Youth With A Mission all began in 1956 when a 20-year-old American college student named Loren Cunningham spent some time in prayer while on tour with a singing group in the Bahamas. Leaning back on his bed he saw what he called a “mental movie.” There was a map of the world and waves were breaking all over it. The waves began to turn into young people, thousands of them, spilling on to every continent and sharing the good news about Jesus. The picture faded.
“Was that really you, Lord?” he asked.
This idea, radical at the time, that young people could be missionaries, stayed with Loren. Four years later, in 1960, he started an organization with that idea expressed in its name: Youth With A Mission.
Today, Youth With A Mission (YWAM) has grown into one of the world’s largest Christian mission organizations. The story of how YWAM began and how it grew is a story of God’s direction and God’s grace in using ordinary people from countries all over the world.
It all began with that vision. In June of 1956, Loren Cunningham, a 20-year-old student at the Assemblies of God College in Springfield, USA, spent a part of his summer break in Nassau, Bahamas, as a participant in a gospel quartet. While there, Loren had an experience that would change his life. He describes it:
“That night after our singing engagement, I returned to the missionary’s guest room with its white walls, unadorned except for an island scene in a cheap wooden frame. I lay down on the bed, doubled the pillow under my head and opened my Bible, routinely asking God to speak into my mind. What happened next was far from routine. Suddenly, I was looking up at a map of the world. Only the map was alive, moving! I sat up. I shook my head, rubbed my eyes. It was a mental movie. I could see all the continents. Waves were crashing onto the shores. Each went onto a continent, then receded, then came up further until it covered the continent completely. I caught my breath. Then, as I watched, the scene changed. The waves became young people–kids my age and even younger–covering the continents. They were talking to people on the street corners and outside bars. They were going house to house. They were preaching. “Was that really you, Lord?” I wondered, still staring at the wall, amazed. Young people–kids really–going out as missionaries! What an idea! And I thought “Why did God give me this vision?”
By the summer of 1960, Loren had graduated from college. With experience in leadership, and a vision on his mind, Loren became an Assemblies of God minister and a leader of youth activities in Los Angeles. In remembrance of his vision, Loren led a youth mission trip to Hawaii, learning as he went along, and developing the vision for YWAM – It would be an organization that sent kids out after high school to gain a sense of purpose before going to college, and that welcomed all Christians no matter what the denomination. It was a vision that came to life in the year 1960.
From December, 1969 to the summer of 1970, YWAM held its first school, the School of Evangelism, with a total of 36 students. The students’ lodging and classes took place in a newly renovated and leased hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland. By the end of the year, YWAM purchased the hotel and made Lausanne, Switzerland its first permanent location.
Later in the decade, another YWAM school would begin, a school that would become the foundation for YWAM’s many training programs. By 1974, the School of Evangelism was being offered in New Jersey as well as Lausanne. The New Jersey school leader, Leland Paris, noticed that many YWAM students had no Christian background, having only recently come to Christ through the ”Jesus Movement” of the 1970’s. “I remember asking a student about his religious background,” recalls Leland. “He said, ‘Drugs.'”
After consulting with Loren and other YWAM leaders, Leland began a school that would focus on biblical foundations and character development as well as missions. The school, the Discipleship Training School (DTS), quickly caught on and was also offered in New Zealand and Los Angeles, which added an outreach phase to the program. This format: three months of lectures followed by two or three months of outreach, is still used in most Discipleship Training Schools today.
By the year 1970, YWAM had a total of 40 full-time staff. That year, Don Stephens found a castle to act as the Munich, Germany base for 1,000 volunteer YWAM staff and he began to prepare an outreach for the 1972 Olympics. This was the first of many YWAM Olympic outreaches.
Alongside the Olympic outreach, a new YWAM vision came into port. YWAM had three schools running, and Loren knew that there should be something more, and once again, he envisioned a ship for ministry to port cities around the world. That vision was to be the vessel for some hard lessons to the growing YWAM family to never value the tools of God’s work above God Himself and it was 10 years before the Anastasis was launched as the first in a fleet of YWAM Mercy Ships – a ministry which has since been released as a separate ministry, bringing hope and healing to the needy in port cities around the world.
In 1977, YWAM leased the Pacific Empress Hotel in Kona, Hawaii and began the cleaning process and renovations in order to turn it into the campus for what was initially called the Pacific and Asia Christian University. The following year, King’s Kids – a ministry to involve children and teenagers in missions was founded. The vision was growing…
YWAM teams began visiting refugee camps in Thailand. Gary Stephens, brother of Don Stephens, led a team to one of them. He remembers:
“They did what even the refugees had been unwilling to do: shoveled out the human waste, repaired broken sewage pipes, and fixed toilets.” Gary reported back that the refugees marveled. Here were young people who were paying their own way to come and do a job no one else would consider. Time after time they were given the opening they hoped for: They were asked why they had come…”
By 1980, YWAM had 1,800 full-time staff. Two of them, Steve and Marie Goode, heard about the refugee crisis in Thailand, and decided to go there for three months to help. They stayed longer, and ended up directing YWAM’s refugee camp ministry.
Faced with massive need, YWAM’s refugee ministry in Thailand became a huge effort. The YWAM response grew throughout the 80s. In 1992 alone, the 90 YWAMers and 4,000 refugee staff clothed 53,500 people, immunized 11,000 children per month, trained 109 agricultural students, distributed 44,000 letters monthly, and gave 26 pastors a year of Bible training.
The pressure to provide professional care on such a large scale forced YWAM’s mercy ministries to grow up. “The understanding that YWAM would operate in three major categories–evangelism, training and mercy ministries–was developed with the beginning of the Cambodian refugee crisis,” said Don Stephens.
In 1984, Steve Goode, who is now YWAM’s international director of Mercy Ministries, wrote: “Where we work there are things that are not very pretty, not very conducive to praising God. Like boat people where all the women have been raped; like abandoned children wailing in their anguish; like people who rip you off; like people whose blank, staring eyes tell you they have nothing left to hope in. In the midst of all the heartache we are able to reveal the heart of God through worship, to show people that our great and loving God is present in the ugliness of a refugee camp to heal, restore and give hope to the hopeless.”
In the 1980s, as YWAM’s mercy ministry grew, YWAM’s international leadership was growing as well. There were several international strategy conferences where foundational documents established the purposes of the mission. At one, YWAM embraced the idea of church planting. At another, a commitment statement was drafted, called the Manila Covenant. Many of the mission’s priorities were put into a statement of YWAM’s core values. In 1985, Loren Cunningham passed on the role of international director to Floyd McClung.
At the end of the decade, YWAM changed the name of its university to University of the Nations (U of N). The concept of a YWAM university that would encompass training programs in hundreds of YWAM locations was developed both by Loren Cunningham and by scientist and professor, Howard Malmstadt. A man of such renown that he was offered the presidency of a large USA university, Howard, at the age of 55, left his position at the University of Illinois to join YWAM. Although many of his friends, and even his wife, thought he was “delirious,” Howard became the main architect of the YWAM University.