By Kayla Rinker
WASHBURN – Never an ounce of shyness in him, 21-year-old Ryan Pendergraft has been telling people about Jesus since he was a young child.
“My Mom used to take me to the roller rink and I would always find someone there and talk to them about Christ and His love for people,” he said. “Witnessing to people has just never bothered me.”
Realizing his spiritual gifts at such a young age has helped Pendergraft, a member of First Baptist Church, Washburn, fulfill God’s unique calling on his life. God called Pendergraft to be an evangelist, a road less traveled by most vocational ministers.
Tom Johnston, associate professor of evangelism at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MBTS), said throughout his first five years of teaching at Midwestern, only 22 students have pursued career evangelism.
“And of those, only two finished as evangelists,” he said. “Most went instead to pastorate association. It’s a very difficult calling, but it’s also a much-needed one.”
Johnston said he teaches the calling of evangelism found in Ephesians 4:11. It says, “It was he who gave to some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers … .”
“That is what my burden is and what my vision is and even what I wrote my dissertation on,” Johnston said. “Things have changed but God hasn’t changed. His Gospel, His plan, neither has changed. We have changed. The God who called Billy Graham in 1946 is still calling evangelists, but we’re not listening.”
Preaching since he was 15, Pendergraft has always been involved in ministry at his church. And, though he worked as the youth pastor at First Washburn his senior year of high school, he has never felt God calling him to become a church pastor.
“I see all the things a pastor goes through and I just don’t think it’s for me,” he said. “However, I would like to preach to a church if God can use me to reach them and bring revival.”
Though Pendergraft has never taken seminary classes, he has received some hands-on training in evangelism. Instead of continuing in his role as youth pastor at First Washburn, he decided to join Sports Crusaders and help bring basketball evangelism to many young people in Mexico.
“My pastor said it this way,” he said. “It’s like I’m swinging from one rope to another and I grab onto the next rope; but in order to follow God’s calling with my whole self, I had to let go of that other rope. If I didn’t let go, I wouldn’t be going anywhere.”
And once that initial leap of faith is taken, the life of an evangelist is not easy. Johnston said building a big enough calendar to be a full-time evangelist usually takes two or three years, and that’s with the help of a seasoned evangelist mentor.
“It started off slow for me,” Pendergraft said. “But then I started getting more churches and doing some pulpit supply, and I am scheduled to speak at the Barry County Evangelism Conference.”
As a member of the Fellowship of Missouri Baptist Evangelists, Pendergraft acknowledges that he is by far the youngest in the room. While he can understand why some might find that intimidating, he doesn’t feel that way.
“I have a great respect for my elders and I plan to learn a lot from them,” he said. “But I’m not intimidated by them because the truth is, and I don’t mean for this to sound bad but, they are going to die someday. We all are. And if we don’t have young people to step up, then we don’t have evangelists to keep bringing the Gospel message to all who will listen.”
For those feeling the tug from God to pursue a calling to become an evangelist, both Johnston and Pendergraft have some advice.
“I firmly believe they need to get an education, one that will fan the flame of evangelism and not the wet blanket committee,” Johnston said. “I also think they need to get involved in evangelism as much as possible. Personally, I go out and evangelize once a week for two hours. I have to do that to stay sharp. I also think an evangelist should test his gifts by leading revivals and lastly, he’s got to be mentored by an existing evangelist. All of these are very important.”
“If you feel God is leading you to be an evangelist, go for it,” he said. “Let go of that rope and pursue the calling with your whole heart. Also, and most importantly, get over yourself. It’s not about you. It’s about God.”