to many lost sheep. However, I never had a real relationship with Jesus, only theology, so I eventually fell away back into my old life, breaking my shepherdess’ heart.

This is my story, according to the University Bible Fellowship.

Or at least, as a matter of speculation, I’d imagine that, if I’m ever mentioned at all anymore in my former chapter, those four sentences would comprise the extent of my personal biography. Of course, I cannot know for sure that this is the case. But I can infer that it is so, because those four sentences were the most I ever heard anyone speak concerning former members while I was still in the organization. In fact, I think I can list every time former members come up in UBF: about a half dozen times in Bible study, when my shepherdess talked about her now-lost sheep; maybe once or twice in a testimony; once in passing during a private conversation. Other than that, former members for the most part do not exist to those living under UBF doctrine.

Yet, ex-members do very much exist, and their stories are far more complicated than these passing simplifications. I, for one, can testify to my own experience, and I can assure you there is more to my story. Actually, now that I’ve already gotten started, I might as well start from the beginning. I’ll try to lay down everything as honestly as I can recall.

Before UBF

I was born in another city far from Los Angeles into a Christian family. Of course, that in itself means nothing; the spiritual journey of my immediate family has been bumpy at best, for sure. But, at the same time, I think my Christian origins are important to my story. My great-great-grandfather Hokvin, for instance, was a Swedish immigrant to the United States who had a habit of drinking himself to blackout every night in the local tavern. But in his forties, he attended a tent revival meeting where he had a dramatic encounter with Christ, and from that moment never touched alcohol and never missed a worship service for forty years. In fact, he helped found the Swedish Baptist church in my hometown. Many people in my family have had intense spiritual encounters and salvation experiences of this sort.

One such person, of particular relevance in this story, is my grandmother, who met Jesus when she was 26 and stuck with him through the rough seasons of life: divorce, financial problems, raising four children, caring for my aging step-grandfather (who passed away a year before I joined UBF). Her faith and wisdom had a huge influence on me in my spiritual walk. She was the one who bought me my first Bible in middle school, and I now believe it was through that that I first met Jesus myself. She even supported and encouraged me, as I was in UBF, to seek God and serve Him alone. But let me back up, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Despite my early spiritual awakening, after middle school things stagnated. Because of some major problems in the leadership of our church, my family forfeit membership, and as such I was left without a home church for most of my high school career. I still read scripture from time to time and prayed as often as the thought came to mind, but I lacked strong, Christian community and discipleship. I never developed healthy devotional habits and I did not grow much in my walk with Christ. I had no solid foundation.

At the same time, I was trying to work through my emotional deficiencies. In school I was a loner; I would spend my lunch and free times practicing music. I studied diligently (most of the time) to maintain a strong grade point average. It was only by senior year that my friends were finally starting to get me out of my shell, but by that point I was sick of school, sick of my hometown and ready to move on and start life fresh. I left home to attend college out of state, and at first it was everything of which I had dreamed. Soon, however, the realization hit me: everyone that I knew and loved was back home, and I had left them behind when I came to college. On one hand, I was not lonely—I met plenty of great people in the new setting—but on the other, I was distinctly missing a sense of community and fellowship, and for my first two months of school adjusting to that realization took a toll on me.

Incidentally, by mid-October of freshman year I had still not sought out a church community. I had looked, briefly, for a campus ministry, but was overwhelmed by all the choices. Meanwhile, I was a detached, idealistic, young college student with emotional vulnerabilities. Could somebody check the books for the risk factors of cult indoctrination?

Becoming a UBF Shepherd

While I was walking back from class one evening, I was “fished” by my shepherdess. I still vividly remember the encounter. She spotted me and asked, “Are you interested in studying the Bible?” I remarked briefly, and awkwardly, that I was already studying it on my own (I always hate turning down people who approach you on the street). She picked up on my remark and elaborated about how it would be a one-to-one Bible study, and we would go “deeper” into the Word. At this point, I felt the full weight of my weak foundation: I knew that I had not been looking for a church and that I had not been growing as a Christian, and I felt that if I turned down her offer it would just be another example of me saying no to God. So, I accepted, expecting a weekly 30 minute commitment. I did not realize that thus began the most emotionally volatile year of my life.

Our first Bible studies were in the gospel of John. In UBF doctrine, this of course meant spending a lot of time talking about the definition of “life” rather than talking about the gospel, per se. Nonetheless, I was fascinated by the new perspective presented to me by my Bible teacher (I did not yet know her as my shepherdess): living for worldly things leads to death, but Jesus offers a new, better, spiritual life. What was this “new life” that was promised? Did I have it? Over the next several weeks, she laid a foundation for the idea that “new life” meant living for God’s mission, or God’s particular calling for me. She challenged my thoughts that I would serve God through my music and presented the case that, because God had led me into her Bible studies, He was calling me to adopt her mission as well. She had me believing that, according to the scriptures, I should desire to “take up my cross” and become a shepherd, and that if I retain any desire for “the things of the world” (friends, family, entertainment, music) I was clinging to my old life and rejecting Jesus’ new life.

Some of these teachings made sense to me. Others disturbed me. Were my desires to love family and friends really worthless? Was my emotional vulnerability really a sign that I was living in darkness? Would I have to give up my music in order to love God alone? I had the feeling that this Jesus she was talking about was a different Jesus than the one I had met growing up. But I was also convinced that all of my Christian background was really just a false conversion, evidenced by my lack of “fruit” (commitment to God’s mission).

After all, so many people in my family had those incredible salvation experiences, but I had never experienced anything like that. My spiritual walk had been slow and uneventful. Then suddenly, I was thrust into this violently new scenario. She invited me to her church, which turned out to be a UBF chapter south of Los Angeles, and I immediately noticed the zealousness of the members and the commitment to “fishing” and teaching the Bible. They were also extremely nice to me, offering free food and letting me serve in the orchestra. I liked the fact that they sang traditional hymns from hymnals and I especially liked that it was a very small church that gave a closer sense of community. This was it: these were real Christians. And if I had any doubts, concerns or anxieties, they had to be evidence of my sinful nature trying to claim me back to the darkness.

After a month of Bible studies, I attended that year’s Fall Bible Conference. At the event, I was exposed pretty much ceaselessly to a stream of testimonies and sermons promoting the UBF lifestyle for two days straight. I heard testimonies about people giving up careers and passions to do UBF activities. I heard testimonies about people leaving their families to do UBF activities. The whole time, I felt a deep, unexplainable urge to stand up and run away, but I remained. The first night I almost couldn’t sleep because I was overwhelmed with anxiety and fear about what God might be calling me to do. I thought that the guilt and fear I was experiencing was conviction, because I had never been instructed about conviction growing up. By the end of the conference, I had broken down, and I made the commitment to become a shepherd. In doing so, I felt all of the pressure fly away, and from that point on I knew that if I just obeyed my shepherdess “absolutely” I wouldn’t need to experience the guilt and the fear (yes, I confused conviction with manipulation). I also started teaching my first “sheep” the same month.

That winter, my shepherdess allowed me to fly back home for Christmas even though she tried to get me to stay for “winter Genesis intensive”. I would have been more than willing to study Genesis several times a week, but I also felt an obligation to my parents, who had raised me, were paying for most of my education and had been expecting me to return home. It also would have been difficult to cancel plane tickets and find funding to live in LA over the break on such short notice, since my dormitory lease did not cover winter vacation. Regardless, I still Skyped Bible studies with her as often as possible, and even tried leading my parents in Bible study as well. Whenever my mother walked in on one of our Skype Bible studies, I could immediately detect tension in my shepherdess, and she would stop everything and become very quiet until my mother left. I didn’t dwell on that fact though, and continued with the studies. Soon it was time to return to Los Angeles.

Turning for the Worse

As spring semester began, I was excited to start serving God through Bible studies. I didn’t do much fishing in the first few months, but I did find a few “sheep” just by asking people that I knew if they wanted to study the Bible. Soon I had about five people involved with my Bible studies, plus or minus one depending on the week. I was very happy to report my progress in Friday testimony sharing meetings, which I also started attending (even though I had to cancel other commitments).

However, fairly soon I started noticing that there were some theological matters with which I didn’t fully agree. UBF doctrine covers this, of course: according to them, being too intellectual and theological means you justify your sin and compromise in your commitment to mission. I accepted this teaching, of course, so I never brought up any of my disagreements with my shepherdess and tried to play along without touching on the area of concern. It wasn’t long before conflict came up.

For instance, I never accepted the UBF interpretation of the Sabbath. I didn’t see anything in scripture that suggested God’s reason for the Sabbath was to get people to come to worship service; that assertion is not only inserted into the text, but it ignores all of the actual reasons for the Sabbath presented by scripture. Regardless, I still tried to commit to “absolute” Sunday attendance as a sign of my devotion to God, even though I disagreed with their interpretation. At the time, I was a member of a fairly prestigious choir at my school, and I had also made a commitment to accept the choir’s rigorous schedule and support my colleagues. Then, in February, it came time for a week-long trip to the American Choral Director’s Association conference in Salt Lake City, which included a Sunday.

I brought it up with my shepherdess to ask permission (because, at that point, I believed that I needed to ask her permission to do anything outside UBF practice). She rebuked me, and spent about twenty minutes trying to convince me not to go, even though it meant quitting the choir and ruining my reputation as a musician. I prayed about this subject over and over, and each time it seemed clear to me that God’s will was for me to go on the trip. I even mentioned to another shepherd at one point that I didn’t feel any conflict in my heart about missing one Sunday service; he responded, “Be careful, that might be the devil.” Regardless, my shepherdess went to the chapter director about the matter, and, to my relief, he allowed me to go for the sole reason that I had already made a commitment to the group and I shouldn’t break my promise. But next semester I would not audition for the choir again.

At this point I have to stop to praise God for His grace. I came very close to quitting that choir, and it was only the day before the trip that I received permission to go. And you know what God did for me on the trip? He put me in a room with three of the most wonderful Christian men I’ve ever met. When they found out that I was a Christian (incidentally, by noticing my Bible, my devotional My Utmost for His Highest and my hymnal, all of which my grandmother had given me…) they invited me to start attending their group Bible study, which consisted mostly of music students who met weekly both on and off campus. At these meetings, I started to grow in Christ in ways that I had not experienced in UBF. It wasn’t about external Bible study quotas, but about internal fruit of the Spirit. At each meeting, I experienced deep, overwhelming peace and security in Christ while pouring into His Word. Once, I think in March sometime, I mentioned to another shepherd that I was participating in this Bible study. They asked, “Oh, are you leading it?” to which I responded, “No, but it has been a blessing.” He gave me a concerned look and said, “Hmmm…” but never brought it up again. I decided not to tell my shepherdess about it, because I had the feeling that she would prevent me from going.

Still, I was committed to the UBF lifestyle by that point and I continued studying the Bible with my shepherdess and attending UBF activities, as well as teaching the Bible to my small group of students. About a month passed without a major incident. In April, I preached at a symposium, receiving huge amounts of praise from the chapter director and my shepherdess. I felt honored to have been allowed to serve God in that way, and I thought that I could finally rest in the peace of Christ. However, another road bump was just over the horizon.

By the end of April, I was happily doing two Bible studies a week with my shepherdess and also writing two testimonies every week, one for the Friday meeting and one to share with her privately. Then finally came the day of our final Genesis study. I was excited for it, because it marked the conclusion of a huge portion of my studies and the end of my “introduction” into UBF life. However, I soon realized that this study would not be a joyous conclusion. For the past few weeks, I had sensed my shepherdess hinting about topics related to my own decisions about summer vacation. Then, finally, for the last Genesis study—well, most of our Bible studies lasted from about an hour to about ninety minutes. This one lasted well over two hours, and most of that extra time was an extended rebuke.

My shepherdess revealed that I was potentially a candidate to deliver a message at their first Summer Bible Conference. I had made plans to travel back to my hometown for the summer, especially since I had already skipped spring break and cut short winter break before that. However, my shepherdess pressured me continually to cancel my plans and stay in Los Angeles, not just for the conference during the 4th of July but for the whole summer. She told me that I couldn’t be dedicated to God’s mission back at home, and that I had to commit to God alone, like Abraham did when he left his father’s country and gave up his son Isaac; like Rebekah did when she left her father to marry a stranger; like Jacob did when he sent his family over the river. By the end of the Bible study, I feebly told her, “I’ll pray about it” and walked back to my dorm trembling. Part of me was reviling against her instructions; I had a deep desire to return to my hometown so that I could love and encourage my family and friends spiritually. I prayed for two hours without finding any resolution to the conflict, but I sensed that I would not be relieved of the pressure to follow her directions unless I submitted. In the end, I tossed a coin five times and decided to cut short my summer and come back to Los Angeles after just a month, so that I had enough time to fulfill all of the commitments I had promised to keep up in my hometown, which meant spending about two weeks with my parents and a week at a music education job I had accepted.

The next day, I gathered my nerves and called my mother to let her know. She cried. My father was angry, and he accused me of trying to please my shepherdess rather than God. I tried to assure him that he was wrong and even tried to quote scripture to support my decision, but it felt empty. They said, “Do you know how hard this is for us?” and I responded, “Probably just as hard as it is for me.” I suppressed my emotions and tried to be as cold as possible. In the end, they relented, but told me that I’d have to pay for my own transportation, housing and food, which I did: nearly $2000, which was most of the money I had saved up by that point. On one hand, I felt relief that I had done what my shepherdess wanted, even if only in part, and that I was now “safe” from abandoning God’s will. On the other, I felt assaulted. It was only the next day that I found any kind of comfort. My grandmother called and left me a voicemail, telling me that she loved me and supported me no matter what, and that she was glad I was trying to serve God with all my heart. I cried on hearing the message, and then again when I repeated the message in my testimony the next Friday.

The end of that year and the start of that summer is a blur to me now. I know that I put most of my belongings in storage south of Los Angeles, near the church. I flew back home, did everything I needed to do, taught a few Bible studies to my parents and a couple friends, and then drove back for the conference in July. By that point, I had had time to work through my emotions, and I was no longer feeling conflicted about it. My parents had accepted it as well and sent me off with a blessing. Now that the rebukes had stopped, I once again felt that I was finally free to rest in the peace of Christ, just like I had felt back in early April. For the summer, I moved into the church’s “common life” apartment with three other shepherds, and I traveled to campus about five days out of the week to “fish” for “sheep” and so forth. Overall, I became fairly content with everything and I was as excited as I had ever been to serve God. People in the church praised me for making such a bold decision “by faith”. However, those theological concerns and negative experiences lingered in the back of my mind, covered by a thick layer of spiritual high.

The Road to Freedom

There was a brief window after the summer conference where I was almost completely submitted to UBF rule over my life. Living in the common life, it was easy to structure my entire life around UBF activities. I went “to prayer” at the church house twice a day, once when I woke up and once before sleeping. In the meantime, I was writing music, fishing on campus or doing Bible studies, and I was trying to cut down the time I spent writing music.

Shortly after driving to LA, my car broke down and was in the mechanic’s for almost a month. During this period, I would get rides to campus from the chapter director’s daughter, who was also a student there. My conversations with her (though, I will stress, never approached anything near “romantic”, nor would I have wanted them to) were the closest I think I ever came to having an equal relationship with someone in UBF. My shepherdess actually rebuked me once during this period for being too casual and not respecting the “spiritual order” of those who were in UBF longer than me; I was treating higher-ups more like brothers and sisters than commanding officers. Of course, I repented immediately, even though I didn’t really understand what I had done wrong. But I still got rides to campus with the same woman, since it was the most convenient option though my shepherdess tried to get me to take the bus instead.

At any rate, here is the point of this tangent: she would leave for campus earlier than I needed because she did most of her studying on campus rather than at home. So, every time, she would drop me off and I would go to the library before “fishing” to do morning devotions and any studying that I needed. My shepherdess had encouraged me to use the UBF devotional series, called “Daily Bread”, for my devotions, so I would normally go to Google and search “University Bible Fellowship Daily Bread” in the search bar. One day, I instead went to type “UBF Daily Bread”, but as I was typing I saw auto-filled “UBF cult”. It was like a moment of enlightenment. I had remembered my parents expressing concerns about me being in a cult, but I brushed them off. Yet, if “UBF cult” was common enough to be an auto-filled search result…?!

I did not go fishing that day. Instead, I spent about seven hours pouring over testimony after testimony of Christians who left UBF. I saw confirmed in the writing all of the doctrinal concerns that I had been pushing into my subconscious. I realized that much of what I had been made to do for UBF was not due to God’s will, but due to pressure from my shepherdess. I didn’t want to believe any of it. In fact, I wanted to prove those accounts wrong. I was even comforted when I read John Abraham’s old 2007 thoughts promoting UBF (though I was unaware that he had changed his mind since then). Still, that day initiated a process that the Spirit would use to lead me out of UBF.

Very soon, I started realizing that I was not growing by following UBF doctrine. My desire to seek Jesus felt stifled. I started noticing more and more doctrinal errors; once I subtly tried to flesh out an interpretation beyond the weekly message in my Friday testimony, but my musings were met with stunned silence from the others in my fellowship. More and more, I realized that as I was remaining in UBF, I was lying to myself, my co-workers, and ultimately to God. I started realizing that in order to lure “sheep” in, I would have to hide most unique aspects of UBF doctrine, such as arranged marriage, absolute attendance and sacrificing all worldly comforts, just like my shepherdess had done with me. I started realizing that all of the rebukes and the long sessions where higher-ups pressured underlings to conform was examples of manipulation. Most of all, I realized that none of these things were present in Jesus’ ministry, and that by supporting these practices I was going against God’s will for me.

Even still, I could not make the decision to leave UBF. There were too many conflicts in my mind. Hadn’t UBF bolstered my spiritual walk? Wasn’t there evidence of good fruit in the ministry? What if by leaving I abandon God’s will? I resolved to find out once and for all what the Spirit would have me do. I started studying Galatians on my own, without telling anyone, and spent hours meditating on the word of God. My morning and evening prayer sessions became directed at searching out God’s will, and I only found peace and joy in the prospect of leaving the ministry so that I could once again be honest with God. My family had started attending church again, and I had been listening to sermons from the lead pastors that grabbed my heart. I decided to email the lead pastor with my concerns, and phrased my message in a way that made UBF look as good as possible. His response to me was, “I have one word for you ‘cult’”, and he told me to leave as soon as possible and find a healthy, Jesus-loving community. Finally, class had started again, I had moved back into the university apartments and the music school Bible study had kicked into gear again. I brought up my concerns with my brothers and sisters in Christ, and they completely supported me in leaving and finding a healthy ministry.

After everything, I have realized that God aligned everything perfectly to give me the chance to be truly free in Christ. If I had not had my grandmother, I would not have had my early love for Jesus and desire to serve him. If I had listened to my shepherdess and skipped that choir trip, I never would have known what real Christian fellowship feels like, and I never would have had a support group for leaving. If my parents hadn’t started going to a wonderful, Jesus-centered church when I left for college, I never would have gotten that pastor’s advice. And if I hadn’t had all of that free time over the summer to pray and meditate on the Word, I might never have heard the Spirit’s voice. God brought me to the brink in order to bring me to freedom.

I finished up my duties to the church, including preaching one last message, and then sent an email to the chapter director and my shepherdess explaining why I was leaving that night. The chapter director responded with a blessing; my shepherdess did not. Over the next two months, I was contacted only three times by UBF people: once by my shepherdess’ husband inviting me to a conference (which I couldn’t attend anyway because I was serving at my new church and teaching a Bible study), once by another member asking where I was (to which I explained that God had led me out of the ministry), and once by someone with an anonymous Facebook account (probably because Facebook is taboo in my former chapter). Other than that, none of my former co-workers have tried to continue a relationship with me, though I have reached out more than once, and I know from two conference messages that I am considered to have “fallen away”.

After UBF

Adjusting after UBF was not easy. I immediately sensed a lack of discipline and focus in my life; this is partly because I no longer had a system of heavy shepherding to rule my every action, and partly because I no longer had recruitment as my central focus in life (perhaps “fishing” became a bit idolatrous; after all, when it was gone I distinctly felt the lack). I had to re-learn how to make Jesus the center of who I am and I am still working on how to best grow spiritually, but one thing I know for sure: I am in a healthier relationship with Christ now that I am free from those extra-biblical burdens.

I started attended a new church where some of my Bible study friends were members. It is not perfect (no church is), but in spite of the imperfections I know that God has called me to love and to be invested in the community. I serve, do Bible studies, and participate in community groups at the church, which have been a massive blessing to my journey of faith. Meanwhile, I am now leading the music school Bible study that was such a huge source of encouragement for me while I was in UBF. I struggle every day to seek Jesus in everything that I do and to be a living witness to the wonderful inheritance he has promised.

By the grace of God, I harbor no ill feelings toward anyone still in UBF. In fact, I still love them very much, and if you can believe it, I am grateful for the time God gave for me to be in the organization! In a sense, it was a way that He jump-started my faith, since during the process I began to read God's Word more diligently and to meditate on His Truth. Surely, God can use anything to build people up spiritually; I've even heard of people who come to Christ through prosperity gospel preachers. However, my heart breaks for those who are still being hurt by UBF. I continue to hear stories of people overcome with anxiety and depression because of the intense pressure of the UBF lifestyle, and I fear for their faith since that pressure is based on these extra-biblical practices. Jesus, please show them the light!

I pray that God would use this testimony for the edification of the Body, whether to help those currently trapped in UBF or another cult-like organization. I realize that I had it fairly easy; I was only in the organization for just under a year and I had a support system to leave. Many people do not have those luxuries. If you are struggling with these issues and need a friend or a brother in Christ to talk with, or if you just want to talk about Jesus, please feel free to contact me. And remember that whatever you do, “neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

michael.the.hopkins@gmail.com

God bless you all!

MH, a.k.a. Hertoa

tl;dr: I met Jesus when I was young, but never had a strong foundation of discipleship. Therefore, I was led into UBF because I was a young, idealistic, emotionally vulnerable college student away from home who felt the need for spiritual structure and discipline. I was attracted by the zealousness of UBF and opened up to my shepherdess immediately, accepting UBF doctrine and becoming a "shepherd".

I gave up time, money and comfort freely to the organization hoping to serve God. Soon, however, I realized that the UBF system has many doctrinal errors and uses manipulative and deceptive tactics to recruit and teach "sheep". So, I spent two months praying, meditating, and seeking Christian counsel in order to determine God's will. In the end, He revealed that if I stayed in UBF I would be lying to myself, my co-workers and to Him, and my spiritual health depended on my departure.

Since leaving, I have found a healthy, Jesus-loving ministry where I serve and have been growing in my relationship with Christ every day, and I still teach the Bible on campus. In the end, I'm grateful even for all of these struggles that the Lord led me to encounter, because he truly works all things for the good of the one who believes.

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