Christopher Ryan’s* world was going up in flames—literally. Engulfed by pitch-black smoke and scorching heat, the North Carolina firefighter was battling an intense blaze on the second floor of a townhome when he and his partner, a veteran firefighter, realized they couldn’t find the way out.
“I heard my partner screaming … [telling] us to get out as fast as we could,” Ryan remembers. But he couldn’t see a thing. Worse, his fire hose was stuck somewhere in the building and couldn’t be freed. Still green from firefighters’ school, his instructors’ words echoed in Ryan’s mind: “Never leave the hose—it’s your lifeline.”
And in that moment, Ryan says, time stood still.
“I had [what seemed] like an hour-long conversation right there with God,” he explains. “He pretty much affirmed that I wasn’t saved and that if He were to allow me to die right then in that fire, I would be burning in hell that instant.”
So Ryan dropped the hose. He and his partner escaped the burning building, their protective gear a charred, molten mess. Ryan was hospitalized for burns on his face, neck and shoulders. Though God would heal his body, Ryan’s spirit was broken. He didn’t yet understand the plan the Lord had set in motion during that fiery confrontation, one that would lead Ryan to risk his life again—this time to share the gospel in Central Asia.
Ryan grew up in a small North Carolina town deep in the Bible Belt and “got saved” at 15.
“One Sunday, my mother and my brother walked down the aisle, and they got saved. I got caught up in the emotion, so I walked down the aisle, too. I didn’t really know what I was doing,” he says. When the pastor visited to talk about their decisions, he was more interested in Ryan’s music skills than the teenager’s new faith in Jesus.
“They talked me into playing drums in this gospel group. There was nothing really shared regarding the gospel or any questions or affirmation about the decision I had made or why I made it. That started a very long and confusing process for me.
“I always heard the pastor say, ‘You should know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are saved.’ And I never did,” Ryan says. No one seemed to offer any real help.
He was still questioning his salvation when he married his high school sweetheart, Tabitha,* and joined the fire department, a job Ryan expected to make his career.
“I lived one way during the week at the firehouse, and on the Sundays I wasn’t working, I was at church living a different way. It was almost like living two lives,” he says. Ryan still wondered whether he was saved but says he no longer gave the question much thought.
That is, until the day he nearly died in that townhouse fire. Still, there was no dramatic conversion experience that followed, just the sobering realization that Ryan did not know the God he claimed to love.
“Being the sinful person that I was, it still took me several years to address that,” Ryan says.
And when that moment came, it echoed the first time Ryan “got saved”—one Sunday at church. Sitting in his usual back-row pew with Tabitha, Ryan suddenly felt the Holy Spirit pushing him to truly surrender his life to Jesus. As soon as the service ended, Ryan walked forward and grabbed the pastor.
“And he pretty much had to grab hold of me because the experience immediately drained me,” Ryan remembers. “I felt like all that sin just washed away from me right then. I could barely stand up.”
He was 27, and it had been 12 years since he first walked the church’s aisle. “God changed so much in me that day—my language, my desires, my behavior—everything changed,” Ryan says.
But life was still far from perfect. Ryan’s now genuine relationship with Christ was soon tested as he and Tabitha struggled with infertility. Both desperately wanted a child, but a diagnosis of endometriosis meant an uphill battle.
“We got married; we built our house … we had the career we wanted. So according to my timeframe, it was time to have kids,” Ryan says. “We even went out and bought a minivan in anticipation of getting pregnant.”
But six years later, the Ryans still had no children. God was shaking other expectations, too.
“We felt like the Lord was leading me to leave the fire department, which is kind of unheard of,” Ryan says. “No one ever quit the fire department.” But in 2004 he did, and started a general contracting business with a friend.
A few months later, Ryan got his first taste of missions work during a short-term trip to Honduras. There was an immediate connection, and two months later, he went back—this time with Tabitha.
“I hadn’t seen much of the world, so it was a very eye-opening trip for me,” she says. “When we came back, we … knew that in some way we would be doing missions.”
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