Founded by a California Assemblies of God minister, Loren Cunningham, in 1961. The organization reportedly has claimed (1982) more than 1,500 long-term and 10,000 short-term missionaries. Youth with a Mission (YWAM), with numerous bases internationally, Discipleship Training Schools throughout the United States and outside America, is one of the largest evangelistic missionary organizations in the world. Certainly, millions of dollars flow through its accounts yearly. YWAM does have substantial influence within the Evangelical Christian community.
During the month of September 1990, I was contacted and subsequently retained by a family in Long Island New York. Their concerns centered upon their adult single daughter's involvement with the organization known as Youth With A Mission (YWAM). She planned to enter a Discipleship Training School ( at a cost of $1700.00) operated by YWAM in late September located in Elizabeth, New Jersey. After completing the training program she might then be selected as a staff member (full time missionary) at the salary of $7.00 per week.
The young woman could be placed within the third world. Once placed she would be totally dependent upon YWAM for financial support, food, medical attention and security. She had liquidated all her assets. The family accepted fully their daughter's religious commitment, but felt that they should investigate YWAM. My work on their behalf consisted of gathering information.
Christian Research Institute of California sent a report dated November of 1987. YWAM was described as "basically sound". However, the report did raise some serious concerns. It questioned the value of "imposing legalistic standards… this heavy-handedness appears to express itself in some form of the 'sheepherding' error. The report also criticized the group's repentance as "one-sided" and the way by which they "open their Bible at random and ask God to speak to them from the passage so selected" as an "abuse of the Bible". This report concluded that "involvement…can be good, as long as those involved are aware of the problems and do not accept uncritacally the errors or imbalances in their teachings".
The Cult Awareness Network national office in Chicago had several letters on file concerning YWAM. One such letter by Nancy Brown dated March of 1984 from Itheca, New York stated "that Ywam has many elements of a destructive cult". A major issue cited was "the authoritarian control by the elders". Allegedly YWAM depicted the "world" as "Satanic". Members were told that "Satan comes into an idle mind" and were advised "Whenever you have a spare moment memorize. Elders gave out cards with Bible verses to carry and use".
[Note: WARNING! The Cult Awareness Network (CAN) was recently bankrupted and bought up by Scientology. We strongly recommend you do not contact them for assistance.]
One YWAM brochure stated "DTS (Discipleship Training School) is the Foundation upon which all study programs are structured" . Those who wish to become YWAM staff are required to attend this multi-month intensive course of instruction with "a strong emphasis on character development".
One former DTS student sent a report to Cult Awareness Network regarding her experiences within such a program. She believed that there were "similarities between cult mind controlling (brainwashing) techniques and the DTS program instituted by YWAM".
In specific, she stated the process called "Intercession" taught by the group. This "is a form of praying comprised of nine specific steps that a YWAM lecturer received from the Lord".
According to the report, "Intercession" often focused on "any unconfessed sin". This was imperative so that you could be "sure that your heart is clean (see step 1)". Time was often "filled with hours of crying and confessing". This was done as a group under the direction of one of YWAM's designated "under-leaders". If a student had nothing to confess, they might be accused of being "guilty for not confessing anything". This could then become a sin to confess. The leader also advised in one session that " the Lord told them to tell her that she had something to confess and she better not deny the work of the Holy Spirit (see step 2)".
These sessions were called "Openness and Brokeness". The author of the report felt that "this confession emotionally exhausted us, made us feel self-conscious , and extremely vulnerable. I was taught to think of my mind as the enemy. Intercession also played a role in undermining intellectual reasoning. Step 3 Instructs: 'Die to your imagintation'…the lecturer reasoned that there are three kinds of thought; Yours, Satan's and God's. f you die to your thoughts and bind Satan, then anything left in your mind must be God's thoughts. Foolproof." During one lecture entitled "The Spirit of Independence Peter Jordan said that independence is a deception, and ultimately it can lead to suicide and abortion…a cause of disunity."
Group leaders at DTS often "received a word from the Lord in Intercession". This process often made members feel "intimidated by the decisions made in Intercession. Eventually, these words of direction developed almost as much authority…as Scripture". Thus, this former student relates "anyone on staff, through Intercession, was qualified to evaluate my Spiritual life".
Many rules were observed at DTS; "dating was forbidden" unless "confirmed" by leadership. "Students should not leave the general area." "Singles are not allowed personal cars." "not allowed to watch T.V." Students could receive "counseling" only from DTS staff because "God anoints those over us to bless us in many ways".
A popular slogan at YWAM was " with the appointing comes the anointing" and "You get the leader you deserve". One lecture stated that "God's Kingdom there is structure…reason should not govern but authority". According to the report, "lectures given on submission and authority were not given until the third month". Those who did not agree with leadership were "causing disunity and being rebellious—disobeying God". If students continued "being rebellious" they were told "it's pride" and "give up your rights". "If we saw something that we knew was wrong in a leader…we were told 'don't say it, pray it' criticize to God not to others.
The report goes on to compare the YWAM DTS to a "Moonie workshop". It cites the scheduling of lengthy lectures, peer pressure, constant bombardment of indoctrination, lack of open questioning or critical discussion and never being left alone, or allowed to talk one-on-one with other new students. Ultimately, the author of this report and four other DTS students left the school at Kauai, Hawaii before the end of the course. They left at 4:00 in the morning. This took place after what is said to have been "months of mental and spiritual abuse".
Further information surfaced concerning YWAM in the book "Spiritual Warfare" written by Sarah Diamond published in 1989. It seems that YWAM has sought political influence. Specifically, active participation in the so-called "Anatole Fellowship" later reorganized as the "Christian Public Policy Council". Ron Boehme of YWAM was an executive committee member in 1985. The group sought "to gain influence within the Republican Party" and later in a 1987 meeting discussed "electrical strategies" with "South Africa, Nicaragua and El Salvador (page 130)".
Further political involvement is evident through a meeting (June 1982) with an aide to Rios Montt, former dictator of Guatemala and a small group of so-called "Christian Right" leaders. This group included Loren Cunningham, head of YWAM. Montt was a leader in Gospel Outreach's Guatemalan Verbo Church. Gospel Outreach is based in California. Rios Montt traveled extensively throughout the United States on a speaking tour put together by leadership of the "Christian Right" (pages 164-167). The regime of General Rios Montt (1982-83) was later accused and exposed for its crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity. One complaint filed by survivors states that more than 1,000 people were murdered in 11 village massacres between March and December of 1982 within Guatemala.
Third World missionaries for YWAM may travel at personal, risk perhaps due to these political involvement. In 1987, six white YWAM missionaries were held captive by RENAMO (a South African backed guerrilla force) after several attempts, they were "rescued". It is unclear whether they were kidnapped, or "removed for their own protection" by RENAMO. "News reports indicated an alliance between elements of the Christian Right and RENAMO (pages 198-200)."
As of 1988, Loren Cunningham (according to Gary North) "began studying Reconstructionist writings…with the intent of incorporating 'dominion' or 'kingdom' [a belief that the Christian Biblical principles] theology into the ideological training given to YWAM missionaries. (page 206)."
An article which appeared in the September 1990 issue of Charisma Magazine reported another controversy concerning a YWAM base or school on the outskirts of Hammonton New Jersey. According to the article "YWAM-International officials say one of their bases got involved with a cult group". The group is called "Revival Corps International" and is based in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Wick Nease, an assistant director of YWAM in Tyler, Texas said, "their method of operation is frightful". In essence YWAM lost control of one of their own schools. As a result, many students were adversely affected. YWAM went to court regarding the further use of their name and property by the group.
The finances of YWAM have also been questioned. During 1984-85 for more than one year letters of inquiry were directed at YWAM offices by a concerned parent. Mrs. Shirley Landa of Bothell, Washington. Her son was associated with the organization at the time. When she was advised of her son's salary ($7.00 per week) as a staff member of YWAM she began to ask questions (in writing) about organization's financial structure, budget and accountability. Mrs. Landa sent letter after letter over a one year period. Nothing of substance was ever sent back (i.e. a complete budget or independently audited financial statement). YWAM's finances remained a mystery (copies of letters between YWAM and Mrs. Landa are available).
After reviewing all the information gathered concerning YWAM, the family which had retained me decided that it would be appropriate to share this material with their daughter. I was asked to facilitate this meeting. One evening, shortly after my arrival in New York, the young lady came to her family home and we met for a discussion. When we concluded, she advised that much of what was said was important and warranted further consideration.
The next day everything began to change. The daughter refused to meet alone with her family. She seemed "paranoid" according to her mother during numerous phone calls. Eventually, she did agree to meet with us, but only if her pastor could sit in. This meeting took place in his office. At Smithtown Tabernacles church, Pastor Forseth, (the senior pastor) pointed out repeatedly his strong support for Youth With A Mission. The organization had used his church for numerous programs and training sessions. However, he did show some interest in the reports that were brought to his attention. He also advised the family, their daughter should strongly reconsider her decision to join YWAM as a staff person if this concerned them.
The date first set for the Discipleship training was September 26, 1990. This could be put off until at least January of 1991. Pastor Forseth openly acknowledged that the family in no way had ever opposed their daughter's commitment to his church or the Pentecostal movement. He further admitted that they always had been considerate when attending the church with their daughter. He repeatedly stated that if the family had any misgivings about YWAM this could be discussed with Nick Savoca, the YWAM area director.
The next meeting took place shortly after our talk with Pastor Forseth. This meeting did not include Nick Savoca (a multi-state area director for YWAM). The meeting began with Mr. Savoca speaking for about thirty minutes about the wonderful accomplishments of Youth With A Mission. It took more than two hours for him to respond directly to the family's concerns. He insisted that any negative reports about YWAM were suspect. He did admit that the organization had a history of problems (related to authoritarianism). However, he felt that somehow these problems had been corrected. He was unable, or unwilling to be very specific about how this was accomplished.
I asked if Tom Hallas or Peter Jordan, two individuals that were specifically mentioned in the critical report from the former student at the Hawaii DTS were still with YWAM. He acknowledged that they were now in administrative positions of authority.
When asked about the existence of an authority structure which included "under-leaders", Mr. Savoca responded that there were "group leaders". He described their job as "molding Christian character" and acting as "role models" for the group. Mr. Savoca also admitted that Gary North (a Reconstrutionist writer) had in fact lectured a leadership group at YWAM meeting which he had attended. He said he found many "good" points in North's beliefs.
When asked about the finances of YWAM, Mr. Savoca gave no definitive answers. He repeatedly stated that there was not one set of books, but many due to the different levels of the organization and their international scope. He did admit that YWAM is not a member of the Evangelical Board of Financial Accountability. He said membership to that body was "under discussion". Again, he was not specific about financial accountability, an independently audited financial statement, or budget. However, at one point he did state that he would be happy to supply the family with a complete set of financial disclosure documents which he had in his possession. These documents never materialized.
Finally, our discussion turned to the specific area of so-called "intercession". We asked Mr. Savoca to explain this process to us. Specifically, what happened during the "nine steps". He did acknowledge the existence of "intercession" as a vital part of the Discipleship Training School, but would not be specific in detailing the process. When asked again to respond clearly, Mr. Savoca abruptly decided to leave. He insisted he had a "family matter" to take care of. However, he had never mentioned the necessity to leave at a certain time before. This seemed odd. He refused further questions and moved rapidly to the door. At the same time the daughter stood up and almost move-for-move patterned herself after Mr. Savoca and left the house at the same identical moment.
Shortly after this meeting, I left Long Island. Since that time, the family has had no contact with their daughter. They advise that now she seems convinced that they are "demon influenced" and is "hysterically paranoid". She also has stated that they have battered her "spiritual covering" and is "totally unavailable". Her pastor has not returned calls.
During our dialogue with the area director of YWAM he made repeated statements concerning the Catholic Church. Mr. Savoca said that he and his organization had very friendly relations with the Church. Moreover, that in New York and specifically in Mexico, many "crusades" and "revivals" were undertaken with the support and assistance of Catholic clergy and lay leaders.
Christian Brother, Timothy Mayworm F.S.F. of Pasadena, California, indicated quite the opposite. In fact, Brother Timothy had received repeated complaints concerning YWAM. The organization had caused severe problems for many Catholic families. Again, the complaints fit the consistent pattern of reported abuses. Dictatorial discipleship, "legalism" and psychological and emotional control through "group leaders".
Allegations of authoritarianism and "pyramid" discipleship are serious. It seemed appropriate to call YWAM at their offices located at Tyler, Texas. I was referred to Mr. Tom Cremers in personnel. Mr. Cremers freely acknowledged the "discipleship". This system of authority carried down to the so-called "group leaders" set in place over students at the DTS facilities. He was very frank and open. Mr. Cremers made it clear that he strongly supported this system.
There is an evident pattern to all the complaints about Youth With A Mission. If these statements are accurate, (which they seem to be) YWAM practices the so-called "sheperding" leadership method. Implementing direct control over their members through "discipleship" training. This training appears to employ recognized techniques of thought reform and mind control as listed by Robert J. Lifton in his "eight criteria" (see The Future of Immorality and Other Essays for a Nuclear Age, New York, Basics Books, 1987).
This can be seen clearly through a comparison of those eight criteria to the practices employed at YWAM DTS facilities.
One very disturbing feature of YWAM is its seeming inability to engage in open dialogue. Mr. Savoca never really responded to any concerns. He was evasive and finally fled rather than answer specific questions. This would lead to the conclusion that YWAM has little if any intention of changing.
One former DTS student wrote, "I see how my mind was played with. I feel ripped off—it's just not fair to be taken advantage of". The author of one report stated, "hopefully YWAM is not deliberately brainwashing recruits…they want to do God's work so badly and yet it's wrong".
The "ends do not justify the means". Taking into consideration all the available information, it seems to me, that it would not be prudent to recommend Youth With A Mission or any of its Discipleship Schools to anyone.