Daniel Mitchell (right, in maroon Cru® t-shirt), part-time Cru® staff member and fifth-year senior at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, speaks with students about Cru at Big Red Welcome, a campus-wide organization fair.

The Most Important Week of the Year


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.

Daniel Mitchell serves part-time as a Cru® staff member. Friends and mentors from Cru have inspired him in his walk with Jesus. Daniel says, “I’ve seen the Lord working through my brothers [in Christ] to call me out and point me to the Source of everything good.”

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.

UNL’s Cornhusker football team takes the field before their game against South Alabama to start the 2019 season. UNL is one of Nebraska’s largest universities, serving more than 25,000 students.

Saturday August 24. 5:00 p.m.

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.

Cru® staff members and students socialize at a welcome picnic hosted by the Cru in Nebraska staff team. The event, held the weekend before classes start, helps reconnect students involved in last year’s movement, and welcomes freshmen and newcomers who hope to be involved this year.

Daniel gathers with four sophomore students at Cru’s welcome picnic to talk and pray about the upcoming school year. He meets with these four once a week, and they, in turn, lead weekly Bible studies in pairs.

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.”

Cornhusker mascots Herbie Husker and Lil’ Red pump up the crowd before Nebraska’s first football game of the year. The Huskers defeated South Alabama 35-21, further energizing UNL students as the school year began.

Thousands of animated fans surround UNL’s marching band during the Cornhusker football game against South Alabama. Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium is iconic to Husker enthusiasts and can hold about 90,000 people.

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.”

Nebraska running back Maurice Washington weaves through the South Alabama defense during their August 2019 game. Daniel grew up rooting for the Cornhuskers and had a real shot of making the team himself. However, multiple injuries his freshman year caused him to reevaluate his plans; he’s now grateful for the redirection.

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.”

Daniel Mitchell

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.

Sunday, August 25. 4:30 p.m.

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.

Cru students fuel up with chips and sandwiches before Big Red Welcome, a campus-wide organization fair. Cru volunteers reach out to passersby with candy and surveys that invite students to express their interest in learning more about God.

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.

Daniel helps a student fill out a spiritual interest survey at Big Red Welcome. The survey asks sample questions, such as “On a scale of 1-10, how important is spirituality to you?” The questions allow Cru to connect with students who are looking for Christian community or longing for a relationship with God.

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.

Click on the image to view the infographic. Millions of students step onto U.S. campuses for the first week of classes every year, some for the first time in their lives. Many affiliate with religions they were raised with (often Christianity) but may not be grounded in any particular faith themselves or may be exploring new ideas. Cru® and many partner ministries hope to provide a safe place for these students to explore their questions and encounter the love of God. This infographic represents a glimpse of the spiritual state of American college students and graduates today.

Searching for Home

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.

Students gather around the Broyhill Fountain. Cru hands out ice cream sandwiches to passersby in the union building. Cru Live, the ministry’s weekly large group meeting, is held every Tuesday night on the building’s top floor.

“In the campus ministry, our playoffs come first.”

Andy Allan
Co-team leader for Cru in Nebraska

Monday, August 26. 6:30 p.m.

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 Hackbart and Joel Parker lead their first weekly Connect group, as Cru at Nebraska calls their Bible studies. Elijah and Joel plan to divide the large group into smaller “discipleship groups,” designed for deeper encouragement and development, for about half the meeting time.

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.

Daniel offers Joel and Elijah guidance and support during their Connect group. After his jarring experiences on the San Diego Summer Mission, Daniel grew in joy and connection to God, prompting him to commit to follow God wherever He led. Soon after, he felt led to join Cru’s staff part time.

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.

Students take turns practicing roping skills on UNL’s east campus. The university is divided into two campuses: central campus, near Lincoln’s urban core, and east campus, home to the school’s agricultural classes.

Tuesday, August 27. 3:00 p.m.

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.

Joel Parker, Jett Petit, Daniel and Elijah Hackbart (from left to right) gather for their weekly touchpoint at a Lincoln coffee shop, an opportunity for Daniel to mentor his younger friends. Daniel says the best disciples are “faithful, available and teachable,” and encourages these three, “You guys epitomize that.”

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.”

Ethan Hays

Wednesday, August 28. 7:30 p.m.

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.”

Daniel sits alongside classmates in a biomechanics lecture. Before this 10:30 a.m. class, Daniel attended an 8 a.m. nutrition class and prepared the study he’ll lead later with the guys he mentors. Days like this will be par for the course this year, as Daniel completes his degree in nutrition, exercise and health science while working part-time for Cru.

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.

Daniel and his roommate, Nate Stephens, who is also involved with Cru, work out on UNL’s east campus. Daniel enjoys that he can “do life” alongside brothers in Christ, whether that means sharing a meal, playing a game or engaging in a Bible study together.

Daniel volunteers caring for toddlers in the church nursery every other Sunday at Citylight Lincoln. In spite of his busy schedule, Daniel prioritizes serving his church.

A student relaxes in front of the student union. Andy Allan, team leader of Cru in Nebraska, says he desires Cru to be known as a safe place to have spiritual conversations where people are cared about unconditionally.

Thursday, August 29. 4:30 p.m.

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.

Daniel and Joel meet students who are on their way to dinner in the freshman dorm cafeteria. This activity is another effort to connect with students during the first week of classes, inviting them to fill out spiritual interest surveys and learn more about Cru.

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.

Daniel meets Adam Varghese, a freshman, to follow up a spiritual interest survey Adam filled out during his first week at UNL. The two discuss God’s unconditional love in spite of our sin. After this meeting, Adam becomes involved in UNL’s Cru movement and meets with Daniel several times more.

Friday, August 30. 7:30 p.m.

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.

Daniel and Blake Wilberger, a student leader in Cru, play basketball outside the freshman dormitories. This casual event allows Cru leaders to get to know new students. Dozens attend, 10 of whom are new to Cru.

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.

Daniel and Joel chat in front of Archie, the iconic mammoth sculpture on UNL’s central campus. Joel says he is grateful for friends like Daniel, “friends that are like brothers to me — men who really love the Lord, [who] automatically push each other with accountability or encouragement, out of love.”

Your Piece of the Puzzle

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.

  • Visit EveryCampus.com and search for a university. On the site, you can see whether your campus has a Christian ministry. If it doesn’t, why not launch one? The Cru Coaching Center has coaches who offer help in everything from sharing your faith on campus to starting a new campus ministry.

Reach out

How have you been inspired to connect with incoming college students?

Share your story
Rebecca Kelsall
Words by

Rebecca Kelsall

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 Gerrard
Photos by

Guy Gerrard

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.

July 2020

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