PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (BP)–The young man showed up an hour early at the Panama City Beach bowling alley and shyly said he had come for the free pancake breakfast.
Tired-looking and a bit disheveled, he sat slouched against the building, squinting in the rising Florida sun and eying the laughing, bustling volunteers flipping pancakes and preparing for the day’s visitors.
Like most kids on spring break in Panama City Beach, the young man had stories that began to spill out when he was engaged by students — students on mission with BeachReach.
His friends were in constant party mode. He had been in fights. He came from a broken home. He was tired of it all. He had remembered receiving a card on the beach advertising a free pancake breakfast at the bowling alley and had walked four miles that morning to get there.
When thousands of college students and young adults converge on America’s beaches every spring break, local residents and anyone else not associated with the party scene will stay away from the beaches until the raucous festivities run their course.
But for nearly 15 years BeachReach, a ministry of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, has been a place for collegiate ministry groups to engage in a unique mission experience of combining service with hands-on evangelism.
During each of the two weeks of spring break in 2011, about 450 college students from all over the nation converged on Panama City Beach for the purpose of ministering to their peers.
“BeachReach is such a frontline ministry,” said Sarah Edwards, part of LifeWay’s training and events staff and coordinator of BeachReach. “It’s one of LifeWay’s best events because we’re mobilizing college students by the thousands, immersing them in a ministry laboratory among their peers who aren’t living for Christ and giving them an opportunity to impact their peers with the love and compassion of Jesus.”
The process is straightforward. Each morning, students serve free pancakes cooked up on a Georgia Baptist disaster relief mobile kitchen and engage their peers in friendly, pointed conversation that often leads to topics such as grace, hope, forgiveness, self-worth and redemption.
As night falls, Panama City Beach puts on its other skin and the main beach road converts into one noisy, pulsating party as college students meet at dance clubs and bars after a day of soaking in the sun.
For the BeachReachers, the nighttime is when their action begins as well. After a time of corporate worship and inspiring teaching, groups divide into a variety of strategic assignments.
Some groups walk the strip to prayerwalk and look for opportunities to engage people in conversation. Another group works a high-tech command center, taking calls from spring breakers looking for rides. The bulk of the BeachReachers divide into their 15-passenger vans to provide spring breakers a free and safe ride during the evening.
When the van doors open, the BeachReachers have to be ready for anything.
“You get two types of people getting on the vans at night — those who are all excited about getting to a party and then there are those girls who are scared and see the van as a safe haven,” said Rachael Moore, who went to BeachReach for the first time four years ago as a student at Texas A&M University. This year she returned as a collegiate leader of a group of 63 students from First Baptist Church in Bryan, Texas.
“It can be scary,” Moore said. “They’ve come to the beach with these dreams of fun partying with no parental distraction, but then they realize that it’s not what they came expecting. It breaks your heart to see that, but that’s why we need to be here.”
Cruising slowly down the main drag one night, Moore’s Texas A&M teammates prayed fervently that they would have the opportunity to share Christ’s love in a clear, relevant way with their passengers.
“This type of ministry and outreach involves an intense amount of spiritual warfare,” said Garrett Milner, a ministry associate in the First Baptist Bryan college department. “The first night we go out, you can see our students are a bit apprehensive. But all it takes is that first conversation. By the end of the week they can’t wait to get in the vans at night for the ride ministry.”
Milner’s wife of eight months, Leigh, sat beside him serving as navigator and receiving command center calls relaying pickup instructions. Throughout the night, Leigh multitasked with her cell phone, sending prayer requests via text messages that were being shown in real-time in the prayer room.
In the back of the van, BeachReacher Josh Tual, a junior at Texas A&M, said the confines of the van are disarming.
“No matter what they’re like when they climb in the van — happy, mad or drunk — you can see that so many of these students out here are feeling insecure, lost and lonely,” Tual said. “Most are open to sharing with us and appreciate that we are actually interested in spending a few minutes climbing into their story.
“It’s very real to me that we only have a few minutes, so the intentionality of presenting Jesus in a real way is so important,” he said.
Edwards said that while BeachReach “is such a successful and rewarding event for LifeWay because of the planning and participation, the significant thing is so beyond what we can do. It really is a movement of God.”
Mark Mangrem, pastor of Connect Church in Arlington, Texas, and speaker for both weeks of BeachReach, has been going to BeachReach for 12 years, even though his first year was supposed to be his last.
“I had just become student pastor at a church. The college group was scheduled to go to BeachReach, but I had my own ideas for what we should do,” Mangrem recounted. “But since it was too late to cancel, we went ahead and came but with the understanding that I would be changing the missions focus the next year.
“God did a major work in me at BeachReach,” he said. “He got me out of my comfort zone and gave me a heart for lost people that I did not have before. As a result of our participation, our student ministry just exploded, and I’ve been back ever since.”
The best byproduct of BeachReach, Mangrem said, is that students return to their campuses with a sense of urgency to share the Gospel on their campuses. He even planted a church in 2003 based on the approach taught at BeachReach.
“It’s all about the intentionality of reaching lost people,” he said. “The people who had been to BeachReach before who helped plant the church just got it. It clicked, and that is our approach at church. BeachReach is about an intentional investment with the Gospel.”
Russ Rankin is manager of editorial services for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.