This world is full of controversial and provocative cultural icons, people who don’t fit into the societal mold, but rebel and upset the people around them. There’s the crew behind Jackass, rebels who seem to have no real reason for their absurd behavior; or Eminem, who raises his middle finger to the entire world and sees it worship him in return. Mike Yaconelli, on the other hand, was a rebel with a cause, setting himself apart with his great love for people—and for his Savior, Jesus Christ.
Mike Yaconelli was a great man. Cofounder and owner of Youth Specialties and the author of two books, Yaconelli is not one of the most recognizable or famous names in the world. Many will not have heard of him, but the list of people whose lives he has touched and changed is endless and incredible. He lived to serve the Lord, who filled Mike with His “annoying love.” Mike’s passion was for spreading the Gospel and equipping youth workers to reach children and teach them of God’s endless grace and love.
On October 29, only a couple of days after a youth workers’ convention in Charlotte, N.C., Mike was killed in a tragic and untimely automobile accident. I was in attendance in Charlotte and saw Mike only a couple of days before he died. When I read those horrible words, “Mike Yaconelli was killed in a car accident last night,” it hit me hard and strong.
I remember seeing him here and there and feeling like I was in the presence of greatness. I would joke with my friend, Shaun, and mock being a teenage girl fan at a rock concert. “Oh, look! It’s Mike Yaconelli! I can’t believe it!” He was one of my heroes—I had read his latest book, Messy Spirituality, and attended two of his youth workers’ conventions. Mike would go out of his way for people, taking time to talk to anyone and everyone. He hosted an early morning Bible study every morning.
With a round stomach, a full beard and large glasses, Mike was truly the “messy disciple” he claimed to be. The self-professed “pastor of the slowest growing church in America,” Mike was an inspiration to many. I remember meeting him face-to-face at the youth leaders’ convention last year in Sacramento. We asked him to sign my friend’s book, and he gladly agreed, writing the following: “May the annoying love of Jesus chase you into His arms once again.” Amen. Love, Mike.
This year, the convention’s theme was Renovatus, a Greek word for renovation. He told us that in this week of seminars, sessions and worship, his prayer was that God would come into our lives and change us in profound ways. He also joked that if we felt tired or burned out, we shouldn’t go to a seminar about being tired and worn out, but “Go take a nap!” And if we were having problems with our marriage, we shouldn’t go to a marriage-counseling seminar, but the two of us should lock ourselves in a hotel room for the week with a bottle of champagne. “And if you’re Baptist, give the champagne to an Episcopalian!”
Mike was known for being the senior editor of The Door, an irreverent and satirical look at the Church and Christianity. Recently, he was criticized for poking fun at Promise Keepers. He simply told critics that if people took their ministries too seriously that they couldn’t take criticism or a joke, that was “too bad.”
Even from a distance, I have many fond memories of Mike Yaconelli. At the Charlotte convention, in his introduction to featured speaker Tony Campolo, who is facing much criticism and controversy right now, Mike spoke fondly of him and called him a “dear, dear friend” and “a great man.” Tony came onstage and didn’t disappoint, making remarks about 9/11 that made some in the audience upset. I got the impression that these two men both knew that proclaiming the truth and preaching the Gospel is more important than always pleasing people.
In his introduction to Marilyn Laszlo, a missionary woman who translated the Bible into an obscure language for a rural Papua New Guinea tribe, Mike said this: “We don’t usually have missionaries speak here at Youth Specialties, because, quite frankly, they’re boring.” I heard a small gasp escape from several people around me. Everyone knows and thinks the same thing, but would hesitate to say it. Mike wasn’t only saying it, but proclaiming it in front of a 4,000-person audience! He defied our ideals of manners and politeness. But then Mike continued, calling Marilyn an “inspirational and amazing woman” and told us how happy he was to have her at the conference.
Mike was the lay pastor of a tiny church in Yreka, Calif. He would often brag that it was the “slowest growing church in America.” He spoke fondly of each person in his congregation, including a young girl with Down’s Syndrome, a chronic drunk and a woman who has filthy language and chain-smokes. Mike is known for throwing out entire sermons halfway through and having people in his church stand up and tell him outright if they don’t understand or think his talk isn’t good enough.
I was planning to drive down to California and visit soon. I guess that won’t happen now.
Mike will be deeply missed, and the world is just that much less interesting now that he is gone. He leaves behind his wife, Karla, two sons, three daughters, several grandchildren and thousands of devoted fans. Though we find comfort in the fact that Mike is now in heaven, it’s a heavy burden to actually accept his death as fact. I will always remember Mike Yaconelli, and I thank God for all the ways that Mike touched and influenced my life.
[Will Johnson is a competitive swimming coach in British Columbia, Canada, and a volunteer youth leader at his church. He writes various articles and movie reviews for RELEVANT and Thunderstruck webzine.]
If you’re interested in contributing a memorial quote to be included in a tribute in the upcoming print issue of Relevant magazine, email Cara at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts on how Mike’s ministry and words have impacted your life by Nov. 5.