National Lutheran News

Caring about kids is about relationships, not programs

Mike Yaconelli

Mike Yaconelli

Mike Yaconelli doesn’t pull any punches when he talks to youth leaders.

The speaker was a maverick, and an unlikely role model for youth ministry leaders. He revealed he’s now 60 years old and said, “I shouldn’t be doing this at my age.” He confessed he’d gotten kicked out of both Bible colleges he attended. And, he said, while he’s not ordained, he pastors a congregation — which, he admitted, “had 90 members when I started, and I’ve now ‘grown’ it to a total of 30.”

Unlikely as his credentials may sound, Mike Yaconelli, owner of Youth Specialties, a California-based ministry, knows kids. His offbeat, unconventional approach to youth work, driven by energy, enthusiasm, and sometimes-outrageous humor, endears him to audiences. Watching him hold forth at Colonial Church of Edina on January 25 was a little like watching a volcano erupt.

Speaking to over 500 Twin Cities youth ministry leaders, at a workshop hosted by Youth Leadership and sponsored, in part, by area ELCA and LCMS synod and district offices, Yaconelli got his audience’s attention immediately. He said, “I know some of you didn’t plan to be doing this kind of work. Maybe you raised your hand in a meeting, wanting permission to go to the bathroom, and somebody mistakenly thought you were volunteering to do this task.”

He called youth ministers to take chances and get beyond predictability and dullness. “If your congregation doesn’t have at least one rule they’ve adopted because of your youth ministry,” he said, “such as, ‘No skateboarding in the fellowship hall,’ you aren’t doing your job.” He argued, “Youth ministry is changing. It’s not about programming and ‘being nice’ anymore. It’s about relationships, and being real.”

Leaders of our congregations have one standard by which to judge a youth leader’s success, he claimed: “How many kids do you have showing up?” He assured his listeners, “Jesus didn’t have that standard.”

Said Yaconelli, “Kids won’t remember your youth program, but they’ll remember you.” He told of a member in his small congregation. “He pays attention to the kids every time they come to worship. That’s real. That’s Christianity. It’s about relationships. Not surprisingly, all the kids love him.”
He advised, “We want kids to be connected to adults. That’s what church is about. And adults can do more than they think they can to make that happen.”

He told the story of a 75-year-old woman named Fannie. She wanted to help with youth ministry, but the leadership had no clue what use she could be to the program. She said, “Give me photos of all the kids, and then tell me about each one.”

She wrote the information on the backs of the photos and used them like flash cards, memorizing facts and faces.
Yaconelli explained, “When the kids showed up, she’d call them by name, ask them about their week, remember their struggles, and make them feel loved. They came to really care about Fannie.”

Ten years later, at age 85, she had three strokes in a row. She had to give up her youth work. At an appreciation service, 400 kids turned out to thank her.

Yaconelli’s advice to youth ministry leaders included:

* Tell the truth. Remind kids that God loves them but doesn’t always fix things the way they’d want.

* Slow down. Spend time with young people. Don’t join the mad pace of modern life
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* Accept who you are. Celebrate your unique gifts, and let others be the quirky selves they are.

* Embrace your calling. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Work hard, but enjoy the work.