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BeachReach shows collegians ‘what a good time really is’

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (BP)–Waves roll in and lap gently at beer cans scattered for miles along the condominium-lined beach. Music blares as scantily clad college students pour alcohol into funnels while other students chug it through a connected plastic tube. The idea is to get as drunk as possible as quickly as possible. It’s obviously worked for the many passed out on or near their beach towels. It’s just 2:30 p.m.

Stepping over and around the cans and people is Julio Bonfe, a sophomore cadet at the United States Military Academy, and a couple of his classmates.

“Hey, are you guys going out to party tonight?” he asks a group, getting a resounding affirmative response. “Well,” Bonfe says, “take this card with you and give us a call and we’ll come get you. We’re also serving free pancakes in the morning all this week.”

Bonfe was one of 800-plus collegians who came to Panama City Beach, Fla., over a three-week period to participate in BeachReach, a ministry of LifeWay Christian Resources focused on college students who have come here for spring break. The BeachReachers share the Gospel with their partying peers and serve them through offering free van rides and daily pancake breakfasts. More than 8,000 rides were provided and 50,000-plus pancakes served while the Gospel was shared countless times.

“It would be hard to say how many times the Gospel has been shared but we know it is considerable,” said Angel Ellis, LifeWay’s coordinator for BeachReach. “The students have lots of conversations in vans and at the pancake breakfasts. … Walls between two complete strangers simply seem to crumble over a plate of pancakes and through providing a ride to someone. As a result, the Gospel of Christ is presented.”

The student volunteers gather the names and information about the ones they talk with, “and [we] get [the names] back to a local campus minister,” Ellis said. “Many times we have a student group here from the same college, so we can get them connected. We also try to get them connected with a local church in their city as well.”

The BeachReach ministry is more than 10 years old but has grown significantly in the past four years. Part of that is due to how heavily marketed spring break is and how intensely locations like Panama City Beach and South Padre Island, Texas, cater to the party scene on college campuses. But with the increase in partiers has come an increase in their peers ready to minister.

“We believe this is an important ministry because Jesus was consistently with sinners,” Ellis said. “He told the church leaders at the time that it is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. The students that come here and party need to hear the Gospel. I love seeing Jesus becoming alive in the lives of individuals. He is our life and our hope.”

There are three consecutive weeks of BeachReach (March 1-21 this year). Although spring break is usually considered a holiday for students, the schedule during the week can hardly be considered leisurely for the volunteers. They and their adult ministers arrive Saturday, often after 12-plus hours of driving (students came this year from as far away as Utah and New York). There’s a meal, a worship service, then students hit the streets at 9 p.m. to prayerwalk the areas along the main strip where they’ll be sharing the Gospel and giving rides the rest of the week.

There is training Sunday morning that covers everything from evangelism to helping inebriated people in and out of vans. Sunday afternoon students return to the strip and the beach, making initial contact with partiers, distributing cards with the van ride telephone number and information about the daily pancake breakfast. They take to the streets Sunday night at 9, after worship. They’ll repeat the evening schedule every night through Thursday, staying out until 2 a.m. The pancake breakfast is from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. at a local bowling ally.

“It is really an intense time of witnessing,” said Mark Mangrem, pastor of Connect Church in Arlington, Texas, and the nightly speaker during the third week. “The really cool thing about BeachReach is that … many of them have never shared their faith and Sunday and Monday are a bit awkward for them, but by the end of Thursday night it has gotten much more natural and they are looking for those opportunities.

“This is all reproducible, Mangrem added. “When these students return to their campuses they know how to approach someone with the Gospel and know how they can minister to their peers. I love hearing the stories how this [BeachReach experience] has transformed them.”

Makenzie Shewcraft, 24, associate campus minister at Murray State University in Kentucky, would concur. Last year’s BeachReach experience rocked Shewcraft’s sheltered world.

“The party scene is way out of my comfort zone,” she said. “I had a really hard time loving college students in this lifestyle while as a student and last year in my first year as a campus minister. It was a big step for me to come here last year. But God showed me they are dealing with sin, just like everybody else, and the only thing that is going to change that is if somebody shares Jesus with them.”

Ellis believes BeachReach ultimately equips students to live a biblical mandate. “In 1 Peter 3:15 it says to always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have within you,” she said. “The avenues of service we provide through van rides and pancake breakfasts do not negate the responsibility to pursue conversations that lead to presenting the Gospel. We want to remove barriers to begin conversations and that can take place anywhere.”

Lewis Hudson came prepared for just that. As the sophomore Army cadet prayerwalked the strip Saturday night with classmates before the week began, he anticipated the beer cans, blaring music, and the nearly naked and passed-out college students.

“Lord, we want them to know that satisfaction in life only comes through You,” Hudson prayed. “We want them to know what a good time really is and we ask You to give us opportunities to share that with them.”

Louis, along with the several hundred other BeachReach ministers, spent the rest of the week living out that prayer.
Chris Turner is media relations manager for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.