Mark Koop, Executive Director of Greater Vancouver’s Youth Unlimited, joins us on the podcast this week to help us understand what it means to live as “off-centred” Christians. Also, how can we, as Christians, live “incarnate” lives? What does it mean to live like Jesus when it comes to relating to others?
youthunlimited.com (Youth Unlimited’s main site)
yfccanada.org (Youth For Christ’s main site)
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
Well it’s great to be with Mark Koop today in the studio. Mark is the Executive Director for Youth Unlimited in the Greater Vancouver area. Thanks for coming on the show!
It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me Isaac.
Yeah definitely! I don’t remember exactly when it was, but we got together a few months ago and we just started to chat. You started to get into this idea of living this Christ-like life very intentionally – living this incarnate life. I really enjoyed what you had to say. So, I’d like to get into that conversation. Before we get there, though, why don’t you first share a little bit about who you are as a person. And also tell us what it’s like to be the Executive Director of Youth Unlimited in the Greater Vancouver area.
Great. Well first off, I’m a follower of Jesus. I’m also a husband and a father. I have two boys. I have a 13-year-o. I have a teenager in the home now which is quite a wild ride – and fun. I’ve worked with teenagers for so long – now I actually have one that lives with me. And I have a 9-year-old son. So I’m pretty busy with that. The whole plan with my wife and I was to not be outnumbered, so we’ve managed to achieved that. We can divide and conquer our children. And, I live on the North Shore in a community called Deep Cove. I’ve been there for probably about, I guess about 8 years. I grew up in Winnipeg and started working with an organization called Youth for Christ there. That led me to come out here and work particularly with skateboard kids initially. And now I’m the Executive Director of Greater Vancouver Youth Unlimited, which is a Youth for Christ ministry.
And for those haven’t heard of Youth for Christ, it ultimately started way back with Billy Graham didn’t it?
Yeah, way back! Our chapter was established in 1947.
Yeah. So this is an established, historic ministry.
It is, yeah. We’ve been around for quite a while. The work’s evolved over time. It started initially with these huge rallies where young people were encouraged to invite their friends, and they would come and hear people on stage share about the gospel and come to Jesus and meet Him in that way. And that was exciting. And there’s still some of that that kind of happens through different things. But, essentially it’s become a lot more relational. A lot of smaller groups and one-on-one with large group expressions as well.
Yeah, that’s awesome. I grew up in a Christian home, and when I was in probably grade 9 or 10 I started to struggle a little bit, and there was this guy in my church who my mom connected me with. His name was Calvin and he was working with Youth Unlimited for a while at that point. And he took me under his wing, and started taking me to all these different group session things. We even played with action figures together! Here was this grown man who was married and we were playing with each other. It was weird! He went skateboarding with me and all those kinds of things too, which was so strange. But, he is a huge part of my life and of my faith. Even just within a year, in January, it was a privilege having him standing next to me as I got married. He’s been a huge part of my life. So I know personally that Youth Unlimited has played a huge role in my life.
He met you where you were at.
Exactly! So, I guess the first question is, what makes you personally motivated to really live like Jesus did? I feel like a lot of Christians, or those who say they’re Christians or whatever, really struggle with the idea serving the poor, let’s say, and all those kinds of things, which Jesus did. For them that’s uncomfortable, so they don’t want to. What motivates you? What makes you so inclined to live like Jesus?
Well here’s the thing: I don’t actually want to live like Jesus. What I want is His life to be lived in me and through me. And I think there’s a difference there, because one trying to live like Jesus, Him being God, there’s a striving that goes with that. “Oh, I got to be like Jesus, I got to try and live like Jesus! I got to, I got to…” and on and on. And really what He asks us to do is invite Him in and then He will live His life, in a sense, through us. And that will look like Jesus because it is Him – it’s His life in us, living through us.
It’s less of “I have to do this, I need to do this,” and more of “I’ve got to let Him do it.”
Exactly. So there’s a bit of a switch there I think that needs to happen for us, and it’s something that’s happened for me. And you know, we might get into this in a little bit, but, again, it’s just taking yourself off-center and having Jesus at the center. We can’t really do what He’s asking us to do without Him, in us and through us. It’s impossible
Exactly. I want to get to that off-centered thought because I think it’s a good picture to have in our minds, but, even going back to that first question again, if I can rephrase it: personally, what makes you even desire that life where Christ is living through you?
Great question. You know, for me, I’ve personally been overwhelmed by Jesus’ love. It’s something I’ve personally experienced. I’ve experienced His compassion and I’ve experienced His grace in my life. And I know I’m a screw up – I know all that stuff. I know how I’ve failed, I know what I’ve done, and yet Jesus chooses to love me and He chooses to forgive me, and that’s an overwhelming thing to really let sink in. Knowing what we deserve and then what we get through Him. It’s a game changer. And so, in that, I don’t actually have life without His life in me. It’s like the zombie craze. I look at that in our culture and see walking dead people, and in a spiritual sense, we, without the lifeblood of Jesus in us, without His life in us, we’re kind of like walking dead people. And so having experienced this awakening through Him, it’s totally changed my life. And I want to allow Him to flow in me and through me. I don’t want to push that down; I just want to allow that to happen. I want to be in His presence, I want to experience it. And when you experience it, you can’t hide it.
No, that’s right. I don’t know about you, but for me I think of just a random day, even if I’m working or whatever, and I can tell when I’m walking in the Spirit or walking in the flesh. I can totally tell the difference. Do you feel the same way? You can tell when you’re allowing the Spirit to work?
Yeah. You feel selfishness. It just creeps in so easily. It just happens. There are certain things you think, “I want this, I want that, I want time to myself,” even things that are good, but at the wrong time. It would be something that’s moving Jesus off-center of your life.
And I want to get into that aspect. You talk about living this off-centered life. What do you mean by this?
So there’s this word, eccentric. And the word eccentric is actually comprised of two Greek words – one is “ek” which means “out of,” and then “kentron” which means “center.” So “out of center.” When you put it together, it’s ekkentros – out of center. And I believe that an eccentric identity is one where the focal point of self is shifted from the center. If you, in science class, studied astronomy, you would have learned about Copernicus. He made this daring suggestion that the earth was not actually at the center of the universe.
People were like, “yeah right, of course it is!”
Yeah, that was not a popular belief! So, you know, he’s saying something that’s very unpopular. He was saying that the earth orbited around the sun. So Copernicus was like the OG eccentric. You know what I’m saying? He was like the first real eccentric! This idea that we’re not at the center, but the sun is at the center. The earth revolves around the sun.
So, I look at this way: If you’re walking with Jesus, you’re called to live as an eccentric. You’re actually called to move yourself off-center. There’s this great verse that has just stuck with me for years and years – Galatians 2:20. And it says, “It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me.” And that’s an eccentric reality.
Putting your focal point in Christ, saying, “That’s my life now, so I’m going to revolve around Him.”
That’s right, exactly. It’s not even my life to live anymore, but it’s His.
What would you say to someone who hears you say “It’s not I who lives, but Christ who lives in me,” yet they’re not feeling that? How do you get from where they are to there – where you’ve died and now Christ is living in you?
It’s a huge question, and I think there’s a few aspects to it. One that comes to mind right away would be, just coming clean. If you recognize that “You know, yeah, I’m kind of at the center, everything’s revolving around me,” – if you recognize that, then you have a responsibility to do something with it. You can either ignore it, or you can either bring it up – it’s in the light, so now what are you going to do with it? Confession would be a word, right?
And so, come clean, come before God and just lay it before Him and say, “This is the reality, I see it now. And thank you for showing me. It might suck to say this because it’s going to be tough, but help change that in me. I don’t want to be at the center, it’s not working.”
You know what I mean? It’s not ultimately a satisfying existence, there’s nothing to really be gained of value in that. “So help me to live a different way, and have You at the center.” So it starts with confession really.
That’s good, and as you say that I’m thinking of Paul in Philippians 3 where he gives this list of things: “If I did boast in the flesh, this is what I would boast in…” and then he says all these different things, like, “Hebrew of Hebrews, I was righteous according to the law…, etc.” But then he says he counts it all as loss for the sake of knowing Christ, “indeed I suffer the loss of all these things and count them as rubbish, in order just to know Christ.” I think even in that aspect – once you let go of these things, confess those things, it is going to be hard. Even Paul says, “I suffered the loss.” It’s going to be difficult. But then when you see it for what it is, it is rubbish, it’s dung, it’s nothing. And then you get to know who Christ is.
Speaking of Christ though, I mean, when we had our conversation a couple months ago, the idea of the incarnation came up – this idea of being able to live an incarnate life, modelled after Jesus. This is getting a little bit more to the practical side of things. You shared some stories of your own family and how you guys really met people where they were at, even when it was really uncomfortable. So, what does it mean to live an incarnate life?
Well, I’m a pretty simple guy, I like to look at things simply. I think we over complicate things too much. So, when I look at the narrative in the Bible and in the gospels, I see God meeting us on our turf. I see Him leaving the glory of heaven and meeting us in the slime and in the messiness of our world. And, it’s a beautiful thing. Yet, for some people that’s offensive – “How could God do that? The God that I could believe in could not do that – would not do that.” But that’s the thing that separates Jesus from the other gods.
He came and met us on our turf. Living in the way of Jesus would be us doing the very same with people. That we would meet others on their turf.
And you can’t do that if you’re stuck behind the walls of your home or the walls of your church. You need to be with people in their spaces. It’s this idea of like, the third space. You know the show Cheers? There’s the pub where everyone knows your name – that space where you feel so comfortable, and you hang out and your friends are there. We have these third spaces in our lives and in our communities where just ordinary people are hanging out – the soccer pitches, the restaurants, the coffee shops and all that – and it’s like, go and meet people where they’re comfortable. Go to them. Go meet someone who’s on the street and get to know them. Discover that they have a story just like you do, that they’re real people. It’s this idea that we’re called to go and we need to be people who go, not expect people to come to us.
Yeah, that’s good. And also not expect to get anything back from them as well. I mean, Jesus didn’t come to earth and say, “Well, I’m going to give you my life, but you better give me something as well.” He went with a readiness to expect death, you know? And I guess there’s an aspect that when we go, you have to know that. “Well, this could be very uncomfortable, and it could hurt.”
Yeah, sure! I mean, physically uncomfortable, but it’s also going to cost you your life. That’s what we’re saying. You’re going to have to set aside your selfishness.
It’s a little bit like when you get married. You’re kind of on your own prior to that, but then you meet someone that you have this love for that’s just welling up in you. So you commit yourself to that person and then you find, like, “This is amazing, but it’s also really difficult, because we’re inherently selfish.” And then you can’t imagine that your love would grow any bigger than that, but if you have the privilege of having children, then all of a sudden, “Woah, I’m way more selfish than I thought I was.” I had a friend who said that when he found out that my wife was pregnant, he said, “Hey congratulations, having children is the best possible inconvenience you could want.” It’s like, having a kid is totally going to inconvenience your life. But it’s an opportunity to love and for that love to grow and expand. That’s what it’s like when God gives us His love, it’s overwhelming, and it spills out of us – it should. So, that love is to be shared with other people. And when you do that, that’s relationship, and it’s messy.
Yeah, that’s good. As you talk, I can imagine people who haven’t really gotten into a lifestyle or habit of really opening themselves up that way. That’s a new idea for them. Is this something that’s a discipline that can be practiced? You know, some Christians are more extraverted and they want to go and they have an evangelistic spirit, or just friendly spirit – whereas some are a little more reserved. For those people that might be listening, is this something that can be learned and practiced and exercised and built up?
I believe it is, absolutely. I think that it comes naturally for some, there’s a bit of personality that’s wrapped up in it – extraverted, right? I suppose. However, when you think about inviting someone in, or going to meet someone where they’re at, somebody you would never maybe talk to before, a little bit of fear is something that creeps in right away. It’s just like, “Oh I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to talk about, what are they going to think about me,” so, we have all these questions that kind of build up a barrier between us. It’s good to be afraid, in the sense of, “I can’t do this on my own,” yeah, you’re right! That’s why you need God in those situations. But do you believe in a God that’s big enough to help you overcome that fear?
The reality is, it’s not as scary as you think. Once you take one step and put your toe in the water, it’s cold at first, it’s uncomfortable, but it warms up over time. You had this opportunity to get to know people you would’ve never met before. And you have friends that will teach you things about yourself. So in the area of meeting someone who is maybe a bit down and out or maybe someone who’s a loner or that kind of thing, we think that those people having nothing to offer us, but really, when you’re with the poor and the needy and the broken, you’re going to learn about your own poverty and your own need. So you’re going to learn and grow through that process. So there’s an actual exchange that’s happening that’s beautiful.
It’s interesting, as you talk, I’ve thought a couple times of going back to high school and how cool it would be with my more mature mind and be like, “Man, I’m not going to care about what people think about me, but I’m just going to go to all those people that were left alone and bullied and just embrace them,” I’ve thought about that, and I’m like, “I missed that opportunity!” In one of my favourite movies, Schindler’s List, at the very end, I mean, when he sees all the Jews that he’s saved but then looks at his car and his ring and says, “I could have saved more. I could have saved more.” I guess what you’re talking about right now is like, “This is the prime opportunity, even though you’re not at the end, this is the opportunity now to make those decisions in your life to go! Live that incarnate life! Go and befriend! Go and evangelize! Go and do those things! Yes, the fear of man is there, but you can overcome it. Like you said, “Do you believe in a God who is bigger than that fear?”” Right, that’s good.
Right, and do it in an authentic way. Don’t go with this big agenda, like, “The only reason I’m connecting with so and so, this sort of broken person, is to evangelize with them.” But go because God loves them, and he loves you. That person has value. Treat them with dignity and respect. And get to know them! At Youth Unlimited we talk about 3-story relationships. And in that relationship, treat them like they’re a book, like Donald Miller says, treat them like a book you can’t wait to read. Treat someone that way! “I want to know about you, I want to know your story.” In the process of doing that, they’re going to ask you about your story at some point, and then you share your story. And you can’t not talk about God, because He’s at the center of it. So that comes out. It’s a natural process and relational engagement is key. This can’t be forced. Do it with dignity and respect.
Do you have any personal practical exercises to keep this as important and as a core center of your life? I mean you’ve been doing it so long now that it must feel natural, but I’m just thinking about someone’s who’s listening and is like, “I want to be more like that, but I’m just so busy with school, marriage, kids, I just have no time, how can I actually make steps to live this way?”
Yeah I would say, and I have to remind myself of this all the time, I would have to say it has to start with prayer. And it starts with just sitting and being still before God, and saying “Where do I start? Break my heart for what breaks Yours.” Because, it has to be a change of heart. It could just be, “Going into my Google calendar, just going to meet this person and must have a really pragmatic…” like that.
But I would start with prayer because God’s probably saying something to you – speaking to you but you haven’t been still enough to listen.
And in the process of listening, He’s going to give you a burden or a desire to reach or connect out to somebody. Maybe it’s the kids across the street who are playing ball hockey and they’ve been annoying you because you’re just trying to relax. Maybe He’s going to break your heart for those kids. And maybe you’re going to go play ball hockey with them, even though you’d rather read the newspaper or… I don’t know if people still do that.
Good point. I think whenever I talk to someone and I ask them a more practical question in regards to any sort of conversation or topic of conversation, the best answer every single time is, “it always starts with prayer.” For anything! Because we have to be aligned with the Lord. We have to have our vertical relationship before our horizontal relationship(s).
Hey Mark, if people want to learn more about Youth Unlimited and the work you do, is there anywhere they can go?
Yeah, we have a site, it’s youthunlimited.com, so that’s a good place to go. I would start there. And then, you know, if you’re not in the Greater Vancouver area, there are Youth Unlimited chapters across Canada, Youth for Christ is all across Canada as well – that’s yfccanada.org. And you can always google that stuff, find things that way.
Exactly, that’s awesome. Well, thank you so much Mark for coming to the studio today and talking with me, it’s been great.
Thank you Isaac. It’s been a privilege and an honour.