Youth group rebel who planted a church

Allison Hurtado
Youth group rebel who planted a church

Ryan Rice grew up in a Christian home in Little Rock, Arkansas. He knew the Word, and went to church but at the age of 13 was having sex and into the mantra “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.” He completely turned his back on his upbringing. Ryan says he wasn’t great at sports, but he was really good at skateboarding. The skateboarding crew of multiple ages are where he began his partying lifestyle. Some of his friends overdosed on drugs, but he didn’t care. It was par for the course.

In high school, Ryan began selling drugs to bridge the gap between the kids in the KKK and the Bloods and Crips. He says back then racism was rampant in his high school, and by belonging to neither party, it kept him safe and out of trouble. Until he had a run-in with law enforcement and wound up in jail at age 16.

“I had good friends get jacked-upon cocaine,” Ryan says. “We lived in a Little Rock suburb, but I was hanging out in all of the worst places. I went to 11 different junior high and high schools, and I was kicked out so many times. I received death threats. But I had a youth pastor who kept reaching out to me.

That youth pastor was Mark DeYmaz. But Ryan was too busy selling drugs to really pay him any attention. Due to his dangerous behavior, Ryan was kicked out of youth group and summer camps. His mom didn’t know what to do with him. Meanwhile, it was his senior year of high school and Ryan was facing a crisis: he was told by his doctor he might have AIDS.

“I had planned a trip to Mexico for my friends to go and get drunk and high,” he said. “So I decided to follow through and go even though I was really depressed. But I made a deal with God that if I lived through Mexico, I would listen to anyone who approached me about Christianity.”

Ryan survived Mexico, but without any memory of it. When he returned to Little Rock, he got a call from Mark DeYmaz. He told Ryan he had been praying for him, and there was one spot left on a youth trip to Colorado, and he wanted him to go.

‘Bad guy’ under the Colorado stars

“I told Mark he’s taking these good guys, and I do drugs and smoke,” Ryan said. “I told him I’m a bad guy. Mark said leave your drugs at home, so I said OK, I’ll go.”

When Ryan arrived in the church parking lot, he put out his cigarette and climbed on the bus with 22 other high school students, some of whom were ex-party friends who had found Jesus and straightened out their lives. Ryan says he went straight to the back to the bus out of embarrassment, and prayed during the 20-hour drive.

“I said, ‘God, what do you want from me? What do you want me to do?’ Ryan said.

In Colorado, one of the exercises for the youth was to spend time outside in the woods alone, praying out loud, asking God for direction. Ryan said he didn’t even know what to do. He asked the guide for help. The guide told Ryan to tell God where he was and ask for his help.

“And I did. I prayed out loud under the stars and I told God, ‘I don’t understand when people talk about Christian Life. I don’t get it,’” Ryan said. “And God said back to me, ‘That’s because you never knew me.’”

Ryan thought it was his conscience talking, and he thought he was crazy. But he kept praying out loud and talking to God. That’s when he knew it wasn’t his conscience. He felt God was speaking to him.

“I didn’t really know any Scripture at the time, but I prayed, ‘Whoever finds his life must lose it for my sake and then he will find it.’” I confessed and told God, “I’ll lose my life for you. I’ll lose everything I got.”

Ryan met Jesus that night. He went running back to the camp, breaking the rules, telling everyone there. From that point forward, he never returned to partying. He broke up with his girlfriend when he got back to Little Rock and started over.

He says it was humiliating, but every Friday night, while his friends where partying or at college, he was at home spending time in God’s Word. He had nothing but God.

For people like Will

“I grew so much in that period,” Ryan said. “I got some of my friends to know Christ. I was discipled by Jeff Cowell and Mark DeYmas at Mark’s church and started a ministry to reach lost people. I met my future wife Leslie at church. I went to Dallas Seminary to be trained, and Fellowship Associates, a leadership residency church planting program in Little Rock, Arkansas, sent us to plant a church in Phoenix, Arizona.

They started as a small group in their apartment in 2010. Within two years they planted North Valley Community Church. As they began to see steady growth, Ryan realized they would need a building. In two years they purchased their first property, an old wedding venue on nine acres of land. What normally takes a church a decade, took North Valley a fraction of the time.

Two years later they are continuing to work on renovations, but held Easter service there and are working on the property a little at a time. Four-hundred people call North Valley home. One of those people is a man named Will.

Ryan says, “Will practiced a rare and strange religion, but after his brother-in-law committed suicide, he was at a crossroads. He came to our church and sensed God s presence and joined a neighborhood group.

“He gave his life to Christ, and he’s bringing his whole family to church. He’s a financial planner, and now he serves on our outreach teams and does financial workshops. He’s a really neat guy.”

Ryan believes God is using his broken background to relate to people in his church like Will. He preaches the Bible practically, and draws on his own experience. He’s as real as they come.

“My life mission is to help others understand and respond to the gospel,” Ryan said. “Ironically, the church I persecuted hired me on staff to reach youth for Christ.”

North Valley had 600 attend its Easter services and experienced 40 professions of faith in Christ. On May 7, they baptized 13 children and adults.

    Point - September 2018

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