Q&A: Mark Yaconelli

Mark Yaconelli is a youth ministry legend: an author, speaker, thinker and story-teller. He spoke to editor Jamie Cutteridge about his time in the UK and his latest book, Disappointment, doubt and other spiritual gifts 

JC: Tell us about Disappointment, doubt and other spiritual gifts and why you decided to write it…

MY: There’s a struggle within me to want to get my Christian faith right and to find the right spiritual practice; the right church; to get rid of the things that I don’t like about myself; to accentuate my gifts and to somehow reach some kind of perfection. And yet as I get older, I recognise that all the moments of grace - whatever spiritual insight I’ve gotten from failure, frustration, loss, disappointment - come from these sort of darker experiences. Even more damning was when I realised that God has no interest in my spiritual perfection project. That’s not God’s interest at all. So I wanted to explore the darker elements of human life and see the way in which they gifted me, and that’s what it’s about.

I don’t think the church has done a good job in helping people know how to hold the dark side of the human life, or the confusing side, or the difficult side, so churches have become an unsafe place for people to confess who they really are, instead it has become a place of pretending. Which is strange, isn’t it? Because the people who meet God in the Bible are the people who are most damaged, most shamed; you would think we would bring that side of ourselves as maybe a portal or some accessible side to the Holy. We don’t share those sides in church because we’re afraid we’re going to be judged, because we want to accepted, we want to be liked, we want to be included and we’re afraid that if I tell you I’m bipolar, I’m going through divorce, I haven’t had an experience of God in ten years, or I don’t even know if God exists that I’ll be rejected. And so we hide them and there’s a kind of pretending that happens instead.

JC: What can we do to make our church communities places where that can happen?

MY: I think it’s simple. Here’s a practical thing you can try. You have a dinner at a house - get out of the church, you can’t be in the church building, nowhere near it. And you have a good meal, and then you ask a question like: “tell me a time you fell in love when you were a teenager?”, “tell me what your Dad was like?”, “tell me a moment when someone showed compassion to you?”. You just ask questions like this around a dinner table and stories will show up. And as those stories show up they’ll begin to touch on all aspects of human life, including moments of shame and loss as well as moments of bravery and courage. But people become real and when the dinner’s over they’ll say: “can we do this again?” And if you keep meeting, over time, reality starts to show up and humanity starts to show up and through that a different experience of God begins to pervade the room.

JC: What would you say that those times of disappointment, doubt, grief and death have to offer us?

MY: Most of the spiritual life is learning self-acceptance. The more I’m able to accept who I am with my besetting sins, my faults, my gifts, the better able I am to accept you in the hard and difficult places you are. They are tied together; that’s why Jesus says love others as you love yourself - they go together. The problem is, I don’t really like myself or love myself all that often. And when you display behaviour that reminds me of the unloved parts of myself, I can’t stand you.

JC: How do we begin to talk to young people about these kinds of things? It feels like young people are actually more willing to be vulnerable, especially online.

MY: I think one of the places where this happens easier is in youth ministry. The problem that young people experience is that the church feels like an unreal place. And they watch their parents (if their parents go to church) hide parts of themselves at church, and they learn that it’s not safe to show that we’re actually about to fall apart as a family, that dad’s unemployed, or that mum’s been depressed for three years and is on medication. Most young people wisely say, “I don’t want anything to do with this”.

JC: Young people wisely choosing to leave the church feels like a true but damning indictment.

MY: I think it’s a sign of God in them. I think it’s God developing a hunger in them for something real. I was just in the Church in Wales for a few months: Anglican-based churches, empty churches, and I would have people say to me: “I wish young people would come here”. And I said: “I would question the sanity of any young person who wanted to go to this church”. If a young person walked in and said: “I would like to be a part of this church… there’s seven people over 80 here, there’s this organ music, there’s language I don’t understand, this would be a great place!” I would say: “What’s wrong with you? We need to find a counsellor for you!” And the fact that they’re staying away is a sign that God is at work in them.

I would have people say to me: “I wish young people would come [to church]”. I would question the sanity of any young person who wanted to go to that church

JC: You recently spent six months in Wales; how did that come about? Why did you decide to come over here?

MY: A while ago, I led a series of prayer retreats across the diocese of St. Asaph, in the north of Wales. I really connected with the people there. After I left the bishop said: “Come back, we’ll give you free reign. Do whatever you want, say whatever you want to help us be a catalyst for new things.” And he was true to his word. I’ve never felt so trusted by the Church. It was a cathedral filled with all the priests getting reaffirmed and all the hierarchy and he would have me stand up and say: “Tell us what we need to hear”. And I would say the hard things like: “The church has died and you’re all grieving and you’re all bitter and you’re tired because you’re serving a dead church and that’s hard.” They were encouraging me to say the things that they didn’t want to hear but that they needed to hear. I wish more churches would do that. There were young people brought to some of these services where I would say these hard things. And I would watch them; they were there because they were forced to be there - no young person would choose to go to most of these things - and then I would start speaking and saying what the elephant in the room was, and you would watch these young people look at their parents, look around the room like: “Is this allowed? Can we talk like this? What’s happening here?” And then I ran a youth group and it didn’t surprise me - those young people would come; they were hungry for another way. As long as there’s some integrity to it and some honesty to it and it meets the deep longings that waits within them.

JC: Were there huge differences between the young people you’ve worked with in the States before and the young people in Wales or did you see the same longings on both sides of the pond?

MY: At the heart it was the same longings. The young people were much more polite here in the UK! But if you gave them a little room, they had beautiful dreams for the Church. I felt God dreaming in the young people here, but the structure is still not ready to hear them. And so for youth workers you’re caught in between. It’s like you’re a car salesmen who’s selling a car that you know is a lemon; it’s not going to work. And you have to walk this line of trying to help cultivate the spiritual life of a young person without killing it by bringing them into church too early. I am a parent; I have to run my kids out of church.

If adults are more transparent about their own struggles it’s a gift to the young people around them

JC: But the danger is that you go so far the other way, that you just create these youth ministry ghettos. And then young people turn 18 and have no idea what it means to be part of a church.

MY: There is no formula. We’re completely lost at sea right now in the churches; we have no idea what to do. Maybe Africa does, maybe the Christian communities that are coming out of the East do. But those of us in the West, as far as I can tell, we don’t know anything that’s going on. But the good news about this time is that this is an age of creativity, the invitation is: the old world has died, the old ways have died, what do you want to do? We should be experimenting with stuff, trying ideas, supporting them as long as they have life and killing them quickly when they don’t have life and letting them go. Because the new Church is coming but it’s probably coming past my lifetime. And what the future generations need for us to do is to try stuff.

JC: How do youth workers even start to do this?

MY: We need to make a radical commitment to life: to only doing things that bring life. And anything that is death dealing, that deadens the spirit, that leaves you more resentful, that causes you to go home and yell at your own kids or spouse because you hate your job, that makes you feel false and disconnected from yourself… you cannot participate in those kinds of activities. Because Jesus and the Christian way is about life. The best youth workers I know do things that bring themselves life - places where they need to be ministered to - and then they bring the kids along. Your passion will be contagious for that, and you’ll have conversations there; you’ll befriend each other in new ways. What I can’t stand in the church is so many people doing activities that no one enjoys, nobody, not the leaders, not the people paying for it, not the participants, and yet it’s this masquerade that we continue to do things that are death-dealing.

JC: You wrote Contemplative youth ministry ten years ago. What has changed in the last decade?

MY: I think we are more distracted than we were when I wrote the book. I would have been surprised to hear that because I felt like we were already really distracted! So I would emphasise many of the themes even stronger: the need for quiet spaces, holding spaces, to get oriented in a culture that would rather be distracted than engaged, that would rather be in moments of escape than reality. And I think what I would emphasise more in that book is this theme of creativity and that when we spend time in the spirit God gives us dreams and ideas and visions and to be more bold about playing those out and trying those out alongside young people.

JC: You went to visit the camp in Calais during your time over here. What most struck you when you went over there?

MY: The vacancy in people’s eyes. Just the emptiness; the hopelessness. My sons are the same age as many of the young men in the camp and they were just lost. And they just felt like they had no hope. I haven’t really experienced hopelessness to that depth as I did there. Just people standing around, their lives wasting away. They couldn’t go forward, they couldn’t go backwards, and they’re just in this hell of not being able to live. Discarded human beings. My strongest feeling when I got there was I wanted to leave. I didn’t want to be there. It was just like: ‘I hate this’. It was just men gathering around me all the time. They didn’t know what I could do, I didn’t know what I could do and we’re just sort of standing there helplessly.

JC: I found certainly the first day I was there, I just sat and listened to people for quite a long time. It got me thinking about how much more powerful our youth ministries could be if, rather than just seeking to do stuff all the time, we just sat and listened to our young people.

MY: Exactly. Every human being is waiting for a good question and a safe person to talk to. It’s a real gift to be asked a question like, ‘what was your favourite place you liked to hide when you were a kid?’ or ‘what was a moment with your family that you loved?’, and then to have somebody listen to you. I think young people want to be asked these questions and I think they want to watch adults answer these questions, so that they realise they’re not so. If adults are more transparent about their own struggles, it’s a gift to the young people around them.

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