A year or two ago, I caught this term in one of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) annuals. The moment I saw it, I laughed out loud. Today, I’ll show you what Beach Reach is, some of its history, and why it’s a perfect example of the SBC’s goals and shortcomings.
(I apologize in advance if some of the numbers I’ll be throwing out sound repetitive. I wanted it all in one place.)
Every year, the SBC puts on an evangelism campaign aimed at college kids trying to enjoy their spring break holiday.1 They call it Beach Reach. Basically, hundreds of SBC college kids descend on a (usually) Florida beach to evangelize. They pester vacationers, offer free (cheap, non-nutritious) food to them, and run a shuttle service. All of this falls under the term “beach ministry.” They do all of this in order to make recipients feel obligated to listen to their preaching. To a very great extent, Beach Reach is about friendship evangelism.
And they’re very proud of manipulating their marks that way.
They’ve been doing this for years. Like, decades. It’s one of those weird little niche ministries that the SBC flings at the wall every year. It comes out of LifeWay, for the most part, which doesn’t surprise me at all.
You can find a writeup of this past year’s Beach Reach on page 178 of their 2018 Annual Report. The beach they traditionally target is Panama City Beach, a long-time favorite of college students. Though some hotels note that their business has been dropping over the years (especially after some recent bans went into effect limiting alcohol sales and consumption), the city’s official tourist site sounds hopping. One student-oriented information site online says that “hundreds of thousands of party-hungry Spring Breakers” head there every year.
I can well imagine that to SBC leaders, Panama City Beach must look like a perfect target-rich environment. They’ve been desperate for years to reverse their evangelical churn rate with young people–and look at all those young people, almost all of them not SBC members, all gathered together right there in one place!
Last Year’s Beach Reach.
Considering the number of people the SBC flings at Beach Reach, its effectiveness ranges from not a lot to OMG why are you wasting this much money and labor. In other words, it runs about the same as any other short-term missions event.
In 2017 (recounted in the 2018 report), 900 college students, dozens of churches, and who even knows how many local ministry groups focused on one town in Florida for one solid week. They distributed–for free, meaning at their own cost–daily pancake feeds, shuttle vans, and who knows how many materials to people trying to have a nice vacation week.
In all of that time, with all of those volunteers, and all of those resources, they gained “51 decisions of salvation” from the students they pestered.
Now, a decision of salvation is solid Christianese. It means absolutely nothing. Sometimes it means that someone signed a card saying that they will totally convert and become Christian. At other times, it means someone recited the Sinner’s Prayer, which is a canned prayer that Southern Baptists think is a magic spell they can chant to avoid Hell.
At all times, whoever makes a decision of salvation can revoke it, obviously. We don’t know how many of these kids went home and made tracks to their local church to become lifelong, dues-paying members. The SBC doesn’t appear to track them. Their metric begins and ends with the mere initial decision–which might be made under feelings of obligation, by a drunk or high person who can’t actually consent and will forget all about that “decision” later, or out of a surfeit of emotion that fades.
And with all of that in mind, with all of the college kids right there, the SBC only managed to ensnare 51 of them.
The Event’s Early History.
In the 1986 and 1987 Annual Reports, I first saw Beach Reach mentioned. At first the SBC called it Pioneer Penetration, and no, I am not kidding. In 1987, the SBC changed the name to Operation Penetration, and no, still not kidding. It drops off the radar for the most part till 1997, with only a brief mention in 1994.
1997: 3 sites, kids from 17 states, 47 churches, 811 participants, 80 conversions. Expansion planned: 10 sites, more dates (p. 226).
1998: n/a, not even a mention. But on p. 156, we see talk of a future Daytona Beach evangelistic outreach to specifically African-Americans. The effort’s renamed “Beach Party” and it’s Florida Baptists’ game. No numbers given.
1999: Still the future home of the Florida Baptists’ “African-American Beach Reach.” No numbers (p. 252).
2003: Starts heating up (p. 160). Someone taught the SBC how to put up a website, so BeachReach (no space between) suddenly possesses a website. This year, we see “up to 25 BeachReachers” (oh for the love of orange kittens, PLEASE let that be the only time the SBC uses that term) “challenged to share the message of Christ in Panama City, Florida.” They don’t offer up a lot of concrete numbers, but they do tell us that 8361 Spring Break partiers got van rides and almost 12,000 people ate free pancakes.
Meanwhile, the website received 7500 hits, with over 5200 people using it “to pray” (we are not told how many of the hits are unique or how exactly a website helps with prayer). The report tells us as well that out of all of that effort, they scored 106 conversions and 23 rededications. They don’t tell us how many of those came from the digital side of the evangelism.
2004: Nothing, but they do reference the previous year’s effort and talk up the one they want to do the next year (p. 176).
2005: They don’t talk about Beach Reach, but they must have done something, because we see on p. 205 that “more than 75 students prayed to receive Jesus as Savior.” P. 213 specifically puts BeachReach (oh they’re using that single word again) on the same shelf as a variety of other missionary efforts aimed at young people. (But the 2005 LifeWay calendar does list 3 weeks for it.)
(Also, I caught this ROFL comment on p. 125: “We discovered at First Baptist Daytona Beach we could double our baptisms by doubling our effort.” Ya don’t say?)
The Event’s More Recent History.
2006: We’re told that 2005 netted them “more than 100 students,” but again, nothing else. BTW, remember that 2006 represents the absolute height of fundagelical power. The sheer rah-rah level in this report is so astronomically high that it should not be read without appropriate eye protection.
2012: Someone raised a motion to move Beach Reach (ah, back to two words) to the North American Mission Board (NAMB) (p. 177). The Powers That Be firmly rejected the idea because LifeWay is all about da kids. Otherwise, no stats offered.
2014: Possibly as a reaction to the power shift in 2012, suddenly we get a few numbers! “Over 700” SBC students participated throughout the two weeks of operation. With that manpower, they got 78 conversions. LifeWay talked up expanding another week and adding more churches and ministries to their partner list for the following year (p. 170).
2015: Repeat of stats from 2014, for some reason (p. 196). I wondered briefly if I’d opened two windows of the 2014 report. Apparently the third week did get added though. Otherwise, no 2015 stats. (Did they think we wouldn’t notice?)
2016: We finally get the 2015 stats (p. 176). Now we see that in 2015, 750 volunteers and leaders. Described as “intense” again. Over two weeks, they got 70 conversions and “hundreds of gospel conversations,” which is Christianese. It simply means a painfully-direct recruitment attempt. It also means that most of the volunteers did not have any “gospel conversations” at all. No stats for 2016 though.
2017: We get 2016 stats (p. 179). 700 volunteers showed up for this “intense” experience. 65 conversions. Beach Reach is now over 25 years old.
And as we saw in 2018, despite how “intense” the event is, the numbers only deteriorated further in 2017.
They Misspelled “Ineffective.”
Bear in mind, Beach Reach still happened on those other years. It just didn’t get into the reports. We can infer that LifeWay only received a certain amount of column inches, so to speak, to discuss their year in the SBC Annual Report. If Beach Reach had been more successful, chances are the editor of LifeWay’s report would have included it.
The program began as a fairly small side niche with just a couple hundred volunteers. Starting around 1997, we began seeing the number of volunteers range from 700-750 consistently every year, then spiking to 900. But conversions do not keep pace with those swelling volunteer numbers. In 2003 through 2005, we have 106, 75, and 100 conversions respectively. Then for years the SBC provides no success figures. But in 2014 and onward, the conversions drop steadily: 78, 70, 65, and finally 51.
One thing becomes glaringly apparent as I look through these numbers. I’m not a statistician, but Beach Reach sure sounds to me like a shockingly ineffective misuse of resources–if the goal is to convert people.
Something Else Might Be Happening Here.
Beach Reach is a short-term mission trip. Christians use that term to distinguish those shorter-term trips from regular mission trips that might last for years. A regular mission trip uses semi-pro or professional missionaries who train, ideally learn at least a little of the language, and go to their destination intending to live there for a while and be part of their local communities. They receive sponsorship from a group or church, which allows them to (barely) survive.
In short term mission trips, total amateurs–usually very young people, like teens or college students–go to their destination for just a little while, like a week (or weekend) or month. They probably won’t know anything of the language, get housed in dorms or the like, and interact with the locals in brief, well-supervised bursts. Short term missionaries often seek to accomplish a specific goal, like digging wells or painting buildings, which the people living there could easily do. And then they go home with tons of selfies and pictures to put on their college applications or resumes–and to put up on their social media.
Oh, and short term missionaries pay their own way. Some fundraise; others just take family donations. Short term missions is a huge, mega-million-dollar enterprise. Regular missionaries wish they could enjoy resources like that.
The goals of these two types of mission trips could hardly be more different, as well. A long term missionary seeks to make sales by both direct sales pitches and indirect Jesus Aura evangelizing. Often they end up trying to help the local people there with their problems–like poverty, hunger, or other social ills–though their first focus will always be on recruitment and sales.
But something else entirely is going on with a short term mission trip.
An Unstated Purpose.
A short-term mission trip will not convert many people–if any at all. And it doesn’t do much good in tangible terms. Again, the many millions (if not billions) of dollars that these young people and their families pour into these trips could be spent so much better elsewhere, if that were the goal. In terms of recruitment, they fall down there too.
But Christians keep pushing short term mission trips. Sometimes we can easily tell what the goal is–like in most of these mission trips, obviously the goal is to enrich the businesses putting these trip packages together! But other times, it’s not so obvious.
Beach Reach might be technically a short term mission gig, but it’s a hopeless, convoluted mess. It suffers from poorly-defined goals, bizarre tactics, whiplash-inducing shifts in focus and direction, and a consistent shortfall regarding results. And yet we saw how–at least once–LifeWay clung vehemently to their pet project when someone suggested taking it off their plate.
Either LifeWay–and by extension the SBC itself–is as daft as a brush, which is possible, or the real goal is not the stated goal.
Finding costs associated with Beach Reach proved difficult. In 2014, registration ran between USD$99 and $150 for one week of volunteering. I’m guessing it isn’t much more now. Though some might bristle (rightly so, I’d reckon) at the idea of paying to volunteer, by SBC standards the cost isn’t egregiously high. Nor could I find out how much money associated churches and ministries ponied up, though I imagine vans and pancake mix aren’t cheap. Volunteers likely paid for their own lodging and food for the trip. So the SBC probably doesn’t make a butt-ton of money on the front end. They probably ain’t in this for the money.
Finding the Reward.
We may need to look to some less-easily-discerned rewards, when we consider why the SBC loves Beach Reach like it does.
In short term mission trips, often the reward comes in the form of young people who are now way more fervent and gung-ho than before their trip. Many Christian leaders think that a young person who goes on at least one short term mission trip is more likely to remain Christian for the long haul.
Indeed, in 2006 we see a guy who says he’s been involved in short term mission leadership since 1978 defending the practice. Mostly, Paul Borthwick thinks short term mission trips mostly benefit the young people taking them.
By 2012 or so, another Christian painstakingly points out all the ways that foreign pastors snooker Americans and all the ways that these trips are a total waste of resources, but in the end proves to be a coward who can’t bring herself to dissuade parents from wasting those resources. She gamely concludes that maybe her imaginary friend in the ceiling will somehow enrich the kids’ lives anyway.
And something similar may be going on with Beach Reach.
The Real Reward.
The SBC may well be hoping that Beach Reach gets young people completely fired up for Jesus. More to the point, they may be hoping to get their volunteers fired up for the SBC in particular.
Beach Reach sounds like a mess of an event every year as it is, and I can’t help thinking that the chaos is intentional. As P.J. O’Rourke observed in his brilliant book The Bachelor Home Companion, “If you keep people busy and confused, they’re liable to think they’re having fun.”
If those volunteers go home giddy and bubbling about the week they had at Beach Reach, then they will likely also think fondly of the SBC–and of Lifeway, even more particularly–for providing this event. In most of the advertising copy for the event, I saw LifeWay’s name attached to it. This may be a weird attempt at marketing: strengthening the brand, creating lifelong customers.
Since that same thinking also appears to inform the lukewarm, half-hearted support Christian leaders offer for short term mission trips generally, it seems like a good explanation for why so many churches, ministries, and parents are willing to send so many volunteers through so much chaos (and danger, in that Galveston case!) for so small of a return.
The Real Backfire.
Remember how LifeWay likes to describe Beach Reach as “intense?” Here’s the ad copy they put into the 2018 SBC Annual Report (p. 178):
The first two weeks of March 2017 saw more than 900 college students from churches and collegiate ministries across the U.S. converge in Panama City Beach, Florida, for one of the most intense and challenging experiences provided by LifeWay.
They LOVE that phrasing about intensity and challenge. If you saw some of the earlier links above about Beach Reach, typically they involve very dramatic episodes involving guns, drinking, and other scary-sounding situations. The SBC really, really, really would like Southern Baptists to see Beach Reach as a hyperdramatic, supernaturally-charged mission field.
For some of the students who attend, it might well be “the most intense and challenging experiences provided by LifeWay.” For others, it might well be a tedious slog. In 2017, 900 students working together brought in 51 conversions. That indicates a truly abysmal success rate of about 5%, or 45 students out of those 900 succeeding. And we’re assuming that each successful student only bagsied one gullible mark, which is hugely unlikely. Most volunteers on these trips will probably not be natural-born salespeople.
I can’t speak for those other 850ish volunteers, but I do know that on the very few occasions I participated in outreach events with my friends, I sure did not feel elated to come home with no notches on my Bible cover (so to speak–though this was actual slang I heard people use). Evangelism made me feel uncomfortable every time. Failure only compounded my discomfort.
And more Beach Reach volunteers are failing than ever before.
The cosmic irony for the SBC is that they keep signing up more and more young people for Beach Reach, but their most dearly-held and idolized metrics keep plummeting. Young people, in particular, continue to flee the embattled denomination. And they capture fewer and fewer recruitments every year, which speaks to the ever-growing emotional wisdom of young people generally. Friendship evangelism just doesn’t succeed like it used to.
The SBC desperately needs a new marketing scheme. But what they have is a 25-year-old gimmick that barely worked at the very greatest height of their cultural clout.
So–more good news, I guess, for the rest of us? I just got a real kick out of this whole thing, and hoped you would too. Sometimes you’ve just got to laugh.
NEXT UP: One word: ACCOUNTABILLIBUDDIES. Yes, it’s a thing (just named something a bit different). And yes, it is daffy beyond all reasoning. After that, we dive into the weird and wacky world of Christian snake oil remedies. See you soon!
1 Every year, most American colleges give students a week-long break in the middle of their second semester. They call this week Spring Break. It’s usually a time of great debauchery and fun-in-the-sun. Winter Break usually runs from around Christmas to just after New Year’s Day. Winter Break tends to be a little more about catching up with family and old friends–or about going to warm climates for more debauchery and fun-in-the-sun. The lesson here: You can count on fundagelicals to wreck everything they can get their clammy little hands on. (Back to the post!)
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