When listening to Jonathan Youssef preach a passionate sermon at Church of the Apostles or hearing him share energized ministry updates on the radio from around the world, one assumes he has always wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. The son of influential pastor and author Dr. Michael Youssef, Jonathan, 28, now plays an increasingly significant role in his father’s pastoral ministry at the evangelical Anglican megachurch in Atlanta, and serves as International Director for Leading The Way, Youssef’s radio and television ministry.
But Jonathan did not always envision a role in the ministry. In fact, from a young age he was very resistant to the idea of becoming a pastor. Dr. Youssef recalls how when Jonathan was a child, he would sit in the office and watch him work on his sermons amongst towering stacks of books. “If this is what you have to do to be a pastor, I never want to do it,” Jonathan would say. “It’s like having a ton of homework.”
Jonathan’s resistance to ministry involvement – and to his father – continued in his teen years. “As a kid and early teen, I was disrespectful to my father. I used to make fun of some of the things he would say and the way he would say them,” Jonathan shared candidly. “I know he has forgiven me, but I wish I could go back and tell the younger version of myself how foolish it is to do that.”
Jonathan is quick to point out his mistakes and he uses his past struggles to challenge others to respect their fathers. “God has delivered me from my negative attitudes, and I tell other sons to avoid this at all costs because it is not edifying and it only destroys,” he said. “I wish every son could have the relationship that I have with my father now. I love and respect him and learn so much from his example.”
As the scope and impact of Dr. Youssef’s ministry has grown, so has Jonathan’s strategic role. Today, Leading The Way’s television and radio programs are broadcast in more than 20 languages, covering over 190 countries, and Jonathan works closely with his father to carry out his vision of “helping God’s Kingdom to grow,” often representing him at events and meetings around the world. “It has been most rewarding for me to sit under my father’s leadership and watch how he operates and comes to decisions,” said Jonathan. “It is also very humbling to travel around the world on behalf of the ministry and meet people who have been impacted by his efforts, even in the most remote regions. When people realize I am Dr. Youssef’s son, they usually give me a big smile and a hug, because they feel a closer connection immediately.”
Jonathan’s leadership at Church of the Apostles has increased as well, and he acknowledges that while his sermons draw from his father’s preaching style he is still trying to find his own voice. “I think I have emulated a lot of my father’s techniques when it comes to preaching, and I am still new to it, so I will eventually develop my own style,” he said, adding that he is currently a student at Reformed Theological Seminary. “It is truly my heart that I express when preaching, and as I strive to be genuine with people my own personality will naturally come out.”
RM: What is the most important lesson you have learned from your dad?
JY: I have learned a lot of lessons from dad, but the most important lesson is how to be a true Christian or follower of Christ. It’s not about what you bring to the table, but rather the condition of your heart.
RM: What is one thing you think people would be surprised to learn about Dr. Youssef?
JY: People would be surprised to learn that dad is very much an introvert and as a boy he was extremely shy and used to hide from people. It took real determination for him to get over that, and today dad is a pretty transparent person and really has nothing to hide.
RM: Has it been tough to step out of your dad’s shadow in the ministry?
JY: People will always see me in my father’s shadow, and that is fine with me, as it is a great shadow to be in. I was just reading in the Bible about Elijah and Elisha, and their relationship as mentor and mentee. I am just trying to learn as much as I can from my dad right now.
RM: Can you share any memorable reactions from encounters when people have realized you are Michael Youssef’s son?
JY: One time that stands out is from when I was having my house sprayed by a pest-control company, and the technician said my name was familiar. He said there was a pastor he listened to on the radio with the last name “Youssef,” and he was pretty sure he had a son named Jonathan, and that he had heard him preach on the radio too. I did not tell him that was me; instead, I wanted to hear his opinion before revealing my identity. He said he loved the ministry and the preaching style. I laughed and told him who I was, and we are good friends now. I’m not sure what I would have said if he told me, “Jonathan Youssef is a lousy preacher!”
RM: What encouragement or advice can you offer fathers and sons as we approach Father’s Day?
JY: Fathers – do not force your sons to be people they are not; instead, encourage them in the areas they are gifted in. If your son is not good at baseball, don’t force him to do it. My dad was always good at encouraging all my siblings in our strengths, and we each had different strengths and weaknesses. Love your children and show them how to be Christ-followers, and love your wife so your children will know what a healthy marriage looks like. Always pray for your children; you cannot protect them from everything, but God can… so leave the heavy lifting to Him, because they are His and He has merely entrusted them to you for a time.
Sons – be obedient. If you are disrespectful to your earthly father, you will be disrespectful to your Heavenly Father. Listen to your parents’ advice, as they have been around longer than you. Even though you may think you have it all figured out, trust me, you don’t. Never be afraid to go to your dad for help; he will not turn you away… he probably wants to help you. I promise you, having a strong, loving, healthy relationship with your father will put you at a huge advantage in life. You will have greater self-esteem, better relationships with others, and will probably be more successful. The statistics are there to prove it!
A version of this column was featured in the Christian Post.