The Mission Moving Forward
The gospel moves throughout the world in a multitude of ways.
Life with God is like a puzzle.
Cru® staff members at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln often use this analogy to help themselves and the students they serve maintain a clear vision of ministry. Basic gospel principles — we are sinful and separated from God, Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sin, He invites us into relationship with Him — create the outside border. When a person places faith in Christ, their puzzle is framed in.
As the new Christian grows, interior pieces begin to snap together. Filling in the whole puzzle takes a lifetime of prayer, learning and studying Scripture, and other spiritual disciplines. It also takes people.
As a young student, Daniel Mitchell felt broken by his pride. Brothers in faith helped him see how Christ could make him whole. Now Daniel, a fifth-year senior at UNL and a part-time staff member with Cru, strives to do the same for other young men, guiding them toward the Lord and each other.
“You don’t have to fill the whole picture,” Daniel says, “But fill in a piece of the puzzle.”
In campus ministry, this must start as soon as possible, before the academic year even begins.
Cru staff members and students are dreaming of the possibility of being on campus again. In August 2019, the Lord worked through staff members and students in one incredible week at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Daniel hunches over a box of paper plates and napkins, helping set up a “welcome picnic” for dozens of students involved with Cru at UNL. Other student leaders, a few freshmen, and Cru staff members and their families trickle in, chatting in raincoats or standing under the covered picnic area. The overcast skies do not dampen their joy or soften the buzz of excitement.
After most have eaten, student leaders divide up responsibilities for this critical first week of classes. Some will approach students with spiritual surveys or invite them to Cru events; others will prepare Bible studies for people they haven’t yet met.
Freshmen step into a new phase of life when they arrive on campus. Social clubs, the party scene and academic achievement all compete for their attention, each promising belonging and identity in this new world. Cru staff members and student leaders seek to be immediately available, offering the belonging of Christian community and the more satisfying identity found in Christ. They want followers of Christ to be the first friendly faces freshmen see.
“I know it starts here,” Daniel says. “It’s really important to talk to freshmen week one. You never know who that’ll be in the future.”
Daniel himself was in this same position five years ago. He’d been raised in a Christian home, but saw God as a means to getting what he wanted, not as a loving Father who desired a relationship with him. Then during his freshman year at UNL, a senior invited him to the Cru large group meeting. While he was interested, he didn’t see how Christianity fit into his own life plans.
God changed his perspective as he led a Bible study and also went on a Cru summer mission in San Diego, California.
“I showed up thinking I’m going to dominate this, I’ll lead so many people to Christ,” Daniel says. “I was so arrogant about how God would use me.”
Then, four weeks into the summer, he nearly drowned.
Daniel lost a flipper while snorkeling and a current swept him away as he sought to retrieve it. The rough water dashed him on the rocks, leaving him lacerated and disoriented. He called out to God in desperation, and two friends pulled him to shore.
“I realized I can’t do this alone,” Daniel says. “If [my friends] hadn’t been there, I would have died. I honestly accepted Christ’s lordship in my life. After that I had so much more joy.”
Daniel’s Christian friendships continued to help him grow, giving him the desire to perpetuate that same humbling, life-giving community for others. Becoming a Cru staff member seemed a natural fit.
At the picnic, Daniel locates four sophomores — Elijah Hackbart, Ethan Hays, Jett Petit and Joel Parker. Daniel’s ministry of “puzzle-building” is most focused on these four young men. He values all of his friendships, but he’s committed to helping these four learn to reach their peers — the new, searching students.
“When you show people God’s heart, you’re changing their trajectory as a person.”
They huddle together like a football team. But as they put their heads down, they don’t discuss a play. They pray for their campus and one another.
Hundreds of booths line a cordoned-off parking lot behind UNL’s Memorial Stadium. Local businesses, student organizations, and even the military all vie for the attention of thousands of students.
This organization fair, Big Red Welcome, is crucial for connecting with as many students as possible during the first week of classes. Nearly 30 Cru volunteers grasped spiritual interest surveys and handfuls of candy, ready for the onslaught of Husker-red clad students about to engulf them. In two hours, Daniel and the other volunteers collect 1,000 surveys.
After the event, they take down their booth, then immediately text students who’d expressed an interest in learning more about God. They’re still tapping away at 11 p.m.
Cru® staff member James Pruch takes the stage to address 140 students attending Cru’s first weekly gathering of the year, held in a campus auditorium at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
James acknowledges that the students — who likely moved into their new “home” just days before — may be feeling rootless, far from family and friends who used to be so close. He says that Cru can be a family, a place to help them find their home in Christ.
The “family” James invites them into wasn’t always this large. Seven years ago, Cru at UNL consisted of only a handful of people. This is still the case at thousands of schools across the country. On some campuses, a few students and Cru staff members gather weekly; other campuses have no Christian ministries.
Patty McCain, chief of staff for U.S. Missions with Cru, says while some students literally live at their university for years, others treat campus more like “going to the mall” — a place to visit alongside jobs and errands.
Still, she says, no matter the environment, building relationships during early weeks can be life changing.
“There’s insecurity, fear, and they’re looking for a place to plug in,” she says. “They want to find their people. If we can interest them in that moment, we believe the Lord uses that.”
While Cru staff members and student leaders tirelessly welcome new arrivals at these crucial moments, there are more students to meet than people to meet them.
You can help. See the end of this article for ideas how.
“In the campus ministry, our playoffs come first.”
Co-team leader for Cru in Nebraska
Elijah and Joel sit opposite one another in a circle of about 25 guys in a freshman dorm lobby. This is their first experience leading a Connect group, what Cru at UNL calls their Bible studies. Daniel, the former leader, joins the circle to offer any needed guidance.
Eight of the students have never attended before; they heard about Cru through Big Red Welcome or another of Cru’s efforts to meet new students or were brought by a friend. Elijah and Joel want to set the right tone.
“A triple-braided knot is unbreakable. That’s my favorite verse about brotherhood,” Elijah says, emphasizing the heart of their Connect group. “We can’t do this alone.”
Elijah and Daniel attended the same hometown church, a connection that led to Elijah’s involvement with Cru. Daniel’s life-changing experiences in San Diego motivated him to recruit others to go, and Elijah decided to follow his mentor’s lead. Elijah, like Daniel, struggled with independence and pride before the trip.
The link between the two became deeper and more uncanny last summer, when Elijah experienced his own oceanside episode while on the San Diego Summer Mission. During his free time, apart from the Summer Mission’s activities, he was injured while cliff-jumping, pulled out of the water by friends and airlifted to a hospital.
He fortunately escaped permanent damage, but the experience brought new perspective to his faith. It broke through his sense of pride and showed him how much he needed to rely on God and others, just as when his friends pulled him to safety.
Elijah and Daniel now joke about their injuries, while also recognizing how those moments have shaped and driven them for ministry.
Daniel, Elijah, Joel and Jett cluster around a table in a coffee shop, Bibles open in front of them.
Daniel reminds the others why they’re here. He says if he could do anything “right” this year, it would be to help them and Ethan — who is absent today while at work — grow as leaders and men of God.
Daniel leads them into a study of 1 Peter 1, which the four will lead in their individual Connect groups next week. They make observations about faith and humility and about Peter’s relationship with Jesus.
“Peter was a brash homie,” Daniel smiles. “But he was one of Jesus’ best buddies on earth. He’s the one who said, ‘Where else can we go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life.’”
Like Elijah, the other three men in the group experienced God transform them last year through Christian community. Now each desires to lead new students through similar experiences.
“I just hope they see our heart. I hope they see that we’re going to love them and give them our best.”
Jett and Ethan open their first Connect group with Mountain Dew, pizza (but no plates) and a comical icebreaker. Several of the 10 guys in the room attend for the first time. Ethan glances periodically to Daniel, checking for affirmation as he explains about the group and teaches the Bible.
Early in the conversation, a freshman, Collin, shyly raises his hand to ask an “unrelated question”: How do you talk to an atheist friend about faith?
Jett speaks up.
“You shed God’s light more than you think you do just being in their lives,” he says. Jett acknowledges that he used to carry the burden of seeing people come to Christ. He now realizes that instead of constantly trying to force spiritual conversation, it’s just as important to show others who Jesus is through presence and care.
Daniel nods. “Jesus didn’t wait for the demon-possessed to come to Him,” he says. “He went to their space. We can’t expect an atheist to come to Cru events when they don’t want to hear [about God]. Enter into their space. Ask their story. Step out of your comfort zone.”
The group’s conversation segues smoothly into a time of prayer. Ethan and Jett ask the others to think of one specific person to pray for weekly this semester. Each identifies someone they feel concerned about — high school friends who have wandered from their faith, new roommates, family members. They bow their heads to pray for each of them, together.
After a few hours of seeking to meet freshmen outside a dining hall, Daniel and Joel wander around campus, catching up and goofing off. They pose for photos under the massive foot of Archie, the bronze woolly mammoth statue outside the University of Nebraska State Museum on campus.
They reflect on the busy week. Daniel texted 400 students who’d filled out a Cru survey, met with a few, and even saw one student invite Christ into his life. Joel mentions a student who rarely spoke in Connect group last year, but this first week opened up about his faith. Rejoicing over how God has used them as puzzle builders bolsters their faith that He’ll do much more over the course of the year.
The sun sets over well-worn basketball courts, cooling the late summer air. Daniel and his friends end the week with a party at the freshman dorms, which mainly entails coming together and playing games. Not much is needed among this company for a fun Friday night.
A mix of upperclassmen and new friends assemble and shoot around a basketball casually, then divide into teams.
One student, Evan, will join Daniel in talking with others about Jesus just a few weeks into the school year. Others in the game were set to travel to places like Juneau, Alaska, and East Asia on Cru summer mission trips, before the Coronavirus pandemic led to their cancellation.
These are the students who, like Daniel and his four friends, could be filling in one another’s puzzle-picture of God for years to come.
But tonight they’re here for basketball.
Street lanterns flicker on and cicadas chirp as the friends shuffle up and down the court, each certain their team will win. Daniel jumps and slams the ball into the hoop, laughing at his own showmanship. Smiles and laughter fill the crisp air. The students slap each other’s hands and say, “Good game.”
Then they start again.
Millions of students begin their college careers each fall. There are several ways you can be involved in helping each have an opportunity to hear about Jesus.
Visit Cru’s website to search for a Cru movement near you. Often, these movements need help with simple tasks, such as handing out surveys or making snacks. Andy Allan, team leader for Cru-Nebraska, says a Cru movement’s biggest need could be manually inputting information from student surveys into spreadsheets. “We could have a data entry party,” he says, noting that the more quickly this data is registered, the more time Cru staff members and student leaders will have to follow up with incoming students who want to know about Jesus.
How have you been inspired to connect with incoming college students?Share your story
Rebecca Kelsall is a journalist with Cru®. She graduated in 2013 with a B.A. in multimedia journalism. She is proudly Hispanic American, a dog-mom, and interested in culture and psychology.Contact Me
Guy isn’t much of a city person. Paddling down the Wda river in northern Poland with participants of a Cru® summer mission project describes a great place for him to photograph. He likes being outside, doing anything with water, and he enjoys making things with his hands. Guy serves as a photographer for Cru.Contact Me
Read more from the July 2020 issue
The Mission Moving Forward
The gospel moves throughout the world in a multitude of ways.
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