Tag Archives: Youth Specialties

After being assured that receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award doesn’t necessarily mean your lifetime is over, I was pleased to accept a LAW from Youth Specialties at their recent San Diego National Youth Workers Convention. From what I hear, this was the first of many that will be given to individuals who have contributed in some significant way to field of youth ministry. In my case, I co-founded the organization giving out the award, so I suppose that’s the secret to getting the first one! Regardless, it was a very special night for me and I am very grateful to the staff of Youth Specialties and all who contributed to making it happen. The presentation was captured on video and posted by Youth Specialties on YouTube as well as their web site.

After the presentation, several people said they were surprised to hear that I gave up a promising career in music to pursue youth ministry. Actually, that’s not quite true. I tried to explain it in the interview but I’m not sure I explained it very well. So let me explain it a little better here.

First, I was in youth ministry before I ever started playing music. In fact, it was youth ministry that prompted me to take up music in the first place. As a Youth for Christ staff member in the 60′s, I was trying to figure out how to reach kids for Christ. Folk music was pretty popular at the time, so several of us learned to play guitars and banjos and we formed folk groups. Our YFC rallies became “hootenannies” and believe it or not, they were pretty cool.

My first group was a folk trio with my wife Marci and another YFC staff member Dave Sheffel called “The Accidents.” That was in 1966. I played bass. Later, I learned banjo and formed a bluegrass group with my brothers and wife Marci called The Rice Kryspies. We recorded a couple of albums and played for churches, youth groups and two summers at Forest Home Christian camp. I really got into bluegrass music and my obsession with the banjo kept growing, but it was a hobby, a part-time thing while I was working for YFC and doing youth ministry in my church.

I was still playing with the Rice Kryspies AND doing youth ministry when Mike Yaconelli and I started Youth Specialties in 1968.

Then, in 1972, my wife Marci contracted pregnancy and she had to quit playing bass with The Rice Kryspies. My brothers and I continued along with two new members of the band, Ken Munds and Dave Rose. We changed the name of the band to Brush Arbor. After winning a local radio station talent contest, we were signed by Capitol Records and before long we were hearing our music played on country radio stations. One thing led to another and we ended up on the Grand Ole Opry, doing some network TV shows, touring with people like Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins (my favorite) and then winning a couple of country music awards including Vocal Group of the Year (Academy of Country Music). We had a manager by then and a booking agent, both of whom were expecting us to become the next big thing in country music. Capitol Records called us “The Voice of the New Country.”

All this happened very quickly and I have to admit, it was a whole lot of fun. But in December of ’73, while taping an NBC TV Special with Johnny Cash at Rockefeller Plaza in New York (on the same stage that later became the home of Saturday Night Live), I realized that I just couldn’t keep on playing with Brush Arbor. Our booking agent was telling us that he was going to put us on the road for over 300 dates per year. Youth Specialties was just getting some traction. My son Nathan was two years old and needed a daddy at home. I was torn between too many things and putting too much stress on my wife and partners in ministry. So I quit the band in New York. Our manager told us (while we were in New York) that he had booked us on the Hee Haw TV show and wanted us to fly to Nashville immediately to tape three shows. But I just couldn’t go. I had already made plans to go from New York to Atlanta to meet up with Mike Yaconelli and Denny Rydberg for a YS event.

So, I told the band I didn’t want to hold them back and they would need to replace me, which they eventually did. I played out a string of dates in Las Vegas in early 1974 but that was the end of my music career. Brush Arbor ended up going through a few more personnel changes after I left and while they never became the next big thing in country music, they had a good run and ended up being a top Christian country band. My brother Jim kept it going for quite a few years and they made some really good records.

I never felt like I gave up anything to do youth ministry because (1) youth ministry was what I had been called to do all along and (2) I was a very mediocre banjo player. I knew I would never make it as a professional musician. I would have starved to death.

But the time I spent with Brush Arbor (and since then, playing with other bands and doing my radio show) has been wonderful. I’m very blessed and thankful to God for all the opportunities that he has given me to do what I love to do.


I am an avid reader and admirer of author and Princeton professor Kenda Creasy Dean. In response to a question “What’s the biggest challenge facing youth workers today?” on the Youth Specialties blog, she says:

The biggest challenge might also be the best thing to happen to the church since the apostles and that is the fact that, even though 3/4 of American teenagers say they are Christians, most people in our culture really haven’t got a clue what the church is about, or why Jesus matters, or what on earth the Holy Spirit is doing in the world.  The fastest growing religious preference among Americans—especially among young people—is “none”.  And the “nones” aren’t in other people’s families or churches—they’re in ours.  Churches are going to keep shrinking and the “nones” are going to keep growing, at least for another 10-15 years, mostly because churches are now so darned hard to distinguish from any other well-meaning institution in middle class American culture.  It’s very hard for kids (and if we’re honest, for us) to figure out why we should follow Jesus Christ when Christians are caught up in the same rat race as everyone else.  So what does that mean for youth ministry?  We can either spin our wheels trying to stem the decline of any number of wobbly Christian entities or we can go out and do ministry among the “nones.”  If the church depends on Jesus Christ instead of on us, I think maybe it’s time to spend less time worrying about dying and more time hanging out with young people who are dying—literally—to live.  It’s never occurred to most of them that Christianity has anything to offer in the “get a life” department, much less that we might offer something that is distinct from what is offered everywhere else.  I think one way youth workers will serve the church in general in the next generation is to re-weirdify Christianity, and remind young people, and the church as a whole, that we live by distinctive standards, standards of grace, humility and hope, that make no sense in a world where the primary objective is to “get ahead”.

Good stuff. If you haven’t already, you might want to check out Kenda’s book Almost Christian. It’s the best book I’ve read on youth, youth ministry and the church in years.


Youth Specialties is the ministry that Mike Yaconelli and I started back in 1968 to provide resources and training for people who do youth ministry in the church. I don’t think the mission of YS has changed much since I left in 1994 or since Mike died in 2003 but the leadership continues to change. After a few years as part of Zondervan (Harper Collins), it’s now in the hands of YouthWorks (headquartered in Minnesota). The “world headquarters” of Youth Specialties is still in El Cajon, just a couple of miles from my home, but that may change since Tic Long (who has served as president of YS for the past couple of years) is stepping down and passing the baton to Mark Matlock who lives in Texas. Tic just accepted a position at a local church in town as executive pastor.

I don’t know Mark real well, but I’ve had a few conversations with him and I like him a lot. He seems to get youth ministry–that’s it’s not it’s so much about being relevant as it is about helping students become lifelong followers of Jesus. He a smart guy, a good communicator and he’s highly regarded among youth workers from both sides of the theological aisle. I think he’ll be very good for Youth Specialties and its future.

Here’s a video that YS released recently to introduce Mark.


Category: Ministry

I just returned from the National Youth Workers Convention in Nashville (Youth Specialties). I was a speaker at both the Nashville and the San Diego YS conventions this year, an honor for me given that I’m well past my prime as a youth ministry expert. What I am these days is a walking youth ministry museum.

But YS president Tic Long graciously invited me to do a couple of seminars this year based on recent books I’ve written and I really enjoyed participating in both conventions. At the San Diego convention I also got to do a seminar with my son Nate on camping. Since I really don’t know all that much about camping, I basically slow-pitched some questions to Nate (who DOES know a lot about camping) which he hit out of the park. It was a good seminar, if I must say so myself.

One of the really fun things I got to do this year was lead a few old youth ministry songs at one of the main (“big room”) sessions. In Nashville, the “big room” was the Bridgestone Arena, a huge hockey palace across the street from the convention center where some of the biggest concerts and events in Nashville take place. It was quite a rush to lead several thousand youth workers in a half dozen or so songs like “Pass it On” and “Pharoah Pharoah.” From the response I got, I think everybody really enjoyed singing those old songs. As it turned out, I warmed up the crowd for the band Jars of Clay who brought things pretty much up to date.

I think the highlight of the convention in Nashville for me was hearing Mark Yaconelli speak. I sat high up in the stands and alternately laughed and cried as he presented a beautifully crafted message on what it means to serve God in ministry. Now in his 40’s, Mark has become the spitting image of his dad Mike who I had the opportunity to work with for more than a quarter century. It’s obvious that Mark has inherited the formidable speaking talent of his father (with many of the same gestures and mannerisms) yet he clearly communicates in a style of his own which is passionate, fresh and insightful. He had that huge crowd in the palm of his hand for 45 minutes or so, and me in particular. Having known Mark since the day he was born, I loved hearing him speak so skillfully and powerfully. I couldn’t keep from wondering if somehow up in Heaven, Mike wasn’t enjoying all this too and feeling very proud.

I was only at the Nashville convention two of the five days, but I did see a lot of old friends and catch up a bit with some of them. I also had my first opportunity to get acquainted with Paul Bertelson, the founder and CEO of YouthWorks,  the organization that now owns Youth Specialties. YouthWorks is a ministry that has a real heart for youth ministry and as the co-founder of Youth Specialties, I’m very grateful to these good folks for taking on the challenge of keeping YS moving forward, especially during such tough economic times. From all that I heard and saw at both conventions, they are doing a great job.


Category: Ministry

Last year I wrote a book summarizing pretty much all that I have to say about the past, present and future of youth ministry. The book is titled Reinventing Youth Ministry [Again]: From Bells and Whistles to Flesh and Blood and it was just released this month by InterVarsity Press. I began my youth ministry career in 1963 as a Youth for Christ club director, ran junior high summer camps at Forest Home, served as a youth director in a couple of Nazarene churches, then started Youth Specialties with my old pal Mike Yaconelli. All of that took place long before many of today’s youth workers were even born.

So I thought I would share  some of that history as a kind of memoir, along with a few observations on how youth ministry has grown and changed (for better and for worse) over the past 40 years. The book contains a lot of stories, a few rants, and my best shot at trying to describe what good youth ministry should look like in the future. I put all of this down in a book and was simply amazed that a respected publisher like IVP would agree to publish it.

To tell you the truth, I’ve been pretty nervous about how this book would go over. There are so many voices better qualified than me to write about youth ministry. And I’ve had a hard time convincing myself that anyone would want to read another youth ministry book by a relic of youth ministry like me. (“Um, like wasn’t his last youth ministry book written in the last century?”)

Reinventing Youth Ministry [Again] has only been out a couple of weeks now but the response has been pretty gratifying. A couple of friends who got advance copies said they couldn’t put it down. And I was just blown away by the kind endorsements written by Duffy Robbins, Walt Mueller and Mark DeVries on InterVarsity’s website. Best of all, my son Nate gave the book two thumbs up and my wife Marci told me it was the best I’ve ever written. That’s about all the affirmation I need, really.

I’m just very grateful. My prayer now is that it will be used by God to encourage better youth ministry in the future and result in more and more young people coming to know, love and serve Jesus for years to come.

If you do get a chance to read this book, I would appreciate your comments. It’s available not only through InterVarsity Press but from Amazon.com and other online vendors.


Category: Ministry

This was a fun little sketch that the YS gang invited me to do a few weeks ago. It was about 110 degrees outside when we filmed this inside a car with the AC off and the windows rolled up. I kept flubbing my lines so after about 5 takes, we were both about to die of heat stroke. Christina Robertson is the middle school director at Journey Community Church and formerly worked with the middle schoolers at College Avenue Baptist, where I now serve as Pastor to Generations.


Category: Ministry

reinventing-ym-coverOK folks, I’ve written a book which will be published later on this year … part memoir, part youth ministry rant … and the publisher has suggested this cover design. There’s still time to change things, so your feedback would be greatly appreciated. Everything is up for grabs … concept, images, title, subtitle, etc. … so tell me what you think works and what doesn’t. Thanks!

(click on the image to make it bigger.)


Category: Ministry

ys_logoWell, the news is out about the future of Youth Specialties and I’m happy to report that it’s very good. YouthWorks, the Minneapolis-based ministry that purchased YS from Zondervan a couple months ago has re-hired Tic Long to come back in and lead the organization. I wrote in a previous post about the high regard I have for Tic and the crucial role that I know he played in the success of YS over the years. I’m confident that under Tic’s re-energized leadership (he got an unexpected but certainly much-needed sabbatical after his termination last July), YS will emerge from this transition with its mission and vitality very much intact. Tic sounds to me like he’s fired up and going to hit the ground running.

Tic e-mailed me recently to tell me that he was returning to YS with the subject line “God has a sense of humor.” So true. I have a feeling that God was grinning a little bit when a week or so before Christmas, I was having breakfast at an El Cajon restaurant with a youth pastor friend of mine and unexpectedly, in walked Tic with the guys from YouthWorks. We went through a series of awkward introductions after which they sat down in the booth right behind us. I wasn’t sure what they were talking about although I had a hunch. The familiar laughter that I overheard from Tic was certainly a good sign. I had been praying that something good would come of all the Youth Specialties turmoil of the last few months and in a crazy turn of events, God let me actually be in the same room when he answered that prayer. A sense of humor indeed.

I’m very excited for Tic and everyone else at Youth Specialties. It will be fun to see how God prospers YS under the YouthWorks banner.


Category: Ministry

I’ve been getting phone calls from people wanting to know how I feel about the recent changes at Youth Specialties. Earlier this year, Tic Long was let go, and last week, Mark Oestreicher (Marko) was also released of his duties. I’m not sure why all of this happened, although I do know that YS was under a lot of pressure over the last year or so to get things back “in the black.” Unfortunately, the general state of the economy more than likely created something of a perfect storm to keep that from happening.

How do I feel? Actually I’m not sure how I feel about it. I don’t have any involvement at all in YS anymore, nor do I have much of a relationship with its parent company Zondervan. It’s all in the past to me. I still get a few royalty checks (tiny) for books I have written but that’s about it. I don’t get invited to YS conventions and my most recent books have been published by other publishers.

I’m saddened by what I’ve been hearing, and I’m also concerned that things are getting out of control on the internet. People who blog (I guess I’m one of them now) often say hurtful things which are quite often uninformed as well as unkind. From what I’ve been reading, Zondervan is being painted as an evil empire that mistreats its employees, is only interested in making money and just doesn’t “get” youth ministry. While it’s true that Zondervan is a large corporation with shareholders who expect all their divisions to perform profitably, this should not have been a problem for YS. Youth Specialties has never been a non-profit company. It was a profit-making company when Mike and I owned it and making money was just as important to us as it is to Zondervan’s shareholders. Neither Mike nor I had deep pockets to keep YS operating at a loss. It had to make money. Fortunately for us, it always did. We almost lost Youth Specialties in 1989 because of the San Francisco earthquake (and we had to let a lot of good people go that year) but we managed to pull through and survive thanks to some friends and banks who went out on a limb to loan us a lot of money. When you are a business, turning a profit is what it’s all about. That’s how you keep things going. Therein also lies your inherent accountability, keeping you competitive and on the cutting edge of things.

More on Zondervan: When Mike Yaconelli and I started YS in 1968, we self-published all of our books because no Christian publishers would touch them. The market was way too small and the stuff in our Ideas books was controversial at the time, not to mention in very bad taste. We bootlegged them. But an very nice man named Bob DeVries, who was an editor at Zondervan, came to our second National Youth Workers Convention to hear Francis Schaeffer speak. While he was there, he approached us about possibly publishing our Ideas books in a format that would reach more people. We couldn’t believe it. The first Zondervan/YS collaboration was called “Way Out Ideas for Youth Groups” which came out in 1972. That was the beginning of long relationship with the company that resulted in quite a few books and it really helped put YS on the map. Zondervan was distributing our books all over the world. In addition, they encouraged me to write my first “real” book in 1978 called Junior High Ministry which has been revised and republished several times.

All that to say: Zondervan has always been a big supporter of Youth Specialties and its vision. To my knowledge, that hasn’t changed. I don’t think they purchased YS from Karla Yaconelli to watch it disintegrate.

I got a call from a reporter from the Christian Post (an online newspaper) last week and her subsequent article about YS included a few quotes from me (most of them I were accurate). She asked if I thought YS would survive now that the two most recognizable and visible names (Marko and Tic) were gone. I assured her that yes, I think YS can probably keep right on going. There was a time, after all, when Wayne Rice and Mike Yaconelli were the two most recognizable and visible names. After I left and Mike died, names changed but the vision and mission of YS continued. It can still continue.

I feel bad for Marko because it’s never easy to be terminated from your job. It’s humiliating, feels a lot like rejection and can stir up all kinds of negative emotions like anger and anxiety about the future. Maybe Marko is feeling more relief than rejection, I don’t know. I do know that he’s a very talented and capable guy and will likely land on his feet, just as Tic will also. We all of us do in the end.

Like I said, it saddens me to hear all the trash talk about Youth Specialties’ demise. I gave 25 years of my life to it and watched it grow far beyond anything that Mike and I ever imagined when we printed those first idea books way back when. God has powerfully used YS to bring about some remarkable changes in youth ministry and the church and I don’t think he’s finished with it. No obits just yet. My prayer is that YS will emerge even better and stronger under new leadership. But only time will tell.


Category: Ministry
Me (in the plaid shirt). Don Goehner on the right, Sam McCreery in front (blue shirt).

My friend Paul Sailhamer unearthed an old photograph that he took at a YFC gathering at Hume Lake in 1962 and sent me a copy last week. I was 17 years old in this photo, a senior in high school (in the plaid shirt with the cool flat top). To my left (or right in the photo, with the glasses) is the YFC director from Ventura Don Goehner who gave me my first youth ministry job. In front of me (in the blue shirt) is Sam McCreery, who was my YFC club director at Camarillo High School and a hero of mine (notice that he had a flat top too.)

Don and Sam both left youth ministry (Don became a fund raiser and consultant for colleges and churches and Sam went into the concrete pumping business) but I somehow managed to find a career in youth ministry that has lasted five decades.

Just today I turned in to the publisher a book manuscript which tells the story of my YFC days and the founding of Youth Specialties, along with thoughts on how youth ministry has changed and where it needs to go in the future. I’ve written a bunch of books over the years, but this one was definitely the most challenging. I’m not sure when it will be published, but hopefully sometime next year.

This has been a nostalgic year for me. Besides writing a book full of memories, I’ve also attended several reunions of various kinds which have brought old friends and colleagues together and they have been great reminders of what God has done in my life through people like Don and Sam. I’ll always be grateful.


Category: Ministry