‘Beach Reach’ offers spring breakers rides, gospel conversations

When a group of college students told a restaurant owner in South Padre Island, Texas, what they were doing in town during their spring break mission trip this March, her face lit up. She told them that in 1996, she had been running from God when she accepted a Beach Reach ride. She thought “the last place God would be was in a van,” but that was exactly where she found Him. Today she is a Christ follower.

According to South Padre Island Beach Reach Coordinator Clayton Bullion, who is a staff member with Texas Baptist Student Ministries, student groups today are “reaping the benefits” from previous generations of college students who planted seeds during their spring breaks. “I like to say, ‘What happens on the island doesn’t stay on the island,’ and we saw the effects of that this year,” Bullion reports.

The concept of Beach Reach is simple: Spring breakers are offered a safe transport to their next destination on a van filled with other college students who engage them in gospel conversation during the complimentary ride. Over the course of three weeks in March each year, students from Baptist Collegiate Ministries across the country spend their own spring breaks in either South Padre Island or Panama City Beach, Fla., operating Beach Reach. With the blessing of local officials, they blanket the areas with business cards explaining how the service works, sharing the call center’s number, and an app to schedule the rides between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m.

Students engage in gospel conversations during van rides, offering prayer, and many college students pray to receive Christ.

“Beach Reach started in Panama City almost 30 years ago,” explains Coordinator Mark Whitt, who also serves as the Middle Tennessee State University Baptist Collegiate Ministry director. “The purpose is to share Christ with spring breakers who are often searching for something. We let them know that Jesus can fulfill everything they are looking for.”

The South Padre Beach Reach was started after Panama City’s, and, now that both ministry locations are established, each has strong partnerships with local police and officials who appreciate the annual assistance Beach Reach provides when so many college students flood their cities. Separate teams coordinate details for each Beach Reach site, including student housing and specific service roles for the college groups, which all arrive with their own transportation vans.

This was the first year University of South Carolina Baptist Collegiate Ministry students participated in Beach Reach. Director Adam Venters took 14 students in a rented van to Panama City Beach, where they served alongside teams from Tennessee, Georgia, Indiana, and Ohio. Venters explained that students are trained ahead of time on how to have gospel conversations, pray with riders, share the plan of salvation, and capture contact information for follow-up. Each team member riding in the van also has a role, including two who sit in “hot seats” that start conversations, and several who open doors or act as security.

Sarah, a quiet member of Venters’ team, had the goal to share the gospel more confidently at Beach Reach. Students have to make the most of the roughly 10-minute van rides, so Sarah started talking with one female rider by asking simple questions that led to a conversation. Before the rider exited, Sarah promised to pray for the things the girl had shared and for God to show her that He was real.

“It was a beautiful moment. Out of all the places in the world where God would be working in someone’s life, you wouldn’t think that it would happen while partying or going to clubs that you’d meet and talk with someone about Jesus,” Venters says of the ministry’s impact.

Whitt reports that during three weeks of the Beach Reach ministry in Panama City alone, they gave rides to 18,920 college students, prayed with 6,693 people, had 8,426 gospel conversations, and saw 191 people pray to receive Christ.

“There’s an image I have looking in the rearview mirror at one of our students praying with a young man who got a ride. She was so focused on praying with him,” Whitt recalls. “As he left, the young man looked at her and genuinely said, ‘Thank you.’ That image will never leave me.”

First Baptist Denton, Texas, College Pastor Jared Gregory led a group of 87 students from five Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex campuses to Panama City this year. Gregory also preached to the Beach Reach students during a mid-week worship time. As much as he values how his students can serve on location, Gregory continues to participate each year because of the excitement that Beach Reach generates in them to share their faith back home.

Each March, college ministries send teams to Panama City Beach and South Padre Island to provide complimentary van rides to spring breakers.

“When you have shared spiritual experiences like what we experience at Beach Reach, you also develop bonds with others on a level much deeper than just friendships. You begin to see the true depths and intimacy of biblical community as brothers and sisters in Christ. For us, this trip is great on so many levels,” Gregory says.

For his part, Whitt believes college campuses are one of the most strategic places for the Church. Calling Beach Reach a “marker opportunity” for many students, Whitt has lost count of the times he’s heard one say it was “literally the best week of my life.” It’s a perfect intersection of evangelism and discipleship for these students, who are taking the next step in their faith journey.

Will gave his life to Christ in the fall of 2022. He has prayed about a call to missions and is learning to share his faith, so he strategically went to Beach Reach before signing up for a longer-term summer missions appointment. His own BCM director says this is one of the best opportunities Will could have in his journey following Christ.

“Beach Reach normalizes your faith, because sharing your faith is a natural thing,” Venters explains. “People share about things all the time, but don’t always share their faith in the same natural way. People want to have conversations about things that matter, regardless of whether you’re religious or not.”

Whitt loves seeing students share their faith for the first time through Beach Reach, and how that experience can jumpstart a passion for evangelism. “Some students really embrace what that looks like in their lives, and experience that type of compassion first time. Through conversations, they are able to share what their hope in Christ is all about. Then they return to their own campus with an understanding of the urgency of the gospel. The same broken, hurting, and confused people at the beach are also on our campuses.”

— Julia Bell is a writer for South Carolina Baptist Convention Communications.