This July, monsoon rains pounded Pakistan and created an unprecedented crisis in the country, submerging one-fifth of its landmass under water, killing more than 2,000 people, and leaving 20 million injured or homeless and facing the threat of starvation and disease.

Among the hundreds of faith-based, secular, and government relief groups that responded, one evangelical organization not usually recognized for emergency relief took quick action at the local and global level.

Youth With a Mission (YWAM) is known more for its volunteer short-term missions trips and student discipleship than for humanitarian work. But in Karachi, the capital of Sindh Province, students enrolled in YWAM's Discipleship Training School and staff nationwide mobilized immediately. Within two months, 10 short-term YWAM response teams were on the ground in Pakistan, distributing medicine and clothing and taking food packets by donkey to remote villages where other relief groups had few connections.

After the flooding, Lis Cochrane, a former YWAM field leader for South Central Asia, worked her contacts in the United States. She convinced youth groups, college students, and business owners to contribute funds for 100,000 water filters, as requested by desperate Pakistani government officials.

"We're bringing a message that God loves them and we want to help them," says the 48-year-old Swiss-American, who in 1985 was jailed in Nepal for preaching while on assignment with YWAM.

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. YWAMers, as members call themselves, undertake an enormous range of ministries: caring for Chechen refugees living in Poland; rebuilding Burmese villages after Cyclone Nargis; sharing the gospel through sports at the FIFA World Cup in Cape Town; sheltering the children of prostitutes in Pune, India; and distributing Bibles in Patagonia on the southern tip of South America.

Steve Douglass, president of Campus Crusade for Christ International, calls Cunningham "a person who pursued the scope of the Great Commission and who embodies the Great Commission by going to every country in the world. I don't know anyone else who has done that." Indeed, since its inception, YWAM has deployed more than four million people on outreach projects in 240 countries (some of which no longer exist as sovereign states).

YWAM's 50th anniversary celebrations will culminate at its headquarters in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, November 29 to December 4. This year, Cunningham and his wife, Darlene, participated in 43 regional celebrations, including in Nepal and Mongolia, where Christians attempting outreach face significant legal and cultural barriers.

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Voice in the Desert

YWAM is facing new challenges in a leadership transition and in its ongoing mission of world evangelization. This year, while Cunningham, 75, celebrates his 50 years of ministry with a capstone global tour, the ministry's top leaders chart the organization's next steps.

The reserved Cunningham rarely consents to interviews. But in July he sat down for two days with Christianity Today in Kona, talking at length about YWAM's past, present, and future.

Cunningham's accomplishments cannot be grasped without considering the gamble he took four years into the ministry, and a dramatic incident that followed. Overseas missions in the 1960s were top-down and slow-to-innovate enterprises, and outreach across denominational boundaries was infrequent and problematic. But in 1964, Cunningham decided to leave the relatively safe cocoon of the Assemblies of God by opening YWAM to all denominations.

Denominational officials believed that Cunningham had proven himself with his idea of leading youth on short-term mission trips. They offered him a good salary, a desk job in the executive suite at headquarters in Missouri, and a small staff. But they told him he had to limit mission trips to once a month and involve only teens from the Pentecostal fellowship.

Instead, Cunningham resigned, unwilling to compromise on the vision he believed God had given him eight years earlier: millions of evangelistic young people from all denominations crashing like waves onto the shores of every continent.

He struck out on his own with Darlene, then his wife of one year. They left the denominational headquarters in Missouri to drive to California to speak at a church. As Darlene drove the van across the Arizona desert, Loren drifted to sleep. Then a tire blew. The van rolled three times, throwing the couple from the vehicle.

'YWAM's goal is to focus on where we are not. We're intentionally trying to go to the least-reached areas, where medical needs, poverty, and illiteracy are the greatest.'—David Joel Hamilton, vice president for strategic innovation

When Cunningham came to, he caught sight of his wife's limp body and rushed to cradle her. He found no pulse. Blood and tears streamed down his face into Darlene's open, glassy eyes. He suddenly felt there never would be a greater time of testing. He says he clearly heard God ask, "Loren, do you still want to serve me?"

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He wondered what he would have left to live for if his wife died, but he said, "Okay, God. Whatever it takes. I give you my life." He then prayed for Darlene, and she started gasping for breath. She recovered fully.

Ever since, Cunningham has not lost a deep trust in God, which has sustained him through everything from flying in an airplane with no gas in a Togo jungle to simultaneous battles with hepatitis and malaria in Chad.

Discipleship School

With a volunteer force topping 20,000—and more than 50 percent non-Western—one of YWAM's greatest ongoing challenges is discipleship training. Each volunteer regardless of nationality, race, denomination, or age must attend a six-month Discipleship Training School (DTS).

One of these schools is located in Kona, on Hawaii's Big Island. University of the Nations sits on 110 acres encompassed by palm trees on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Mynas squawk loudly at sunrise. Geckos dart across the sidewalks. A cruise ship is docked in the harbor below. Often classes are held outdoors in the temperate climate.

Since 1969, the number of YWAM participants has grown at an annual rate of about 13 percent. Each of the 50 flagpoles at the Kona fountain entrance has a different flag, representing the nationalities of students on campus. About 1,100 short-term missionaries are sent out from the campus each year, and 60 of them go on to become long-term missionaries.

Students study the Bible, learn about cross-cultural missions, and pray. Cunningham, who still spends most of his time teaching, leads classes at Kona. "Loren is a superb raconteur who can leave young minds spellbound in rapt attention," says Don Stephens, who served as a YWAM senior leader for three decades. Cunningham teaches students to seek God's voice and then obey, even if resources aren't visibly present. For decades he has taught that if a leader and student pray about a situation and hear from the Holy Spirit, a consensus will be evident. In this way, for four decades Cunningham has been teaching what leaders Francis Chan, Reggie McNeal, and David Platt stress today.

Students view Cunningham as an approachable patriarch—a tidier version of Will Geer as Grandpa Walton. Unassuming, soft-spoken, and whimsical, he is a man whom 20-year-olds are comfortable approaching for hugs.

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University of the Nations offers more than the six-month discipleship training course, and its academic ministry reaches beyond Hawaii. The university has 500 campuses in 138 locations. Those earning bachelor's or master's degrees in everything from counseling to linguistics must study on at least two continents. The university uses the modular approach, offering intensive focus on a topic followed by hands-on experience in the field. Instructors are volunteers and experts in their fields, and have included author and journalist David Aikman. (The university has not sought accreditation in the U.S.)

Early Difficulties

Some YWAM leaders describe Darlene, who, like her husband, is the child of an Assemblies of God pastor, as the translator of the vision. The enthusiastic, feisty, and energetic 71-year-old preaches and teaches leadership development around the world and has a knack for spotting talent.

According to Darlene, the most difficult period in YWAM's history started in 1973, when the ministry was forced to forfeit $100,000 that had been deposited on a ship. Leaders had planned to use the money for ministry. Cunningham says the episode was a costly lesson in the importance of integrity and honesty, and the dangers of being overconfident and self-reliant. "We had taken the Lord's glory and put it on a vessel," Cunningham says, choking up in recalling the confession and repentance that followed.

By 1978, YWAM inaugurated Mercy Ministries, which developed a fleet of ships serving as floating hospitals to provide food, medical supplies, and dental care. Stephens, who took a trip with YWAM to the Bahamas at age 18 in 1964, oversaw the process of turning a former luxury liner into YWAM's first hospital ship 32 years ago. Mercy Ships functioned as an independent entity under YWAM until it split off in 2002, when YWAM directors sensed it had grown too large.

That lack of possessiveness has earned Cunningham respect among mission agencies, most of which have YWAM alumni in their ranks. "We train up some and they go elsewhere," Cunningham says. "YWAM is like a bridge: easy to get on and easy to get off. It's not to be a cul-de-sac to trap people."

Sometimes the opposite occurs when a smaller ministry comes under YWAM's umbrella. Melody Green brought Last Days Ministries under that umbrella after the death of her singer-songwriter husband, Keith, in a 1982 plane crash. "YWAM is my tribe," Green, 64, says. "These are the people who have walked with me through life."

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In the early years, Cunningham endured criticism that "thrill-seeking" Western youth and unqualified nationals interfered with the work of career missionaries trained in the West. "In 1960, the whole missions movement was based on a white man going to non-white people," Cunningham says. He recalls being privately rebuked by a veteran American missionary serving in Nigeria in 1961 because Cunningham had told a group of Nigerian nationals that they too could be missionaries.

At the time, short-term missions seemed outside the box, but Cunningham believed that Jesus implemented the technique by sending out disciples on brief excursions. Mission leaders in the early 1960s also told Cunningham that young missionaries should be paid by their sending organization so they could be held accountable, something they felt young people especially needed. Cunningham insisted that youth needed to raise their own support, noting that "Joseph, Daniel, David, and John Mark were all teenagers."

"Critics see Loren as just a dreamer—but so was Joseph," says YWAM's international president, John Dawson.

No one in YWAM—including Cunningham—is paid. Each YWAM employee raises his or her own funds, and some have left lucrative careers to serve on staff. Cunningham, who draws Social Security, is backed by 15 donor couples and says he lives on less than six figures. Cunningham signed over to the mission the royalties from his 1984 book, Is That Really You, God?, which recounts the early years of YWAM and has been published in 115 languages.

Growth through Innovation

Summer-long short-term mission trips, Olympics outreach, and ship-based medical care are just some of YWAM's innovations.

Miriam Adeney, professor of world Christian studies and author of Kingdom Without Borders: The Untold Story of Global Christianity, says YWAM is "doing the whole gamut of witness, discipling, and serving the poor and oppressed, especially in doing integrated holistic community development." For example, in Colombia, Enith Diaz started YWAM Medellin 15 years ago to provide shelter and basic health care to displaced families. Since then, the outreach has grown to provide grief counseling, agricultural training, and public health programs. During a recent clinic in a village, the medical team treated 1,000 people in four days.

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David Joel Hamilton, vice president for strategic innovation at Kona, says YWAM works in three main areas: evangelism, training, and mercy ministries. These are built around Mark 16:15 and Matthew 28:18-20, with the goals of personal redemption and social transformation. The more groundbreaking the ministry, the better, says Hamilton, who has been with YWAM for 33 years. Leaders focus on what they call the seven spheres of society: the family, economics, government, religion, education, media, and "celebration," which includes the arts, entertainment, and sports.

Media arts and production have grown rapidly. On the Kona campus, Cunningham's 39-year-old son, David, runs the Global Virtual Studio film institute, which can link to 100 locations using high-definition video.

David has been a film director on Hollywood movies for Disney and 20th Century Fox. But he also networks with YWAM graduates and interns to produce independent nonprofit projects. One film focused on rebuilding efforts in Haiti, another on changing laws in Brazil that tolerate infanticide among remote tribes. A synchronized editing process allows a film to be made with volunteer talent for a fraction of the cost of a traditionally produced feature film.

Virginia native M. Lee joined YWAM directly out of high school for a three-month program as a first step to studying filmmaking in Los Angeles or New York. Instead, she graduated from University of the Nations in September after working in an orphanage in Thailand and studying photography in Switzerland. (Lee does not use her full name for security reasons related to her anti-trafficking work.)

As a class project, the articulate and poised Lee took the lead in publishing Sex + Money, a book about students' efforts to assist victims of sex trafficking in 20 nations. Following that, Lee has been producing a feature-length documentary, visiting 25 states and conducting 70 interviews with victims, federal agents, and lawmakers. By January she hopes to embark on a cross-country distribution tour.

"I'm doing what I always dreamed of doing, but it happened when I was still in school," says Lee, who has been interviewed as a sex trafficking expert by CNN. "YWAM took me around the world."

Surviving Controversy

From its earliest years, YWAM has been linked to controversy. Gregory Robertson, who served on YWAM's staff from 1973 to 1979 in Germany and California, says he experienced abusive and manipulative shepherding tactics. Some students and staff who disagreed with overseers were viewed as rebellious against God or demon-possessed, Robertson says.

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In December 2007, cult allegations surfaced. At a YWAM facility in Arvada, Colorado, Matthew Murray, who had attended discipleship training there, shot and killed two YWAM volunteers. In the intense media spotlight, an anonymous source was quoted who likened YWAM training to "cult mind-controlling techniques."

With a volunteer force topping 20,000—and more than 50 percent non-Western—one of YWAM's greatest ongoing challenges is discipleship training.

At an international gathering in the late 1970s, Cunningham says, YWAM leaders repented of a "spirit of religious controversy" for trying to win arguments. He has refused to debate critics ever since.

"Of course we are not a cult," says YWAM international chairman Lynn Green. "Talk to our many friends—Campus Crusade, Wycliffe, Operation Mobilization—about our credibility."

YWAM has been branded as heretical for some of its teachings. Author and Cornwall Alliance founder Cal Beisner has criticized the group for promoting moral government theology—the belief that God doesn't know what choices humans will make.

Cunningham says, "We have never denied the infinite knowledge of God."

What perturbs detractors, such as parachurch ministry watchdog Rick A. Ross, is YWAM's decentralized structure, which he and others claim leads to a lack of accountability in finances and theology. Finances and legal structures are handled at the local level at 1,400 bases. Local boards usually include pastors.

"We don't dictate how to finance something in Mozambique or Mali," Cunningham says. "They have to make their own decisions."

Others see YWAM's decentralized structure—marked by having no headquarters—as shrewd stewardship for avoiding a layer of salaried bureaucracy. Funds given to YWAM must be designated for a specific worker, campus, or project.

YWAM cultivates team leadership even at the highest levels. Dawson, a New Zealander, has been international president since 2001. He is considered a presiding elder of the seven-member Global Leadership Team (which includes Loren and Darlene) rather than a primary director of a legal entity. The ad hoc network is held together by relational, not legal, dynamics, Dawson says.

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"Accountability comes from intimacy, not organizational structure," says Dawson, 58. The international board holds the line on vision and values, but has no decision-making power on spending or allocation of resources. Local pastors and business leaders create accountability pressure in rare cases of sexual or financial misdeeds.

"If something goes wrong with us locally, local people will step in and correct—and even rebuke—the people bearing the YWAM name," Dawson says. "That corrective mechanism has proven to be very powerful."

But starting in 2010, those corrective mechanisms are undergoing a new test in a Swedish courtroom. According to state allegations, former Western Europe YWAM leaders Kristian Westergard and Erik Spruyt were key players in Nordic Capital Investments, a firm that allegedly defrauded Christian investors, including YWAM volunteers, through a Ponzi scheme involving tens of millions of dollars. The verdict in Sweden is due before year's end. Other investigations in the Netherlands and Austria are under way.

Green told CT, "They preyed on people in the Christian community. Some people of Youth With a Mission were victims of that. It's a regrettable thing."

[Update: On October 28, 2010 in Uppsala District Court, Sweden, Kristian Westergard, founder of YWAM Sweden, was convicted of gross criminal fraud. The judge sentenced him to four years in prison for his activities with Nordic Capital Investments. He is appealing this conviction and has denied defrauding investors.

[Spruyt testified in court, but was not a defendant in this court proceeding. Under oath, he said in 1995 he hosted Westergard at Le Rucher, a French conference center near Geneva, Switzerland, where 50 ministry leaders learned of Nordic Capital during a ministry consultation.]

Reaching the Unengaged

These days Cunningham is most excited about fulfilling the Great Commission. A decade ago, YWAM, Campus Crusade, and eight other ministries convened an informal association known as Table 71, named after the place where they first gathered at the Amsterdam 2000 evangelism conference. Table 71 members are devoted to bringing the gospel to hundreds of "unreached, unengaged people groups."

Indeed, YWAM has segmented the world into 4,000 geopolitical units based on evenly distributed populations. "Our goal is to focus on where we are not," Hamilton says. "We're intentionally trying to go to the least-reached areas, where medical needs, poverty, and illiteracy are the greatest."

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YWAM likewise is involved in another Great Commission-fulfilling movement, Call2All. The networking movement was spearheaded by Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright but now is led by YWAM's Mark Anderson. Only three years ago, Cunningham says, 639 unengaged, unreached people groups (each with a population of 100,000 or more) existed. That number has been reduced to 152, says Cunningham, thanks to 4,000 Call2All missionaries planting 14,000 churches in the past three years.

YWAM is able to enter countries closed to evangelists and pastors because students simultaneously work as preschool teachers and physicians, among other professions.

Cunningham's 65-year-old sister, Janice Rogers, lives at the base in Lindale, Texas, and is co-author of his five books. She says her brother's influence cannot be taken for granted. "When the first generation of leaders is gone, when there is realignment, we have to make sure we don't move away from the Word of the Lord," Rogers says.

"What I like about the spirit of YWAM is being willing to charge hell with a squirt gun, that go-for-it mentality," Douglass says. "When there is so much to criticize in this age, [Cunningham] stands out as someone who is an encourager."

Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the World Evangelical Alliance, notes that it is commonplace now for career missionaries to have short-term missions experience first. "YWAM has given opportunities for ministry to people who would not have been given the same opportunity in many other organizations," says Tunnicliffe. "They have brought together people from many denominations."

YWAMers might have a Lutheran bent in Norway, a Presbyterian emphasis in South Korea, and Anglican sensibilities in England, and the ranks include Baptists and Catholics, Calvinists and Arminians, charismatics and anti-charismatics.

George O. Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, notes that few if any denominations would have approved of Cunningham's unconventional approach 50 years ago. But in hindsight, that risk-taking and innovation has proved to be a global blessing, he says.

"We could have profited greatly by a different decision being made in the 1960s," says Wood, 69. "In the providence of God, when the door didn't open for the Assemblies of God to embrace the program, Loren took it inter-denominationally.

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"That was a good move."

John W. Kennedy is a CT contributing editor based in Springfield, Missouri, and news editor of Today's Pentecostal Evangel, the weekly magazine of the Assemblies of God.

Editors' note: This article was updated on December 12, 2010, concerning the court judgment involving Nordic Capital Investments.

Related Elsewhere:

Recent articles by John W. Kennedy include:

The Most Diverse Gathering Ever | Lausanne III is pulling a cross-section of 4,000 world leaders to keep the gospel front and center. (September 29, 2010)
Ergun Caner Out as Seminary Dean | Geisler, Ankerberg defend former Muslim despite non-renewal of contract. (July 2, 2010)

Previous CT articles on YWAM include:

Indigenous Indignation | Investigators accuse YWAM of squelching tribal cultures. (March 13, 2008)
YWAM Director Describes Shooting, Forgiveness | Peter Warren discusses response of families and future impact on the program. (December 19, 2007)

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