Begun in 1960 after a 20-year-old college student said he experienced a vision from God, Youth With a Mission has grown into one of the world’s most formidable Christian missions groups.
The group, characterized by a decentralized structure and reputation for attracting zealous young people, equips missionaries to spread the Christian faith around the world, including some of the world’s most dangerous corners.
In the dark early hours of Sunday morning, what was supposed to be a safe harbor — a YWAM training center in suburban Denver — turned deadly when a gunman killed two staff members and injured two others.
It was the first of two church-related shootings in Colorado on Sunday. A gunman opened fire outside New Life Church in Colorado Springs in the afternoon, injuring at least four people. Police said a suspect was detained, but the conditions of the injured were not immediately released.
“You turn to God because God is our strength in all this,” said Dale Lambert, an elder on the Youth With a Mission Denver leadership team. “You know what, tragedies happen in the U.S. as well as around the world. Oftentimes people think America is a lot safer, but that’s not always true. We’re here to serve God, wherever that leads us.”
The center where the shooting took place is the base of operations for the Denver branch of Youth With a Mission.
Although the organization’s name suggests otherwise, Youth With a Mission trains people of all ages and operates in more than 1,000 locations in more than 149 countries with a staff of nearly 16,000, according to the YWAM Web site.
YWAM was founded by Loren Cunningham, a Pentecostal college student who said he experienced a vision from God while on summer break with a gospel quartet in the Bahamas in 1956. Cunningham described seeing waves of young people crashing up against all the continents, standing on street corners and outside bars preaching the Gospel.
According to the organization’s Web site, many early YWAM missionaries weren’t even Christian but were attracted to the so-called Jesus Movement of the 1970s, which wrapped Christian teachings in a countercultural vibe.
The organization is best known for advocating short-term mission trips, opening the field to those unable to commit years of learning a language and culture.
“They’re not a traditional mission association that sends someone years and years,” said Dana Robert, co-director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at Boston University. “They’ve got their pulse on the late 20th and early 21st century generation, which is to say, ’Let’s try something for a couple of years and then try something else.’
“Young people these days don’t want to make a lifelong commitment.”
YWAM’s scope has expanded to include longer-term missions, as well. The group also has trained missionaries headed to danger zones in the Middle East and Africa, going so far as to use computer encryption software developed by oil companies to chat confidentially with missionaries in the field.
In nations where Christian proselytizing is not welcome, the interdenominational group concentrates more on relief work, Lambert said. Like many evangelical mission groups, YWAM has missionaries working in Muslim nations but does not go into detail because of restrictions on Christian proselytizing in those countries.
Lambert said the group’s “mercy ministry” work includes digging wells, providing clean water and building homes. Another defining characteristic of YWAM is that its missionaries are not paid; they raise their own money to go overseas.
Because YWAM is connected to no one denomination and is so diverse both geographically and ethnically, the group is hard to pigeonhole, said Jonathan Bonk, executive director of the Overseas Missions Studies Center in New Haven, Conn.
“YWAM is very far-flung, and has an eclectic mix of people,” Bonk said. “It’s probably the most decentralized of all the mission organizations I’m aware of. Its members have a lot of independence.”