LAKESIDE – With its mission over, the U.S. Air Force radar facility above the quiet community of Lakeside sat abandoned and lonely for several years, a virtual ghost town of the Cold War. Then, as Ron Brewster sees it, God found a new mission for the base.
“When the purpose for the facility ceased to exist, YWAM was able to buy it on auction and bring it new life,” Brewster said. “We have a mission still – just a different one.”
Youth With A Mission, or YWAM (pronounced WYE-wam) as it’s called, is one of the world’s largest Christian mission organizations, sending out more than 25,000 short-term missionaries each year. An interdenominational Christian group, YWAM focuses on young people and a three-fold ministry: evangelization, mercy and discipleship training.
The organization encompasses thousands of people and hundreds of ministries in almost every country of the world. Of all these international locations, one of the largest can be found here, stationed on the old military base tucked behind a little, lakefront town in western Montana. “It’s certainly a surprise to most people,” Brewster, YWAM Lakeside’s director, said.
At its largest, YWAM Lakeside houses about 300 people at a time, including students, staff and staffers’ families. It is surpassed in size only by similar facilities in Hawaii, Australia and South Korea. Its population is also especially notable in Lakeside, where the number of residents peaks around 2,000 in the busiest summer months.
The Air Force built the multi-million-dollar compound in 1959, and tasked its residents with operating a radar facility on Blacktail Mountain. By the early 1980s, though, the station had been decommissioned and left to deteriorate. YWAM purchased it in 1985 on auction.
In structure, the YWAM campus retains much of its military feel. Two large dormitories house the students, who take their meals in a mess hall-like room and attend class in simple structures retrofitted for their new purpose. Of the 140 full-time staffers, 110 live with their families in one of the 27 homes, all of similar floor plans and size, arranged in a cluster on the western side of campus.
The character of the facility, however, has almost certainly changed. Students lounge on benches, take coffee breaks at an espresso bar and play soccer with staffers’ children, lending the base a vibe that’s more college campus than military.
“There are some people who drive by and look at this thing and don’t know what to make of it,” Brewster said. “We try to be as open as possible – let people know what we do, that we’re not weird.”
In his 22 years with the organization, Brewster has never received a salary from YWAM. All staff members raise their own financial support through contributors who believe in them and the group’s purpose enough to send dollars their way. YWAM helps out with subsidized food and housing costs.
Student tuition and the living expense fee paid by the staff primarily cover the needs of the base, including heat, vehicles and the like. Larger-scale projects like the dorm renovations currently ongoing at the campus, are covered by donations.
“On a piece of paper it wouldn’t work out,” Brewster said, “and yet we’re debt free – a huge blessing considering the economic times.”
YWAM is set up as a family of ministries, rather than a structured, centralized agency. Each YWAM location is responsible then for planning its own outreaches, initiating training programs, recruiting staff, raising funds and setting priorities in carrying out ministry.
As a result, YWAM campuses maintain overarching similarities, but their independence also allows them to develop niches. In Lakeside, a reputation has grown around the arts.
On any given day, audio engineering and production students learn in Studio 501, a multi-track recording studio with state-of-the-art equipment housed right on YWAM Lakeside’s campus. It’s one of the largest independent studios in Montana, and one of only two operated by YWAM.
Dancers practice routines in a gym equipped with a spring-loaded floor, and musicians collaborate with strangers in a soundproof band room. The Little Yak Theater, a professional black box facility, is also housed on campus.
“We wouldn’t view things as secular or sacred,” Brewster said. “For us, it’s a holistic view. The whole person, the whole culture, their talents – all of it is spiritual.”
With that in mind, students work to master their talents, but always with an eye toward using their gifts on a mission. In almost all cases, several weeks of training and practice are followed by time overseas in “outreach.”
“It’s not a hard core sell,” Brewster said. “We’re not standing on street corners with signs saying, ‘Repent or go to hell.’”
Instead, when Keith Buzzard, a Polson native and head of YWAM Lakeside’s sports outreach, heads to Germany this summer, he’ll be taking a team of talented soccer players along. The group will host free camps, play pick-up games and participate in a national tournament – all in an effort to share their Christian beliefs. The arts-based missions take a similar approach.
One of this summer’s athletes, Markus Makan, sidelined his professional soccer career – he’s played on national teams in Cameroon, Ghana, Gambia, Mauretania and the United Kingdom – to join YWAM Lakeside.
“It’s an amazing tool,” Makan said of soccer’s role in ministry. “There are no boundaries. Once there is a soccer ball, everyone wants to come – believers, non-believers, Christians and Muslims.”
“Then, we can show them the love of God through our friendship and play,” he said.
There are more traditional programs on campus as well. Students in YWAM Lakeside’s Discipleship Training School begin with a 12-week lecture phase followed by a two-month mission outreach, usually to one of the organization’s four “target nations” – Nepal, Thailand, India or Ukraine.
The School of Biblical Studies is a nine-month course in which students study all 66 books of the Bible, reading the entire thing at least five times through.
With each program, YWAM Lakeside sends out more missionaries – some for a few weeks, others for years – with the aim of offering aid and sharing Christian beliefs. “Missionaries all over the world,” Brewster said, “have come from this tiny town in Montana.”
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