Although the ministry has faced some challenges in recent days, Mark Whitt was determined not to let Beach Reach get wiped out by a wave of tough circumstances.
Whitt, the director of Baptist Collegiate Ministry at Middle Tennessee State University, united with a host of other BCM leaders from around the nation in a quest to keep the Beach Reach ministry going despite recent structural changes at Lifeway Christian Resources that could have potentially signaled the end to the ministry. The COVID-19 pandemic has produced some hurdles for the yearly event, causing it to be canceled in 2020 and again in 2021.
But this year, Beach Reach was relaunched, and students responded in a big way, pouring their energy and efforts into the ministry. See related story.
Back to its roots
Whitt, who served as the 2022 Beach Reach coordinator, said he was excited and encouraged to see the ministry not only survive, but thrive, amid the tough circumstances.
“The campus ministers really joined together to make this event happen again — and it’s back to the way it all started,” Whitt said. “And by that I mean, Beach Reach has now gone back to being a grass roots effort of campus ministers who believe that it’s important for college students to experience the power of God working through college students serving college students.”
Since its inception roughly 30 years ago, Beach Reach — an annual event in which Baptist students from around the nation travel to Panama City to make an impact for Christ during spring break — has been under the Lifeway umbrella. But last year’s structural changes at Lifeway, when the organization relinquished its SBC assignment on Collegiate Ministry, seemed to potentially signal the end of Beach Reach, along with several other college-based ministries, such as Collegiate Week and Collegiate Summit.
But rather than watching these events and ministries come to a close, the Baptist Collegiate State Directors Association decided to take action.
“We recognized how important those three events are to the SBC collegiate ministry family for campus-based and church-based ministries,” Whitt said. “We wanted those ministries to keep going. And we were willing to put in the work to make it happen.”
Jeff Jones, BCM director at the University of Memphis, has seen how important and impactful Beach Reach can be for students.
“The University of Memphis BCM has participated in Beach Reach most every year since 2008,” Jones said. “Even if our entire group didn’t go, there was always a group very interested in serving.”
Jones said the ministry is crucial because “you are able to see lives transformed right in front of your eyes” when students share the gospel.
“For many of the students (at Beach Reach), this might be the first time they’ve ever shared the gospel with someone face-to-face,” he noted. “We have had students who’ve gone on this trip and because of what God showed them, the trajectory of their lives were changed as far as majors, occupations and calling.”
Whitt has long-standing ties with Beach Reach, which explains his passion for the ministry. He first participated in Beach Reach in Panama City Beach in 1995, when he was an intern for the BSU at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. That year, which was just his second year in ministry, he took a group of 12 students to Panama City Beach.
“I was hooked from the very beginning,” he said. “And after I became the campus minister at Murray State, I was able to bring our group to Beach Reach multiple times during my 14 years on that campus. ”
Whitt later served as the National Collegiate Ministry Leader at Lifeway, and Beach Reach was coordinated through his office.
“I worked alongside Bill Noe and our young adult/collegiate staff to coordinate and staff Beach Reach for the five years I was with Lifeway,” he said. “Then, when I took the position as campus minister at Middle Tennessee State University, I knew I wanted to make sure our students at the MTSU BCM were able to be a part of Beach Reach. … It has been such a major part of my life as a campus minister since the early years of the ministry,” he said.
Now, in a sense, Whitt has come full circle in his connection with Beach Reach.
“Not only have I participated as a campus minister and on the organizing team, but I’m also a dad of a college student who has gone to Beach Reach multiple times,” he said. “My daughter Elizabeth attended Beach Reach twice as a student at University of Tennessee at Martin BCM. She is currently a vet student at UT-Knoxville Vet School. I’ve seen how Beach Reach has had such a significant impact on her.”
All total, Whitt estimates that he has been involved with Beach Reach at Panama City Beach more than a dozen times during his years as a campus minister and at Lifeway.
“From the very beginning, I knew this was a special ministry,” he said. “It is unlike any spring break mission opportunity college students can participate in.”
Beach Reach began in the mid-90s as a grass-roots effort by campus ministers who recognized Panama City Beach as a prime spring break destination for college students — and a great opportunity to share the gospel among the thousands of “spring breakers” who show up in PCB throughout the month of March.
Whitt said he was thrilled that the pieces fell together in a manner that allowed the BCSDA to take over the Beach Reach operation — and to find a way to ensure that the ministry continued.
“Campus ministers believed that Beach Reach just could not be lost — it’s too important to our collegiate ministry family,” Whitt said. “The BCSDA asked a group of campus ministers to help think through the dynamics of planning Beach Reach again after Lifeway’s decision to not continue the ministry in PCB.”
This year, more than 700 BCM students participated in the event during a three-week stretch in March.
Tiffany Hudson, the BCM director at Vanderbilt, said that many students who take part in Beach Reach come away with a new perspective on evangelism. She said the ministry also gives students an opportunity to build strong ties.
“Beach Reach is an opportunity unlike any other mission experience,” she said. “You get to have a front row seat to the work of the Holy Spirit. You share the Gospel with people that are longing to be seen and known. You get to participate in praying and seeing results in real time. You worship with other believers, get hyped and take to the streets in the name of Jesus.”
Beach Reach at Panama City Beach has a sister ministry in South Padre, Texas, that is coordinated by campus ministers and staff of BCMs in Texas. The South Padre Beach Reach, which is slightly older than its PCB sibling, is primarily attended by college students in Texas. Beach Reach in PCB has included college students and ministries from multiple states over the years.
Whitt said he believes Beach Reach will continue to be an effective ministry for years to come. He said he has seen the event transform countless lives — not only for those who are being ministered to, but in the lives of the BCM students, too.
“As a campus minister, watching college students begin to embrace the urgency of the Gospel is one of the most beautiful things that I can ever imagine,” Whitt said. “Students often hear me talk about Matthew 9:35-38 where Jesus ‘saw the crowds, he felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd.’ Jesus was deeply stirred for those that did not know the truth of the Gospel.
“When I see students begin to truly understand that and embrace the urgency of the Gospel,” he said, “it’s then that students are beginning to truly grasp what it means to be a fully devoted follower of Jesus.”