Was I In a Cult? My Experience in Youth With a Mission

I’ve been occupying an odd head space lately: reading a great deal about cults, and pondering my general resistance to going to church. I didn’t think they were connected, but it recently occurred to me that perhaps they are. Enter Youth With a Mission (Or YWAM, pronounced “Why-wham.”)

Youth With a Mission was founded by Loren Cunningham in the sixties, and is one of the largest evangelistic organizations in the world. I joined YWAM fresh out of a tumultuous four years in high school, and (like many YWAMers) entered the organization out of a desperation for direction and stability. I was 18, impressionable, artsy, dramatic, and very, very gay.

Entering YWAM was like entering another world; I practically vanished from the real world – from family, jobs, friends, school – and I entered an alternate dimension: the huge network of YWAM bases. It felt like an hidden web. Within this vast, insular web, I was nurtured. The base leaders were kind, receptive, and caring. I had a strict daily structure: wake up at 7 AM, an hour of silence for prayer, worship and lectures every morning and early afternoon, duties around the base (mine was in the kitchen) and then free time in late afternoon and evening.

The idea of it being cult-like was not on my radar. The Discipleship Training School (DTS for short) is the entry level 6 month program that all YWAMers must complete in order to enter the vast web of YWAM. My DTS was a bright spot of happiness in my otherwise tumultuous youth. I was just happy to find a place of temporary stability. Despite the rapturous happiness I felt at the base, however, I also found myself experiencing abysmal depression. I would find myself so debilitatingly depressed I couldn’t speak, or couldn’t get out of bed. The highs were very high, the lows were very, very low.

Encased in an insular religious environment, every single tiny thing became laced with spiritual meaning. The world took on a hallucinogenic quality, in which all emotions and experience were heightened. It was a giddy experience – meaning infused everything. A tattoo, an ear ring, a gift from a friend, a breakfast, worship, a passage in the Bible – they all became omens of inexpressible import. And it wasn’t just me who experienced this high, this incredible quality to life: it was all of us. Most of us felt that we had found a deeper reality, an intoxicating realm of meaning. I still find myself missing YWAM and aching for it, despite myself, and despite all the skepticism I’ve accumulated over the years. I still have dreams in which I’m reunited with the organization. I will still astonish myself with a deep, aching yearning for such a sense of community, purpose, and spirituality.

The first sign of trouble for me came at the very end of my DTS, when I was considering leaving the base and moving to another YWAM base elsewhere in the country. The leadership of my base pushed back very, very strongly.

“You need to stay here,” said the base leader, “you need more spiritual healing.” The leadership of the base seemed to feel that I was an unfinished project, and that I wasn’t permitted to leave until I was finished, until I was completely fixed. I don’t know what their intentions were – I was eighteen, and like all eighteen year olds I was a master of interpreting the intentions of adults in the least charitable light – but the message was clear to me: we are the only ones who can help you. 

“It takes just as much prayer and discernment to leave YWAM as it does to enter it,” they told me. “It is just as serious to leave as it is to enter.” And they made their opinion obvious to me: I would be wrong and disobedient to leave the base.

This disturbed me, and I left the base. I transferred to the Denver base, which turned into an unrelenting nightmare.

First, there’s the fact that I’m gay. At both bases I was stationed, ex-gay thinking was deeply ingrained. I believed everything I was told: that being gay is a sexualized pathology, and that I am just a wounded and confused heterosexual who needs healing from past traumas. I was taught that I did not receive appropriate love from men or, worse, was sexually abused, which distorted my sexual growth. I had to heal the abuse, or the wounding, in order to finally be whole. I had to wait for God’s healing touch, the way a person dying of thirst must wait for rain.

By the time I got to Denver, my ex-gay honeymoon was coming to an end. At the previous base, I’d had transcendent mystical experiences of God calling me out of the Egypt of homosexuality – I’d heard His voice, felt conviction, and blindly followed. But in Denver, the spell started to wear thin. I realized that I hadn’t changed. That nobody had changed. That all my ex-gay leaders and mentors were still as gay as they were at the age of 18. I plummeted into the pitch black night of depression.

Denver was lonely. Suffocatingly, miserably lonely. The highs and lows, from thunderous spiritual ecstasy to abysmal, black despair, became more pronounced. And then, at the very end of my 3 month stint, a gunman came to the Denver base and killed 2 people. I was in the hallway when it happened. The shooting ended the YWAM season of my life, and I left for good.

In the aftermath of my YWAM experience, other stories started to emerge. Friends of mine who were also YWAMers would come home from their bases traumatized shadows of their former selves. I would ask them what happened, and they would tell stories of spiritual abuse and manipulation, or they would say nothing at all, completely unwilling to revisit whatever it was that happened when they were in the organization. However, it must also be said that I knew just as many YWAMers who returned home with wonderful experiences or, like me, came home with ambivalent feelings about the organization, but there were enough stories of trauma to give me pause.

I started to realize that my own story of manipulative leaders, incredible spiritual highs and horrible depressive lows was not rare. It was widespread. I encountered more and more people who had been traumatized or abused by their time in YWAM, and I listened intently to their stories. My story was mild compared to the abuse they experienced. Mine was uncomfortable, theirs were nightmarish.

My disillusionment with YWAM grew, and as it did my trust in spirituality, the voice of God, and religion as a whole started to crack. I’m now resistant to groups of any kind, and I’d rather float on the outside, like a cat watching from the periphery, instead of being enmeshed on the inside. That distrust has followed me throughout my life. The seed of skepticism is alive and well inside of me, and though I am still a Christian, I struggle with it daily.

Is YWAM a cult? I don’t know. It depends on who you ask. I’ve been searching for an answer, trying to find a black and white way to cast my experience. Parts of their program are undoutedly cult-like: leaders who demand obedience, the cloistering away from the world, putting in hours and hours of work for almost zero pay. But in other ways, the program was wonderful. It complicated my life, but it also enriched it. Are all cults fully wicked? And are all organizations that have cult-like symptoms fully cults? Could it be that YWAM – and many organizations – inhabit an interstitial space somewhere in the middle, with the potential for great good and great evil?

All I’m left with is an uncomfortable middle ground of loving and hating my history in YWAM, and by default loving and hating anything that resembles that religious groupishness. Despite my Christian faith, I struggle with complex feelings every time I step foot into a church or Christian community, and too often those feelings have gone unexamined, pushing me to the outer fringe. The religious inside, to me, is dangerous, and it always has been. And I can’t help but feel that many others (especially of my generation) have the same suspicion of religious community: that, for all it’s redemptive qualities, it’s a thinly veiled prison.

30 Comments

  1. Hello! I wish I could speak with you more directly, I’m an 18 year old Christian, and I’ve been wishing to do misionary in Japan.
    I was just recommended the YWAM Tokyo, and I must say, I want to go because I want to help the others that do not know God
    Even if there’s some rough times, I feel like, as long as I serve God, no cult can take me away from him

  2. I feel the same exact way! My wife and I just got out of the Texas base and I was under extream spiritual abuse for 6 years. Didn’t realize it till October 2016. They teach you to suffer and you go along with it. I will for ever stere people away for ywam. It’s an awful awful institution.

  3. i did ywam, too. thank you. there’s a lot i could say, but the part about the leadership trying to stop you from leaving is true for me as well. thanks for sharing.

  4. It’s very bold of everyone one here to speak out about “The World’s Largest Missionary Training …” …as YWAM calls it “…schools…”. I learned a whole lot in Texas at that YWAMs prison camp.
    They lie. Not a school. No accreditedation. No Biblical founadation. No check and balances for let’s call them what they are staff. They are not clergy. They have never been ordained! They are not teachers. They have never gone to college! And I’m going to do something today in this paragraph that I should have done years ago. I denounce them! And remove any control any of those idiots have ever or will ever have over my mind or my life. Because they should not have ever been in any position of power over me or my life!
    My body, my mind, my heart and soul have and always will only belong to God!
    And I forgive them even if they knew what they did.

  5. I joined Youth With a Mission in 1977 after High School, as soon as they started their Shepherding Crap I left. Once a person/group attempts to take your personal power away (in the name of God) you got go! The Lord created us with free will, and doesn’t want us to be mindless sheep. We’re here to have a relationship with God not some leader, group, political party, etc. God Bless!

  6. I too believe that YWAM is a cult and the teaching is manipulative and destructive to the individual. Is there any organisations working to close down YWAM? Do you think that God will do anything about seeking justice for the students who have been affected?

  7. I was in an umbrella ministry called Island Breeze. Karen Cunningham was in my DTS. I’ve had dinner with Loren Cunningham and I was trained in my PRCS(Priceless of Redeeming Cultures School) to create fronts from which to convert people.

    They tried to convince me to falsify a visa application to enter Mongolia under false pretense as an English teacher. Luckily, circumstance allowed me to escape and I’ve just now started to recover from the brain washing.

    These people are connected to geopolitical interests now controlling the Trump administration. YWAM is just one part of a global Christian fascist movement.

    It is a cult and I’m glad you got away.

  8. Yep yep yep. I spent five years in YWAM, married my DTS leader, became a part of the Leadership Team of one of the bases in Colorado Springs, and then left to go to college. It was only after I had left that I started to realize just what the fuck had happened to me and what I’d been a part of. Much of what you’ve said are things that I’ve also experienced and, unfortunately, perpetuated. Thank you for writing out what you’ve experienced. I’ve yet to do that, but know that I must at some point.

  9. I spent several years at YWAM Denver, and it was the most hellish experience of my life.

    The amount of humiliation and abuse I experienced there makes me sick, especially when I consider the friends, family and churches that sent me money to be there. The Warrens are among some of the most conceited, vapid, fake and greedy people I have ever met, and Mark McGowan is abusive, sinister and cruel. I was there years before you were, but by that time he had already been forced to leave staff for a time twice because of having inappropriate relationships with young girls in the program. I still remember, clear as day, sitting in the Phase II classroom (in the basement of the original being at the time) listening as Donna told the stories of Mark’s transgressions and how God mercifully led him back to repentance and how he was high leadership again. Indeed he was, and I became a woman he belittled, abused and humiliated. When I DARED go to someone in leadership for help I was told I was rebellious, prideful, and disobedient, and I was chastised for going over his head instead of talking to him directly. I sat there in tears and asked how I was supposed to confront the man who was using his power to abuse me if I couldn’t get help. I was told that if I was really telling the truth I should be able to confront him without fear. Uh, what? And then I was told no one believed me because God had restored this man to his position. So, the man that had already been kicked off base twice for abuse was now above reproach because he was able to worm his way back into good graces?

    I went to YWAM Denver because I wanted to be healed and because I wanted to serve God. I was genuine and I submitted to leadership. I followed the rules, I did the work, I cashed in my college fund and handed it over when the base had “needs” during my school. (Later, on staff, I would come to realize that my class was nothing special- YWAM Denver milks people of money on the level of Scientology. Remember the worship sessions that turned into fundraising sessions? The hours of music and praise and worship with everyone’s names on the board and how much they owed? Somehow these meetings were ALWAYS right before lunch, and we had to stay there until all of the money came in. People who had saved and scrimped were forced to give to the kids who had spent their fundraising money on skiing and movies so everyone could go on outreach because our money wasn’t our own, it was God’s.)

    I remember watching Dave Duell stand off in the corner on the bridge in the main building, carefully observing DTS students going about their days. He would talk to staff, memorize the student pictures, and quietly observe the DTSers. Then he would show up for the first class, act like none of that had happened, and he would get “words of knowledge” for kids that knocked their socks off because there is no way he could have known! (Oh, except that he was spying on them and the base staff was feeding him info about them….)

    I could write for DAYS about my experience there, and maybe I will come back and do so some time. But I just wanted to say that you are not alone and I’m so sorry you wasted time and money at that awful place, too. They stole more than just the years I physically spent on the base, though. I remained in the mental prison YWAM put me in for years and years afterwards, only realizing I wasn’t the problem when a therapist suggested I try cult deprogramming therapy. I spent about 15 minutes trying to convince her YWAM wasn’t a cult until she asked me why I was still defending an organization that had wounded me and left me for (spiritually) dead. That day was a real turning point in the way I view what happened to me there.

    Many of the people I knew at YWAM Denver left much worse off because of their time there. One friend refuses to even speak of her time there because of the damage it did to her.

    What an awful place.

  10. I appreciate your vulnerability. I was in YWAM for 6 years and at Denver for half of it. At 20, my DTS was an amazing experience for me. It is my time on staff that things began to get muddied. My experience, however, with Eastern European leaders was refreshing. Sarah Lanier staffed my LTS. She is the one who told me to go home and go to college.

    Your article had me thinking for the past months and is what prompted me to write apology letters to two of my good YWAM friends who are gay.

    As staff and a leader I cringe at some of the things I’ve said.

    If something didn’t feel right about a situation, I didn’t feel I could talk about it for fear of gossip or “touching God’s annointed”.

    I hope you are able to continue healing post-07. My office was in that hallway.

    Thank you for sharing

  11. I am very moved by this. I did ywam in 2011 in europe and it was the best/worst time of my life. When i came home it took me almost 3 years to come to terms with my experience. I witnessed and experienced so many of the things you mentioned. I am thankful tho that i did find a community who have experienced ywam and also have helped me adjust to the “real world” but as i struggle even in “knowing God” or believing in him, i would just encourage you as i encourage myself to just keep persuing your questions, and your doubts but I just try to enjoy the good memories I experienced there and just learn and warn people from the negative experiences. Wish I could say more but just thank you for sharing your experience and thoughts and it will help many others wrestle with their experience.

    1. Marc – thank you so much for commenting. I believe many people have had this experience with YWAM – we are not alone. Like you said, I’m having to release the negative, and hold on to the positive memories I have of YWAM. It’s a challenge.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and sharing your story.

  12. Thank you. I was part of InterVarsity and relate to much of this. You articulated it well and I really applaud the thread of balance instead of abject hatred that could be there. I relate to that too. Would almost be easier if we could condemn it all.

  13. Hello S. Bradford Long,

    My name is Brandon, I serve in a ministry in Mexico! It is an Orphanage among other ministries and I came across your blog while looking up info about YWAM. I just wanted to share with you a little bit of my view. I am 20 years old (I know im young but hear me out! :-D) and have been a christian all my life, (But REALLY accepted Jesus only about 2 years ago). I have experienced many different ministries in many countries (US, Mexico, Costa Rica) along with many different churches and the biggest thing I have learned is that you personal relationship with God is much more important than any situation that you put your self in. As long as you learn who God is for your self and learn who you are in him and are confident about it, nothing else matters, Ministries, Churches and even Religion in general. The Most important thing is that relationship with him, which comes from prayer, reading the bible, meditation on his word!

    The point that I want to emphasis is that no ministry is perfect. Any where you go there are going to be things that you are not going to agree with. I felt the same thing as you described above at the ministry I served at. There were moments where things felt SO wrong, and I saw corruption at the so called “Christian place”, but despite what you see around you, if you have that connection, you know what they are doing is wrong, but it still wont effect that fact that you are Christian, Not in the sense of religion but rather a follower of Christ set apart for this world and working for God not Man!

    I hope you appreciate this post and I encourage you to keep questioning! Thats how we grow not only spiritually, but also as people!

    God Bless
    Brandon

  14. I really appreciate your willingness to take a deeper look at and share your experiences. I’ve had similar thoughts about various groups and organizations over the past few years. Love you friend!

  15. YWAM does sound pretty cult like, especially the fact that you were “damaged” and they were the only ones who could “fix” you. Also the spiritual highs and isolation from others. I’m glad you recognized something was not right and got out when you did. I had a similar experience at about the same age and also don’t trust “feel good” religions based on emotional highs and guilt trips.

  16. I always appreciate the vulnerability and nuanced approach to tough questions on your blog. This post is helping me understand why I’m really triggered by church, even though my current Episcopal parish is very friendly, gay-affirming, and relaxed about doctrine. Getting too close to the “inside” feels like I’m waiting for that prison door to slam shut, too. A lot of that fear comes from my previous involvement in conservative Christian communities where close friends turned on me when my queerness emerged. But I’ve also been in liberal church settings where the groupthink was equally shaming, over other issues. What is a “cult”? I think it’s any community, regardless of doctrine, where people re-enact abusive family dynamics. And like a dysfunctional family, it may have some genuine loving aspects that confuse us about how to feel about the whole experience.

  17. I really enjoyed this post. Although I have not been involved with YWAM I have had similar experiences with a number of other Christian organizations. I have been struggling with this same ambivalence about Christianity as a whole. Sometimes I have asked myself why I have subjected myself to a community of people that has a track record of treating people like me (a gay man) so poorly? Have I been caught up in the cult(ish) mindset?

  18. I remember reading a book of Loren Cunningham’s in my late teens and wanting to throw it across the room … something in my scrupulosity-tortured self looked at the way of thinking or way of life presented and saw something intolerable, unlivable. Unfortunately, that was long enough ago that I don’t remember specifically what it was. It might have been less a specific idea than the whole worldview, the whole mode of judging how to live. But given that my high school years were spent amid extreme ideas–like, ALL falling in love is a sin unless you’re actually engaged to that person (probably the sort of idea that made it easy for me to connect to the LGBTQ community eventually)–it seems likely that it wasn’t just a little severity of thought.

    Which doesn’t mean that YWAM is 100% cult by any means. I like your idea that there’s an interstitial space, maybe a continuum, between healthy and unhealthy religious organization. It seems likely to me that all religious organizations have some aspects that are in that unhealthy space, or cultic aspects, and it’s probably true that most actual cults have some positive benefits that are heightened enough to attract and (for a while) retain people just from their own free will.

    Religion is so psychologically powerful in and of itself that once a mind is sincerely in, it can be extremely hard to leave. When that’s reinforced by authoritarian control, it can be more or less impossible. Sometimes I wonder what it was really like to be a Christian in one of the apostles’ churches. St. Paul scares me to death.

    The religious inside, to me, is dangerous, and it always has been. And I can’t help but feel that many others (especially of my generation) have the same suspicion of religious community: that, for all it’s redemptive qualities, it’s a thinly veiled prison.

    That. That is so true. I’m Catholic (and sympathize with commenter Brian above, though I’m not gay myself), but I grew up conservative Protestant. All of it has found ways to bind me more tightly than has proven to be livable. And yet my agnostic side looks out at the world and says, what religion provides, the secular world has not found a healthy way of synthesizing.

    I don’t really know what to do with all of it … these are just thoughts.

  19. Living in community can be a taste of paradise, and surely the early followers of Christ in Jerusalem aspired to live as community sharing food and homes. You must have had some glorious friendships in YWAM. No wonder you miss the communal and spiritually grounded element!

    I suggest the problem arises in the authoritarian control element. Some leaders thought they knew more about your life, emotions, and purpose than you did. They imagined you should obey them, which smacks of hubris on their part and which involved danger for you. Perhaps community really can be healthy, but manipulative and rigid leaders ruined that experience for you, even if they had good intentions. I suspect hierarchical leadership is always problematic. There must always be checks and balances in place to preserve both the integrity of group process and the primacy of individual conscience.

  20. I’ve been following your blog for a while, and I have to say, this is probably one of the most similar experiences to my own I’ve seen yet. I wasn’t part of YWAM, though, at 18, but a Roman Catholic seminarian of a personally very traditionalist stripe.

    I wouldn’t call my former church a cult, but there were certainly some cult-like elements within certain factions. I wish I could outright say my fellows were bad or cruel people, but they weren’t. They were nothing but kind to me, personally. It was just gays as an abstract they disliked and shunned, never me, because they didn’t know. But I heard what they said about it, regardless, and it hurt. I always tried not to think about it, trying to keep myself as focused as possible, attending every Matins, Lauds, Vespers, Compline and Mass diligently, letting the liturgy take me to a higher, better place.

    That worked, for a while, until I started falling for another seminarian. As you probably know yourself, being gay in a religious setting is one thing, but falling for one of your fellow religionists is a whole ‘nother can of worms. I couldn’t deal with it anymore, since I knew I was becoming more and more obvious, and eventually left the seminary.

    A year later, I had left the Catholic Church entirely and joined the Episcopalians, who, I am happy to say, are an open, accepting spiritual home for men like me, especially those who still want to be priests.

    The point of all this is eventually, it does get more accepting. Not all Christianity is Evangelical fundamentalism- or Catholic conservatism, in my case. There are so many different theological schools out there, and a good number of them have no problem with us.

    1. Brian, thank you so much for sharing your story. I can definitely relate.

      I think the hard part -and something that I try to explore in the post, and that you touched on in your comment – is the ambivalence towards the experience. I can’t say it was totally good or totally horrible. It was an uncomfortable mix of both. And even though I did end up leaving, I carry the positive as well as the negative within me. I’ve found that the only thing I can do is let it be a complicated mess.

      I’m glad you have found a good church community. I’m still looking. Hopefully, I will be able to find one at some point.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *