Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Influences: Mike Yaconelli

There was only one Mike Yaconelli.   Mike Yaconelli was the co-founder of Youth Specialties. He spent 43 years of his life in ministry to youth, and 20 years as a pastor of a small church in Yreka, California (Mike called it "the slowest growing church in America").  Mike and his wife, Karla, split their time between Yreka and San Diego.  He helped found The Wittenburg Door, a magazine of Christian satire. His work with Youth Specialties not only changed student ministry, in many ways it created youth ministry as we know it.  If your life has ever been touched by a youth pastor or a youth ministry you owe a debt of gratitude to Yac.

Mike and his partner Wayne Rice were responsible for the Ideas Books, the National Youth Workers Convention and many other tangible ministry tools.  But for those of us who knew him, it was his constant support, love and inspiration for those in student ministry that truly changed our lives.  He was constantly reminding us of God's love for us.  He never backed down from the concept that student ministry was important- just as important as anything else the church did.  I remember so well his rants about the "Jones Memorial Carpet."  This was his phrase for any scared cow that churches would try to "protect" from youth.  The stories would always go something like this: The church board is freaking out because a student spilled a Coke on the Jones Memorial Carpet.  Mike always said the church should be shouting "WHOOO-HOO!  We have youth in our church!"  I remember him each year at the opening of the NYWC going over the schedule and telling some of us that we needed to skip all the workshops, grab our spouses, a bottle of wine, and go spend the weekend in our rooms, because our marriages needed more work than our ministries.  Mike had a way of cutting through the BS and speaking God's truth.  He believed and trusted in the grace of Jesus Christ, and had little patience for Pharisees in the modern church.

Mike was nothing if not unconventional.  He was a major Christian leader who had been kicked out of Bible college.  He launched "Fingerblasters" in the lobbies of some of the nicest hotels in USAmerica (once hitting a desk clerk in Denver while she was checking me in!).  He cared deeply for "the least of these," and is a hero with the folks at World Vision.  He once forgot the Communion elements at his church in Yreka and served frozen hot dog rolls and orange juice instead.  His rants on "getting fired for the glory of God" were controversial- and right on the money.  He was a member of the evangelical establishment, yet one of its strongest critics.  To anyone who ever shook his hand or got a pat on the back from him, he was immediately your friend.

Mike was killed in October of 2003 in a car wreck.  We were never close friends, yet it always felt like we were.  I think of him everyday.  I think of his rants, his smile, and his incredible heart for Jesus.  His books Dangerous Wonder and Messy Spirituality are still among my favorites.  Shortly before his death, I had arranged for him to come speak at Wesley Memorial UMC in February of 2004.  I regret never having the chance to have him to myself for a day, just to pick his brain and soak in the Light of Christ that just beamed from him.  My feelings for Mike and the impact he had on my life an thousands of others can be summed up in the following statement:  There are only two people I have ever met who, upon their deaths, I think made Jesus yell "WHOO-HOO!  He's finally here!"  One was Rich Mullins.  The other was Yac.  Heaven's gain was certainly our loss, and I feel it everyday.

Because of Jesus,


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