ASPvangelism: Using Your ASP Trip as Youth Group Outreach
ASP’s summer program is uniquely geared to offer the type of life-changing experience that keeps teens engaged with church youth ministry year-round. ASP is the best tool I have to reach and retain new youth, and grow my youth ministry program. With the work crew ratio, the space for student leadership, the value of unplugging, and the raw power of truly life-changing experience, a week with ASP breathes into how our youth ministry operates year-round. We leave home as a mission team, and we return from ASP each year bonded as a family.
Create work crews that foster new relationships
ASP requires your group to split into work crews of 7. Each crew has to have at least 2 adults. For our church, the crew model of 2 adults and 5 youth is critical to building the kind of ASP family in our team that makes people want to stay connected long after their ASP trip is over.
Our adult team pairs are set months before the trip in order to be able to communicate and plan with each other. While the adults know who their partner will be well before the trip, I don’t reveal work crews until the Saturday night of our ASP trip. (We drive down in two days and stay in a church Saturday night before our ASP week starts). I can see how there might be incentives to building work crew teams throughout trip preparation, but I wait so that our entire ASP team spends our spring preparing as one large unit.
And let’s be honest, drama. I want people to be on crews that push them out of their comfort zones, and I don’t want to give them space to create excuses to avoid this.
I work hard to make crews of people who don’t really know each other before ASP. I put relatives on different crews, and I do my best to avoid having close friends, and even youth of the same year in high school on the same crew. The result? New family. A high school senior gets to build a porch with his best friend’s formerly annoying little sibling. A freshman forms an inside joke with a junior they never dreamed of being cool enough to talk to. The sophomore who doesn’t feel like they quite fit in with the rest of the youth group suddenly has four people who demand she sit with them at breakfast and will text her to make sure she’s coming to youth group every week for the foreseeable future.
Not only does each teen gain two new adult mentors from our church family, but four new peers with whom they have learned to be vulnerable, try new things, and laugh a lot, not to mention they’ve spent a week building a relationship with a family from Appalachia. At night on ASP, I look around, and youth of all ages are sitting together at tables laughing and enjoying each other’s company. So much of this is due to the legacy built by our youth over the years. Student leadership is crucial to the success of our youth group’s ASP trips.
Rely on student leaders
About ten years ago, when our youth group program was relatively stagnant – small and not-growing – I took a handful of upperclassmen on a fall retreat. After a fun day exploring downtown Chicago, some leadership exercises, and a lot of good food, I sat them down and told them I was considering canceling weekly youth group altogether. When they appeared relatively stunned and against the idea, I gently reminded them that they (these strong upperclassmen leaders) each only came to youth group once a month, and never all on the same night. I watched it click as they looked around at each other and back at me, and they decided together that they would commit to weekly attendance, and to working to invite friends and classmates..
To this day, our youth ministry is designed around this model. High school upperclassmen are invited to apply to be student leaders, and welcomed into the role with the understanding that they are regularly present at youth group as well as in the general life of the church. Our student leaders also understand that they have the biggest influence over attracting their peers to participate.
During our ASP week, our student leaders are the ones who lead our morning devotions. They’re the ones who volunteer to pray over meals. They set the tone on their work crews, and take the lead on chores at the center. They’re the ones I check in with to see how the week is progressing for our teens, and the ones who come find me when drama unfolds.
Then, about three weeks after each summer’s ASP trip, our student leadership team sits down with the participant list from ASP and decides who will reach out to each youth to personally invite them to the first youth group gathering that fall. Most upperclassmen have at least two younger teens that they know well from their ASP work crews. The student leaders then call or text their people, and offer rides or to meet outside the church to walk into the youth room with each person on their list. This type of connection and outreach continues throughout the school year.
Take away cell phones
About 15 years ago, during my first summer working as an ASP summer staffer, I stumbled upon this Michael Crichton quote;
“Often I feel I go to some distant region of the world to be reminded of who I really am. There is no mystery about why this should be so. Stripped of your ordinary surroundings, your friends, your daily routines, your refrigerator full of your food, your closet full of your clothes — with all this taken away, you are forced into direct experience.”
ASP offers something unlike just about anything else we do in youth ministry: the true chance to pull teens completely away from their ordinary lives. To further achieve direct experience, it has long been our youth ministry policy to take away cell phones on ASP. Youth cell phones are turned off and turned over to me on Sunday morning of ASP week, and returned late Saturday afternoon.
Because of this, when we are at the center, the youth in our group are sitting with each other talking, laughing, braiding hair, applying temporary tattoos, playing music, doing puzzles, playing basketball, throwing a frisbee, eating ice cream, and building the body of Christ. They’re actively processing what they’re experiencing together, and they’re fully present with each other.
When they walk into youth group on a Sunday night during the school year, it’s not quite as magical as an ASP center, but the spark is still there. Phones are off and away, and the heavy stress of their daily lives is set down for just a little bit. Teens show up to be present with one another, and to share a bit more of life together.
Teens are generally wired to want to share the things they love with their close friends, unless the thing they love is something that doesn’t seem “cool”. Church isn’t always cool. Being vulnerable, and talking about beliefs/hopes/dreams/fears/failures… that’s scary business for the most self-aware among us.
But ASP empowers teens to be evangelists. If I were to ask most teens to go find a friend and talk about who Jesus is and what Jesus means to them, I’d get a lot of deer-in-the-headlight looks. When I ask teens to go find a friend and explain what ASP is and what ASP means to them, they’re eager to go find the opportunity to share why ASP is their favorite week of the year.
And what do they say? ASP gives them an opportunity to step away from their stressful lives and worldly distractions, and go build relationships with new people while trying to do something positive for someone else. Isn’t that really what the Gospel is all about? Creating space for God’s presence to made known in a community of people caring for one another’s emotional and physical needs?
While we’ve worked hard and managed to find ways to create a church youth group that is centered in Christian faith and feels safe to invite non-church friends into, year after year, the single thing that I see teens most comfortable inviting new people to explore is ASP.
We took 14 incoming freshmen on ASP in the summer of 2019 . Five of them did not grow up in our church, but started coming to youth group in 8th grade after they’d registered to come on our ASP trip. All 14 come each week to our weekly Sunday night high school youth group. And three other (non-church-member) freshman started coming to youth group this fall, too. The first time each one showed up at youth group, they handed me ASP registration forms.
Teens show up at youth group each week yearning for a taste of how good they feel on ASP. As it turns out, when they’re stripped of their ordinary comforts, they find extraordinary comfort in God’s grace. And they experience it through each other, so they’ve come to learn that they might find that feeling again at youth group. They show up looking to love and be loved right where they are, just the way they are. And to update the countdown to ASP 2020, of course.
Hattie Koher is Director of Youth Ministry at First United Methodist Church of LaGrange, IL. She’s a longtime ASP volunteer, former staffer, and current member of ASP’s Board of Directors. She lives in LaGrange Park with her husband and their (future-ASP volunteer) three year-old son.