November 5, 2003 | Los Angeles Times
OBITUARIES

Michael Yaconelli, 61; Youth Minister, Author of Religion Books

By Mary Rourke, Times Staff Writer

Michael Yaconelli, a Christian youth minister who co-founded Youth Specialties, a training program for youth workers based in El Cajon, and who wrote several books on Christian life, died Oct. 30. He was 61.

Yaconelli was helping his father move to a new apartment near Medford, Ore., on Oct. 29, when Yaconelli blacked out because of an undiagnosed heart condition, his wife, Karla, told The Times on Tuesday. The pickup truck he was driving veered off the road near Yreka, Calif. Yaconelli, who was alone in the vehicle, died of head injuries suffered in the crash.

For 25 years, starting in the early 1970s, Yaconelli edited the religious humor magazine, the Door, whose target audience was younger Evangelical Christians. An early mission statement explained that the magazine intended "to shoot down sacred cows in the church." At the same time, it upheld conservative Christian teachings.

Yaconelli became publisher and senior editor of the magazine, whose name referred to the church door in Germany where Martin Luther, the 16th century religious figure, tacked his list of reforms.

At its peak in the late 1970s, circulation reached 24,000 subscribers.

We were sort of angry cynical young men fueled by passion," Yaconelli said in a 1995 interview with the Dallas Observer about the early days of the magazine. "We were the first to use humor as a kind of weapon."

Mixed in with the profiles of religious leaders and assorted religion features were irreverent cartoons that poked fun at ministers who primped with hairspray. In one mid-1970s issue, a fake ad offered designer jeans especially for Christians ("Billy Graham Crusade Jeans: They Loosen Up With Age").

"I think satire is most effective when you love the thing you're satirizing rather than ... have a vendetta against it," Yaconelli said in an interview with The Times in 1991.

He gave up his editing position in 1987 but continued to contribute to the magazine until 1996, when it was donated to Trinity Foundation, an advocacy group in Dallas that investigates unscrupulous Christian ministries.

Yaconelli went on to write humor-based books about practicing his Christianity. "Dangerous Wonder: The Adventure of Childlike Faith" (1999) argued that terror and trust were compatible in his spiritual life.

"Messy Spirituality, God's Annoying Love for Imperfect People" (2002), his second book, urged people not to be discouraged by their human foibles. Yaconelli assured interviewers, "I'm a mess."

Born in Van Nuys, Yaconelli graduated from San Diego State and launched Youth Specialties with a friend, Wayne Rice, in 1969.

Along with his work as a youth minister and magazine editor, he served as a volunteer pastor at several churches, most recently Grace Community Church in Yreka, where he lived with his wife and five children.

In recent years, Yaconelli and his wife divided their time between their home in Northern California and the Youth Specialties offices in San Diego.

He is also survived by four grandchildren and his father, Ernest.