Loren Cunningham, the founder of Youth With A Mission (YWAM) went to be with Jesus on October 6, 2023, at the age of 88.
My wife, Laura, and I were grateful for the opportunity to go to Kona, Hawaii for Loren’s “Celebration of Life.” It was scheduled for Saturday, November 4th to take place at YWAM’s University of the Nations.
A Paddle Out Ceremony
On Friday, the day before, there was a “paddle-out ceremony” in his honor. This is a tradition of the Hawaiian people. It is also practiced by surfers around the world. To honor a loved one who passed away, people paddle their surfboards out to a spot on the water and gather in a circle.
Being a surfer, I’ve done paddle-outs before and knew it would be a meaningful event. Flowers are brought and placed on the water. Around the circle, thoughts are shared and stories are told about the person being honored.
As I walked down Ali’i Drive, toward the shoreline, a group of 10 or 12 young people were walking ahead of me. I overheard a few of them as they talked. Quickly I realized they were fellow YWAMers—all in their 20’s. I thanked the Lord that I could follow (not lead) these young, emerging missionaries to an event remembering Youth With A Mission’s founder.
The paddle-out for Loren was amazing. Hundreds of young people (and people my age) stood on the shore watching. Not only surfboards but canoes and outriggers encircled Loren’s wife Darlene (YWAM’s beloved co-founder) and their family as they sat on their own canoe. The ceremony was led by a Hawaiian woman. Conch shells resounded. Beautiful Hawaiian worship music filled the air. As the ceremony drew to a close, a helicopter approached and hovered above. Plumeria flowers were dropped and gently settled across the waters of Kona Bay.
I thought to myself, “This is not overdone considering who Loren was and what he has accomplished for the Kingdom and for us. He’s entrusted the future fruitfulness of YWAM into the hands of thousands of us across the earth. With his blessing and encouragement, we will all keep pursuing our united calling to Know God and to Make Him Known.”
Celebration of Life
The next day was the Celebration of Life at the YWAM/UofN campus. There were about 4,000 people. It was even more inspiring than the paddle-out!
Together we remembered Loren. Here is a bit of what was presented:
- Loren Cunningham was the first person in history to travel for the sake of Jesus Christ and His Great Commission to every sovereign country on earth, all dependent countries, and more than 100 territories (Mark 16:15).
- Loren is often called the “de-regulator of missions” because he broke the 1960s missionary paradigm by creating opportunities for youth to serve short-term, globally, and unsalaried. This foresight opened the floodgates so that millions could come FROM everywhere and go TO everywhere as missionaries around the planet to proclaim the truth of God and display His love.
- The ministry he founded is an ever-expanding global mission movement. YWAM https://ywam.org has reached into every country on earth through evangelism, training, and mercy ministries. Tens of thousands of full-time staff participate from 200+ countries. The majority of YWAMers are from the Global South. We are from various denominations and Christian traditions, serving at over 2,000 YWAM locations in nearly 200 countries.
- Millions have served in YWAM programs as students and short-term volunteers. Many then discover they have a lifetime calling as missionaries and join YWAM staff or other mission organizations.
- People have credited YWAM as being among the world’s largest mission movements. But when presented with this claim, Loren always deflected the glory to Jesus, saying, “Well, however large it is, it’s not large enough because Jesus’ last commandment to reach the whole world with the Gospel has not been completed.” He was well-known for his call to build bridges of unity within the body of Christ, always quick to recognize the scores of other mission organizations and churches serving together in partnership.
Just about a year ago, I had the privilege of being with Loren for a leaders’ gathering in Kona. There were about 40 of us from across the planet. Loren shared a vision the Lord Jesus had been speaking to him over the past several years. He stirred our hearts and faith to reach the remaining Bible-less, Unreached People Groups. Millions and millions have never heard God’s Word in their mother tongue.
By God’s grace, we will work to see this vision become reality. The unreached must hear the Gospel in their heart language and then go retell it within their families, among their neighbors, and across their nations!
What will your part be??