Spring Break Outreach

A college student finds a new way to define achievement at the beach.

Jonathan Moynihan
Photographs by Guy Gerrard

Barefoot, David Alcook’s toes sift through a mixture of sand and pebbles. Just behind a mammoth-sized nightclub, the college sophomore steps onto the shore at Panama City Beach, Fla., the #1 spring-break location in the United States.

He blends into the crowd with his board shorts and red T-shirt, but something small makes him stand out. Instead of grasping a cold beer in his hand, he’s holding copies of Cru’s evangelistic booklet, Would You Like to Know God Personally?

As a part of Big Break, Cru’s spring-break conference for college students, David isn’t on the beach to guzzle alcohol or lounge in the Gulf ’s lazy waters. He’s here to tell others about Jesus Christ.

Read on-the-ground reports from Big Break 2010.

The sun reaches its summit in the sky over the coast, where thousands of college students from all over the country carouse along the 27 miles of shoreline. The scene contrasts against the natural beauty of Panama City Beach, with the warm rays of the sun and its clear-blue water offering David a welcomed escape from the cold, Michigan winter at Grand Valley State University.

As David walks out onto the beach, the nightclub’s subwoofers thump their way into his gut like punches from an older brother. Through the infrequent cheers and hollers, David meanders into the mob before him, searching for an inviting face to engage in conversation.

“I know we’re called to go and make disciples of the world, to get the message out there,” he says.

After becoming a Christian in October, David got a taste of what it was like to tell others about Jesus a few months later at a winter conference sponsored by Cru. He wanted more.

Admittedly uncomfortable about initiating conversations with others about Jesus, David came to Big Break wanting to grow in his ability to talk about his faith with those around him. For years, David struggled with substance abuse and a crippling addiction to cigarettes, but the memories of his past only heighten his passion as he looks out amid the gallery of beer bongs and bikinis.

His passion, however, is stalled by fear and anxiety. “I am genuinely scared to do this type of thing,” he says.

After 2 hours on the beach, few conversations are initiated, and even less last more than a couple of minutes. Determined to have a “successful” exchange before his day is through, David approaches Chris, a shirtless student with a raggedy ball cap, red shorts and disheveled blue boxers sticking out at the waistline.

The 2 talk about spiritual topics, and David uses his Knowing God Personally booklet to help guide the discussion. After more than 45 minutes of conversation, David thanks Chris for his time and heads off the beach discouraged by his peer’s indecision about trusting Christ.

The next morning, David and his friends from Grand Valley State swagger into the hotel’s ballroom for the morning conference session of Big Break. The daily meetings provide students -- from 95 campuses around the country that week -- a chance to experience training and motivation in evangelism, followed immediately by real-world application on the beach.

As he walks in, he is greeted once again by the aggressive boom of subwoofers. Neon laser lights clash against the pattern of the carpet as more than 1,100 students pack the ballroom anticipating the program.

David reclines in the unforgiving conference chairs as he and his friends listen to the morning speaker, Cru staff member Ben Rivera.

After about 30 minutes, Ben emphatically says, “Successful evangelism is stepping out in faith, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and leaving the results up to God.” Every student is encouraged to write down the phrase as a way to remember this definition of success, but as David gets ready to go back on the beach, the words get lost among his thoughts of inadequacy.

“I wake up having this fear of not succeeding from the previous day,” he says after the meeting. “That lingering thought of, You didn’t have the most successful day yesterday. It’s something I have a hard time with.”

David is still struggling to define success as he walks onto the sand for the 2nd day of beach evangelism. Yesterday’s anxieties resurface, yet his confidence is boosted slightly by the fact that he’s paired up for the day with his close friend Jamin Littell, who helped lead him to Christ the semester before.

Unlike the day before, David has little time to hesitate as Jamin, who wants to be a physician’s assistant, initiates a conversation with a burley blond. After watching Jamin engage the student, David smoothly and sensitively transitions to questions about God, something he practiced during the conference’s morning training.

Big Break attendees “role play” spiritual conversations with their friends as a way to lessen fears or hesitation. The training boosts the sophomore’s sense of preparedness.

The conversation ends and, as he walks away, David smiles. The discussion didn’t lead to a decision for Christ, but David’s expression shows a glimpse of relief anyway.

He mentally revisits the morning’s message: “Step out in faith, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and leave the results up to God.” Something changes inside of David, giving him a greater urgency and commitment to his cause.

“Despite how clearly or effectively I lay out the gospel, I ultimately have no control over the outcome; the Holy Spirit does,” he says.

Putting feet to a concept radically different from his usual style of thinking, David starts connecting with any and every student willing to talk with him. His job is to be a vessel, and to let God do the hard stuff.

“It’s a freeing feeling. It gives me more confidence because it takes the pressure off me,” he adds. “At no point am I ever failing,” he says. “I’m being successful as soon as I get out there.”

He and Jamin finish 3½ hours later, tired but refreshed by the conversations they experience. None of their peers accepted Christ, but the 2 friends are just happy to have answered the call of the Great Commission.

The sun sets over the Gulf’s wave-less tide, and David and his friends relax together on their 12th floor apartment patio, debriefing from the day on the beach.

The next day, David is paired with a freshman, James Brien from Grand Valley State, whose fears and hesitations remind David of himself only 3 days earlier. Soon after stepping onto the beach, the 2 are passed by a lone student walking in the opposite direction.

David, for the 1st time this week, takes the lead, and gently backhands James’ shoulder with a suggestive head nod in the student’s direction. He doesn’t need to say anything. David’s posture straightens, his eyebrows lift, and he says, “Come on.”

Embracing a newfound definition of success, David isn’t crippled by a fear of “not succeeding.” He trusts that God is at work and his responsibility is “to just get the message out there.”

His eagerness to talk to others is only matched by his willingness to talk to anyone who welcomes him. He’s sure of himself -- confident in his mission, and confident in Christ.

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