The Sydney Opera House and the Royal Botanic Garden are a part of Circular Quay in Australia. Cru® summer missions have been located in Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth, and Sydney. After the COVID-19 pandemic closed these missions, Cru had a three-week Australian digital summer mission in July. (Photo by Guy Gerrard.)

Summer Missions Went Virtual


Cole Pate, a junior at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, signed up for Cru’s® 2020 Yellowstone summer mission. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, unfortunately, the 10-week trip was called off. The pandemic caused more than 200 Cru summer missions to be canceled, both in the U.S. and internationally. In the midst of this uncertainty, a different approach to summer missions arose to engage with college students globally: digital summer missions (DSM).

Eric Brown, a 22-year-old student at Warren County Community College in Washington, New Jersey, participated in a digital summer mission that gave him an opportunity to connect with students from Russia. “It was good to see the Lord can still move even when we are limited,” said Eric. “He is not.”

“We are all in quarantine, but the gospel is not in quarantine.”

Eric Brown

“God is clearly not restrained by these virtual modes of communication that to us feel really confining and outside of the usual,” said Bella Gamboa, a 20-year-old Yale University student who also attended the Russian DSM.

“The Lord was still able to connect us to people and foster relationships from thousands of miles away.”

Bella Gamboa

The pandemic touched the entire world, but its grip could not quench the spiritual hunger of students who desired to tell others about Christ and make Him known throughout the world this summer.

The cancellation of the Yellowstone summer mission brought Cole an unexpected opportunity. He spoke with Christine Robertson, a Cru staff member serving with a DSM that was able to use his graphic design skills and heart for God.

Cole Pate, a junior at James Madison University, was initially uncertain about a virtual summer mission experience, but God grew him ways that he didn’t expect.

“I wanted to be a part of the servant team of students on the summer mission,” said Cole, who is a double major in chemistry and media arts and design.

He led breakout groups teaching his peers how to design graphics and how to use the images to tell others about Jesus. Experiencing evangelism in community encouraged Cole, and as he prepares to return to school, he said, “I really want to reach freshmen students on campus this fall.”

Before the pandemic, then the pivot

Prior to the pandemic, Cru summer missions consisted of thousands of college students traveling to other parts of the world to share the gospel. The first summer mission began in 1967. Called “summer projects” at the time, the summer mission aimed to help a church in Ocean City, New Jersey, reach young people who vacationed at the beach each summer.

During the missions, Cru staff members led and trained students in evangelism and discipleship as the groups experienced spiritual community, Bible studies and encouragement for weeks at a time together.

Many summer missions were a collaboration between U.S. and international Cru movements of global ministry partnerships, forming significant summers for both students and local ministries.

Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, had more than 13,000 students in 2019. After the COVID-19 pandemic closed campuses this spring, Bella Gamboa, a Yale student, was encouraged by a Cru® staff member to participate in a Cru digital summer mission. “I love Russian history and literature and wanted to connect with people my own age and see what life is like in Russia, so I participated in the Russian digital summer mission.”

As the pandemic expanded around the globe in winter and spring 2020, Cru leaders recognized that the strategy of summer missions would need to pivot. God’s call to believers to grow spiritually and make Him known to others had not changed. But the method to accomplish both while also keeping people safe from the virus had to be reconsidered.

DSM took off as the chosen strategy with the components of learning and experimentation. The goal of these new virtual missions: Help students craft a vision for the summer that would carry through the year.

There was no expectation that participants would be digital strategy experts. Cru established practices in digital outreach and had an area digital strategist lined up with students to provide coaching. DSMs also utilized peer-processing, which connected participants’ computers with special permission to process data and share resources without the need of a separate server computer.

The Providence, Rhode Island, skyline scenery awakens near the Brown University library while a student studies online. Alyssa Dunrud, a Cru® staff member in Rhode Island, helped co-lead the Russian digital summer mission. She said, “I found that figuring out digital strategies and becoming confident in Instagram and Facebook surveys were helpful to opening conversations with students.”

Digital summer missions opened up more opportunities for students, faculty and staff members who were unable to say yes to a traditional summer mission due to financial challenges, commitments to internships or family obligations.

How to Make the DSMs Work

Key values for DSM teams were community and connection, even more so than normal due to the isolation many students have experienced for months from friends and family because of COVID-19 realities and quarantines. A real sense of community had been missed by many.

The time commitment of staff members and students during the DSMs were four hours a day, with one day off, plus time for two one-on-one discipleship meetings each week.

Time zones needed to be clearly indicated for students who resided in one time zone and did ministry in another time zone. Also, to help foster community, it was recommended that no more than 20 students be assigned to a single digital summer mission so that connecting digitally would allow more voices to be heard. Students who applied were then placed with a coach and a peer group for them to learn with for the summer.

Staff members held a briefing before the start of the mission to communicate clear expectations and get resources to students. Because students would not physically experience the location that they were to minister in, videos and books were used as resources to help them “visually” experience a different world. Local staff members discussed cultural differences with the participants. Consideration went into how to adapt the mission’s goals digitally. Cru’s Ministry from a Distance videos were resourced for ideas.

Creativity and uniqueness describe the digital summer missions Cru offered, which included NEXT, Unto™, U.S. Campus and Russia.

Bella Gamboa enjoys her involvement with Yale Students for Christ. She was unsure about how many Russian students would participate in conversations when the Russian DSM began. Bella said, “The ample number of Russian student contacts was evidence of God working.”

Helping graduates navigate COVID-19

Cru staff members Alisa Bentley and Emily John launched a DSM for Cru college graduates to translate their ministry experience to life after college. NEXT, a three-week digital experience, sought to address what college graduates need and how they could best be served. The tagline for NEXT was embracing a new chapter in God’s story.

Emily did a marketing survey of 26 seniors that revealed three areas where COVID-19 disrupted their lives. On the whole, graduates were dealing with grieving the loss of friendships and events, fear of entering the job market, and isolation in the midst of craving community.

These three areas were topics for graduates who attended NEXT. Each of the 55 participating college graduates were paired with a coach who gave one 30-minute coaching session. In these sessions, graduates chose to discuss their faith journey or plans they had for future work. The 40 coaches were either business professionals serving as volunteers or staff members from various departments of Cru.

One hundred percent of the attendees surveyed who responded said they would recommend NEXT to others. Life after college is a big transition. Regardless of the world’s circumstances, NEXT journeys with graduates to give hope and vision.

Unto: identifying humanitarian needs

Pre-COVID-19, staff members Abigail Klansek, Jacey Linn and Candice Siewert and interns Josh Keys and Robin Greaves planned summer missions to separate countries with Unto, Cru’s humanitarian ministry.

Because of the pandemic, all five served instead with a free two-week Unto DSM designed for college students to help support humanitarian work virtually. Several students had participated with the Unto summer mission in 2019.

Zoom meetings featured guest speakers, including affiliate Cru staff members, a professor, a businessman, a pastor from the Bahamas, a medical home manager and a staff member from the Evangelical Immigration Table, along with Darryl Smith, director of Oneness and Diversity, and Mark Gauthier, executive director of Cru’s U.S. Campus Ministry.

During the break-out sessions, the 23 students worked on scenarios of challenges encountered by Unto team members in the toughest places on Earth; heard about programs of food and agriculture, clean water and critical aid; and learned how to get involved with those programs internationally and at home.

“Unto has already seen fruit by students having conversations with family and friends,” said Abigail. “Some have signed up for spring break to go on a mission and some to become interns with Unto.”

Campus: ready to reach the spiritually curious

Cru staff members Christine Robertson and Amanda Gagnon had two months to switch gears from planning a campus summer mission trip to creating a digital summer mission instead. College students who had been accepted for the summer mission were now asked to join the DSM.

Seventy students and a team of Cru staff members participated in the six-week experience with the overall goal of students finishing the DSM with the vision and resources to become a multiplying disciple. The DSM devoted each Wednesday to digital outreach that sought to reach the spiritually curious. Staff members used such resources as, Starting With God and an email series to help develop the students in their digital ministry.

Fireseeds, one of the books we were given, shows me that no matter how small something starts, God can use it,” says student Cole Pate. He thinks he would go on a DSM again and shared, “My small group that met read the Bible, were relatable, honest and open with each other.”

The Cru leaders learned that the college students had talents to offer digitally and hearts to reach others. And Christine believes “that this season will be one that God uses to empower this digital generation — to lead us as we coach them, led by the Spirit.”

Sharing Links on Social Media

Cole Pate, a student from James Madison University, led the social media team of 12 students. They developed posts to share. The students took faith steps to another level by sharing posts on their personal Instagram profiles with the goal to reach those who are spiritually curious. Cole and his team put this link in their Instagram bios to encourage people dealing with anxiety over the pandemic.

Russia: strategic social media sparked conversations

Dan Culbertson, a Cru staff member in Moscow, and Eric Coe, a Cru staff member in St. Petersburg, created a promo video on social media inviting Russian students to participate in “This is Who I Am,” a cultural and personal exchange with American students.

St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, closed for the summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cru® had a Russian digital summer mission that invited college students from Russia to participate in online conversations with American students talking about justice, loneliness and anxiety.

In the U.S., John Grimberg, a Cru staff member in Minnesota, invited Alyssa Dunrud, a Cru staff member in Rhode Island, to co-lead a two-week Russian digital summer mission. Rylee Williams, a Cru intern, also served with them, and they trained eight American college students who participated using the ministry tools Soularium, Life Maps, and Perspective.

The American students were connected to Russian students to discuss worldviews and initiate spiritual conversations.

Eric Brown, a student at Warren County Community College, experienced boldness that God gave him to speak without fear when he talked with a Russian student who had never heard of Jesus. “It was an honor to tell someone so far away about Jesus and the gospel.”

“As our team was being honest about our COVID-19 experiences,” said student Eric Brown, “we were able to tell the Russian students we have something that can never be shut down or taken away.”

Social media ads brought Russian people to the This Is Who I Am meetings where they interacted with the American students. A few of the Russian students are continuing to connect with Russian Cru staff members.

A global reach

As July concluded, DSMs reached out to other areas of the world, such as various parts of Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. DSMs in Australia, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa also took place. Spreading the good news about Jesus Christ wasn’t stopped this summer but continued forward throughout the world via virtual experiences.

During his DSM, Cole had a strong conviction to share his faith and got an idea. “I play video games online with 20 people and have been long before COVID-19 hit,” he said. “I want to share my faith with them and reach out to my friends.”

He talked with two of his friends, asking what they believed about God. One was agnostic but liked talking with Cole and appreciated the interest he showed in listening to him. The other was a Christian who missed being in a Bible study. Cole invited him to do an online Bible study together and now they are making plans.

“To say God cannot move through video chat is to limit His power. God can really work.”

Eric Brown

Bella, from the Russian DSM, continues to meet virtually with three Russian women in college almost every week. One of the students conveyed her interest in God and is searching for purpose.

Eric said that he thinks he would do a DSM again following his experience with the Russian mission. “For those thinking of DSM, don’t put God in a box” he said. “In Philippians, Paul said though I am bound, but the gospel of Christ is not bound. God is not bound.”

Reach out

How have you seen people come to know Jesus through digital means during the pandemic?

Share your story
Jan Stewart
Words by

Jan Stewart

Jan serves as a journalist with Cru®. She has had an interest in creative writing ever since her high school newspaper column days. She hopes to inspire hearts toward Christ.

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Guy Gerrard
Words 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.

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Tom Mills
Words by

Tom Mills

Tom is a photographer with Cru®. He loves seeing beautiful sights out of airplane windows and enjoys meeting new friends all over the world. His wife, Karen, travels with him whenever possible, which makes every trip even better. Tom has been photographing for more than 40 years.

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Read more from the September 2020 issue


How Doubt Can Deepen Your Faith

Christian community should be a safe place to work through questions together and to learn how to “doubt well” — and ultimately find God.

September 2020

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