Ron Hutchcraft is an evangelist, speaker, author, radio host and the co-founder of On Eagles’ Wings—a ministry that trains Native American youth to share the gospel with other Native American youth. Ron got his start in the Youth for Christ movement in the mid-1960s, and has spoken and trained extensively for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
His grandson, Jordan Whitmer, is the co-founder of the #HowToLife Movement of high school students hosting evangelistic events for their peers.
We caught up with Ron to talk about how he got his start as an evangelist, his burden to reach Native American youth with the gospel and how he has transmitted his passion for the lost to the next generations of his family.
Conversation edited for clarity and space.
OUTSIDE THE WALLS
When I was 4 years old, my 6-month-old baby brother died mysteriously overnight from some heart or liver or kidney disease. My parents didn’t even know the cause.
My dad was a machinist on South Side of Chicago, but he still had money to gamble and smoke and drink. My dad, in his grief, took me to Sunday school and he didn’t go in. He just sat in the car and read his paper, sat in his machinist clothes and smoked his cigarettes and waited until I came out every week. I loved it, and eventually I came out and told him I’d asked Jesus into my heart. I don’t think he knew what to do with that, but eventually he came in because he was invited in by the men’s class Sunday school teacher who didn’t wait for him to come in. He left the doors of the church and finally went out to the man in the car, and invited my dad in. A few months later my dad gave his heart to Christ, my mom did after that and I got a new mommy and daddy.
So we were the lost, first of all. And I look back and I realize that my dad might have stayed lost except for somebody who got outside the walls. It wasn’t far outside the walls, but he didn’t wait for my dad to come in. I’ve kind of been that way my whole life. I’ve never waited for people to come in. I’ve always been going where the lost people are, always kind of outside the walls.
By the age of 10, I had a sense of calling on my life to travel around and spread the Word of God. Then, as a teenager, I was very involved in Youth for Christ. I was very moved by seeing young people come to Christ in the old Youth for Christ rallies. I wanted to be part of that process. Then, by the time I went to Moody I had enough passion to reach the lost because of what had been planted in my heart through Youth for Christ experiences that I formed a gospel team right away as a freshman. We saw quite a few people come to Christ as a result of it. More and more I had the sense that when I preached the gospel I was doing what I was put on earth to do. I still feel that to this very day.
When I was 19 I was out preaching some youth revivals during the summer and God really commandeered my life. In fact, this verse is up in my office and it kind of sealed the deal: “I have made you a light for the gentiles that you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth” (Acts 13:47).
I married a woman who shared that sense of calling. By the way, that’s critical to the generational thing [several generations of the Hutchcraft family are involved in evangelism], that there’s someone who feels the same passion for the lost and wants her life to count the same way. My children and my grandchildren are at least as much the mark of their mother and grandmother as their father and grandfather. That’s where the spiritual DNA comes from. Our kids and grandkids grew up praying around the dinner table for lost people we know. Lives are shaped and passions are caught perhaps more around the dinner table than anywhere else.
By high school, all three of our kids were praying intently for lost friends. Even though I was going all over the place preaching, I was also running a Campus Life Club in their school for 20 years. I’ve always believed that you’re more effective as an evangelist if you have a parish that you are evangelizing as well. I’ve always tried to have a local base so that I was not just reaching people from a platform, but I was looking in their eyes, I was hearing their responses, I was seeing what didn’t communicate, I was seeing what did, and I was there to help birth them. I was not just there to get them to a counseling room where somebody else birthed them. That really strengthened my ministry and my kids got to see me in action in their high school with their friends. We were partners in reaching their friends.
Evangelism, for it to be caught, has to be a passion, not just an activity. Passion is contagious. Programs aren’t, but passion is. We all remember having a teacher who was passionate about their subject. You didn’t care much for it, but they sure did, and that made you care more. We all have been imprinted by passionate people. Passion is a mighty river that flows through your life, and you cut me anywhere and I bleed that passion.
Let me just say this. Any passion for the lost is not natural. We are “selfie” people by nature. We by our nature are interested in things that benefit us more than those that benefit others. A heart for the lost is a supernatural implant. It is that Jesus takes a part of his heart and he plants it in yours, and it becomes a deep and precious bond between you and him. He puts different passions of his in different hearts because we can’t all care about everything he cares about. The world is too big, their needs are too many. So ask him, God, break my heart for something that breaks yours.
Somewhere along the way, I stopped using the word evangelism, even though for our conversation I am. I really believe the word is “rescue.” The reason I say rescue is because I think “evangelism,” “soul-winning,” etc. are nice Bible words, but they’re worn out words. They’re institutional words, passive, cold; something a committee does or some very gifted person. When you take the word translated “saved” in the Bible, the issue is not so much being saved or unsaved, it’s rescued or dead.
On September 11, 2001, when those firefighters and police officers went into that building they were risking everything knowing that if they didn’t go in those people would die for sure. If they did go in, they might have a chance to live. So when Jesus said, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost,” that word sodzo (save) is a life or death word. It’s not just a passive, “share your faith,” Well, thank you, that’s sweet. Sharing your faith, that’s nice. They die if I don’t get in there.
I can be passionate about rescue. Virtually every night there’s a story on the news about rescue of some kind or another. When I present this as “spiritual rescue” Luke 19:10, graphically, from the Greek would say, “The Son of Man came to look for and rescue those who are dying.”
All of my children, grandchildren and staff see the mission of Jesus to be one of spiritual rescue, and therefore it has a sense of urgency.
REPACKAGING THE GOSPEL
I’ve always been involved in cross-cultural ministry. I grew up that way on the South Side of Chicago. We moved to the New York area and I hit an evangelism wall. It was the same guy with the same gospel. I just wasn’t getting the same response. Because what had happened was, it’s the early 1970’s and at that point the Northeast had become post-Christian. Now all of America is. It’s like where European post-Christianity landed first.
They didn’t know what a chapter or a verse were, they didn’t know any of our vocabulary and sin was a non-issue to them. So if I said, “Jesus died for your sins,” they’d say, “So?” There were no absolutes, so there was no sin.
So I had to reinvent, not the product—don’t you dare—but reinvent the package. I had to learn to explain the gospel without Christianese, but without diminishing it. I had to find a new starting point for the gospel, because if they don’t care about sin, where do you start?
I call it “Symptom > Disease > Cure.” Nobody goes to the doctor and says, “Hello doctor, I have cancer.” They say, “I’ve got a lump, I’ve got bleeding, I’ve got headaches …” and he says, “OK, you have a symptom, let’s see what the cause of it is. You have cancer. Would you like to know what the cure is?”
So for me, in the Northeast, looking into the eyes of young people—because I had everything in my Campus Life group: Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Catholic, nothing—it was a laboratory. Little did I know that I would end up training thousands of pastors at Billy Graham Schools of Evangelism with what I was learning. I was just trying to figure out how to not leave them lost.
So I learned to start with the symptom and connect that symptom to the missingness of God in their life and why God was missing, and moved to sin. I call it non-religious evangelism. Initially, I was going to go out and preach to as many as I could. But then I realized the difference between addition and multiplication. That’s when I began to realize I wanted to help other people to do what I was gifted to do and called to do. So I began to equip teenagers to reach at least one lost friend for Christ.
ON EAGLES’ WINGS
Twenty-six years ago I had an absolutely life-changing experience. I’d talked with young people from all walks of life, and I thought I knew America’s young people. But I didn’t know the most broken kids in this country: Native Americans. So, 26 years ago I was asked to speak on a reservation, and it was going to be just another speaking thing. The day I left, the largest report ever done on Native American young people came out of the University of Minnesota. It called them the most devastated adolescents in America. Every airport I was in, that was the headline. That day I couldn’t get away from this front page article on the brokenness of Native American kids, and I’m like, Uh, where’s this been? Where have I been? Then I was with them for that whole week and God just broke my heart, and I don’t ever want it to get well.
It was very clear to me that for a guy who’s wanted to get the gospel to the really lost his whole life, I’ve been all over the world yet the Native Americans are the unfinished business of the American church. They were the first mission field. The first Bible translation was done by John Eliot in the Algonquian language back in the mid-1600’s. After 400 years of missions work, 4% know Christ. We have done better all over the world, and we’ve looked right past Native Americans. And then I hear the suicide rates of their kids. Three times—sometimes up to seven and 10 times—that of the rest of the young people in America. And the rates of addiction, sexual violence, sexual abuse. And then I began to meet them and go to their funerals and I’m like, All this dying, and if it happened in any city any of us are from it would be front page news everywhere; every agency of the government would be all over it. It happens on reservations and they just go on dying.
Out of that came a calling, and I knew that I wasn’t the answer to this. Because, if we keep on doing what we have been doing to reach Native Americans we’re going to keep on having the same result.
I knew it was going to have to be Native American young people reaching Native American young people. One summer, Karen and I took a few Native kids out. We couldn’t find too many Native American Christian young people, because there weren’t many. But we took a few out that summer and tried going out to reservation communities and teaching them simply how to share Christ in an attractive program. A veteran missionary said, “I never thought I’d live to see the day when I’d see Indian kids leading Indian kids to Christ.” It really worked.
Well fast forward, now it’s called On Eagles’ Wings. Last summer a team of 46 Native young people from 28 tribes led over 600 Native American young people to Christ. And that just doesn’t happen. There’s nowhere that I can find in missions history where hundreds and hundreds of Native Americans came to Christ. And over the years it’s been many thousands, and I’ve been a witness. But I’m the little white guy on the bus praying. It’s all Native kids reaching Native kids.
No one thinks about Native American evangelists, but there’s a crop coming up now of these guys who are awesome. And I say there’s no greater satisfaction or thrill in my life than being able to preach the gospel, but have I not found a thrill to match that and possibly exceed it? Because when I’m watching them, I have at least as much joy—maybe more—than when I do it.
To see these young men coming up to speak to a people who have been lied to by Satan that Jesus is the white man’s God—and that’s why they have pre-rejected him; they don’t even consider him—and yet when the messengers are young and Native, that belies the lie that they have believed. It’s so powerful.
PASSING ON SPIRITUAL DNA
My grandson Jordan who had been an intern with On Eagles’ Wings for two summers saw what was happening and said to himself, I’m going to go back and we can do that [in our high school]. Out of that came the first #HowToLife event in his high school. It had 700 people and about 75 commitments to Christ. Now he is training others to be evangelists, and they’re presenting the gospel in a similar fashion, but making it their own. He is finding that there are young people all over this country, and apparently, in many parts of the world that God is placing this same burden upon for Gen Zers to be the rescuers of Gen Zers. They’re just looking for a vehicle. It’s very exciting to see.
Jordan is using the principles that he osmoted watching On Eagles’ Wings over the years. I’ve always told him, even when he was little,“Jordan, you’re the leader of the next generation.” At the time I was speaking just about our family, but I wonder if God used those words to imprint on his soul in a way that I never could have imagined—that he is a leader for the next generation far beyond our family. When God gives us the chance to see what he sees in one of our children or grandchildren, and we verbalize it, and we repeat it, maybe they become it. The things that are highly valued, therefore you’re passionate about, are silently transferred and become the spiritual DNA of another generation.
Read more about Ron’s grandson Jordan Whitmer and the #HowToLife Movement here.