Grace gives life, abundantly
Mike Yaconelli, Siskiyou County's most influential resident, dies in a car crash on I-5

Pioneer Press
Fort Jones, CA
Wednesday, November 5, 2003
Page A1, Column 2
Permission to reprint granted

World renowned Christian author, speaker and youth ministry leader extraordinaire Mike Yaconelli pictured speaking at a Youth Unlimited Convention in 2002. "Yac" died last week.

By Daniel Webster
Pioneer Press Editor and Publisher

World renowned author and speaker Tony Campolo and Youth Specialties President of Events Tic Long light candles next to Mike Yaconelli's coffin on which friends and family wrote their thoughts and memories.
Pioneer Press Photo by Daniel Webster

YREKA -- It was not a typical Sunday service at Grace Community Church.

Men, who reverently wore neckties, had them cut off, tears were shed and laughter rocked the Grange Hall, where they met. And the focus of the service was on the most powerful notion known to humans: the radical life altering power of grace.

In all actuality, it was a typical Sunday service at the small church in Yreka. The only difference was that Siskiyou County's most influential resident, their pastor, was gone.

Mike Yaconelli, 61, of Yreka died following a single vehicle crash on Interstate 5 last week. He was traveling alone when his car reportedly, for unknown reasons, veered off the road and hit a light post. He was airlifted to Redding, but died before reaching the hospital.

His wife, Karla, and father, Ernie Yaconelli, were following about 15 minutes behind him and drove by the crash site, but did not recognize the vehicle and kept driving. Karla considers it the hand of God, not allowing them to see what they may not have been able to live through.

Upon arriving home and waiting 20 minutes for Mike, they called California Highway Patrol with Mike's license number and learned of the fatal crash.

The pathologist assured Karla that due to Mike's health, schedule and actions of the car, he does not believe Mike was conscious at the time of the accident.

Last year, in his most recent book, Messy Spirituality, Mike wrote "I just want to be remembered as a person who loved God, who served others more than he served himself, who was trying to grow in maturity and stability. I want to have more victories than defeats, yet here I am, almost 60, and I fail on a regular basis.

Funeral program cover

"If I were to die today, I would be nervous about what people would say at my funeral. I would be happy if they said things like 'He was a nice guy' or 'He was occasionally decent' or 'Mike wasn't as bad as a lot of people.' Unfortunately, eulogies are delivered by people who know the deceased. I know what the consensus would be. 'Mike was a mess.'"

His funeral at Yreka High School Gymnasium was in keeping with his extraordinary life. Three gigantic wooden crosses were the backdrop for the pine coffin on which people used markers to write notes and memories.

Karla's grace and strength were evident in both the church and funeral services.

"He walked out of my dreams," she told the packed gymnasium. "I've gotten to be Cinderella for two and a half decades. . . . Michael and I crammed more fun, adventure and living than many do in a lifetime."

Although Mike left us with many speeches yet delivered and many books yet to write, Karla considers that when he passed, he left no rifts, no regrets and nothing left undone. At the end of the funeral Mike's sons Mark and Trent brought the podium over to the coffin and placed a single candle on it, as the voice of Mike Yaconelli came over the loud speaker.

It was an ominous recording of a speech given a week before he died in which he equates the Christian life to a roller coaster, concluding with "If I died right this minute, I would be able to say, 'God, what a ride! What a ride!'"

Saved their faith

"The Wittenberg Door," now known as "The Door," was started in 1971. Mike held onto it for 25 years.

"Its impact is staggering," Publisher Ole Anthony told the Pioneer Press. "Most of its subscribers are leaders of the church and seminary professors."

Over the years, Mike interviewed the heavyweights in Christianity, including Billy Graham.

The publication used satire and wit to shine a mirror on the contemporary Christian church.

"The purpose from the beginning was to become a real burr in the rear end of the church," Anthony said.

Mike used humor to deflate egos and had the ability to tell the story of common people. He was loved and respected by even those he wrote about and was extremely well known the world over within protestant leadership.

In 1995 Mike and Karla sold the publication for $1 to Anthony and his organization, who had been an investigative journalist focusing on televangelists.

Mike called and asked "Ole would you like the magazine?" Anthony didn't understand the question, as he had been a subscriber from the beginning and received every issue in the mail.

Ole was honored and a bit taken back when he learned that Mike wanted to give "the magazine" to him.

He knew the impact of the magazine as he had felt it personally.

The greatest impact "The Door" has had on the world? Ole has received thousands of letters telling him how the magazine "saved their faith."

It was this magazine that brought Mike to Yreka.

At a pastors convention approximately 30 years ago, Wendell and Marilyn Seward, of Etna approached Mike, as they wanted to give him a piece of their mind about his caustic magazine "The Wittenberg Door".

What they found was that Mike began to pour out his heart and that they were actually kindred spirits.

They found that Mike wasn't going to church at the time, and they invited him up to speak at Scott Valley Berean Church in Etna.

They gave him a plane ticket, as they didn't believe he would come up otherwise.

At the time, there were about 100 people in Yreka that had begun meeting as part of a new unconventional church. They were pastorless.

They immediately called on Mike to be their pastor.

Thus began his pastorate at Grace Community Church meeting at the Grange Hall.

A worldwide impact on youth

"Mike could see things others could not see," Wayne Rice, Youth Specialties cofounder told the Pioneer Press. "His mind was such a gift."

Mike and Wayne were entrepreneurs with passion and 34 years ago the two founded Youth Specialties, which now trains and encourages hundreds of thousands of youth workers around the globe, thus impacting millions of young people.

The two were part of a very creative approach to youth work and compiled their ideas into a book aptly titled "Idea Book."

The book was filled with crazy ideas and approaches to youth ministry and were considered "pretty radical," according to Rice.

People questioned whether it was even appropriate for a church to use these and they couldn't find a publisher that would touch the book.

So, they started Youth Specialties to publish the book.

The two ran the company as partners until 1994.

Two years ago, Mike brought in Mark Oestreicher to be president of the company. Recently Mark introduced him at a National Youth Workers Convention by saying, "I guess I could say he is a wonderfully complex group of seeming contradictions. Many of you know that Mike is extremely playful; and while many playful people are only that, Mike is a deep well - a contemplative man with a mushy pastor's heart. Mike is one of those rare people who truly lives in the upside-down kingdom of God; he values mercy, change and truth (even when it's uncomfortable)."

Twenty years ago, Mike finally got the attention of a publisher, the world's largest Bible publisher, Zondervan.

Sold millions upon millions

"A young man with a huge vision approached us about publishing books and resources for youth ministers," said Bruce Ryskamp, president and CEO of Zondervan. "He knew little about publishing, but Mike Yaconelli's passion for the church impressed us so much that we began a partnership that has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. Along the way, Mike became more than a business partner and a best-selling author. He became a friend. A member of the family."

Mike's books and recordings have easily sold in the millions upon millions, the publisher told the Pioneer Press.

His books were anchored in reality and struck a chord with the common person. "Mike was the incarnation of his book titles, Dangerous Wonder and Messy Spirituality. He lived a life of wonder and amazement at God's grace. He never claimed to be perfect; he just lived as he was - a man after God's own heart," said Tic Long, president of events at Youth Specialties.

Bookings well into 2005

Mike mesmerized audiences with his truth and transparency, which is why he was such a sought after public speaker.

"Mike was a voice, a passionate one, a free one who spoke about things he held very dear," his booking agent Holly Benyouski, of Street Level Artist Agency in Indiana told the Pioneer Press. "He told the truth. He gave hope to me. He was a complicated man -- but the best people always are."

Holly has known Mike since 1978. She was an agent for mostly musicians and Mike would ask musicians such as contemporary Christian legends Randy Stonehill and Steve Taylor, who spoke to the culture, to work with him on his speaking engagements. Thousands would flock to hear Mike speak around the world and Holly has bookings for him well into 2005.

"We wanted more of the story," she said. "We were not ready for him to go to heaven yet."

Touching hearts with reality

"Mike was a prophetic voice who, in his own unconventional way, challenged individual Christians and the church in America to examine their faith and relationship with Jesus Christ in an honest and open manner," Richard Stearns, president of World Vision stated. "World Vision's relationship with Mike was brief, but very powerful. His passion for helping orphans and vulnerable children, affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, sparked our collaboration on One Life Revolution, a partnership I am confident will continue despite this tragedy."

He played a significant role in making AIDS a cause for thousands of young people, according to Stearns. He told the youth "you can take your one life and you can actually make a difference in somebody's life in Zambia or in another place in the world, and you can actually do something about this. Not just talk about it. Not just watch a video about it. Not get teary about it and cry about it. You can actually do something."