Climbing a mountain requires effort. But reaching the summit offers a reward—the view makes the difficult journey worthwhile. Using similar climbing language, USMB Youth has announced a new annual national summer camp called Ascent, designed to be the gathering place of U.S. Mennonite Brethren youth.
The announcement marks the end of YouthCon, the once-every-four-years national youth event. As a result of a steady decline in attendance, USMB Youth leadership deemed YouthCon unsustainable, closing a chapter spanning 44 years and including 12 national youth events.
However, when one journey ends, a new one begins. For USMB Youth, that journey is Ascent, coming in June 2021.
The Ascent promo video, first viewed by attendees of USMB Gathering 2020 Online in July, says: “We believe that the ascent to camp will lead to a very special place of intimacy with Jesus. We desire to gather together as a family of believers to worship God in community while personally stepping into deeper places of God’s unique callings, plans and purposes for our lives.”
History of YouthCon
The history of the USMB National Youth Conference (NYC) dates back to 1975, when the inaugural NYC took place in Glorieta, New Mexico, NYC was held in Estes Park, Colorado, for six of the following seven events, then moved to Anaheim, Calif., in 2007. A service project element was added, and two more urban environments followed—San Antonio, Texas, in 2011 and Denver, Colorado, in 2015.
Following Named 2015 in Denver, the National Planning Team rebranded as USMB Youth, NYC became YouthCon, a new Youth Worker Network was added to connect and resource youth workers across the conference and Project:Serve, grants to support youth group community projects, was introduced.
YouthCon 2019 returned to a camp setting in Glorieta. Despite efforts to increase participation, attendance reached an all-time low of 688. Kyle Goings, USMB Youth chair, notes that while the same number of churches (38) attended Named 2015 as attended YouthCon, numbers had decreased by more than 120, continuing a 20-year trend of decreased participation.
Attendance at a national youth event peaked at 1,796 participants in 1999 and first dipped below 1,000 in 2011.
Reasons for the decline
USMB Youth leadership identified eight reasons for the decline in attendance. Goings highlighted four primary reasons in his USMB Gathering 2020 report.
- The frequency of YouthCon every four years—once a draw as a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity—has become a hindrance in a culture with a short news cycle.
- The average youth worker tenure at an MB church is about two years, creating a disconnect between YouthCon events.
- Missing school has become increasingly difficult for families.
- A growing number of churches no longer value meeting together as a national conference on a youth level.
“We basically came to the conclusion that YouthCon in its current form is unsustainable,” Goings says.
USMB Youth recommended to the USMB Leadership Board last fall that YouthCon be discontinued in its current form. The Leadership Board approved the recommendation.
“It just hits me in the gut to think that YouthCon won’t happen again,” says Goings, who is the youth pastor at First MB Church in Wichita, Kan. “This has been my love and passion—besides youth ministry in the local church—for almost 12 years now. It wasn’t an easy decision, but sometimes you have to make the right decision no matter how bad it feels.”
Thinking outside the box
Because USMB Youth sees value in national youth gatherings, discontinuing YouthCon has provided for the start of something new.
“At the same time, running parallel to this evaluation of YouthCon was the Southern District summer camp for high school students,” says Goings, who is also a member of the Southern District Conference Youth Commission (SDC YC).
Because the SDC Senior High Camp (SHC) had outgrown its current location in Westcliffe, Colorado, with an average attendance of 300, the SDC YC began looking into the possibility of hosting its summer camp at Glorieta, New Mexico.
That’s when Goings and others thought outside the box. With a facility that could accommodate thousands, national and district youth leadership began looking into combining the two events—utilizing the national identity that USMB Youth brings and the established resources of the Southern District—to introduce a new camp for all USMB youth.
The SDC YC met for prayer and discussion over six months, initially planning for 2020 to be a test pilot for the new annual national summer camp.
But the coronavirus pandemic halted those plans.
However, USMB Youth and the SDC YC are moving forward to host Ascent in Glorieta in June 2021. Registration is expected to begin in late fall or early winter 2020.
“Ascent doesn’t replace YouthCon, but the spirit of it will still continue on,” Goings says. “That gives me hope.”
Although USMB Youth and the SDC YC are partnering to offer the national summer camp, which will happen in place of the SDC SHC, Goings emphasizes that Ascent is not simply an expanded SHC.
“One thing is clear—it’s not the Southern District inviting the other districts to their district camp,” Goings says. “This is a whole new entity.”
As USMB Youth plans for Ascent, Goings says they are recruiting volunteers and welcome participation from all districts. Current members of USMB Youth include Goings, Russ Claassen, Southern District youth minister from Newton, Kansas, and Ben Wheeler, youth director at Birch Bay Bible Community Church in Birch Bay, Washington, in addition to representatives from MB agencies and institutions.
Leaders chose the term “Ascent” to incorporate the picture of overcoming challenges when climbing to a summit, Goings says, describing the value for students as worshiping God in community and increased intimacy with Jesus. Whether by incorporating more students on stage or through strategies of games and activities, the goal is connection—to God and each other.
Ascent addresses three hindrances to YouthCon attendance. Ascent will be held during the summer, meaning students will not have to miss school. A June camp also means that Glorieta
Adventure Camps will offer an expanded list of 55-plus activities, including waterfront activities, as opposed to the 30 available during YouthCon in April. An annual event will maintain momentum, Goings says, and financial costs will decrease due to different programming needs.
“(Ascent) will have that YouthCon flair and excitement,” Goings says, “but we are going to be very intentional that we can’t compete with the big conferences and big speakers and bands.”
As the YouthCon chapter closes, Goings celebrates its 44-year history, over which nearly 14,000 people attended.
“I would love for people to look back at their experience at YouthCon in the past with a sense of fondness, a sense of godly joy, that it was a spiritual marker in their lives,” Goings says.
USMB Youth is also planning for the addition of the National Leadership Pipeline (NLP) program, a coordinated effort by MB agencies to identify and invest in future leaders. NLP will create a leadership pool for churches and organizations to both contribute to and draw from when identifying and seeking leaders. USMB Youth is planning a test pilot run of an internship program in the summer of 2021.
Goings is excited by the potential for leadership development thanks to Ascent and the NLP.
“I would love to hear stories where we saw students feel called to ministry, we poured in and invested in them and then they spent decades pouring back into MB churches,” Goings says. “And thousands of people are impacted because a few people sat down and said, ‘How can we invest in our potential future leaders?’”