Isaac Depew, a sophomore at East Tennessee State University, recently joined some of his friends on a trip to Panama City Beach for spring break.
Nothing too unusual about that, right? Think again.
This trip to Florida was vastly unlike the traditional spring break getaways that most college students envision. It was about prayer-walking, not party-going; worship services, not water parks; and ministry, not mayhem.
Depew, along with roughly 700 representatives of Baptist Collegiate Ministry from around the nation, spent his week serving with Beach Reach — a ministry that seeks to share the love, hope and message of Jesus in Panama City Beach.
“We’re just a group of college kids who are on fire for the Lord, and on fire for His kingdom,” Depew said. “The main purpose that we’re all rallying behind here [in Florida] is to glorify God and to make His name known among other college students. It’s very, very encouraging to see this new generation of leaders that is rising up in the church and responding to the call.”
The Beach Reach ministry was centered around a “free shuttle service” that the BCM provides each night, from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., during a three-week stretch in March. The van rides, which were available to any student who called the “hotline” and requested a ride, presented the BCM students with an opportunity to share their faith.
The vans were generally driven by BCM staff members, while the BCM students rode along with hopes of having gospel conversations with the passengers.
There were 21 colleges and universities represented at this year’s Beach Reach, including seven schools from Tennessee — Vanderbilt, Middle Tennessee State University, Tennessee Tech University, East Tennessee State University, the University of Memphis, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and UT-Martin.
The ministry took place over a three-week period, with BCM students from the different schools serving one week each. More than 400 students served during the week of March 12-18, which is the busiest tourist week of the year at PCB. The students were housed at the Laguna Beach Christian Center.
“I was a little skeptical of what this was going to look like and if people would be receptive to receiving the gospel,” said Ella Jennette, a junior at Tennessee Tech University, “but it’s been awesome to see how the Lord is working.”
The Beach Reach ministry originated in the 1990s, and operated under the Lifeway umbrella for many years. But recent changes at Lifeway — including the decision last year to relinquish the Southern Baptist Convention assignment on Collegiate Ministry — almost led to the end of Beach Reach. However, the Baptist Collegiate State Directors Association stepped in and saved the ministry.
The event was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to concerns about COVID-19, but the ministry relaunched this year with a powerful response among the BCM students and others. All told, there were nine states represented at this year’s event, with campus-based and church-based ministries from Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, Ohio, Maryland, Indiana and Missouri.
Mark Whitt, the BCM director at MTSU, served as Beach Reach coordinator this year. He has participated in Beach Reach roughly a dozen times through the years during his time as a BCM director at various schools and his former position at Lifeway.
“I love seeing students fall in love with sharing the gospel,” Whitt said. “Many college students are so nervous and scared at the beginning of the week. However, by the end of the week, they can’t wait to get out on the vans or on the street teams.”
Tiffany Hudson, the BCM director at Vanderbilt, said, “The gospel is urgent, the command is to go — and these students are doing just that. … I am in awe of the group of students who served this year at PCB. Their excitement for the gospel is unmatched. The way they wove the gospel of Jesus into every conversation, not with judgement or condemnation, but with grace and compassion, was simply beautiful. They didn’t just go on mission, they lived the gospel in the vans, on the streets, at the beach, everywhere.
“It was the active practice of the great commission live and on display in PCB,” she said.
Each day, the BCM students spent the afternoon walking the beach, striking up conversations, presenting the gospel and passing out information about the “free shuttle service” that the BCM provides each night during the three-week stretch. It was during these van rides that many gospel conversations took place.
Time and time again, the BCM students were asked, “why are you doing this? Why are you giving up your spring break … for this?”
Micah Stephens, a senior at East Tennessee State University, provided his answer, which is part-practical and part-spiritual.
“I always tell them that there are two reasons for doing this,” said Stephens, who was participating in Beach Reach for the third time. “One, we just want everybody to get around safely. But that part of the job could be done by any group of people. Most importantly, we’ve been loved on by our creator, and we want to do a simple act — providing these van rides — that shows that love, without reward, to somebody else.”
Cynthia Mendoza, a freshman at the UT-Knoxville and a first-time Beach Reach participant, said sharing the gospel with strangers was intimidating, but said she was able to see evangelism from a fresh perspective.
“Being here has really helped me realize people are willing to talk about spiritual things,” she said. “People are willing to open up, and they want people to listen to what they’re saying. So, it’s really helped me realize how to just put that fear aside. People are willing to listen because the Lord is working in their lives.”
The tone changes
Whitt said it is interesting to watch the tone of the conversation change throughout the week.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Whitt said. “The first couple of nights, the spring breakers are pretty rowdy when they get on the vans, and they’re just enjoying the moment. But as the week goes along, things change. By the middle of the week, some of them have run out of money, they’ve argued with the group they came with — and they’re starting to realize that maybe this trip isn’t everything they thought it would be. At that point, they are interested in learning if maybe there’s something more, something deeper.”
Jeff Jones, BCM director at Memphis, has witnessed similar scenarios during his trips to PCB for Beach Reach.
“We have watched spring break students dismiss their friends because they wanted to continue a conversation about Jesus — even when the friends would urge them to leave the ‘Jesus freaks’ and come with them to the clubs,” Jones said. “We have witnessed multiple students, tired of running from God, or living for themselves, in tears, give their lives to Christ in front of some of the largest night clubs in the world.”
Whitt said he loved seeing so many “new” faces at Beach Reach this year, and hopes there will be plenty more newcomers next year and beyond.
“There just is nothing like Beach Reach,” he said. “For first timers, they simply do not know what to expect. But for most students, by the end of the week, they are overwhelmed with what the Lord does. The conversations that they are able to have that point to Jesus is what makes it all worth it.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — The full version of this story was written by Lonnie Wilkey and was originally published by the Tennessee Baptist and Reflector, newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.