The Aspen Project at Youngstown State University

The Aspen Project is off the ground! After much prayer, consideration, and conversation, we decided to start with sending our first specially-funded student-intern to Youngstown State University this semester.

YSU is one of the larger schools on our list of academic institutions within a one-hour drive of Kent, with an enrollment around 13,000 students. It’s a state school, like Kent State University and the University of Akron, where we’ve already successfully established campus-focused H2O Churches. But it’s also got some unique qualities that make it an interesting test case for the Aspen Project.

For one, Youngstown State has a much higher percentage of commuters than either Kent or Akron. It’s also more geographically isolated, serving as its own hub for the surrounding region (whereas I’d say that Kent and Akron are both a part of the greater Cleveland / Akron / Canton metroplex). The school is smaller than Kent State, but it still feels like a very lively campus. The people I’ve talked to from Youngstown are self-deprecating (like all good Ohioans), particularly when it comes to their “Rust Belt” reputation, but it’s also clear that people from Youngstown really love Youngstown.

We also have some really meaningful contacts in Youngstown: Christians who are already trying to strategically engage the city and the campus with the Gospel. Of course, this means that YSU is not an entirely-unreached campus. But we’ve been hearing that there might still be a place for an H2O ministry presence in Youngstown — so the whole idea for this semester is to more seriously explore avenues for influence and partnership.

Alec is our student-intern at Youngstown State University this semester. He’s a junior at Kent State, studying business. He developed an excellent plan for approaching the semester, with two days a week on campus. He’ll gradually shift from research and prayer to outreach and strategic engagement, as the semester wears on. And all along the way, he’ll be getting guidance and support from our staff team at H2O Kent. His primary “staff guide” for the semester is named AJ, and his involvement seems especially meaningful because of his pre-existing relationship with Alec and his desire to be sent out from H2O Kent for a church plant in the next couple of years. But I’m also planning to travel with Alec to Youngstown several times this semester (including this week, when I took all of these pictures). And other staff will play strategic roles at strategic moments. We’re hoping it will feel like the whole church is owning this initiative, together with Alec.

There are two ministry workers at YSU who are serving as some of our earliest and strongest points of contact: Andrew and Leah. They’ve been incredibly welcoming — answering a lot of our questions and showing us what they’ve already learned about doing ministry in Youngstown. While Alec and I were in town today, for instance, we joined a group of students who regularly meet to talk about Theology on Thursdays.

Over time, we’re hoping that Alec will be able to get to know other ministry leaders in the area, as well, and we’re also especially eager for him to start engaging with un-churched people on campus. It seems like the semester is off to a great start, but we’re very curious to see what we’re going to learn as the next few months unfold.

Please pray with me for Alec, AJ, Andrew, Leah, and any of the other people God might pull into this story over the course of the Spring Semester. We met three new people today — Dan, Muhammad, and Hayley — in whom I’m praying seeds of the gospel may sprout and grow.

It’s exciting to consider the possibilities. We’re eager to see what God will do through the Aspen Project at Youngstown State University.

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