Youth with a Passion
This July, monsoon rains pounded Pakistan and created an unprecedented crisis in the country, submerging one-fifth of its landmass under water, killing more than 2,000 people, and leaving 20 million injured or homeless and facing the threat of starvation and disease.
Among the hundreds of faith-based, secular, and government relief groups that responded, one evangelical organization not usually recognized for emergency relief took quick action at the local and global level.
Youth With a Mission (YWAM) is known more for its volunteer short-term missions trips and student discipleship than for humanitarian work. But in Karachi, the capital of Sindh Province, students enrolled in YWAM's Discipleship Training School and staff nationwide mobilized immediately. Within two months, 10 short-term YWAM response teams were on the ground in Pakistan, distributing medicine and clothing and taking food packets by donkey to remote villages where other relief groups had few connections.
After the flooding, Lis Cochrane, a former YWAM field leader for South Central Asia, worked her contacts in the United States. She convinced youth groups, college students, and business owners to contribute funds for 100,000 water filters, as requested by desperate Pakistani government officials.
"We're bringing a message that God loves them and we want to help them," says the 48-year-old Swiss-American, who in 1985 was jailed in Nepal for preaching while on assignment with YWAM.
YWAM, launched half a century ago by Loren Cunningham in his parents' garage, is active in 180 nations, making it one of the world's most widely dispersed evangelical missions groups. YWAMers, as members call themselves, undertake an enormous range of ministries: caring for Chechen refugees living in Poland; rebuilding Burmese villages after Cyclone Nargis; sharing the gospel through sports at the FIFA World Cup in Cape Town; sheltering the children of prostitutes in Pune, India; and distributing Bibles in Patagonia on the southern tip of South America.
Steve Douglass, president of Campus Crusade for Christ International, calls Cunningham "a person who pursued the scope of the Great Commission and who embodies the Great Commission by going to every country in the world. I don't know anyone else who has done that." Indeed, since its inception, YWAM has deployed more than four million people on outreach projects in 240 countries (some of which no longer exist as sovereign states).
YWAM's 50th anniversary celebrations will culminate at its headquarters in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, November 29 to December 4. This year, Cunningham and his wife, Darlene, participated in 43 regional celebrations, including in Nepal and Mongolia, where Christians attempting outreach face significant legal and cultural barriers.
Voice in the Desert
YWAM is facing new challenges in a leadership transition and in its ongoing mission of world evangelization. This year, while Cunningham, 75, celebrates his 50 years of ministry with a capstone global tour, the ministry's top leaders chart the organization's next steps.
The reserved Cunningham rarely consents to interviews. But in July he sat down for two days with Christianity Today in Kona, talking at length about YWAM's past, present, and future.
Cunningham's accomplishments cannot be grasped without considering the gamble he took four years into the ministry, and a dramatic incident that followed. Overseas missions in the 1960s were top-down and slow-to-innovate enterprises, and outreach across denominational boundaries was infrequent and problematic. But in 1964, Cunningham decided to leave the relatively safe cocoon of the Assemblies of God by opening YWAM to all denominations.