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

June 19, 2017

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.

Steve Taylor

Steve Taylor is the pastor of Emerald Coast Fellowship in Panama City, Florida.  Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24