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The Day My Friend Died

Mike Yaconelli died suddenly. He was one of my youth ministry heroes but more importantly, a personal friend. I went to the family funeral last week and it’s still difficult to believe that Mike is gone. My friendship with Mike started 17 years ago with a practical joke and ended with Mike praying for me a week before he died. In between those moments were a lot of lessons and memories that have marked me.

In 1985 I was invited to speak for Youth Specialties and become one of their trainers (today, this is called the Core). I couldn’t believe they would ask me because I was only 23 years old and far too inexperienced to be teaching anyone about anything. My first assignment was to show up for a photo shoot with the existing team. I walked into this hotel room suite and saw all the “big names” in youth ministry. I was nervous, but I was really scared to meet Mike. He was larger than life to me.

Mike shook my hand and said, “Doug, I’m glad you’re here. I want to talk to you before the others get to you but I’ve got to go to the bathroom, so stay right here.” Mike then turned the corner and disappeared into the hotel bathroom. As I stood there alone, I heard the longest urination that I’d ever heard in my life. First of all, I couldn’t believe he didn’t shut the door and then that someone could relieve himself for so long. It was a steady stream for at least 5 minutes. Mike came back out and said, “I feel better now. Wait! Actually, I’ve got to go some more.” And he disappeared back into the bathroom. I thought it was weird, but I didn’t find out until later that night that the pee gag was my “initiation” to the team. Mike had jugs of water hidden in the bathroom and was pouring them in the toilet while this naive 23 year old was waiting for the godfather of youth ministry to reappear and welcome him. I had been had. Meeting #1 was quite memorable.

Fast forward to October 25th, 2003. I’m standing with Mike backstage at the National Youth Workers Convention in Charlotte about to speak at the General Session. No longer a stranger to Mike, he put his arm around me and prayed for me. During the 17+ years that I had been around Mike, I had always wanted his approval. I’m not exactly sure why, but I wanted Mike (more than anyone else) to give me his youth ministry blessing. That blessing happened many times throughout the years but this last prayer will be etched in my heart. Mike’s prayer was filled with words of affirmation and belief in my skills as a youth worker and my heart as a pastor. That was my last meeting with Mike. How thankful I am that his final words were in prayer.

Practical joke to prayer. That summarizes a lot of Mike Yaconelli.

Mike was filled with laughter. I sat in over 100 meetings with Mike and most involved a lot of laughing. The room always had funny people, but you knew you had said something funny when Mike laughed. While he was easy to make laugh, there was a special laugh Mike had that made him look like he was going to explode. It was a silent laugh where his face would turn so red and he made no sound and you thought he was going to pop. You hit a homerun when you got Mike to that point…it was always a good sign. I loved Mike’s laughter and humor.

Mike was filled with passion. It didn’t matter what he spoke on. He was able to muster passion about any subject. It wasn’t fake passion–it was genuine. Mike was a feeler and he felt things deeply. Many times I would want to charge the hill and follow him into battle because his passion was contagious. Every year when we were trying out new material (to take on the road to seminars) I would lean over to a YS friend and say, “I have no idea what Mike is talking about, but his passion makes it so that it doesn’t matter.”

Mike was filled with a love for Jesus. Jesus was his model, his theme, his best friend and no one I know talked about Jesus the way Mike did. I called him last year to tell him that I had been reading his book, Dangerous Wonder, and writing journal entries after each chapter. I couldn’t just read it, I had to interact with it. Mike made me want to know more about Jesus. He loved Jesus!

Mike was filled with a mission. Probably because he was so filled with Jesus that Mike had this mission to make sure the church didn’t forget about Jesus. Mike loved the church and hated the church. He didn’t hate Christians, he hated that the church had become ugly. He hated the way some Christians treated one another. He hated that preachers could talk about grace but not express it in their dealings with others. Mike had a mission to change the church by pointing the church to Jesus.

When it came to youth ministry, Mike and I would compliment each other in our differences. We had very different youth ministry experiences. Because of that, we didn’t always agree, but our differences were always met with love. When I stopped traveling with YS in 1999, Mike wrote me a letter that is one of the kindest, most affirming letters I’ve ever received (I cried when I read it today). Throughout our differences, he appreciated me. One of my highest Mike Yaconelli compliments came when he told me that there are times when he doesn’t like me because I cause him to rethink all that he thinks. I smiled and said, “You’ve been doing that to me ever since I met you.” A recent Doug/Mike e-mail dialogue over a recent article called the Failure of Youth Ministry would prove our differences. Our occasional disagreements were tense, fun, care-filled, challenging and filled with love.

I have read many of the entries on the Youth Specialties web-site about Mike’s life and death ( So many youth workers have written, “I never knew him but I felt like I did.” When I read those, I am so thankful that I did know Mike Yaconelli. I have traveled with him, shared hotel rooms with him, laughed, fought, prayed, dreamt, and cried with him. There was something special about the life of Mike Yaconelli and I’m a better person because of Mike.
If you’re reading this and didn’t know Mike, here’s what I would tell you he wanted for you as a youth worker.

1. He wanted youth workers to know Jesus. That was primary. More important than any program, event or resource.

2. He wanted youth workers to not give up. He heard about the trials. He listened to the pain. He got angered by the way youth workers were treated in the church and he didn’t want you to give up. He committed his life to making sure you wouldn’t.

3. He wanted youth workers to be themselves. Whatever it was that worked for them, he got excited about it. I remember a guy telling Mike that he was an after-school tutor and his ministry was helping 3 kids. Mike cried. He cried because he knew he could never do that and someone got excited about 3 teenagers. His tears were tears of joy because that person was loving kids out of his/her personality. Mike didn’t want people to be like him or like me…he wanted them be themselves and serve God faithfully. Minister to 3 kids? Yea! Mike would shout, “That’s great youth ministry. Yipee!” Bigger wasn’t better to Mike. Never was. He wanted people to be themselves and most of the time that meant ministry in small ways.

How can you be different because of Mike Yaconelli’s life?

Know Jesus……..don’t give up…… yourself!

I have many more stories and memories and I’d like to tell you more about Mike someday. You want to know what’s funny? The more I would tell you about Mike, the more you’d know about Jesus. That’s what Mike was all about.

Myself and a few other YS friends hung around Mike’s funeral till everyone had gone. Then, we shared the privilege of putting Mike’s casket in the hearse. It was raining that night and the rain covered up my tears. The tears were selfish…tears for my loss. I was carrying a box with a body. It wasn’t Mike. Death had no sting on Mike Yaconelli. His body was in a box, but he was in the presence of the Jesus he loved so much.

Thank you Mike for touching my life! I love you!

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The Day My Friend Died

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