Youth With A Mission (YWAM) was conceived by Loren Cunningham in 1956, as a 20-year-old student in an Assemblies of God College, he was traveling in the Bahamas when he had a vision of waves breaking over the Earth. When he looked closer the waves appeared to become young people taking the news of Jesus into all the nations of the world. He envisioned a movement that would send young people out into various nations to share the message of Jesus, and which would involve Christians of all denominations.
In late 1960, the name Youth with a Mission (YWAM) was chosen and the group embarked on their first project, a vocational mission trip. The result was that YWAM sent two men in their early twenties to Liberia to build a road through the jungle to a leper colony. This was the organization’s first official mission trip.
Loren Cunningham married Darlene Scratch in 1963. By this time, the new mission had 20 volunteers stationed in various nations, and the Cunninghams were planning the mission’s first “Summer of Service”. Later in the year, YWAM teams were being sent to West Indies, Samoa, Hawaii, Mexico, and Central America. By 1966, there were 10 full-time YWAM staff including the Cunninghams and hundreds of summer short-term volunteers. That year YWAM ministries also began in New Zealand and Tonga.
In 1967, Cunningham began to work on his vision for the first school. It was to be the School of Evangelism, which was held at Chateau-d’Oex, Switzerland in 1969 with 21 students. A second school which was twice as long, ran from the summer of 1969 through the summer of 1970 just outside Lausanne, Switzerland (in Chalet-A-Gobet). The students’ lodging and classes took place in a newly renovated and leased hotel. By the end of the year, YWAM purchased the hotel and made Lausanne its first permanent location.
The School of Evangelism was formed in 1974 in New Jersey as well as Lausanne. With a focus on biblical foundations and character development as well as missions, much of the material from this course is now taught in the present day Discipleship Training School (DTS). A format of three months of lectures followed by two or three months of outreach is still used in most Discipleship Training Schools today.
By 1970, YWAM had a total of 40 full-time staff. In early 1972, a small team headed to Munich, Germany, to begin preparations for an outreach during the 1972 Summer Olympics. YWAM had about 1,000 people there for the outreach. This was the first of many YWAM Olympic outreaches.
The University of the Nations online magazine has stated that Cunningham met scientist and professor Howard V. Malmstadt at a conference in 1974. They started giving educational seminars together, and Cunningham asked Malmstadt to help expand the training arm of the mission. In 1977 YWAM purchased the Pacific Empress Hotel in Kona, Hawaii, and began renovations to turn it into the campus for what was initially called the Pacific and Asia Christian University—the forerunner of University of the Nations.
By 1978, YWAM’s Mercy Ships ministry was launched with the commissioning of the ship “Anastasis” (the Greek word for Resurrection). In 1984 the m/v Good Samaritan was added, in 1990 the m/v Pacific Ruby, then in 1994 the m/v Caribbean Mercy and then in 2001 the m/v Pacific Link. Mercy Ships was pioneered by YWAM but in 2003 was released as a separate organization. New Zealand based YWAM ship ministry, formerly a part of Mercy Ships called Marine Reach, which owned and operated the m/v Pacific Link continued to remain within YWAM family. Since then several other YWAM ship equipped ministries have sprouted up which are part of a growing network around the world. There are now 21 vessels in the YWAM Ships network, with more being added regularly. YWAM Ships are currently spread out from the Ob River in Siberia, Mediterranean, Colombia, Amazon River, Peru, Panama, Hawaii, Micronesia, The Marshall Islands, Alaska, New Zealand, Australia, and Papua New Guinea. Each vessel is independently owned and operated by different YWAM locations, each having their own Board of Directors and raising their own funds. YWAM Ship vessels include river boats, coastal ships, yachts, research vessels, small cruise ships and catamarans.
By the end of the 1980s, YWAM changed the name of its university to University of the Nations (U of N). The concept of a YWAM university that would encompass training programs in hundreds of YWAM locations was developed by Cunningham and Malmstadt. When communist regimes in Eastern Europe began to fall in the early 1990s, Youth With A Mission began outreaches to countries there, including Albania.
By 2000, YWAM had over 11,000 staff from over 130 countries and had become almost 50 percent non-Western. Reflecting this diversity, in 1999, New Zealander Frank Naea, who has Samoan and Māori parentage, was chosen to become YWAM’s first non-white president in 2000, replacing Jim Stier, who was to continue as international director of evangelism and frontier missions and national director for Brazil. In 2000, YWAM developed a new role of Executive Chairman, which Jim Stier stepped into, and made the presidency a three-year rotating position. However, at a meeting in 2011 the organization’s elders did away with the titles director, chairman, and president, in reference to all leadership roles except at the local level. By 2006, YWAM had joined the International Orality Network (ION), a multi-agency outreach effort to “the world’s non-literate masses”, employing verbal and dramatic means to introduce the Gospel to populations which do not read. In 2008, a number of mission organizations and church mission departments, including YWAM, started the call2all movement, dedicated to completing the Great Commission in our time.