The room was dark, save for a subtle glow from the skylights above. No lights shone from the stage, microphones were silent and no graphics graced the screen. This was the scene during a camp-wide power outage on the second full day of Ascent 2021, the new national senior high summer camp at Glorieta Adventure Camps in Glorieta, N.M.
As the planning team scrambled to continue the session, restore power and make alternate plans if electricity remained off, the Presence Worship band took the stage. Accompanied only by guitars and a cajon, more than 300 voices lifted together in praise:
“I’m gonna sing, in the middle of the storm. Louder and louder, you’re gonna hear my praises roar. Up from the ashes, hope will arise. Death is defeated, the King is alive.”
The power outage illustrates an overarching theme of Ascent as God’s faithfulness was evident despite numerous challenges, even when expectations, plans and power were stripped away.
“Even though circumstances took all kinds of distractions away, God was still right there,” says Kyle Goings, USMB Youth chair and member of the Ascent planning team. “In fact, we could see him more prominent this year, because certain things were taken away and we had to rely on him.”
COVID-19 restrictions bring changes
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, planning team members chose “Ascent” for USMB Youth’s new summer camp, representing overcoming challenges when climbing to a summit and acknowledging the effort it would require of churches to get to Ascent.
But in 2021, more than the journey to camp proved challenging, as behind-the-scenes factors impacted the camp experience and caused leaders to remain flexible.
Some of the challenges stemmed from not knowing what to expect in a new location, says SDC district youth minister Russ Claassen. While YouthCon 2019 was held at Glorieta, Ascent occupied the opposite side of the property.
Students who had attended YouthCon may have arrived with expectations for location, activities and amenities, but COVID-19 restrictions brought changes.
The planning team booked Glorieta’s facility in summer 2019 before COVID-19, intending to host a test run with SDC youth in the summer of 2020. That event was cancelled because of the pandemic, but the planning team proceeded with Ascent, although unable to predict what New Mexico state restrictions would be.
Whether required to keep doors open for sessions—meaning air conditioners were turned off—a change in session location or fewer activities available, pandemic-related changes impacted many aspects of Ascent.
For example, the original intent was to hold sessions in the 800-seat Moody building, which housed display tables at YouthCon, staggering schedules and sharing facilities with a family camp also using Glorieta’s property. But about two months before Ascent, the planning team learned that COVID-19 regulations would require the two camps—and the staff members who served them—to separate completely, leaving Ascent with access to only half of Glorieta’s staff.
No longer able to share the other half of camp, Ascent moved across campus to the 500-seat Aspen building, limiting the audio/visual capabilities of the Glanzer Pro Audio team. The move also eliminated a central gathering space, but that change had the benefit of limiting distractions from being in close proximity to another group.
“That’s one of the blessings that COVID brought, if you could say that, was that we had to go to this group camp location,” Claassen says. “While the camp hub and the nicer housing are already in place at the conference center (on the other side of camp), I think the pros of having our own space…outweigh that.”
With only half its staff available to serve Ascent for the week, Glorieta scaled back its activities. Goings estimated only one third of activities were available, and required signups at registration added to the confusion.
“We feel bad because people paid a lot of money and people prayed for and worked hard to get there,” Goings says. “We were disappointed as well that we just couldn’t offer what we originally (billed) for. But we have great youth groups and great churches. There was very few complaining.”
Of youth leaders completing a Christian Leader survey about Ascent, 80 percent of responders said their students were able to participate in some of the activities they wanted, with the remaining 20 percent saying students got to participate in all activities they wanted to.
Another result of being short-staffed meant there was no one to operate the camp coffee shop, so the planning team bought truck loads of bottled water, snacks and coffee.
“More people were so thankful and happy and impressed that we offered free snacks,” Goings says. “That might be a thing that we return to next year.”
When plans change
On top of changing logistics, unplanned events prompted reliance on God, Goings says.
Initial reports during Friday’s power outage—caused by a blown transformer—led leaders to believe power would remain off the rest of camp, although it was ultimately restored in about an hour and a half.
During Presence Worship’s acoustic set during the outage, a student from Lighthouse Church in Wichita, Kan., collapsed—she was attended to by medical staff, taken to the hospital and later cleared to return to camp—leading to corporate prayer at the edge of the room.
“We talked to several youth groups afterwards, and they said that time where Jake (Stemo) led spontaneous prayer was one of the most powerful moments for them all of camp,” Goings says.
As the student received medical care, leaders cleared the room. Two individuals shouldered the wooden crosses on which students had earlier nailed their confessions and brought them to the field below, where speaker John Leonard, his voice carrying without amplification, encouraged students to follow Jesus’ example, be empowered by the Holy Spirit and to love God and others.
“If you want to grow closer to God, lead other people closer to God,” Leonard said. “Don’t think that God can’t use you to rescue people from the gates of hell.”
Leonard concluded by inviting students to retrieve their notes from the crosses, which the team had replaced with notes reading, “You are forgiven.”
“We eliminated everything but the gospel, and that’s what shined that night,” Goings says. “Looking back, that’s my favorite memory.… It’s just fascinating how it impacted the students.”
The acoustic set on the field was a student favorite, Claassen says.
“Sometimes what happens in an unplanned circumstance teaches us something that we can incorporate into our planning,” he says, adding, “Even if the circumstances are not ideal or are very difficult, God can do amazing things. I think it makes us more aware of God’s presence and the reality of his power and his direct interaction with us in moments of crisis or inconvenience.”
Also unplanned was a night of worship that exceeded its allotted hour and lasted until 1:30 a.m.
“We (had) people come up and speak,” Goings says. “That was totally not planned. … Complete strangers before Ascent (were) circling up and praying for each other and crying and confessing of sins and repenting and glorifying God.”
The evening was another moment where Goings saw God move.
“On the schedule it was simply a night of worship where we can hear about missions,” Goings says. “But what it turned into being, what God used it for, was hopefully—and this is our prayer now after Ascent—that it is a moment of the start of a revival.”
Leaders report students are impacted
Responses to the CL survey indicate Ascent had a positive impact. Of youth leaders who responded, all said their students viewed Ascent positively and grew spiritually, and that at least one of their students took a step to begin or strengthen their relationship with Jesus.
“Ascent met each of our students in different ways,” says Drew Pankratz, youth pastor at Greenhouse Community Church in Saratoga Springs, Utah. “Some students needed this week to refocus on Jesus and make their faith their own. Other students heard the gospel and experienced Jesus’ love for the first time.”
Others said Ascent ignited students’ passion for Christ, caused students to focus on God’s calling and less on others’ view of them, gave confidence to share Christ and prompted discussions about leadership.
Likening the planning team’s work to farmers, Goings says the team can plant seeds but is unable to make them grow.
“We would love to plan a program and move of the Holy Spirit, but it never works out the way we thought it does,” Goings says. “That’s part of the beauty of it is because even the planning team is surprised and thankful when we see God move in a big way and small ways.”
Ascent will return to Glorieta in June 2022, and Claassen says the planning team is brainstorming ways to make the experience even better.
“Now that we’ve been there and we’ve seen some of the things that are important to our group that were missing, we have ideas and we’re already talking about how we can make that happen next year,” Claassen says. “Overall, my impression was it was a very good, positive experience that we can build on.”