Article Jun 19, 2017

The power of influence: The church, the gospel and cultural transformation

I was born and raised in Panama City, Fla. Like most teenagers, I spent my summers working at mini-golf venues and condominiums along the World’s Most Beautiful Beaches. I was fresh out of high school when MTV was pushed out of Daytona Beach because of how crazy things had gotten; and Panama City Beach welcomed them with open arms.

Fast forward to 2014. Spring break on Panama City Beach was now world-famous for being a drunken, immoral, out-of-control party. A news network did a week-long expose in the spring of 2014, and again in 2015, that documented it all. The party outgrew both law enforcement and infrastructure (roads, parking, restrooms). The community, amid the horrid publicity (much of which was actually true), was at a crossroads. The debate was rather contentious, as small-town public hearings can be, especially where $400–500 million in annual spring break revenue hung in the balance.

Taking a stand

As a 40-year-old pastor of a Southern Baptist church, I waded into the middle of the political battle. I wanted to do anything but go out there, but my spiritual convictions would not let me leave it alone. So I took the lead on behalf of Jesus Christ and the faith community and stood alongside law enforcement and a number of concerned property owners against spring break as it currently stood.

I had no clue what I was doing. I showed up at the first city council meeting in my best suit, carrying my Bible, just like Linus carries his security blanket. With my heart beating out of my chest and my hands shaking, I stepped up to express my concern. What I learned next was shocking. Our local politicians had heard very little from local church leaders on this or any other issue. However, those same political leaders heard weekly, if not daily, from business owners expressing their feelings about the necessity of spring break and the dollars it generated.

Even more disheartening was the group of so-called Christian folks who totally disconnected their faith from their practices in life and in business. But the local politicians were willing to listen. I was amazed at the respect with which the political and business leaders treated me as I discussed the dangers of sexual immorality and drunkenness with them humbly and respectfully in public meetings, behind closed doors and via e-mail.

Being a witness

By the spring of 2015, nothing had changed. So God prepared the way for churches of various denominations to come together to serve and witness on our own mission field. We coordinated groups to go onto the sandy beaches and pass out water bottles, provide a sober adult presence and be a physical reminder of a Holy God. Along with the water, we gave them a small card with safety information on one side and the gospel on the other. We encouraged as many as we could about Christ and even prayed with some. Some students were heartbroken as they talked with us because we reminded them of their commitment to love and serve Jesus and/or their parents, pastor or church back home. I quickly discovered that many of the beach goers had tattoos of crosses, crowns of thorns and Scripture. This observation became a great tool for getting the students to stop and actually talk about the spiritual significance of their ink. It was real; it was messy; and I believe it was exactly what Jesus would have done.

Our group interacted with 18,000 people during that three-week period in March. It was a great experience for all of the volunteers, many of whom got to share their faith in what were some very difficult conditions. It was also a unifying experience as the body of Christ from 13 different churches of various denominations served alongside one another for the cause of Christ. The group also found a great partner with NAMB’s Beach Reach efforts, which has come to Panama City Beach every spring for more than a decade to share the gospel while providing free van rides all night and free pancakes every morning for the spring breakers.

Seeing transformation

Panama City Beach pulled the plug on the party at the end of March 2015. After another season of conflicted public debate, and in the face of a few business leaders who were literally making millions during spring break, both the city and county did the right thing. They outlawed alcohol on the sandy beaches and passed other ordinances to tame the crowds during the month of March.

March 2017 has found the beaches extremely quiet, comparatively. Tsidkrew, as we called the multi-denominational ministry effort, was not viable. Not because we weren’t willing, but because the numbers didn’t warrant our presence. Those looking for drunkenness and sexual immorality have gone elsewhere. For the most part, businesses have turned the page and are looking for family-friendly options during the month of March. In 2016, Panama City Beach set records for business every month except March. Infrastructure is being built all over the area to keep up with the growth. City and county leaders now discourage the use of the term “spring break” on Panama City Beach because it reminds of a past that has been released for a better, more family-friendly tomorrow.

If the news networks came today, they would find a city retooling for coming economic growth centered on families, youth athletic events and church groups. They would find an area ripe for new business. Panama City Beach has the world’s most beautiful beaches; and they are open for business to families in March and all year long. I’m so proud of my hometown and the new course it’s charting.

As for the Church in the Panama City Beach area, new partnerships have bloomed as other ministry needs have arisen in our area. There are 22 churches and ministries partnering with each other and local schools to provide 1600 students with a weekly bag of food to get them through the weekend. And a school mentoring initiative is next on the horizon. In addition, there is great potential of doing more together to reach the 10 million people who visit our beautiful city throughout the year with the gospel.

The message in this story is simple: Don’t underestimate the power of your influence and the influence of God’s people. Be sincere, humble and consistent in your pursuit of righteous change. Local leaders all around you need to be undergirded and encouraged by Christians in their communities. I believe they’re looking for people they can trust, will tell them the truth in love and have one agenda—the good of the community under God. God has called me to be one of those in my town, and I hope my story will encourage you to engage in your city and community for his glory.