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Is YWAM a Cult?

October 19, 2020 - January 1, 2030

Is YWAM a cult?

Is YWAM a Cult?

Is YWAM a Cult?

The word “cult” fills most people today with a sense of deep suspicion. It is not a title most people or organizations want to be associated with. And for good reason—the word has an ambiguous, and even scary history. To some, it can simply mean a set of religious devotional practices. To others, it carries connotations of secret meetings in dark places, cutting relational ties with loved ones, brainwashed devotees in odd clothing, and, unfortunately, even mass suicides. It is this more “destructive” sense of the word that we’ll be defining and discussing in relation to YWAM in this article. 

If you are looking into it, chances are that you may have heard someone say, “Beware, YWAM is a cult.” But is it really? Let’s dive into this discussion.

YWAM – Is It A Cult?

While we recognize, validate, and wish to be sensitive to the ones who have had truly painful experiences while in YWAM, we will show through this article that YWAM, as intended by the founders, is not a cult, at least not a destructive one. 

Destructive cults tend to (A) have (a) charismatic leader(s) who are the object of worship with little or no accountability, (B) have a process of coercive thought reform (sometimes called ‘brainwashing’), and (C) exhibit exploitation of group members by the leader(s). However, YWAM is a decentralised, interdenominational movement based on a set of values (not a multinational organisation) that teaches hospitality, equality, and transparency, and champions the voice of each person, among many other things.

What Is A Cult?

What do we mean by this? First of all, let us define what a cult is. As we said earlier, there are several distinct usages of the word in today’s English. However, in this discussion, according to Wikipedia, a cult is “a social group that is defined by its unusual religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or by its common interest in a particular personality, object, or goal.” It also tends to be marked by “excessive devotion”. There’s even a distinction we’ve been making about cults ‘in general,’ and ‘destructive’ cults. These 10 warning signs about a potentially unsafe group are particularly helpful (from The Guardian) and are a great reference for anyone asking questions about cult-like organizations. 

Beware of organizations that have:

  • Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.
  • No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.
  • No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget or expenses, such as an independently audited financial statement.
  • Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.
  • There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.
  • Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.
  • There are records, books, news articles, or broadcast reports that document the abuses of the group/leader.
  • Followers feel they can never be “good enough”.
  • The group/leader is always right.
  • The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.”

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

What is YWAM?

As we said earlier, YWAM (or Youth With A Mission) is a Christian, decentralized, inter-denominational, missions movement, based on a set of values. It was started in the 1960s as a vessel to mobilise Christians from every nation and denomination into the mission field, regardless of their qualifications. Loren Cunningham (co-founder of YWAM) had a vision of waves of young people bringing the gospel to the nations. Ever since then, it has grown exponentially, starting with a few people in a garage, to hundreds of ministries and organizations worldwide, with thousands of missionaries calling themselves “YWAMers.” The YWAM Discipleship Training School, or “DTS”, was started as a way to equip these young Christians with basic skills in evangelism (something every Christian is invited by Jesus to do – see Matt. 28:18-20). YWAM ministries all over the world train thousands of people every year through the DTS program, most of whom have positive experiences, grow in their faith, and go back home to re-join their Christian communities with a renewed sense of zeal and compassion for the lost. Additionally, due to the decentralized nature of the movement, it’s very difficult to conclude definitively (especially when based on individual experiences) that YWAM is anything, since one experience with one YWAM Ministry can be radically different from another’s experience at a different YWAM Ministry.

An Aside

We’re also keenly aware that this article is being written from the perspective of a YWAM Ministry (Marine Reach). That being said, our perspective is going to be positive about YWAM; not entirely naive, but generally positive. It will also be unique when contrasted with the plethora of perspectives that are afforded across the YWAM Movement from 60+ years of doing missions and discipleship. We realize that ours is not the only opinion on the matter, and it will be heavily influenced by the way we do things here at Marine Reach. However, we are aiming to provide a fair treatment of the question at hand – namely, “Is YWAM a cult?”


So, with all this in mind, let’s dive further into some of the reasons why people have tended to think YWAM is a cult.

So Why do People Think YWAM is a cult?

Isolation vs. Community

When compared with the typical Christian experience, there are a few distinctives about YWAM. The first point that gets people worried is that many full-time YWAMers live together, ‘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. What’s an echo chamber? It’s where you only hear the voices that reinforce your preconceived ideas (just check your social media newsfeed). Really, this can be any group that lives and works together—a university campus, a youth camp, or even a sports team could develop cult-ish tendencies if isolated. In YWAM, however, the voices heard are not exclusively those that leadership have allowed, where dissenting voices are banished or blacklisted. But we’ll touch more on this later.

The major push since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has been an effort not to be isolated, but to be connected with others, whether it be ministries, churches, youth groups, or the wider community as a whole. YWAMers and YWAM ministries around the globe have reached out to different people and organizations in their respective regions; for example, a Kiwi YWAMer has been ministering to pro rugby players in South France who’ve been affected by the pandemic; the NZ-based ship ministry “YWAM Ships Aotearoa” has been inviting people to tour their ship and hear the vision to provide health care to isolated islands of the Pacific; even here at Marine Reach we’ve opened our doors (after the lockdowns) and invited the public to join us for several equipping events. Since well before the pandemic, the focus in YWAM has always been to connect with people of all cultures, sizes, and worldviews, not to isolate. YWAM has also been described by the founders as “a bridge – easy to get on, easy to get off”. The idea of keeping people in YWAM against their will is really not a part of the YWAM Values.

Cutting Relational Ties?

Through the course of one’s time at a YWAM Ministry (whether in a DTS or otherwise), people are generally encouraged to submit every aspect of their lives to the loving Lordship of Jesus, including their personal relationships. This is just the process of discipleship (have a look here for a decent breakdown of what discipleship means). Many relationships are right and good, and through submission to Jesus, they typically become stronger and healthier. However, some relationships are not right or godly, and really need to be pruned back or even cut off entirely. At Marine Reach, we don’t force people to do this, but encourage them with Biblical values and standards for relationships, and we let the Holy Spirit provide the conviction to take action if it’s needed.

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—at Marine Reach we have an interesting way of handling this, especially on the DTS. 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 to teach so that the students can have the opportunity to think carefully and critically about what is being taught, instead of taking everything as rock-solid truth. We attempt to foster an atmosphere in the classroom where questions are welcome, as everyone will have a different way of applying the material taught. Students are also encouraged to study the Bible and take things before the Lord for themselves, where the Word of God is the final authority, not a human teacher. This reduces the probability of an echo chamber developing. Critical thinking is one of the most important skills with which we can equip young people in this generation, and we are always looking for ways to do this better.

Independence vs. Collaboration

Another point is that YWAMers are missions focused, as opposed to self-focused. YWAM is a missions movement, which means that YWAMers primarily focus on discipling the nations as taught by Jesus, not on promoting their ministry as the ‘best’ or the ‘only’ way to solve the world’s problems. 

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, who is not affiliated with them, might have the same idea, vision, or calling as they do. YWAMers, on the other hand, gladly work with various church denominations for exactly this reason: we are all working for the same cause. Ever heard of Table 71? Take a look! No one person or group has the perfect formula for how it organizes itself or accomplishes the great commission.

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YWAM Marine Reach NZ DTS Cover to Cover DTS PLUS


But you may have heard a testimony from a former YWAMer calling YWAM a cult. Unfortunately, there are several of them out there, and we definitely don’t want to minimize or silence their painful experiences. You’re welcome to read them, but bear this in mind: these are written by people who genuinely had a bad experience, but who’ve gone on to label the entire movement as bad because of it. Millions have gone through YWAM and YWAM programs. Most have incredibly good experiences (check out our blog for some testimonies). 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; we are, after all, talking about humans here. But these people are not YWAM as a whole—in fact, they are going against the very values that YWAM was built on. As St. Augustine said, “Never judge a philosophy by its abuse.” 

Some could say that the freedom given to individual YWAM Ministries and leaders is fertile soil for these kinds of abuses to crop up. However, this same freedom has allowed for incredibly diverse ministries to arise, transformation of millions of lives, and the gospel to reach places it’s never before been announced.

An Analog

To label YWAM as a cult because of a bad leader, a bad experience, or a particular ministry as ‘cult-like’ is analogous to 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. Obviously this analogy isn’t perfect, but, in the same way, YWAM as a movement 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 (especially since one of the YWAM Foundational Values is all about ‘Servant Leadership’ – see Mark 10:42-45) and, therefore, does not represent what YWAM is designed to be.

Again, some warning signs of a cult:

  • Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.
  • Silences doubt rather than addresses it
  • 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.


The Bible teaches us to test everything (1 Thess. 5:20-22)—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 – but who may have a lot to offer you. 

My advice to you in considering YWAM is to do your research and exercise godly wisdom. There’s no such thing as a perfect organization or program; if you find one, don’t join it, or you might mess it up!


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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