The Story of YS

It began in the 60s and got even more awesome from there...


1960s - Once upon a time, 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. (Obviously, the wacky games and ideas they came up with, like this life saver/toothpick game looks very serious with shirts and ties.)


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.

- Mike Yaconelli, co-founder of YS

Mike and Wayne set out to convince senior pastors and church boards that youth ministry was absolutely vital if the church was to grow and continue to reach people with the story of Christ. 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 1960s - 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 $5 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 NYWC Event

1970 - 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.




1974 - Youth Specialties’ passion for youth ministry 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.


1977 - Yes, the same epic year that Star Wars released, Tic Long joined the YS staff. Tic ran the National Youth Workers Conventions, and pretty much every other event that YS ever did. Tic eventually left the wonderful world of YS to be an executive pastor at a church in San Diego, but you can usually still find him around NYWC if you pay attention!


NYWC Cancelled?

1989 - The San Francisco earthquake forced us to shut down NYWC that year, and it's been the only year without an NYWC since the first in 1970.



1990s - But it hasn’t been all about individual youth workers. YS started a one-day training seminar, a lot like what Mike and Wayne 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. (Recognize any of these familiar faces from an early National Resource Seminar team?)

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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.

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Late 90s - 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.

1995 NYWC team and volunteers



2000 - YS began serving youth workers in Latin America, where it's known as Especialidades Juveniles. Lucas Leys heads up EJ, and we've had a Spanish youth workers convention every year since 2000, and in recent years added events in other Spanish-speaking countries around the world.


2002 - Mike Yaconelli 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.


2003 - Mike tragically passed away. It was a devastating time for Karla, Marko, and the entire YS family. In the midst of our grief, youth workers from all over the world surrounded us and encouraged us because they had experienced all the light and life that Mike brought into their lives. The foundation that Mike had built, would help Karla and Marko lead YS into the next few years.

If you didn't have the pleasure of connecting with Mike, we'd love to introduce you to him with the tribute video below.


Mike Yaconelli Tribute

Mike through the years


2007 - Zondervan acquired Youth Specialties, allowing YS to continue doing exactly what it had always done, but with new support behind it.

2008 - YS brought it's first Spanish International Youth Workers Convention (Convención Liderazgo) to the U.S.!

PlanetWisdom joins the YS family

2008 - We welcomed PlanetWisdom into the YS team! PlanetWisdom, a 2-day discipleship event for students, had already been a huge success on it's own, so we were excited to see how it would serve even more youth workers as a part of YS events. The Skit Guys did an amazing job helping us make the announcement: PW joins YS!

2009 - Zondervan sold Youth Specialties to a non-profit youth ministry organization, Real Resources. YS became a sister organization to two other great ministries, YouthWorks and BigStuf Camps.



2011 - YS stepped into it's next phase by asking Mark Matlock to take on the Executive Director role. Serving the church by helping and supporting youth pastors has always been his passion, making him a great fit to lead YS into the future. Tic Long interviewed Mark as a part of the transition and you can check it out below.

April 1, 2018

Real Resources sold Youth Specialities to non-profit ministry Youth Ministry Collaborative, in partnership with Orange and Download Youth Ministry (DYM). Youth Ministry Collaborative, along with Orange and DYM, are committed to equipping youth ministers with the training, help and hope they need to disciple teenagers.

Today - You found us and that's awesome! We can't wait to serve you as you lead students to find and follow Jesus!