“When Scripture is used to hear God’s voice, leaders often neglect sound interpretative practices. Instead, they frequently misuse Scripture by choosing verses willy-nilly and treating them like fortune cookies or a Magic 8-Ball. Dubious teachings about hearing God’s voice are taught at all YWAM Discipleship Training Schools during their lecture phase, as they are part of the core curriculum.”
Holly Pivec, with a master’s degree in Christian apologetics from Biola, is an evangelical researcher of cults, sects, and new religious groups, such as the ‘New Apostolic Reformation’ movement. She was the former managing editor of Biola University’s magazine, Biola Magazine, and a former contributing writer to the Christian Research Journal.
Holly Pivec writes:
This post is the third in a series on the influential Christian missions organization Youth With a Mission (YWAM). YWAM was founded in 1960 by Loren Cunningham as a way to deploy young people as missionaries throughout the world. It’s now one of the largest Christian missionary organizations in the world, having more than 18,000 staff working in over 180 nations. Many churches financially support YWAM full-time missionaries and young adults who sign up to go on short-term mission trips with YWAM or to attend one of YWAM’s Discipleship Training Schools or other schools. Yet many of these churches would likely be surprised and concerned to learn about some of the unbiblical and spiritually harmful teachings promoted by this organization.
In the first post I outlined one significant part of YWAM’s theologically controversial history, its promotion of Moral Government Theology and Open Theism. The second post shows that YWAM has allied itself with leaders of the New Apostolic Reformation movement and has adopted many of their questionable teachings and practices.
Hearing God’s Voice
One of the cornerstone teachings at YWAM is about the importance of learning to “hear God’s voice” – or, in other words, learning to receive personalized, daily, moment-by-moment direction from God – usually via dreams, visions, and prophetic impressions.
To be very clear: this YWAM practice does not generally refer to hearing God’s voice in Scripture – at least not by reading it in context. Listening to the timeless guidance and obeying the commands found in His written Word – with regard to its literary, historical and grammatical contexts – is a sound and essential practice.
Rather, in YWAM, when Scripture is used to hear God’s voice, leaders often neglect sound interpretative practices. Instead, they frequently misuse Scripture by choosing verses willy-nilly and treating them like fortune cookies or a Magic 8-Ball. Dubious teachings about hearing God’s voice are taught at all YWAM Discipleship Training Schools during their lecture phase, as they are part of the core curriculum.
A ‘Foundational Value’
The practice of listening to God for moment-by-moment direction is so vital for YWAM it’s stated as the organization’s third “foundational value”:
“YWAM is committed to creating with God through listening to Him … We are dependent upon hearing His voice as individuals, together in team contexts and in larger corporate gatherings as an integral part of our process for decision making.”
Accordingly, many of the decisions made at YWAM bases are based on specific instructions the students and staff believe they’ve heard from God. For example, often the locations for the outreachesare decided by the staff and students after seeking to hear God’s voice about which country they should go to.
Once the team travels to that location, they also seek specific direction for each of their activities there. For example, a team from YWAM Harbour City Hong Kong went on an outreach to the Philippines. While there, they sought to hear God’s voice before giving a public evangelistic presentation.
One of the team members suddenly had a mental image of Elmo, the Sesame Street character. They all thought the mental image seemed silly. But later, at the presentation, they saw a girl who was about 12 years old. She was wearing a T-shirt with Elmo on the front. They determined, from the mental image their teammate had seen earlier, that God wanted them to speak with the girl. They did and she immediately gave her life to Christ, according to one of the team members who later recounted the story on YouTube.
What’s the Big Deal?
What could possibly be wrong with learning to hear God’s voice – especially if it leads to a young girl giving her life to Christ? God is sovereign. This means He can speak to people anyway He desires and at any time.
The problem with YWAM teaching is that many of the principles and techniques for hearing God’s cannot be supported in Scripture. Furthermore, students are taught that, by using these techniques, they can expect God to speak to them outside of Scripture on a regular basis. These teachings and practices can lead to making poor decisions with sometimes disastrous results. They also make YWAM students more likely to become victims of spiritual abuse.
The fact that, sometimes, positive things seem to result from these practices does not mean the practices are biblical or reliable.
YWAM’s Principles for ‘Hearing God’s Voice’
Many of YWAM’s teachings about hearing God’s voice can be traced back to a book written by YWAM founder Loren Cunningham. His book is used widely throughout the YWAM bases as a textbook on learning to hear God’s voice. It’s called Is That Really You, God?: Hearing the Voice of God. Cunningham’s book is a record of the various ways he believes God has directed YWAM through the years.
In his book, Cunningham offers principles for hearing God’s voice. Below are four of them. I will not provide a full evaluation of each principle. Here I merely show that the scriptures Cunningham references do not support the principles he teaches from them. I also show how he treats Bible verses like fortune cookies.
Asking Specific Questions: Cunningham states that his readers can ask God a question and expect Him to provide a direct answer. He writes: “After asking the question that is on your mind, wait for Him to answer. Expect your loving heavenly Father to speak to you. He will (John 10:27; Psalm 69:13; Exodus 33:11).”
Notice that Cunningham cites three scriptures that supposedly support his teaching that God will always answer specific questions you ask Him. First, he cites John 10:27. But this verse says nothing of the sort. It states: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” In context of the broader passage (John 10:22-30), Jesus is saying that his followers recognize, from what he has taught and done, that he’s the Messiah.
Cunningham also cites Psalm 69:13, which states: “But I pray to you, Lord, in the time of your favor; in your great love, O God, answer me with your sure salvation.” Yet, in context of the entire psalm, David is pleading with God to deliver him from a dire situation; he’s not asking for an answer to a question.
And, finally, Cunningham cites Exodus 33:11: “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” It seems almost needless to say that this verse, which describes a special relationship God had with Moses, says nothing to support the teaching that we can expect God to directly answer every question we ask Him.
The ’Wise Men Principle’: Cunningham teaches that God’s direction for your life can be revealed when two or more “spiritually sensitive” people confirm something you believe God has already told you. He claims this principle is seen in the Bible, in Matthew 2, in the story of the Magi following the star that led them to Jesus. Regarding one of his experiences relying on this principle, he writes:
“This really is amazing, I thought to myself. It was like the Three Wise Men. They each followed the star – their individual perceptions of God’s direction – and in doing so came together to be led to Jesus” (Is That Really You, God?, Chapter 9).
It’s certainly true that, when making important decisions, we should seek the counsel of others (Proverbs 11:14; 12:15; 15:22). But Cunningham is not merely teaching people to seek wise advice. He’s teaching them that they are to seek specific, divine guidance through prophetic words given by multiple individuals. Cunningham’s misuse of Matthew 2 to support his principle is summarized well by someone with the username of “Audie,” who posted a critical review of Cunningham’s book on Amazon. Audie states: “The account of the Magi was not recorded to tell us to follow stars, literally or metaphorically, but to show us that Jesus is indeed the King.”
The Popcorn Method: Cunningham teaches one method of divine guidance that I have termed the “Popcorn Method.” Basically, a Scripture reference – a chapter and verse – will just pop into someone’s head. When that person looks up the reference to see what it says, he or she may discover that it contains guidance from God about a specific situation. Here’s how Cunningham describes this method, which he says he learned from a group of young Christians in New Zealand.
“They had a guidance practice that intrigued me. In their minds they would be ‘given’ a chapter and verse from the Bible without knowing what the reference said; then they would consider whether or not that reading was a special guidance for whatever they were facing. ‘You’d be surprised how often God uses that as a way to speak,’ they insisted. The key, they said, was being totally submitted to the Spirit of Jesus; if He wanted to speak, He could use any tool He chose, including this quite mysterious one.”
Obviously, seeking direction from God in this manner is arbitrary, silly, and potentially dangerous.
Magic 8-Ball Way of Reading the Bible: Another method Cunningham uses for hearing God’s voice is one Audie refers to as the “Magic 8-Ball” method. In his method, Cunningham reads present circumstances YWAM is facing into passages of Scripture that have nothing to do with those circumstances. Here is this method demonstrated, in Cunningham’s own words:
“I was sitting quietly praying with my Bible open to Hebrews. Suddenly the words of chapter 12, verses 26 and 27, leaped off the page. ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth, but also the heaven … that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.’ A rock hit the bottom of my stomach. ‘Oh no! I hope that doesn’t mean the ship!’” (Is That Really You God?, Chapter 14).
In other words, Cunningham read the words of Hebrews 12, which, in context, speak of God’s future judgment of the earth and the heavens. Yet he took the words as a warning about a ship YWAM intended to purchase. In response to this odd reading of Scripture, Audie rightly, states, “Umm … no, Hebrews 12 had nothing to do with that ship, sir. It was written well before that ship had been constructed, well before you ever planned to make use of it. A look at the context of the verses in question would show you that.”
In short, Cunningham’s teachings about hearing God’s voice are based almost entirely on his personal experiences and a handful of Bible verses he has ripped out and applied out of their contexts. His misuse of Scripture is especially concerning given the influence his teachings have over tens of thousands of YWAM students worldwide.
Prophesying Blindfolded and Drawing Prophetic Pictures
The above methods for learning to hear God’s voice are unreliable and unbiblical. Sadly, they – and other equally outlandish methods – are taught and practiced commonly at YWAM bases. Following is a blog post written in 2016, by a student at the Marine Reach base in New Zealand. It shows some of the methods for hearing God’s voice taught by the base director, Cheyne Hosking.
Take note that Hosking had students take part in an exercise where they each stood back-to-back against another student. And he instructed them to give prophetic words to their partner, without knowing to whom they were even speaking.
A similar exercise – involving giving prophetic words to another person while blindfolded – has been practiced at YWAM’s Impact DTS in Skien, Norway. A former student named Stephen – who attended this DTS in 2018 – reports that, through this exercise, God confirmed he should serve in the U.S. Army as a chaplain. Thus, he made a major life decision based on what he believes he “heard” from God during this exercise. But how do Stephen and other YWAM students know that the messages they have heard are actually from God and not from their imaginations or another more sinister (i.e., demonic) source? Such a practice is irresponsible at best and dangerous at worst.
It’s troubling that YWAM students are taught to engage in such practices themselves. But it’s even more concerning that they go on outreach trips and teach those practices to others.
The Facebook post pictured above is dated May 19, 2018. From the photo and description, it can be seen that the Marine Reach students were teaching people to hear God’s voice. Apparently, they instructed the people to write or draw what God told them on pieces of paper. It seems that they were promoting the idea of hearing God’s voice, apart from Scripture, by seeking immediate prophetic impressions. The fact that the students are taking YWAM’s “hearing God’s voice” teachings to the mission field – where there is a dire need for solid biblical and theological training – is concerning. Of all the things YWAM missionaries could teach, why would they promote practices that have no biblical basis?
A life of chaos and confusion will inevitably follow those who follow their own imaginations. Scripture gives multiple warnings about the dangers of self-deception including the warning that “there is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12). In addition to chaos and confusion, YWAM teachings about hearing God’s voice also open the door to spiritual abuse.
How do YWAM teachings about hearing God’s voice open the door to spiritual abuse? Recall that YWAM students seek to make every decision only after hearing from God. In such contexts, leaders who claim to hear most clearly from Him may – intentionally or unintentionally – exert undue influence on the thoughts and decision-making of the young people under their authority.
Indeed, this is exactly what happened to a former YWAMer named Laurie Jacobson, according to an article she wrote for the Cultic Studies Journal. The article, titled “My Experience in YWAM,” is featured on the website of Spiritual Abuse Resources. She wrote the article in 1986, but, as I have explained, YWAM teachings about hearing God’s voice remain foundational to YWAM. Thus, the potential for the abuse she claims to have experienced remain.
Jacobson writes that, while in YWAM, she went along with the leaders’ decisions, even when they seemed wrong to her. She did so because she hadn’t heard anything from God about His will for certain matters in her life. But her leaders claimed that they had heard God’s will for her. She said her confidence in her ability to hear God “had been undermined by their [the leaders’] very confidence in being able to do so.”
She also said:
“It may seem that Intercession [i.e., hearing God’s voice] gives a student his own authority because he need only say to a leader, ‘God told me that it was the right thing to do and I “got scripture” in Intercession.’ But it didn’t work that way. Intercession is unique and generally new to the students, who are told that they will improve with practice. Therefore, each student was obliged to agree with the staff said, and if one tried saying, ‘God told me,’ the staff would contradict the student and, referring to the student’s inexperience, say, ‘Don’t worry, everyone is bound to make a mistake.’ Basically, YWAM believes that the students are not capable of making independent decisions, or of ‘hearing God,’ until they have completed a DTS.”
Of course, the idea that everyone is bound to make a mistake when they listen to God begs the haunting question, “Can a DTS leader hear wrongly, too?” The notion that DTS leaders hear more accurately from God is a potential tool for spiritual manipulation and abuse.
To be fair, the idea that DTS students cannot hear God’s voice as well as their leaders may not be stated explicitly at all bases. But it does seem to follow logically from YWAM’s teachings that students can learn to hear God voice by engaging in various exercises taught by their leaders, and that they can improve with practice.
In sum, seeking direction in the haphazard manner taught by YWAM is rife with many dangers, including opening the door to spiritual abuse. Accounts of such spiritual abuse are shared regularly by the members of a growing Facebook group named “Spiritual Abuse in YWAM.” Presently, the group has more than 500 members.
So, in response to Cunningham’s provocative question, “Is that really you, God?”, the right response may be “Probably not!” – at least if one is using Cunningham’s novel methods.
Certainly, God can speak outside of Scripture. But should He choose to speak, no chicanery, puppetry, or creative technique on our part is needed. God is perfectly able to make Himself heard apart from these misguided and unbiblical methods.
In my next, and final, article in my YWAM series, I’ll present a list of questions that churches and individuals ought to ask before jumping in.
Source: Holly Pivec, ‘Spirit of Error’ blog, http://www.spiritoferror.org/2020/01/what-churches-should-know-about-ywam-part-3-hearing-gods-voice/8886. Published January 12, 2020. (Accessed January 13, 2020.)
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“Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?” Galatians 4:16