BCM students share gospel in Panama City Beach
By David Dawson
PANAMA CITY BEACH — 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 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, Fla.
“We’re just a group of college kids who are on fire for the Lord, and on fire for His kingdom,” said Depew. “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 is 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. These van rides, which are available to any student who calls the “hotline” and requests a ride, present the BCM students with an opportunity to share their faith.
The vans are generally driven by BCM staff members, while the BCM students ride 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, MTSU, Tennessee Tech, East Tennessee State, the University of Memphis, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and UT-Martin.
The ministry takes 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 are housed at the Laguna Beach Christian Center.
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 SBC assignment on Collegiate Ministry — almost led to the stoppage of Beach Reach. However, the Baptist Collegiate State Directors Association (BCSDA) stepped in and saved the ministry. (See related story HERE).
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,” said Whitt. “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.
IT STARTS WITH PRAYER, WORSHIP
The night that the BCM students arrived in Panama City Beach set the tone for the coming week.
Just hours after they unpacked, the students were divided into groups. Some of the groups spent the evening riding the streets of PCB, making various stops along the way to huddle for prayer. Other students remained at the Laguna Beach Christian Center for a time of intense prayer inside the worship center — a scene that repeated itself each night when the vans were on the roads.
Cynthia Mendoza, a freshman at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, said seeing so many of her fellow students on their knees before the Lord is an image she won’t soon forget.
“If I was talking to someone who didn’t know anything about Beach Reach, I think one thing that I would tell them is how prayer is incorporated into this,” she said. “Our first night here … that was the first time I’ve ever really seen everybody just get together in prayer. And the Spirit was there, the Lord was there. You could feel it. (It was) just an amazing feeling.”
Worship services were held each night for the students. The praise team from the college ministry at First Baptist Church, Denton, Texas, led the worship during the week of March 12-18. The group, fronted by Ben Keesee, performed high-energy renditions of contemporary Christian favorites — like “Glorious Day” and “Firm Foundation (He Won’t)” — while students swayed and prayed, many with hands lifted.
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.”
Mendoza, 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.”
Stephens said if he is focused strictly on his call to share Jesus, the other stuff falls into place.
“I’m just worrying about doing what God has instructed us to do,” he said. “And I think that gives a lot of peace when it comes to evangelism. If you’re worried about the result the whole time, you’re not going to be able to humanize their experience, and show them the love that they are in desperate need of.”
The van rides are the cornerstone of the ministry, and the students take pride in decorating — and even naming — the vans to which they are assigned. SpiderVan, Van-nilla Ice, Vandalorian, and Van in Black were just a few of the creative names this year. The students write the nickname on the van’s window along with the hotline phone number.
“Once the spring breakers know the name of a particular van, they often request it again since they begin to develop friendships with the drivers and the students in that van,” said Whitt. “It’s amazing to see all of the vans throughout the city of Panama City running up and down the strip each night.”
Whitt said that once the phone call is made to the hotline — and a van becomes available — what happens next is beyond their control. “At that point, we have to trust that the Lord is going to continue with what He is doing in those students lives as they wait for a ride,” said Whitt.
This year, there were more than 70 vans used throughout the three weeks. Some were 12-15 passenger vans and others were mini-vans.
Students from all across Panama City Beach called the hotline, requesting rides. In some instances, the students had too much to drink, and were needing a safe ride to the next destination. But in some other cases, the riders were open to gospel conversations. In fact, it wasn’t unusual for the passengers to even initiate the conversation with questions like, “So, you guys just give out free rides for no reason?” And with that, the door was open.
Ella Jeannette, a junior at Tennessee Tech, said she was amazed by the response. “I think I was a little skeptical of what this was going to look like and if people would be receptive to receiving the gospel in these vans,” she said. “But it’s been awesome to see how the Lord’s working.”
Depew said he wasn’t completely surprised at the willingness of the Spring Breakers to talk about spiritual topics. “People who are searching will be attracted to the light,” he said. “That’s especially true here, because this is a very dark place.”
THE TONE CHANGES
Whitt said it is interesting to watch the tone of the conversation change throughout the week.
“It’s pretty amazing,” said Whitt. “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,” said Jones. “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.
“It’s hard to describe the Holy Spirit’s activity in the midst of what might seem like a place that Christians should avoid,” Jones added, “but it’s powerful and energizing to the students and to the leaders as well.”
PHONE LINES ARE OPEN
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Beach Reach ministry is the “phone center” where the requests for the van rides are received.
Equipped with a state-of-the-art computer program and a headset, a group of about six or seven BCM students will man the phones each night, arranging for pick-ups and drop-offs. The phone calls come in, non-stop, from 9 p.m. until the wee hours of the morning.
“It’s very intense,” said Jonathan Chapman, BCM director at East Tennessee State University. “I mean, the lines are just blowing up. But this computer program that we use is just incredible. It’s top-notch.”
Whitt laughed as he recalled how much the “phone center” has evolved through the years. In the 1990s, he said, they used “sticky-notes” and a large map of Panama City.
“We’ve come a long way,” he said. “Today, there is a very technical system that helps streamline the entire process to get riders assigned to vans as quickly as possible.”
LIVES ARE CHANGED
Whitt said his favorite part of Beach Reach is seeing the transformations that take place throughout the week, with many of the BCM students returning home with a fresh perspective on their faith and their abilities to lead others to Jesus.
“I love seeing students see the connection of prayer to their everyday walk with Jesus,” said Whitt. “At Beach Reach, prayer is such an integral part of what goes on each and every day. When students have the opportunity to pray for someone ‘in the moment’ of the gospel being shared — and trust the Lord in how He moves in that situation — it’s such a beautiful thing to watch.”
Surrounded by encouragement and prayer, Ethan Adkisson, a junior at Tennessee Tech, said he found new courage during the week.
“This is the first time that I’ve been really bold in sharing the gospel with strangers,” said Addison. “In the van, I would try to talk to them about something simple, just get a conversation going, but then immediately slip it (the gospel) into the conversation. Some of these people have never heard the gospel, and then some people are just really confused. But it’s cool how many people you get to interact with each and every night.”
Ryan Miller, a sophomore at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, was able to have a gospel conversation that he wasn’t necessarily expecting. It wasn’t with a college student, but rather, a state trooper.
The trooper had recently experienced some difficult moments on the job — including a shooting — and was also dealing with a family member who was very ill. He needed someone to talk to, and Miller was at the right place at the right time.
“It was just a really great conversation,” said Miller. “God showed up in amazing way. I was able to pray with him and just have that interaction. … It’s been running through my head all day today, and I’m just like, ‘God is so amazing.’ He couldn’t have done anything differently to make it better.”
THE AFTER EFFECT
Even when Beach Reach was over, it wasn’t really over.
Hudson, the BCM director at Vanderbilt, said her students were so fired up from the trip that they continued to share the gospel the night after they returned home.
“On Saturday evening, I received a text from some of our team with a photo,” she said. “The caption read ‘(We are the) street team for the night!’ They took their training and experience from Beach Reach and almost immediately put it to work in downtown Nashville.”
Macey Fallin, a junior at ETSU, said she believed her walk with the Lord was strengthened by her time at Beach Reach. “Personally, I have learned more about dependence on the Lord and dependence on my quiet time than ever before,” she said. “The truth is, we always need to depend on Him fully and fully surrender to Him and trust Him with everything. But when you’re here and experiencing all of the spiritual warfare and the highs, the lows, everything there is to it, there is no way to get through this week without fully depending on Him.”
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.”
Hudson said she would encourage any students — all students, in fact — to become involved in Beach Reach.
“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.” B&R