Thursday, November 27, 2003

nicked this off the Greenbelt website and they had permission from The Church Times ....... thanx to you all ...... it is reflection on the life of Mike Yaconelli by the great man Martin Wroe.
It is my 'Mighty Martin/Martyn Day'!!

Mike Yaconelli used to say that 'You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.' Yaconelli knew the truth and his generous take on Christian spirituality made anyone who felt odd, feel right at home.

A popular speaker and writer for thousands of American youth workers, his influence in the UK was largely through the Greenbelt Arts Festival, to which he has returned regularly since the mid-1980’s. We invited him after coming across his satirical magazine, The Wittenberg Door, a kind of evangelical Private Eye, tearing into hypocrisy, pomposity and assorted church scams. Below the satire, was a Chestertonian innocence and a warm-hearted evangelical theology. Yaconelli interviewed big hitters from across the ecclesiastical spectrum and - playfully editing the encounters afterwards - made them twice as funny for the reader. Steve Martin and Woody Allen both made ‘Theologian of the Year’ as did Tammy Faye Bakker, wife of the disgraced televangelist. The Door was a breath of fresh air, and not just in the claustrophic environs of the American church.

I had managed to blag his home number on the US West Coast from somewhere, and, getting my time zones wrong, rang him in the middle of the night. Gradually coming to, he said, 'Yeah, sounds like a great festival, love to come, who are you again ?'
After that, he was always waking Greenbelt up. The Festival has long had a semi-detached relationship with the institutional church and we found a kindred spirit in Mike – a real-life minister (looking after a small ‘church for people who don’t go to church’) but deeply sceptical about what the church often turned into. Honesty and humour were at the heart of his appeal. His was ‘the slowest growing church in America. We started twelve years ago with ninety members and have ungrown to thirty.’ He could have been an Anglican.

If he embraced oddness, this may be because he had long felt a little odd in the Church himself. Born to Italian Americans in 1942, the family were ‘ethnic Catholics’, until evangelical revival surprised them. ‘One day my parents came home saying they were born again and they started this home church thing in our living room. Here were 18-25 people coming over every Friday night to read the Bible, sing and yell theological arguments in my living room. It was the best show in town. I started cancelling my Friday night plans so I could sit in the other room and listen.’

His parents encouraged him to enrol at the conservative Bob Jones University - he was thrown out within weeks, for which he was always grateful. After training as a youth worker, he co-wrote ‘Idea Book’ - off the wall activities for young people - but no one would publish it. With partner Wayne Rice, he founded Youth Specialties in 1969, to do it themselves. Today the organisation resources tens of thousands of youth workers, publishes scores of books and hosts the National Youth Workers Convention.

Along the way, Yaconelli developed a wonderfully animated and compelling speaking style, happy to come clean about his own failings, with a gift for making the way of faith seem possible for amateurs – the people most of us know ourselves to be most of the time. After becoming friends with Henri Nouwen, his evangelical roots became tangled with those of the mystics and the reverse side of his on-stage pyrotechnics was an off-stage contemplative spirituality. A glance at titles he spoke on at Greenbelt captures his appeal: ‘Un-Spiritual Gifts: The Power of Being Weird’; ‘Messy Spirituality: Christianity For The Rest Of Us’ and ‘What Would Jesus Do? (We Don’t Have a Clue)’

The instutional church, he felt, had forgotten its calling and become a ‘corporation’. It needed to get over itself, stop taking itself so seriously, and focus on loving Jesus. A cultural rather than political radical, he saw individuals not governments changing history and regularly took groups to Mexico to build houses. latterly heading a campaign to persuade young people to fight the African AIDS pandemic.

Yaconelli’s motto was ‘messy spirituality’, which he called the refusal to pretend, to lie, or to allow others to believe we are something we are not.’ Over the years thousands of Greenbelters recognised someone who was more than a mischief making mystic, but rather a kind of prophet of the possible, opening up a generous and liberating view of Christianity for anyone and everyone. ‘Oddness is important,’ he said, ‘Because it adds, texture, variety, and beauty to the human condition. Christ doesn’t make us the same. What He does is affirm our differentness.’