FRANKLIN — Although Mark Whitt has participated in Beach Reach more than a dozen times, he doesn’t show any signs of burnout.
Quite the opposite.
Whitt, the Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM) director at Middle Tennessee State University, said his passion for Beach Reach — a ministry in which BCM students travel to Florida to share the gospel with party-seeking spring breakers in Panama City Beach — is perhaps stronger now than ever before.
“It never gets old seeing college students intentionally loving those around them and sharing the gospel,” said Whitt, who serves as Beach Reach coordinator. “There is nothing like seeing the very moment when a college student truly embraces his/her identity in Jesus and begins to understand what being His disciple is all about!”
Beach Reach, which started in the 1990s, takes place over a three-week stretch in March. Students and leaders generally serve one week and then a new group arrives the following week.
The ministry was interrupted by COVID in 2020 and 2021. It was relaunched last year — and is now booming like never before.
This year, more than 1,100 students participated (an increase of about 400 students from last year). Members of the group represented more than 20 colleges and universities.
The list included nine universities from Tennessee — Austin Peay State, Belmont, East Tennessee State, Middle Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech, the University of Tennessee (Knoxville), the University of Tennessee at Martin, the University of Memphis and Vanderbilt University. Those nine schools combined to send 260 participants to Beach Reach.
“Considering that this is only the second year since the relaunch, I don’t think any of us could have ever imagined we would be where we are,” said Whitt. “But there was so much positive feedback from Beach Reach 2022 that I think it resulted in more collegiate leaders deciding to bring their groups. And I believe that we are just seeing the beginning of the continued growth.”
The ministry offers a unique mission experience for students. The anchor point is a “free shuttle service” that the BCM leaders and students provide for the other spring breakers from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. each day.
This year, Beach Reach provided 18,920 shuttle rides in PCB. The ministry opened the door for 8,426 gospel conversations (most taking place during the van rides, with others occurring on the beach and around town), and led to 191 professions of faith.
“I was floored by the numbers this year,” Whitt said. “It was amazing to see how focused Beach Reachers were about having gospel conversations.”
Tiffany Hudson, BCM director at Vanderbilt, said Beach Reach is always one of the most anticipated events on the calendar. She said that was especially true this year.
“Beach Reach 2023 was everything I prayed it would be,” said Hudson. “I always put some pretty high expectations on this ministry — and God has never let me down.”
Not easy — but worth it
Each year, BCM leaders spend enormous amounts of time preparing and coordinating Beach Reach. But the long hours are a small price to pay, they say.
Jonathan Chapman, BCM director at ETSU, said this year’s Beach Reach seemed to have even more challenges than normal, but said the obstacles simply made the victories all the more rewarding.
“This year’s Beach Reach was very special,” Chapman said. “We always battle spiritual warfare, but this year seemed to be a much tougher battle than usual. Because of that, we saw many students come to Christ, want to get baptized, others craving discipleship, and many wanting to get back involved in their church. There is nothing better than seeing co death to life!”
Although Beach Reach is certainly not a vacation for the BCM students and leaders, it often leaves the participants feeling refreshed and energized.
“Beach Reach was just the reset I personally needed in ministry,” Hudson said. “It was a break from the routine and, more importantly, it was a fresh moving of the Holy Spirit.”
Whitt said he feels blessed to have such a hard-working team around him to help make Beach Reach a reality.
“Everyone is dedicated to the cause of seeing students come to know the Lord,” said Whitt.
Whitt praised this year’s “Beach Reach Leadership Team,” which included: Morgan Owen (UT Martin), Ben Beck (Purdue University), Jared Gregory (First Baptist Denton, Texas) and Jeff Prosser (Hillvue Heights Church, Bowling Green, Ky.) and Whitt.
Whitt said he believes the primary reason the ministry continues to grow is because so many of the BCM leaders share the same vision and same objective.
“The emphasis on evangelism and gospel conversations is such a draw for collegiate ministry leaders,” he said. “And I believe we will continue to see the ministry in PCB grow and evolve.”
The BCM leaders say that one of the most incredible facets of Beach Reach is the transformation that often occurs among the participants. Some of the students who are shy about sharing the gospel when they first arrive in Panama City can often grow in their boldness as the week progresses.
“I think when a student prays out loud for someone else, it increases their own faith to levels they’ve not experienced before,” said Jeff Jones, BCM director at the University of Memphis. “It is very encouraging to hear the compassion and the heartfelt prayers our students lifted up for those who were on spring break.”
Whitt noted that many of the BCM students return from Beach Reach with a renewed (or perhaps even brand new) desire to tell others about the gospel.
He said, in that sense, what happens in Panama City doesn’t stay in Panama City.
“Beach Reach is unique in terms of how well it translates back to the campus,” he said. “And for me, that is one of the most exciting aspects of the ministry: The lessons learned are so easily taken back to their school.”
Outpouring of the Spirit
Ben Maddox, BCM director at Tennessee Tech, said this year’s event was one of the best he can remember. And that’s a big statement, coming from the Beach Reach “veteran.”
“I have been going to — and taking groups of college students to — Beach Reach for years,” Maddox said, “and this year the responsiveness to the gospel and to our ministry was the best I’ve seen.”
Maddox said many of the spring breakers are searching for something without even knowing what they are looking for.
“This generation of students seem to be tired of the brokenness in their lives and are looking for hope and a changed life,” Maddox said. “Many spring breakers experienced the ultimate Hope and their lives will forever be changed by their faith response to Jesus.”
Hudson said Beach Reach never fails to make an impact on her students — and on her, too.
“Beach Reach is the tangible workings of God in our midst,” she said. “It is a great example of what we all long to see and experience. It is worship, Bible teaching and evangelism. It is hard, fun, exciting and exhausting. In a nutshell, it is the power of God on display.” B&R