Estimated reading time: 22 minutes
Table of contents
- What is Youth With A Mission (YWAM)
- Cult-like behavior within YWAM
- YWAM’s Troublesome Theology
- Open Theism, Modern ‘Prophets and Apostles’, and ‘Hearing God’s Voice’
- Spiritual Abuse in YWAM
- “YWAM is a Cult” and “YWAM Ruined My Life”
- “Spiritual Abuse a Common Complaint for YWAM Students”
- Is YWAM a Cult?
- Advice for those who wish to join YWAM
- Research Resources on YWAM
- Unreliable Sources vs. Reliable Experts
- About this article
What is Youth With A Mission (YWAM)
Youth With A Mission (YWAM) is an international, Christian “movement” that consists of a “family of ministries.”
The ministry has 30,000 to 40,000 full-time unpaid workers, 25,000 young people trained every year, and independent bases in 1,200 to 1,300 locations around the world. 1
YWAM says it is not an organization, but rather a network of linked, independent ministries (referred to as a “family of ministries”). It refers to itself as a “movement.” 2 There are no headquarters, and while it has a “global networks of leaders and elders,” there is no Board of Directors.
The movement’s decentralized nature is part of the problems addressed in this article.
Cult-like behavior within YWAM
YWAM is involved in training, evangelism, and “mercy ministries” Whether you’re a carpenter, a surgeon, a cook, a computer operator, or someone who’s all thumbs, you can find one or more ministries in YWAM where can use your skills.
That said, though YWAM does lots of good work, the organization is not without its critics. At one time, a CRI fact-sheet pointed out the organization’s cult-like tendencies (primarily due to the many complaints received about abuses within YWAM’s leadership structure).
While living in Europe, my wife and I were involved with an Evangelical youth mission based in Switzerland. We were with the group only six weeks, but it was almost seven years before I had overcome the psychological damage caused by their cult-like control and spiritualization. […]
Questioning a leader was considered an act of rebellion against God and His chain of command. […]
Although the group I was in was thoroughly Christian in doctrine and in motive, they were blinded to the manipulative controls being placed on team members.– Source: Unholy Devotion: Why Cults Lure Christians, Harold Busséll, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1983. page 116
In the early eighties, while dealing with the aftermath of my own experiences of abuse by a YWAM leader, someone suggested I interview Harold Busséll. Busséll confirmed that, while he does not mention them by name, the organization he referred to was YWAM.
At the time, I was interviewed by Brian Onken, who was a research associate with the Christian Research Institute (CRI). Onken assured me my own experiences were echoed by many others, and that similar reports had been received regarding YWAM bases around the world.
YWAM’s Troublesome Theology
Alan Gomes, in his book “Lead Us Not Into Deception: A Biblical Examination of Moral Government Theology,” wrote about YWAM’s staunch support of the “Moral Government” theology (said to no longer be taught within the organization), and in the process also addressed some of the spiritual abuses some were subjected to.
While doing research for his book, Gomes himself was subjected to a smear-campaign directed by the highest leaders within the organization.
These are serious issues that were not limited to just a few isolated cases.
In another issue, the controversial Momentus training was at one time popular at the YWAM Hawaii base.
Open Theism, Modern ‘Prophets and Apostles’, and ‘Hearing God’s Voice’
In the 1970s and 1980s (and even some into the 1990s), a heretical belief system known as “Moral Government” was pervasive in YWAM. It was taught to tens of thousands of students at YWAM bases throughout the world. YWAM’s promotion of the Moral Government teaching was documented by respected theologians, including Alan W. Gomes, of Talbot School of Theology, in a book published in 1981, titled Lead Us Not into Deception: A Biblical Examination of Moral Government Theology.
The heretical Moral Government teaching is largely in YWAM’s past. Yet Moral Government teaching morphed into another heterodox doctrine promoted within YWAM today, known as “open theism.” What is open theism? It entails the belief that God does not exhaustively know all of the future. Specifically, he doesn’t know what decisions human beings will choose to make acting out of their free wills. In other words, God’s knowledge is limited by humankind’s free moral choice. He cannot 100 percent predict what any free moral agent will do ahead of time.
So why would YWAM be drawn toward these similar theological systems of Moral Government theology and open theism? Is it possible that it’s because they appear to make the contributions of YWAM missionaries more significant and to lend greater urgency to their missionary enterprise?
In Part 2 of this series about YWAM, I will show the relationship between YWAM and the New Apostolic Reformation, a rapidly growing movement of church leaders who style themselves as authoritative apostles and prophets and claim their new revelations are key to bringing God’s physical kingdom to earth.
This section was added on Thursday, November 18, 2021
Spiritual Abuse in YWAM
I, the founder and publisher of Apologetics Index, have personally experienced spiritual abuse within YWAM from Floyd McClung, who at the time was one of YWAM’s top world leaders. He demanded unquestioning obedience, claiming that God would bless us for our obedience to leaders, including himself, even when we knew them to be wrong. That is an unbiblical teaching found in many abusive churches. (See “Enforcing authority“).
The manipulative nature of Floyd’s interactions with me and my then girlfriend were totally out of step with his public image. The couple who led the base where this took place, and who had known us before Floyd and his family came to live there, told us they did not understand why Floyd made certain demands of us. “But he is our leader, and we have to obey him,” they said.
The abuse only stopped when I told McClung that I was going to tell certain Christian leaders in the Netherlands what he was saying and doing. My father had been a street evangelist in Amsterdam. Both he and I had many connections.
Manipulative leadership approach to relationships
I never signed on with YWAM myself. I had worked at nearby Christian Youth Hostel “The Shelter.” Many of our staff members attended church on “The Ark,” a YWAM vessel then moored at pier 14 behind Central Station.
Johan Frinsel, who headed the organization The Shelter was part of, frequently told me and others that it was ‘best to not get involved with YWAM.’ Among the reasons for this warning was the often manipulative way in which budding relationships were handled within YWAM. YWAMmers were told they were there because they had wanted to do missionary work. Falling in love was, the claim went, the “enemy’s way of distracting you from that mission.”
If and when two people developed a friendship and sensed the relationship was growing deeper, they had to meet with their leaders. If those leaders felt the relationship was OK, the friends gained their approval. In that case, the now ‘official’ friendship was announced to the group as a “Special Relationship.”
Sometimes leaders did not agree the relationship was right. I remember several people who were rightfully upset when their leaders, for instance, told the guy that “God is calling your to a position in Denmark,” and the girl that “the Lord has shown us he wants you to work for Him in France.” But submitting to your leaders was a thing in YWAM.
Floyd McClung’s unreasonable demands
Through my friendship with a girl who lived at the then new YWAM base “The Cleft,” I nevertheless became involved in helping out there. 4
The leaders of that base had known my friend for many years before they came to Amsterdam. We had a good relationship with them. They had no problems with our friendship, and they had not even suggested the type of approach we had seen at The Ark.
But when Floyd came to live at the Cleft, within days he started making unreasonable demands of us, with the clear intention to break up our friendship. Without giving any reason at all, he simply told us not to see each other, and not to talk to each other.
However, while he was away from the base to attend a week-long conference in, I believe, Thailand, we did talk. Others in the building knew, of course. Most told us they did not agree with Floyd’d demands, though two or three also said something to the effect that “we still have to obey our leaders.”
Then one evening my friend needed to mail an important letter. With nobody else around, she asked me to accompany her to the mailbox near the church across the canal. The Red Light District was, at the time, a much wilder place than it is nowadays. So I accompanied her. In disobedience to Floyd? You bet! We had already concluded that he had no right to act the way he did.
But unbeknownst to us, Floyd had already returned. When we ran into him on the bridge, he was upset. Then he said, a tear running down one of his cheeks, “I’m so disappointed! I thought I told you not to spend any time together!?” It was bizar, to say the least.
“Even if I’m wrong, God will bless you for your obedience.”
When we therefore asked him to show us Bible-based reasons for his actions. He first told us to wait a few days. Then he told us — in separate meetings — that Abraham sent his servants to find a wife for his son Isaac. (Apparently he had not heard of the old saw that “description is not prescription.” You cannot turn an anecdote into a principle). When I asked him to give a New Testament example, he referred to Romans 13:1-7. But that passage deals with submitting to a country’s authorities.
When I challenged him on this, Floyd told me that God honors obedience to one’s leaders. “Even if I’m wrong, God will bless you for your obedience.” But that certainly is not biblical either.
In other words, McClung had no biblical basis for his appeal to authority over us. But aside from these odd references he refused to share any reasons behind his arbitrary demands.
About two years later, we asked Floyd for a meeting, letting him know that we still were considering sharing our experiences with Christian leaders.
Though we were only a phone call away, oddly Floyd replied by sending us a Telegram inviting us to meet with him.
At the meeting McClung denied much of what he had said and done, even though there had been a number of witnesses — including the two leaders of The Cleft. However, we forgave him the spiritual abuse (he did not accept that term), and accepted his reluctant apologies.
Floyd then asked us not so share our experiences with others. But that is something we did not agree to. We told him it would be foolish for us to “forgive and forget.” We still thought warnings others was important.
Anyway, those who know me personally know that the abuse has had far-reaching consequences, the scars of which I still bear.
On the every cloud has a silver lining side, I did learn a lot about spiritual abuse during that time. I have been able to use that in my later ministry.
Floyd “deals with” Moral Government theology
Interestingly, a few years later Floyd McClung contacted me because he heard I was planning to write an article on YWAM’s support for the Moral Government Theology. While simple research showed that (at the time) it was promoted on several bases, McClung insisted it was taught at just one base. He suggested he was trying to “deal with it.”
Floyd also told me that books promoting Moral Government Theology were no longer sold at YWAM bookstores. Yet during my research I had contacted many YWAM bases asking whether certain books were available. They were. But he told me I was “mistaken.”
McClung’s reason for calling? To urge me not to write the article.
Given my history with him, I thought it was odd for Floyd to call me, and I did feel somewhat intimidated. After all, as mentioned earlier, while doing research for his book, Alan Gomes was subjected to a smear-campaign directed by some of YWAM’s highest leaders.
Earlier I wrote that Floyd’s interactions with me and my then girlfriend were totally out of step with his public image. Perhaps what we experienced was indeed an anomaly. By all accounts, McClung was considered a kind man who reflected “The Father Heart of God” (the title of one of his books, published in 1984).
The reason for including this section anyway is to document my experiences with him. They helped me understand the testimonies of others who have been subjected to spiritual abuse — or just plain manipulative behavior — within YWAM. That our experiences involved one of the movement’s top leaders contributed to our shock.
Forgiveness is a powerful principle in Christianity. As stated, I have indeed forgiven him. Not just that time when we met him at his new apartment at the top of Sam’s Inn. But also many times afterward, just by myself, whenever memories of his behavior were triggered. Speaking of which, among other things the two books I mention in my Advice to Join YWAM were instrumental in my healing. So was the book, Recovering From Churches That Abuse.
Note: Floyd McClung passed away on May 29, 2021. He was 75 years old. My heart goes out to his wife, Sally, whose kindness to us at the time I remember well.
This section was expanded on Thursday, November 18
“YWAM is a Cult” and “YWAM Ruined My Life”
One way Youth With A Mission (YWAM) has responded to online reports detailing spiritual abuse, or calling the organization a “cult,” is with what looks like a well-planned PR campaign.
Nowadays search engine serve up article with titles like, “Is YWAM a cult?,” “YWAM ruined my life,” or “My life was ruined in my DTS.” Some of the articles are posted on personal websites, while others are hosted on officials YWAM sites.
The gist of these articles is that, say, attending a Discipleship Training School (DTS) had a positive effect on the person’s life. That “my life was ruined for the ordinary.” Or that “a disgruntled critic” who “genuinely had a bad experience labels the entire organization bad because of it.”
Some of the articles go to great length to explain what a cult is, and how YWAM does not fit that description. [Example]
And yet, fact is that many people report they had bad, cult-like experiences in YWAM.
“Spiritual Abuse a Common Complaint for YWAM Students”
That’s the title of an article posted on the MinistryWatch website in March, 2021:
Hundreds of alumni from Youth with a Mission’s training and outreach programs say they were spiritually abused by immature leaders, who claimed to speak for God, and warned that questioning their absolute control equaled rebellion against God.
In painful videos posted to social media, victims of the abuse share their stories and forgive the local leaders who abused them, but blame their suffering on YWAM’s international leaders for their lack of oversight.
The videos have generated hundreds of comments from fellow ex-YWAMers who applaud the girls’ bravery, and say they’ve experienced similar abuse at YWAM bases in France, Australia, and California.
“YWAM has had the same problems resurface year after year around the world & each response had been to make it circumstantial rather than recognizing there’s a major problem with the structure of the organization,” said one commenter.
Hundreds more YWAM abuse survivors gather virtually in public and private Facebook groups and other online forums.
At least two YWAM leaders have responded publicly to the videos and other charges of abuse on social media. Their responses suggest nothing significant will change.
As MinistryWatch recently reported, YWAM has a unique non-structured structure that lacks the standard management, governance, and accountability functions that most ministries rely on to assess and address problems. YWAM isn’t incorporated, lacks any central organization or headquarters, and has no president or board of directors. Rather, individually organized YWAM ministries around the world are part of a network or “family of ministries.”
As some abuse victims have long charged, YWAM’s loose structure of independent ministries allows its international leaders to evade responsibility and legal liability, making it extremely difficult to hold abusive leaders accountable and allowing abusive practices to continue unchecked at some bases for decades.
YWAM boasts of “launching waves of missionaries into the world since 1960,” but its approach to developing its leaders and training its new recruits has unleashed waves of ex-students who’ve struggled with trauma, flashbacks, insomnia, panic attacks, self-isolation, doubts about God, an aversion to worship songs that trigger bad memories, and even suicide attempts—some of them successful.
Is YWAM a Cult?
In our informed opinion, YWAM is not a cult — neither theologically, not sociologically. (See our companion site, Cult Definition for definitions and other information].
However, it is clear that many people have encountered cult-like leaders, ministries, teachings, and actions within the decentralized organization’s countless “individually organized YWAM ministries.”
It is also evident that YWAM does not properly address these experiences.
Therefore, Janet and I still do not recommend involvement in YWAM.
But if you still want to join the organization, please see our advice posted below.
This section was added on Thursday, November 18, 2021
Advice for those who wish to join YWAM
As mentioned, YWAM does much good work throughout the world. Generally, most people have good experiences with the short-term ministry opportunities YWAM offers.
However, it is best not to make decisions regarding further involvement with YWAM (e.g. commit to attend one of YWAM’s schools) during or immediately after such trips.
A long-term commitment to YWAM, starting with the attendance of one or more of its mandatory schools, is usually served in a foreign country, away from your family, friends, church and other familiar points of reference. Your lifestyle will be much different from what you are used to at home, with less personal freedom, independence and outside input than you are used to.
In addition, you may not be able to communicate in the language of the country you are staying in.
In such circumstances it is so much easier to give in to spiritual pressure (real or imagined, from leaders as well as peers).
At the very least, these books will help you be alert for potential problems (in YWAM or any other Christian ministry). Forewarned is forearmed.
You should also make sure that you have a working knowledge of spiritual discernment.
In other words, you have to think for yourself, to recognize the warning signs of spiritual abuse, and to be able to evaluate teaching — using Scripture are your guide.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking spiritual abuse cannot happen to you. Nobody deliberately joins an abusive church — and yet, people do find themselves caught up in them.
If and when you are at a YWAM base, make sure you stay in touch with parents, other family members, and friends back home. Let them know what is taking place, and what you are being taught. Be open to their questions and advice.
Make sure you will be able to travel back home if necessary.
Again, all this does not mean the things described on this page are going on at all YWAM bases. (Note that years after my negative experiences, I again volunteered at a YWAM base in Amsterdam and had a wonderful time 5).
One thing to keep in mind is that YWAM is a huge organization within which you can encounter many cultural and spiritual differences, as well as many leadership styles. Even in a small country like the Netherlands there are huge differences between the ”feel” and approach of the various YWAM bases.
Should you have questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me.
Research Resources on YWAM
Note: Links to some of these resources may be broken. We will try to update them soon. Meanwhile, try and locate the material by using the Internet Archive’s Way Back Machine.
Moral government theology (hereafter MGT) first began to spread rapidly when Olson and Conn became regular speakers for Youth With A Mission (YWAM), which has since become one of the larger youth missionary organizations in the world. Contrary to YWAM’s repeated denials that MGT was an important part of its teaching, it was in YWAM training that tens of thousands of students from the late 1970s through the 1980s, and some even into the 1990s, learned MGT (although today some YWAM leaders speak against MGT).
■ Interview with Dave Andrews: Advocating Christian Anarchy [Contra] See these brief excerpts relating to Dave’s excommunication from YWAM in Abuse in the Church
Christi-Anarchy, the provocatively titled new book from Australian author and Christian community leader, Dave Andrews, has fired much discussion both inside and outside the Christian community. In it he describes in detail his excommunication more than 20 years ago from a worldwide Christian mission organisation, Youth With a Mission (YWAM). This narrative provides the impetus for Andrews’s call for a total deconstruction and reconstruction of what it is to follow Jesus.
■ Evaluation of Loren Cunningham’s book, “Is That Really You, God? Hearing the Voice of God” [Contra]. By Rev. Greg Robertson.
■ Evaluations to Help with the Discernment of False Teaching, by Rev. Greg Robertson. Some observations regarding people involved in, or related to YWAM
This testimony is in no way comprehensive of my YWAM experience. The first draft was thirty pages and even it left out a lot. My experience was not all bad, and not every one that joins YWAM leaves with a testimony like mine. Some may have had a more positive experience than I – though I know individuals who had worse things happen to them. In writing this testimony, however, I have spent hours and hours reading over old diary entries, school notes, papers I printed as a YWAMer, and books we printed and distributed in YWAM. I also listened to many tapes by popular YWAM speakers. I actually found that Moral Government is more widespread and deeper than I formerly thought. In all this I have tried to be perfectly accurate in what I have said. Many things were deleted from the manuscript simply because my memory was a little unclear and I had nothing in my diary about it.
Contrary to what YWAM leaders will probably say, I am not writing these things because of “some hurt I received.” I have watched and waited, and have come to the conclusion that YWAM is making no serious attempt to remove the heretical teaching and unethical practice which has become common place in their midst. In my opinion, the removal of Moral Government from the organization is only on the surface – a YWAM tactic for good public relations.
I believe that people like Alan Gomes, who take aberrant theology and shine the light of Scripture on it, should be commended for their service to the Church: “. . . holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9).
■ Saturated in Abuse at YWAM Maui [Contra] Walter Jones [pseudonym] recounts his experiences at the YWAM Maui DTS. Posted on this website by permission, December 15, 1999. The writer, who requested the uses of a pseudonym, at one time had a website titled, “YWAM Warning,” which he said revealed “the WHAM! in YWAM.” [Another article by the same author]
■ The ”Spiritual Mapping” of YWAM Collection of articles and links: “There are certain corner stones which have made the “casting about by every wind of doctrine” and “spiritual abuse” possible in YWAM. It is important to understand some of the things on this web page if you really want to understand present, confusing trends and movements in YWAM and other organizations.”
Like many groups birthed out of the Jesus movement in the 1960s, YWAM emphasized the importance of relationship with God rather than the doctrine of God. This led, perhaps innocently, to a devaluing of theology.
While none of YWAM’s early or current leaders came from questionable denominational backgrounds, it seemed like discernment was lacking. This led to YWAM leadership’s introduction of Moral Government theology (MGT) to YWAM students worldwide.
■ Is That Really You, God?: Hearing the Voice of God [Pro] by Loren Cunningham. Billed as a “practical guide to hearing God’s voice” this book essentially chronicles how Cunningham became the founder of Youth With a Mission. Not recommended as a guide on hearing God’s voice. Be sure to read this excellent review, titled, “hearing unreliable voices and getting the Gospel wrong” at Amazon.com
■ Lead Us Not Into Deception: A Biblical Examination of Moral Government Theology [Contra] [Free book in PDF format] by Alan Gomes, Professor of Theology at Biola University. Excellent, in-depth examination. Also addresses spiritual abuse within YWAM.
■ Youth With A Mission, Wikipedia [Neutral], but note Wikipedia’s own disclaimer: “Wikipedia is not a reliable source for academic writing or research.”
The entry does briefly mention a) concerns regarding the treatment of YWAM volunteers, and b) theological and doctrinal issues.
Unreliable Sources vs. Reliable Experts
When you research spiritual abuse within YWAM, you will come across some unreliable sources of information. Sometimes victims and others refer to such sources, while unaware of certain conflicts surrounding them.
CultExperts.org, one of our companion websites, lists a number of cult experts we recommend. These reliable experts are recognized by fellow professionals in the field.
■ Youth With A Mission – YWAM [Pro] YWAM’s official site
About this article
This article was written by Anton Hein, founder and team member of Apologetics Index.
It was first posted in November, 1996, and is updated when necessary. Most recent update: November 20, 2021.
Apologetics Index continues to receive inquiries regarding Youth With a Mission, most often from parents who are concerned that their sons and daughters are giving up (or at least putting on hold indefinitely) education and careers in order to serve YWAM at some faraway location.
People often want to know information regarding specific locations: is there anything at ‘such and such’ base that is of concern? After all, YWAM is a decentralized ‘movement’ with no real oversight of, or involvement in, its “family of ministries.”
Personally, we recommend against involvement with Youth With A Mission — even though the organization does much good work.
We do have some advice for those who wish to serve YWAM anyway.
- Figures cited in Spiritual Abuse a Common Complaint for YWAM Students, Stevey Rabey, MinistryWatch, March 19, 2021 ↩
- Interestingly, in its ‘DTS Fundraising Guide’ (“Our practical guide to help you raise money for YWAM”) we read, “Sharing a few facts about YWAM will build your credibility. For example, YWAM is one of the largest missions organizations in the world.“ ↩
- ‘Cultic’ in the sense of cult-like: including some characteristics frequently seen among cult leaders, such as a demand for unquestioning obedience and loyalty ↩
- Among other things I, as a Dutch local, was asked to research the monument status of the building. ↩
- Amsterdam is my hometown, and I already knew several of the people that worked at this particular base ↩