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YWAM: A Dynamic “Movement” of Hundreds of Ministries, but Not an Organization

It started with a vision of waves. Loren Cunningham said he saw the vision in 1956 when he was singing in the Bahamas with the The King’s Magnifiers, a gospel quartet from Central Bible Institute and Seminary, an Assemblies of God school.

Cunningham, a son and grandson of Pentecostal evangelists and church planters, saw waves covering the continents. Those waves were groups of young people giving up everything to go throughout the world to share Christ’s Gospel.

In 1960, he and his wife Darlene founded Youth With a Mission, but he never saw himself as launching an organization that would require management and direction. Rather, he believed he was igniting a movement. (Now in their 80s, both are still working with YWAM in Kona, Hawaii.)

Sixty-one years later, the vision remains, and the movement is vibrant and growing, supporting some 20,000 workers in hundreds of independent ministries operating from some 1,000 bases in about 200 countries. Over the years, some four million people have been through YWAM’s 12-week Discipleship Training School, the first step in working with the organization, which pays no salaries.

But unlike other evangelical ministries and mission agencies, YWAM isn’t incorporated and lacks a central organization or headquarters. It has no president, board of directors, fundraising department, or annual reports. It has no communications team to gather and convey information to donors or the media, hence the frequent use of words like “some” in the paragraph above.

Truly, only God knows what YWAM does.

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“Family of ministries”

YWAM isn’t an organization—it’s a network of linked ministries that shares Cunningham’s vision and mission. As a YWAM website puts it:

“As YWAM has grown over the years, it has developed as a family of ministries. Although we have global networks of leaders and elders, we do not have a headquarters. Our decentralized structure gives room for leaders to emerge from many different cultures…A YWAM eldership group called the Founders’ Circle serves as a guardian of YWAM’s vision, purpose, beliefs and values.”

“There are hundreds of YWAM organizations, but no headquarters,” said Paul Filidis, who spent 40 years with YWAM in Afghanistan, India, the Netherlands, and Colorado Springs. He recently published the 30th annual version of the 30 Days of Prayer for the Muslim World booklets.

Cunningham’s vision of waves covering the nations has largely been realized, thanks in part to YWAM’s willingness to deploy almost anyone (no longer only young people) who demonstrates a passion for ministry and missionary service.

But at the same time, YWAM’s unique organizational structure means that information about the vast majority of its work is unknown, and its internal operations remain opaque. It’s impossible for donors to grasp the size, scope, effectiveness, or financial efficiency of the many ministries in YWAM’s family. Likewise, it can be difficult for parents to locate children who volunteer, or to hold bad leaders accountable.

“It’s so decentralized that it’s very difficult, even for them, to tell you everything they’re doing,” said Jonathan Bonk, executive director of the Overseas Ministries Study Center in New Haven, Conn., in a 2007 Los Angeles Times story.

Dynamism of “flat” structure

In terms of recruiting and sending Christian workers, YWAM’s founding vision has been a stunning success, and its non-hierarchical structure has empowered its workers to create hundreds of independent organizations—some of them with significant income and assets—that reach unbelievers around the globe through a dizzying range of ministries.

“YWAM, launched half a century ago by Loren Cunningham in his parents’ garage, is active in 180 nations, making it one of the world’s most widely dispersed evangelical missions groups,” reported Christianity Today in “Youth with a Passion,” a 2010 article celebrating YWAM’s 50th anniversary. “YWAM has deployed four million workers in 240 countries. Now it sets its sights on 152 remaining unreached people groups.”

The CT article quoted Mark Lang, who dropped out of college in 1983 to join Youth With a Mission. “If I was going to become a Lutheran missionary, I would have had to go to four years of college and four years of seminary. Would you like to do that or go to school for three months and go out and do something? You go make that choice when you’re 18.”

YWAM also pioneered short-term mission trips, now a regular feature of many church and parachurch mission groups.

As Wheaton College missions expert A. Scott Moreau told the Los Angeles Times in 2007, “A lot of agencies are wondering how they’re going to mobilize this generation. YWAM has figured it out.”

YWAM’s dynamic ethos has spawned hundreds of new ministries. If a YWAMer (as they’re called) has a vision for a particular ministry, can secure the support of at least one existing YWAM ministry, and can raise the funds and staffing required to accomplish the new ministry, it’s all systems go.

“YWAM was way ahead of management consultants who have promoted flat organizations for the last two or three decades,” says Filidis. “Rather than having a hierarchical structure, they intentionally try to keep it flat, which gives ownership to everybody throughout the whole organization.”

Some U.S.-based YWAM ministries have significant income and assets, including six that, unlike the vast majority of YWAM ministries, are members of ECFA:

  • YWAM San Diego/Baja, founded in 1991, has an annual income of $19 million and $20 million in assets.
  • YWAM Ships Kona has annual income of $16 million and $5 million in assets.
  • YWAM Tyler has annual income of $20 million (much of it designated to support 1,630 people serving worldwide) and $3 million in assets.
  • YWAM Strategic Frontiers, in Colorado Springs, has annual income of $8 million and $2 million in assets.
  • YWAM San Francisco has annual income of $2 million and $3.6 million in assets.
  • Loom International, in Portland, Oregon, uses its $450,000 annual revenue to help women and children at risk.

Other ministries are smaller and more focused. One YWAM leader has been working with local pastors to hold daily services at the Minneapolis intersection where George Floyd died in police custody. “We’re going from pain and hatred to healing and hope,” said Christophe Ulysse.

YWAM Yosemite offers evangelism and apologetics lectures to the Yosemite National Park’s 3.5 million visitors. “Your students will go to one of the world’s most stunning national parks for an international outreach (without ever getting on an airplane)!”

Other ministries reach rock musicians, actors, college professors, prostitutes, people working in the fashion industry, and snowboarders and surfers.

Lean and mean

YWAM’s structure is lean. Workers raise their own support, so there’s no marketers or fundraisers. Many ministries are operated on shoestring budgets. Some depend on income raised by fees charged for DTS schools or other training.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, some within YWAM started referring to some leaders as field, regional, or national workers, but such methods were seen as a form of creeping corporatism and were eventually abandoned.

YWAM stretches its impact by partnering with groups including Campus Crusade for Christ, the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, Trans World Radio, Wycliffe Bible Translators, World Vision, and Food for the Hungry.

YWAM isn’t often sued, in part because its expansive “Liability Release” workers sign, which excuses YWAM, its related ministries, and their agents from “any liability whatsoever arising out of any injury, damage, or loss.”

If you happen to die while serving YWAM in the far-off lands, which isn’t unheard of, don’t count on anyone sending your body back home. YWAM’s “Statement of Burial” says “the priority for limited resources on outreach and frontline work must be for living,” and grants YWAM permission to “carry out the burial in the location of my death” because “decay can start very quickly.”

One additional benefit of YWAM’s flat structure is that only individual, local ministries can be sued when something goes wrong, not the whole international enchilada.

Theology

Classical pentecostal and charismatic theology and practices dominate most YWAM ministries, and many ministries are birthed in dreams and visions.

“In 1973, during an all-night prayer meeting near Honolulu on the island of Oahu, God spoke to Loren Cunningham and other YWAM leaders, staff and students about YWAM starting a work on the ‘Big Island’ of Hawaii. To one, He gave the letter ‘K,’ to another, the word ‘Kona.’  Others saw visions of very specific places where YWAM was to locate.”

In 1975, Cunningham and Campus Crusade’s Bill Bright spoke about the urgency of Christians influencing the “seven mountains” of cultural influence, including government and the arts. There’s debate over whether the two men’s theology of the seven mountains extends to the Dominionism promoted by health-and-wealth preacher Andrew Wommack and Trump prophet Lance Wallnau.

YWAM has suffered surprisingly few scandals or major setbacks for a ministry that’s so vast and has worked with so many young people, but it has seen repeated charges of spiritual abuse against leaders who tolerated few questions about the ministry and methods they claimed God himself gave them. YWAM’s structure makes it extremely difficult to hold abusive leaders accountable.

Unanswered questions

YWAM is dynamic, but is it effective? No one knows, because YWAM’s non-structured structure takes opaqueness and inscrutability to new and unprecedented levels.

No one tracks all of the independent ministries. No one has solid numbers on how many ministries there are, how much money they raise, how many workers they support, what they do, or how successful they are at carrying out their missions.

Parents and relatives even have difficulty tracking down loved ones working with YWAM. “Mom may have contributed to help get her son Joey into a Discipleship Training School in Perth, Australia,” says Filidis. “But then Joey goes on outreach in southeast Asia, and mom doesn’t hear anything, has no idea where he is, and can’t find him.”

In some countries or regions where Christian work is illegal, YWAM groups may operate under the cover of different names.

YWAM’s U.S. website features this Q&A:

Q: Can you help me locate a person who currently is in YWAM or was at some time?

A: YWAM does not have an international administrative office that maintains a database of every YWAM staff person and all YWAM alumni. If you want to connect with a person in YWAM, please contact the location they work with directly or their last known location. Another avenue is to try social networking sites like the YWAM Facebook page.

Unfortunately, YWAM opaqueness extends to its finances. Only a few of the hundreds of independent ministries cooperate  with ECFA or charity watchdogs.

And because some YWAM ministries are members of ECFA, donors who are unfamiliar with its structure may mistakenly assume all YWAM ministries are compliant.

In addition, because YWAM it is not structured like a corporation, each of the independent ministries must handle its own accounting, human resources, and other functions, leading to widespread duplication of efforts, and occasional financial crimes.

In 2019, the Youth With A Mission chapter in Medicine Hat, Canada, sued its former vice-president and his wife for stealing more than a million dollars from its bank accounts. And in 2018, the chief financial officer for University of the Nations at YWAM-Kona pled guilty to wire fraud after embezzling $3 million dollars. The YWAM base compensated for the fraud by hiking fees charged to volunteers and students.

The structure has confused at least one donor.  Paul Filidis told MinistryWatch he knows of a donor who gave a major gift to one independent YWAM ministry assuming he was actually supporting YWAM’s work around the world, which is impossible without writing hundreds of checks.

There’s much to celebrate about YWAM, which has been successful at “launching waves of missionaries into the world since 1960,” but other than partial or anecdotal reports, there is so much we don’t know and may never know.

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Steve Rabey

Steve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He and his wife Lois live in Colorado.

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