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Is YWAM a Cult?

October 19, 2020 - January 1, 2030

Is YWAM a Cult?

Is YWAM a Cult?

The word “cult” fills most people with a sense of deep uneasiness. And with good reason—it carries connotations of secret meetings in dark places, brainwashed devotees in odd clothing, and, unfortunately, even mass suicides. “Cult” is not a title most people or organizations want to be associated with. But if you are looking into it, chances are that you have heard someone call YWAM exactly that. Let us address these concerns.

YWAM is not a cult, because cults are elitist, secretive, and manipulative organizations. However, YWAM is a set of values that teaches hospitality, equality, and transparency, and champions the voice of each person.

What Is A Cult?

What do I mean by this? First of all, let us define what a cult is. A cult generally has a leadership hierarchy, with leaders claiming divine or semi-divine authority over the members, and an inner circle of “true believers.” It presents itself as having The Only Solution to the world’s issues, and requires complete devotion to the group. This leads to cutting ties with family and friends, living and socializing only with other members, etc. A cult discourages or even punishes doubt and questioning, and stigmatizes or prohibits leaving the group, often using fear to keep members loyal.

These, in more general terms, are the main warning signs of a cult. Secretive, loyalist to a dangerous level, and valuing their own organization over God. “Cult”, therefore, does not simply refer to a measure of strangeness, as many people think. Rather, it is a measure of how authoritarian leadership over a small (or large) sect is used to manipulate those beneath it. So what, then, is YWAM?

What is YWAM?

YWAM began in the 1960s, when Loren Cunningham had a vision of waves of young people bringing the gospel to the nations. Since then it has grown exponentially, from a few people in a singular office building to locations worldwide, with thousands of missionaries calling themselves “YWAMers.” The Discipleship Training School, or “DTS”, sees several thousand students per year at bases all over the world, most of whom I would say have a good experience and grow in their faith. 

So Why do People Think YWAM is a cult?

Isolation vs. Community

The first point that gets people worried is that YWAMers generally live in community. Any group that lives and works together falls under natural suspicion, because such communities can easily be isolated and become an echo chamber, where you only hear the voices that leadership wants you to hear. And I do mean any group that lives and works together—a university campus, a youth camp, or even a traveling sports team could develop cult-ish tendencies if isolated. With YWAM, however, I have not found this to be the case.

The major push in recent months since the Covid-19 pandemic has been an effort not to be isolated—to be connected with churches, youth groups, and the wider community as a whole. I know of several YWAM ministries that have reached out to different organizations in their respective regions. They are making real efforts to welcome members of the public into their bases e.g. community events, open days, opportunities to sit in on DTS or secondary school lectures. In my experience, the focus has been to connect with people of all cultures, sizes, and worldviews, not to isolate. 

In addition, I have never seen anyone encouraged to cut ties with family, friends, or community back home, wherever that might be. These connections, instead of being cut off, often become healthier. My relationship with my family is better now than it was pre-YWAM, and it has been a direct result of prayer and much-needed guidance from some particularly good mentors.

Echo Chamber vs. Critical Thinking

As for the danger of hearing only what leadership wants you to hear—which is a danger with any organization no matter how big or small—I can only speak for the YWAM ministry that I am a part of (Marine Reach), but here we have an interesting way of handling this. Many of the guest speakers that are brought in to teach in the schools actually contradict each other on certain points, and this is on purpose!

People from different church backgrounds and with different theological views are intentionally brought in so that the students will think carefully and critically, instead of taking everything as rock-solid truth. Students are encouraged to study the Bible themselves and take things before the Lord, where the Word of God is the final authority, not a human teacher. This reduces the danger of having a base become an echo chamber. Again, I can only speak for my experiences as I do not know how other ministries handle this issue, but know that one marker of a cult is that critical thinking is discouraged, and at my base, I have seen the opposite in play.

Independence vs. Collaboration

Another point is that YWAM is missions focused. Any organization with strong views, a clear vision, and a passion for what they do is going to be criticized. And in no way am I going to make the claim that YWAM is “just another business that believes in what it does.” It is not—YWAM is a missionary movement, which means that it is focused on discipling the nations as taught by Jesus.

The important difference here between a missions movement and a cult is this: cults believe that their organization and their organization alone holds the secret to changing the world. Also, a cult is generally opposed to the notion that someone else might have the same idea, vision, or calling as they do. YWAMers, on the other hand, gladly work with multiple church denominations for exactly that reason—we are all working for the same cause. No one person or group has the perfect formula for how it organizes itself. 

YWAM Marine Reach NZ DTS Justice Movement DTS
YWAM Marine Reach NZ DTS Cover to Cover DTS PLUS


But say you have heard a testimony from a former YWAMer calling YWAM a cult. There are several of them out there, unfortunately. I welcome you to read them, but keep this in mind: these are written by people who had a bad experience and labeled the entire movement as bad because of it. Millions have gone through YWAM. Most have incredibly good experiences. Any movement as big and decentralized as YWAM is going to have people within it who abuse positions of leadership, make bad decisions, and teach false doctrines. But these people are not YWAM as a whole—in fact, they are going against the very values that YWAM was built on.

To label YWAM as a cult because of a bad leader, a bad experience, or a particular ministry with a toxic culture is like labeling an entire chain of grocery stores as unhealthy because you got sick from buying expired milk. The milk is shipped from the manufacturer, but the store’s management is responsible for making sure it does not sit too long on the shelves. In the same way, YWAM itself has a set of values, but it is the responsibility of each base’s leadership to see that those values are followed.


In a cult, leadership is abused to a high degree. A YWAM base where leadership is abused is not following the YWAM Foundational values and therefore, does not represent what YWAM is designed to be.

Again, the signs of a cult:

  • Values human leadership over the Bible’s authority
  • Silences doubt rather than addresses it
  • Values unity (that is not unity at all, but uniformity) over connection with God
  • Presents their own methods as the key to salvation, rather than (or in addition to) what the Bible teaches
  • Values recruiting to themselves over evangelizing for Jesus
  • Requires complete devotion to their group over any other ties

If you see these in any organization, be careful.


My advice to you in considering YWAM is to do your research and exercise godly wisdom. Even the Bible says to test everything—that is to say, be sure human teaching aligns with God’s Word. So don’t go into a DTS (Discipleship Training School) with fear of what you may be getting yourself into, but do go into DTS with an awareness of the humanity of your leaders, who may make mistakes – just as you do. Just as with all things, you will meet those you agree with and those you disagree with. My hope (and that of most YWAMers I have met) is that you will learn through YWAM to disagree in a healthier, respectful way.


If you have further questions, you can contact us on our website here: About Us | Who Is Marine Reach? | YWAM Marine Reach New Zealand 

Or we’ve written another blog post with more details on the topics we teach during a DTS – YWAM DTS Lecture Topics.

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October 19, 2020
January 1, 2030
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