There is a cloud over Tom's Spring Break, and it's not the meteorological one giving the crowds of college-age revelers some temporary relief from the sun beating down on Panama City Beach, Florida. It's the girl he met at a bar last night when he and his buddies went on the prowl.
They slept together, and now he can't seem to get rid of her. She's hovering almost shyly on the sand nearby as he attacks a cooler full of beer with his friends. "You're not trying to find a girlfriend down here," he objects with an irritated sigh as he rolls a cold can across his forehead. "You're looking for bodies. Prospects."
Drinking partner Tony agrees and offers some advice for successful "hooking up"--no-commitment sex with a willing partner whose only required quality seems to be a pulse. "The key is staying up late. The later you stay up, the more drunk they are...by the end of the evening everybody wants the same thing."
Such a calculated approach to hard partying is not limited to the guys from Iowa State University. A Frisbee throw down the beach, Heather and Nicki from Kentucky detail how they are following a basic but nutritious diet.
They are student nurses, they explain, so they know about these things. Crackers and peanut butter for the week saves most of their money for booze.
"We don't really get dog-faced, falling-down drunk," Heather demurs. Pause. "Well, I guess I did last night."
This is not the innocent, fun-in-the-sun Spring Break immortalized in 1960s beach movies such as Where the Boys Are. Adults who once thought Spin The Bottle was daring are not aware that in the modern equivalent of the game, players have to drain the bottle first, and they expect more than a quick kiss.
Most parents simply don't have a clue what is going on down at the beach, observes Brian between chugs of Budweiser.
"They think we are just having a good time with a few friends. They don't know anything about hooking up or drinking from noon until 5 in the morning. They'd be amazed if they actually knew."
The unaware need only tune in to MTV to be brought soberingly up to date. The channel devotes hours of broadcast time each Spring Break season to raucous beach party games and peekaboo video diary accounts of young vacationers' amorous and alcoholic adventures.
An MTV show this year reported that spring-breakers consume between 10 and 18 drinks a day during their weeklong fling. Perhaps not surprisingly, the same program also noted that spring-breakers spend more on their vacation than they do on textbooks throughout the rest of the year.
One MTV presenter has crowed that the network's annual coverage has "helped transform a mere college getaway into a nationwide celebration of hedonism." A hotel representative cheerfully told The Travel Channel that its young guests were there to "lose all their inhibitions and leave their morals at the door." In a less congratulatory tone, the makers of a Spring Break documentary described the rite of passage as "[an] utter wasteland."
"SOS syndrome," comments police officer Brian Bradshaw during a night shift among the 600,000 spring-breakers who are visiting Panama City Beach's famed Gulf Coast white sands this year. "Stuck On 'Stupid'...kids down here on Mommy and Daddy's money, they do some of the most crazy things you wouldn't believe," he says.
Patrolling the beachfront strip along which the youngsters stroll and cruise until the early hours, his part-principal, part-big brother routine keeps most of them amiable. But he gets tough when he needs to. In a few hours he has made an arrest for underage drinking, ticketed several motorists for traffic violations, drawn a gun to break up a serious beating and waded into another melee to end it.
"You come on vacation and leave on probation, huh?" he asks of handcuffed Aaron.
The young street fighter's court appearance will disprove the spring-breakers' carefree mantra that "Whatever happens in Panama City Beach"--or other popular destinations such as Daytona Beach, Florida; South Padre Island, Texas; Lake Havasu, Arizona; Cancun, Mexico--"stays there."
So does the spike in inquiries at crisis pregnancy clinics, noted by Mimi Every, who directs a counseling center in Durham, North Carolina, and the ripple of sexually transmitted diseases. One study found while 64 percent of spring-breakers claim at least one sexual encounter during their week, less than half practice safe sex--despite an abundance of free condoms among the goodies being passed out by the marketers who see Spring Break as prime sales time.
Visiting students pour an estimated $30 million into the Panama City Beach economy alone--most of it from a bottle. Beyond the legal exchanges, it's fairly easy to get a fake ID that will pass muster in a crowded bar, while pills and pot are readily available despite the best efforts of police drug squads.
"It's all about having fun," Heather offers by way of explanation of the Spring Break lure. "Everybody's really friendly, getting drunk...it suspends reality."
For some, that loss of touch with the real world has consequences even beyond remorse, unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Each year several inebriated students try to climb between hotel room balconies, with tragic results.
Such events prompted the American Medical Association to comment: "Spring Break has become a dangerous activity that gets worse every year." Many schools are concerned enough about what goes on to issue safety tips to students heading off for the sun. Bracing themselves for the wild arrivals, many hotels take on extra security personnel and even demand a deposit against trashing of rooms.
Not that all students are dead set on decadence, of course. Drew Hunter's Bacchus & Gamma Peer Education Network, which promotes student safety issues, collected a million cards signed by students pledging to be sensible on their break this year. Then there is the growing Alternative Spring Break movement that involves students in everything from cultural study tours to inner-city work programs.
But an estimated 1.5 million students or more head for the sun each year. "And that's a huge part of the student culture," observes student ministry leader Curt Harlow of Chi Alpha Campus Ministries, who adds that MTV spreads its Spring Break message to many more who don't hit the sands, normalizing the wild behavior for even those who don't go.
So while locals breathe a sigh of relief--and count their profits--when Spring Break is over, it would be a mistake to dismiss the wild goings-on as a seasonal blip of youthful excess not to be taken too seriously, an annual student rite disconnected from the rest of the campus year.
What happens at Spring Break "matters a ton," says Chris Willard, who has been involved in springtime ministry outreaches at the beach for almost 20 years. "It reflects the frontier, perhaps, of where life on college campuses is today--and that should be a concern," he says.
Those involved in year-round student ministry are split over whether Spring Break is markedly different from the rest of the campus year. Some say that spring-breakers are simply more extreme than they are back home because they don't have assignments or classes to cramp their style.
Others think the event provides an opportunity for students who normally wouldn't dream of going wild to do so. Panama City Beach's deputy chief of police David Humphreys sums it up in the closest thing to a math lesson most spring-breakers will get in their week: distance from home plus alcohol equals craziness.
But whether Spring Break is normal life supersized or just a chance to kick over the traces, student ministry leaders agree that behind the shocking actions, Spring Break reveals even more disturbing attitudes.
"Spring Break is the practical manifestation of moral relativism," says Harlow, a longtime student minister with the Assemblies of God whose forthright counsel to students has included the warning that "they don't make a condom big enough to cover your heart."
"Spring Break dramatizes what is already there in the lives of students on campus," says Mike Tilley, a Campus Crusade for Christ veteran. "They are without a moral compass. Secular universities are bastions of moral relativism."
The grip that the party culture has on many campuses was underscored earlier this year in two disturbing studies that lent weight to Harlow's contention that "every single campus has more drinking on it than most people are willing to admit."
The College Alcohol Survey found an increase in the number of binge-drinking students--guys drinking five or more drinks in a row, girls four or more. Health experts expressed concern at how many more young women were starting to drink hard, too.
The Task Force on College Drinking linked 1,400 student deaths each year to alcohol. It also said drinking plays a part annually in 70,000 sexual assaults or date rapes and 600,000 assaults.
The findings prompted calls for tougher action by schools to curb on-campus drinking. But one Florida school that cracked down on campus found that nearby bar owners simply started running free shuttle services for students in order to cash in on the extra business.
Concern is not limited to secular schools. During the summer, the United Methodist Church sponsored a national three-day conference on "this critical campus and societal issue" of alcohol use and abuse by students, with a close look at its own colleges.
But there is another kind of party going on in the Spring Break scene. As the night-time cruisers hoot and holler outside at Panama City Beach girls baring their breasts Mardi Gras-style for plastic beads, several hundred young men and women are standing in a resort meeting room as an eight-piece band leads them in singing "Shout to the Lord."
Over the course of four weeks some 1,500 Campus Crusade for Christ participants are taking part in weeklong "Big Break" outreaches. In other parts of the resort and at other Spring Break destinations, Baptist, Assemblies of God, Jews for Jesus and local church groups are also looking to share the gospel.
There is surprising openness, which increases along with the sunburn and hangovers as the week goes by.
"It's a great place to reach them," says Sarah Sommer, a Campus Crusade staffer at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. "They have these high expectations that the party scene can't fill, and a lot of them probably go home disappointed. By the second or third day, a lot of them are starting to realize it's not that great.
"They have hangovers, and they are just sitting there on the beach--it's not like they don't have time to talk. A lot of them are pretty relaxed--they are more open than they might be back home. They are realizing that the party scene isn't as great as they thought it would be, so they are open to look at what we have to say about God."
Heather Harper, 21, chats with several beachside sunbathers as rap music booms from the bump-and-grind bikini contest on the stage not far away. A former party girl herself who drifted from her Christian roots for a time, the Iowa State senior sees the spring-breakers as not really sure of what they are looking for "so alcohol is filling. But I want them to be filled with the Holy Spirit."
After a few minutes' conversation, one of the girls asks Harper: "Can we talk about something else now? I just don't think I should be drinking beer and talking about God."
Harper prays for the drinker's continued conviction as she walks on down the beach--as does the group meeting a well-oiled Joe, who cheerily supplies the three-letter-word answer for the game they are inviting passers-by to play. "S-I-N," he spells out, "'Sin!'" He sways and raises his bottle in salute: "I'm sinning right now!"
Elsewhere a backslidden Christian comes to his senses, penitently pours out his beer and decides to head home the next morning. A girl prays to receive Christ and asks the young evangelists to take and destroy all her Wiccan jewelry and paraphernalia.
Competing with the free alcohol and free condoms, the young evangelists hand out free CDs, sunscreen and photos (see related article on page 50). They serve free pancakes at a beachside restaurant. Some line up outside the clubs, talking to those around them who are waiting to get in for the foam bath dance floors and wet T-shirt contests, and then heading to the back of the line again to strike up some new conversations when they reach the door.
Beach Reach outreach participants even offer free van rides in the evening. They ferry revelers between hotels and rooms, with a "host" on each seat ready to share the gospel.
The drivers radio back to base with their passengers' names--which are then posted on a Web site for ministry supporters around the country to pray for during the trip. Sometimes the drivers deliberately take the long route and get sorry-about-this stuck in traffic if a conversation seems to be going especially well.
Tim Boyle knows keenly how even the most enthusiastic partyer can be open to talking about spiritual things. He's here with Campus Crusade to participate in the beach outreach thanks to someone else who did the same thing two years ago and ran into Boyle toward the end of a week of increasing disillusionment.
Raised in a Christian home but drifting spiritually and struggling with hurt after the death of his mom, Boyle arrived in Panama City Beach with a group of friends from Ohio University in Athens, determined to party hard.
The then-18-year-old was arrested on his first day of underage drinking, but that didn't stop him.
"It was the real low point in my life," he remembers. "I just got pretty much messed up the whole week. I was pressured to do a lot of stuff I wouldn't normally do back home, including smoking marijuana for the first time.
"The whole attitude that people have down here is that they are invincible and can party harder than anyone else."
He was nursing a beer on the sands on his last day when someone came up and asked him if he would mind taking part in a survey about religious beliefs. "I thought if he had the guts to come up to us, I'd give him the time. I remember telling him that I wanted God to be the top priority in my life."
Boyle's friends jeered as he talked with the beach evangelist. "And I realized that these were not my friends...if they couldn't accept me for what I believed, then they really didn't care about me. It hurt really bad inside."
Back at Ohio University, he continued partying, "but not as crazily as before." Then a friend gave his life to Christ, and over a period of a few months Boyle found himself turning from Bud to God.
"The partying was fine for the time being, but it really led to nothing, just emptiness," he says. "Since I have been living for God, it's been so much more gratifying, has so much more substance."
Back in Panama City Beach, but with a different goal, the wildness "makes me really sad. I just wish they could all know what I do. It's a million times better--I'm so happy."
Saved just a couple of months from the rave scene, Meredith Mann from Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, is in Panama City Beach to tell others that the party magic doesn't last.
"I was shy and timid, and then I started doing these drugs, and they made me the person I wanted to be, but it was just temporary happiness," she says. "Whenever I was by myself, I was aching."
As well as telling others about Jesus, she is running a quiet little spoiler operation. Whenever she strikes up a conversation with a guy she asks him for a set of beads.
"That's one less set for a girl to have to flash for," she says with a smile.
Andy Butcher is senior writer for Charisma. He conducted interviews in Panama City Beach, Florida, in March.
Evangelism With a Smile
One unique ministry is using a digital camera to reach Spring Break partygoers.
Pack a sunny beach with thousands of fun-seeking students, douse them with alcohol and you have a ready-made photo shoot. The guys from Girls Gone Wild know that, so they are prowling Panama City Beach, Florida, looking for new talent to add to the popular video series that captures young women exposing themselves in public.
The JoePix teams have something a little more modest in mind--a free, happy memory of Spring Break, and a chance to share the gospel in an innovative way among a generation often leery of traditional evangelistic approaches.
Twinned guy-girl, the JoePix volunteers head onto the sands with $500 digital cameras and an offer to take free photos of Spring Break groups. They leave a business card--carrying a unique security code--directing the models to the JoePix site where the photos will be posted within 48 hours.
If the partyers ask, the photo teams are happy to explain that they are doing it to bless people in Jesus' name. If the question doesn't arise, then visitors to the Web site are invited to click on a link explaining "The Big Picture."
"It's not hit-and-run evangelism," says founder Michael Tremain, a 30-something who has married pioneering business-and-technology thinking with gospel zeal. "It's more hit-and-take-you-to-the-hospital. Our relationship doesn't end."
At the Web site visitors can forward their photo to family and friends, read their photographers' testimonies and make contact with them, and find links to information and advice pages.
"We're starting a relationship using technology as the middle man," says Tremain, who first perfected the technique for Fortune 500 business clients. They didn't blink when the former Disney Imagineer and Hard Rock Café marketing whiz told them the approach was "digital photo evangelism."
Tremain decided he didn't want to spend all week using the idea to sell the likes of beer and credit cards--"basically creating a problem I then try to fix when I go to church on Sunday." He traded moneymaking for ministry.
"Traditionally, the only opportunity for sharing the gospel has been that few minutes of [personal] contact," he says. "This enables us to engage people on the beach in a relaxed way without going up and crashing somebody's party with a 'survey' [about religious belief]."
Partner Davies Owens, a Presbyterian minister whose study of how to use the Internet for ministry took him to Silicon Valley for a season, says the photo snapping gives people "something of intrinsic value" and allows them to take the next step when they are ready.
"It bridges time and space. They may not be ready until they get back to their dorm room at school, and they have sobered up, and they can really start to ask themselves some serious questions," he explains.
Tremain believes the laid-back approach perfectly fits the postmodern mind-set of the typical student. "They think in relative terms, but they are very relational--and very receptive to someone walking up to them and giving them something, like a photograph."
JoePix teams snapped about 20,000 photos at Spring Break, with a 60 percent follow-through to the Web site (www.joepix.com). Since then JoePix teams have also shot at the Riverbend music festival in Chattanooga, Tennessee; the July 4 celebrations in Washington, D.C.; and the Notting Hill Carnival in London.
This fall the photographers will be out at a series of college football games. By the end of the year Tremain estimates that JoePix will have initiated a half-million contacts. "With a camera you're the most popular person at the party. It's a chance to approach someone and judge their receptivity without creating any ill will."
JoePix is just one of the ways Tremain is using technology to reposition the church and its message. With Owens' help, his BlueSky Ministries (www.blueskyministries.org) of Orlando, Florida, is also developing The Blessing Tree--a sort of Christian version of Pay It Forward, in which people can record and track their acts of kindness to others--and Soulocity, linking Christians in cyber-small groups.
Says Owens: "The secular world has long since figured that 'brand awareness' is very important. But we don't think very well like that as a church. A lot of what we are doing at one level is simply to reshape the way people think about the Christian church."
When God Walks on Campus
A school chaplain says revival has swept America's colleges before--and that it can happen again.
After more than a dozen years of campus ministry, chaplain Michael Gleason is strangely encouraged by Lyman Beecher's reports of drunkenness, swearing, gambling and immorality among fellow students at Yale University.
The young man wrote of his college's "most ungodly state" back in the early 1800s, proving that although today's spring-breakers may cast larger shadows, there is nothing new under even the most tourist-friendly sun. Beecher went on to record a revival that shook the campus so fiercely, "all infidelity sulked and hid its head."
"I rejoice in God's grace to us in not letting our culture slip too far before bringing these times of refreshment so we can get back on a different course," says Gleason, the director of religious life at Ashland University in Ohio after researching the history of awakenings at American colleges and universities over almost 250 years.
"Leaders of society almost always flow through the college campuses, so they are a prime spot for the Lord to awaken future leadership and give them an understanding of ministry that is something that is beyond a human element, that is a supernatural intervention of God."
Gleason's When God Walked on Campus (Joshua Press) notes how scores of students were swept into the kingdom and many launched into full-time ministry through the different revivals.
With an estimated global population of 60 million, the world's campuses are seen as a major mission field by groups such as Campus Crusade for Christ. The ministry recently brought together workers from 70 countries to a location near Barcelona, Spain, to identify "the world's most strategic colleges" for spreading the gospel.
The Joshua Project is founding prayer groups in and for the almost 200 schools in the New England area. Launched by Edson Porto, a deacon at Christian Fellowship of Boston, a Brazilian congregation, the effort is intended to break the strongholds of intellectualism and humanism he says grip the region and flow from it--as the root of America's education system--to the rest of the country.
"Higher education is a gate, in the physical and spiritual realm. It is a door that allows knowledge to come, transform and enrich our societies," he says. "But through this door can come curses when the truth of God is changed or twisted by contaminated teachings."
Praying students at Harvard University in February pledged themselves to a new "College Covenant," repenting of the undermining of America's biblical foundation for higher learning, and asking God for a "transformation of America's educational system."
Gleason has had his own taste of campus revival. Ashland was touched by a move of the Spirit that splashed campuses in the mid-1990s.
"We had a sense of God's presence here more than at any other time," he recalls. "It was a profound experience for us all. It brought such conviction; students would weep in chapel prayer."
From his study of history, he is concerned that modern-day awakenings are less Bible-centered than they were in the past.
"The experience-centered ones have been of shorter duration," he says. "We should enjoy the worship, but make study important.
"Experience is good, but it should come out of relationship with the Lord. We worship Him because of who He is, not for our benefit."