Once upon a time, way back in the crazy days of the 60s, there were two guys in their 20s who were "youth workers." Back then, youth ministry hadn't really caught on—not many churches took it seriously—but Mike Yaconelli and Wayne Rice were about to change all that.
Mike and Wayne set out to convince senior pastors and church boards that youth ministry was absolutely vital if the church was to remain strong. They determined there was a need for relevant, fun, truth-telling youth ministry resources—and that youth workers needed help connecting with teens in a real and relevant way. So Mike and Wayne borrowed money from their in-laws and self-published their very first resource (titled Ideas, of course!) on a press in the garage. They took the books on the road, sold them for five bucks a pop, and held seminars to show youth workers how to use them to reach students.
And people actually showed up. Thus, Youth Specialties was born.
The first annual YS National Youth Workers Convention in 1970 reflected what became a YS trademark: off-the-wall and slightly irreverent humor, yet deeply serious about encouraging, training, and equipping youth workers. Since then, thousands of youth workers—paid and volunteer—have come together every year at NYWC for training, encouragement, and community (except for 1989, when the San Francisco earthquake forced us to shut down that event). Tic Long ran NYWC and other one-day YS events for nearly four decades (and is still a smiling face you’ll see teaching seminars on leadership during National Youth Worker Conventions).
Youth Specialties’ passion for youth workers caught the attention of Zondervan in 1974. Together, YS and Zondervan published hundreds of resources for youth workers and even teenagers, which can be found in Christian bookstores and in the YS Store. (Eventually, Zondervan would play a new role in the YS story, but that's later. Don't skip ahead!)
For the past several years, YS has been also been active in Latin America, where it's known as Especialidades Juveniles. Lucas Leys heads up EJ, and we've had a Spanish international youth workers convention (Convención Liderazgo) every year since 2000. In 2008, we added a Spanish convention to the U.S.! YS also partners with friends up north for the Canadian Youth Workers Conference.
But it hasn’t been all about individual youth workers. Back in the day, YS started a one-day training seminar, a lot like what Mike and Wayne first started with their first Ideas book. The National Resource Seminar for youth ministry teams became the CORE, and the CORE became YS One Day. These YS regional training events have now morphed into a day and a half event for youth ministry teams, appropriately called YS Team Training, bringing affordable and valuable training to youth ministry teams across the U.S.
In 1994, Wayne left YS to start his own company, Understanding Your Teenager, at which point Mike and his lovely wife, Karla, led the company into the next millennium.
Mike began to feel strongly about caring for the soul of the youth worker. That's when YS started to incorporate more of the Soul Care elements into its resources and events, including several Sabbath retreats. You'll see the element of Soul Care in everything YS does for youth workers now, because we know that if your own soul isn't connected to God, you can't lead your students into a connection with God. (Ok, enough preaching. Back to the story.)
In 2002, Mike appointed a new president to the company. Mark Oestreicher (Marko) had been the VP of ministry resources, but before then had been a middle school youth pastor for 20 years. Marko stepped into the new role not knowing that only a year later he'd have really big shoes to fill.
In 2003, Mike died tragically, leaving Marko, Karla, and YS to figure out the next steps on their own. By 2007, the ownership of the company was becoming more than Karla wanted to handle, especially as she strived to move on in light of Mike's death. To help, Youth Specialties and Zondervan teamed up to solve that problem in a whole new way. Zondervan acquired Youth Specialties, allowing YS to continue doing exactly what it had always done, but with new support behind it.
More big news sent the youth ministry world into a frenzy in December 2009 when Zondervan sold Youth Specialties to a non-profit youth ministry organization, Real Resources. Now YS is a sister organization to two other great ministries, YouthWorks and BigStuf Camps.
Mark Matlock now casts the vision and leads the team at YS. Matlock has been in the youth ministry world for two decades, spending much of the last 10 years leading WisdomWorks, a nonprofit organization, and running PlanetWisdom student discipleship events across the country (which is now another event that YS offers each year).
As YS continues to move forward, there are always new and exciting things on the horizon. So to wrap up this story of YS, and to leave it open for more chapters to be told, we'll close with a quote from Mike Yaconelli:
"We sure didn't know where youth ministry or our little company was headed. All we knew was that God was somehow inviting us into this thing. It's been a wild ride—and one that I hope continues for a long, long time."