TRIBUTE TO YAC
11/10/03

The other day I awoke at 5 a.m. with Mike Yaconelli on my mind. I couldn't go back to sleep, because frankly, I'm going to miss Mike. As pictures of Mike flashed through my mind, I began to wish that I could be "like Mike." But Mike wouldn't wish that on anybody. Because Mike, by his own admission, was a mess. But a beautiful mess he was. Mike wouldn't want me to dwell upon him or even consider imitating him, Mike would want me to "be like Christ."

I was first introduced to Mike through the Wittenburg Door in the late 70s and early 80s. As a college student at a conservative, albeit fundamentalist, Christian institution, I needed some sanity checks from time to time. There was no better time to check my sanity than when the latest Door would arrive. From the insightful interviews to the provocative "back doors," from the irreverent "Green Weenies" to the embarrassingly true "Truth is Stranger then Fiction," the Door was a welcome relief from the legalistic morass called Christian higher education.

Mike taught me how to laugh at the idiocy of contemporary Christian culture and yet to embrace grace in curious new ways. I quoted from Mike regularly and we would have Door parties every time a new issue arrived. Of course, we never knew when a new issue would arrive. Day after day I would fling open the mailbox hoping the mail carrier would bring the gift we all were waiting for. Mike and Ben (Patterson) became preachers of hope as I lived in my "evangelical wasteland." Those were fond days.

As I began to work in youth ministry, I used many of the ideas and games that were developed by Youth Specialties. It was refreshing and I appreciated the challenge to the status quo of evangelicalism that many of those "ideas" brought to youthwork. But we all grow up, well, most of us. Even though we are committed to doing church in a new way, well maybe not in the "slowest growing church in America" way that Mike was so fond of, we can easily get caught up in the quest to build a bigger church with better programs and more people. It doesn't matter whether it's youth ministry or "big church" ministry, it's all the same. We chase after the almighty ego. Maybe we sit around and gloat "I have the fastest growing church and I'm proud of it." Unfortunately we can become victims of our own success. And while some of us are still trying to be countercultural, many of us have settled into comfortable Christianity where church as usual boxes us into a corner. If we can't feed the animal of getting bigger and growing faster, then our job might be in jeopardy. Well, at least our ego.

But Mike would have none of that. He wasn't much interested in being the biggest or the best. He just wanted to make sure that we were creating disciples of Jesus. Because if we lose sight of making disciples, we are sure to drift away from the mission Jesus wants us to pursue.

In 2001, I had the privilege of meeting Mike and began a casual friendship with him. Though Mike has many friendships, he took the time to get to know me as a person. He wanted to know about my family, my past, and my hopes for the future. He wanted to know about my struggles and my frailties. I had just finished a challenging seven-year run as a pastor and frankly, I was a mess. I had moved into a new role outside the church when I met Mike. We entered into a dialogue about some personal things when I told him that I had read Messy Spirituality and I resonated with the notion of being "stuck" in my life. In his chapter on "Unspiritual Growth," Mike writes, "I would like to add two words to our vocabulary of spiritual growth: stuck and unstuck. Most Christians consider being stuck a sign of failure or burnout, an indication that a person isn't working hard enough on their spiritual life...The hidden assumption is, 'If you are stuck in your spiritual life, you aren't doing something right, because dedicated Christians should never be stuck.' Nothing could be more untrue. Actually, getting stuck is the prerequisite to getting unstuck. Getting stuck is a great moment, a summons, a call from within, the glorious music of disaffection and dissatisfaction with our place in life." Wow, what a liberating thought. If anybody was stuck, it was me. But what's cool is that "stuck" can actually be part of spiritual growth. That was a revelation.

Mike continues, "Getting stuck can be the best thing that could happen to us, because it forces us to stop. It halts the momentum of our lives. We have no choice but to notice what is around us, and we end up searching for Jesus. When we're stuck, we're much more likely to pay attention to our hunger for God and the longings and yearnings we have stifled…Getting stuck forces us to see the futility of our situation and to put life in perspective so that we can move on."

This is the pastoral counsel and wisdom from a friend that I was looking for. Mike knew what I was going through, not because I told him, but because he knew what it was like to be stuck and then to come out the other side and be unstuck. I love it! Mike never let me forget our discussion about being stuck. In fact, he talked with me in person or by e-mail about this challenge in my life from time to time. But no matter what, he cared about me. Mike was being Jesus and that's what I needed.

One final note about Mike and it is a humorous one. I took my 11-year-old daughter to a 2002 National Youthworkers Convention. When I introduced her to Mike and Tic Long, they were excited to see her there. Unknown to me, Mike had slipped behind me and got down on all fours. While he positioned himself, I was engrossed in conversation with Tic. Without making a sound, Mike convinced my daughter to give me a little push. Well, you can imagine the result, I tumbled backwards over Mike and fell flat on my butt. You can imagine the childish delight of my daughter as I laid on the floor. Everybody laughed, including me. Mike was always ready to play and the mischievous gleam in his eye was a dead giveaway. My daughter and I are going to miss that this year.

That's the Mike I know. Encouraging, but challenging. Playful, but serious. Messy, but beautiful. Mike, you had quite a ride, now it's your time to "be with Jesus." We'll see you soon enough. Hey, get the party started. By the way, I think I'm beginning to get unstuck. I wish I could tell you all about it.

John Raymond
Associate Publisher
Church Resources & Lifelong Learning
Zondervan Publishing House