We are thankful for York’s willingness to answer a few questions around this year’s theme, “Worth it?” Settle in and get to know York in this personal interview about his faith, and how he chooses to follow Jesus every day.
When did you first surrender something tangible and stand completely on faith? Was it worth it?
Growing up in poverty, I strove to succeed in college. I was fortunate to go to an amazing school-the University of Michigan (Go Blue!). I graduated with honors and landed a dream job. There, I worked hard and excelled, making more money than I had ever dreamed possible. I also started my own consultancy, servicing several Fortune 50 companies as an information broker. Times were very good, but fear was always close at hand. Memories of going to bed hungry while squatting in an abandoned building with no electricity would often fuel my fears and keep me going. Whenever my career or clients became difficult, I always thought back on how hard things were growing up.
I was a new Christian too, having come to Jesus late in my undergraduate years. I was learning to trust God with money through tithing and paying down school debt but did not really come to totally rely on God in the area of finances until I received my calling into full-time missions work with InterVarsity USA. I remember finally making the decision to go for it and shared with the owner of my company that I would be leaving the firm to pursue campus ministry.
I’ll never forget, now 23 years later, how he offered to become one of my financial supporters-and has supported me this entire time! I found raising money a joy and became good at it. I came on staff with InterVarsity fully funded on day-1! Because of this, though I was depending on God, I wasn’t fully depending on God. In many ways, I raised money like I worked hard in my job-out of fear. Fear fueled my entire financial picture and while God provided in the area of finances, I was not depending on him until three years into working for InterVarsity. I had kept my consulting business for those three years, working for my clients who paid well and drawing a paycheck from InterVarsity.
I’ll never forget the day I was torn between several significant student appointments with non-believers and my leadership team and a ‘super rush’ order from my best client. The job would have been quick and lucrative but would mean canceling on being on campus and meeting with students. I stood in the center of campus, between my car and the building where I was to meet students who needed Jesus. It was an existential moment-would I give into fear and get the quick money or would I step forward in faith and fulfill my calling as a minister? I knew this was not just a decision for that day but for my calling. I decided I would finally let go of fear and face the consequences. I called my client and told them that not only would I not meet the rush order but that I was going to discontinue servicing them in two weeks time. I hung up the phone and felt a rush of joy and freedom. I walked to my appointments with vigor in my steps as my surrender to God was an act of faith that released me from my bondage of fear and it was totally worth it!
What has your faith cost you, and is it worth it?
We suffer very little in any real tangible way in the United States for our faith. Sure, there are the usual ‘micro-aggressions,’ the snide remarks, and the occasional bouts of persecution but compared to our sisters and brothers in most parts of the world, we have little experience with the cost of faith. This is why the few times I’ve paid for my faith have been so excruciatingly memorable. There were a cluster of experiences right around my graduation from the University of Michigan and into my early career days that have shaped me deeply.
The first came as I submitted a year’s worth of research for my honors program in one program and a year-long honors thesis in another. I was an honors student in two departments and found the deadlines for my project and paper a daunting task but finished them just at the deadline. I had just become a Christian and was quite vocal about my newfound faith. Up until I became a Christian, my nickname on campus was satan as I was known for persecuting Christians and writing anti-Christian papers. This pleased most of my professors but, as I painfully discovered, the tables turn quickly when you decide to follow Jesus. The chairman of my honors work in one department explained to me that no matter what I did, I would never get his endorsement and approval to the review board. This meant that essentially, I would not graduate with the honors distinction I had worked so hard to secure through the years’ worth of research. My other mentor in the other program, while awarding me honors, withdrew from me and began persecuting me the same way I had persecuted others.
After graduating, I interviewed for an amazing job. I was albeit guaranteed the position with my recommendations and education but during the interview, the interviewer explained that while I should get the job, I would never be taken seriously because of my social views tied to my faith. I was informed that they had gone with another candidate. I landed another job right after this and excelled for several months until I was falsely accused of stealing thousands of dollars. Years later, the owner of that company confessed that I was targeted by my direct supervisor and falsely terminated largely because of who I was and what I stood for. While this trio of gut-wrenching experiences caused me deep pain at the time, God redeemed them to guide me to a fantastic career in market research and eventually into full-time Christian ministry with InterVarsity.
While I’ve experienced many other incidents of persecution and loss as a believer, the fact that this cluster of experiences happened in my formative years of faith shaped my understanding of the cost associated with following Jesus. Jesus comes to us free from anything we’ve done-in fact, in spite of what we’ve done. Choosing to embrace Him, however, is not free and comes with a cost. Much of that cost comes to us over a life-time but God is good, never giving us more than we can bear and always redeeming the pain of what is lost if we will let Him. Accepting the cost of faith is painful but it is totally worth it!
On a day to day basis, how do you live out your faith, and is it worth it?
My ‘in-season’ life consists of writing, radio interviews, Zoom meetings, and endless airplane rides. My greatest passion, however, is to preach Christ. Preaching is what I do best and what bears the most fruit in my ministry. Because of this, I invest in preaching more than anything else. I spend about 32 hours on every message I develop, no matter if it is a 15 minute evangelistic message for a campus or a 45 minute exposition for a church or conference.
There are two reasons for this. First, I have a profound fear of God when it comes to handling His Word. I tremble often before the task of taking the Word and pressing it into a message. I will spend about 18 of those 32 hours laboring over a text, doing all the inductive and hermeneutical steps and applying the passage to myself before I apply it to an audience. Second, I believe my hearers desperately need to hear a message that has been born out of prayer, passion, and real preparation. Their marriages depend on it, their parenting depends on it, their employees, colleagues, spiritual health, mental sanity and sometimes even their very soul depends on it.
The Word of God is nothing to play around with. Living out my faith daily, because of my calling, keeps me tethered to the Word of God. The danger here primarily revolves around this same blessing. While it is an incredible gift to ‘have to’ spend my days in the Word to prepare to preach, it is also my single greatest potential pitfall. When we ‘professionalize’ our faith and become officially responsible for the Bible’s teaching, the real danger is that Jesus quickly becomes an idea, the Word a commodity, and our preaching the vehicle for our success, influence, or notoriety. This is where the real grind of daily faith is lived out. Will Jesus just be my next sermon topic or is He my friend? Does God love my audience or does He love me? Is the Bible the key to life or is it the key to eternity?
What keeps me centered is the same fear and reverence I have for the Bible itself. I fear God. Fearing God in His majesty and the impending day I’ll stand before Him to give an account causes me to resist reducing Him to a commodity. There is no greater fear I have than losing touch with God because I’ve turned Him into a sermon topic. There is a reverence and near-sense of panic I have in this arena. What I’ve found, not too surprisingly, is that when this is true in my daily faith journey, the end result is that my preaching goes to another level. Instead of ‘success’ with my audience, I experience impact. Instead of influence on others, I find I’m meeting their needs. Instead of notoriety, I find I make Jesus famous! A daily fear of God and God’s Word is how I strive to live life daily and I have found it to be personally and professionally worth it!
What would you want individuals attending this year’s conference to come away with?
I’ve been a missionary with InterVarsity USA for 24 years. For most of those years, I ran very large city-wide anti-trafficking campaigns called the Price of Life. These campaigns brought together leaders from several state attorney general’s offices, members of the U.S. House of Representatives, state lawmakers, judges, law enforcement, fortune 500 companies, and an army of volunteers. The Price of Life over the 17 years I ran the campaigns has mobilized hundreds of thousands of people to fight modern-day slavery, has spawned foundations, for-profit and non-profit organizations, changed laws, raised money for front-line NGO’s, and has helped launch many students into full-time justice work. Along the way, the Price of Life has also been the tool God chose to use to bring over 6,000 students to a saving knowledge of Jesus!
This all sounds good, but I’ll never forget the gut-wrenching pain I felt in the middle of the biggest Price of Life-New York City. This campaign had over a $1M budget, over 1,000 volunteers, had involved the New York Athletic Club, Mayor Bloomberg’s office, and a host of very reputable corporations. It was complex and exhausting. I remember being up all night in my hotel room in the midst of the campaign crying out to God. We had encountered several significant unexpected problems. Some of the problems were with volunteers, other problems were with labor costs. We had problems between staffers and problems with venues. We had problems with expectations and problems with spiritual warfare and the swirling mix of problems had culminated with a literal ‘dark night’ for my soul where I questioned whether it was all worth it. As I prayed in desperation, my panic grew. I began to perspire, feeling as if I were having a heart attack. My panic attack drove me to my knees as I began to cry out to God. In this time of prayer, I saw the campaign in my mind’s eye like a towering stack of plates-fine china in fact. The stack swayed back and forth, teetering to almost certain disaster. At the bottom of the stacked china was, of course, my feeble arms. I was overwhelmed and feared the consequences of failure because in my mind’s eye, I was the one responsible for keeping everything balanced and stable. This was never true but in the busyness of the event, I had allowed my flesh to fill a space in the mission reserved only for the Spirit of God!
As I repented, I was able to sleep and found that though the next several days still had the same problems, each problem was met with a spiritual solution. This isn’t to say that everything just ‘worked out,’ in fact there are still ramifications from that campaign impacting people to this day. The New York Price of Life hosted over 100 events on 17 college campuses during 10 days. The campaign was robust and culminated on Times Square where we hosted a large, public concert where I spoke along with Nick Hall. Nick and I preached back and forth and gave calls to faith. As I watched the auditorium aisles flood with women and men who were responding to the call to Jesus, I stood there with a smile. The suffering was totally worth it!
What I want those attending Mission Connexion to come away with is not a quick answer to their problems-there isn’t one. There isn’t some magic paradigm to bearing fruit-though many consultants will try to tell us otherwise. In fact, missions is often a complex and daunting task filled with pain, panic, and problems. I want leaders to come away believing deep in their souls that the mission is worth it, that people are worth, that the gospel is totally worth it.