The Gospel for Dummies

David Pendleton proclaims the gospel without moving his lips.

While most boys his age were racing Matchbox cars or playing with little green Army men, a young redhead from Urbana, Ohio, stood in front of his parents' dresser mirror -- talking to himself.

David Pendleton would practice in the mirror for hours with his plastic Charlie McCarthy dummy, equipped with a tuxedo, top hat and painted hair, and memorize a recorded script.

David's first exposure to ventriloquism came when he was 6 and saw his friend's slot-jaw dummy.

By age 12, David had saved up $500 to buy Otis, his first "professional figure." Otis could wink, blink, and move his eyes and eyebrows.

After learning his original script, David started writing his own scripts with the help of his grandparents. As he improved, he performed at school talent shows, for private parties, and later at a theme park.

"While some of my friends in college were putting on their uniforms to go work at McDonald's," remembers David, "I was there in my tux and open collar-shirt with ruffles on the front preparing to perform at the casino."

David also discovered God could use his talent -- uncommon as it was -- to direct people to Himself. The path to get there, though, was long and adventuresome.

David became a Christian in high school, but felt he lacked understanding about his faith. Through Campus Crusade for Christ, he gained knowledge and training in college.

When he graduated in 1986, Dave joined the staff of Campus Crusade. Christ had changed his life, and he wanted to live for something that would "outlast" himself.

"I always had this passionate desire to do ventriloquism fulltime," says David, "but when I joined Campus Crusade I had made a decision to lay it down and fully commit to the Campus Ministry. If someone asked me to do a show, it's not like I would say to them, 'I don't do that anymore;' it just wasn't really a significant part of my career path."

At least not yet.

In 1994 David and his wife, Lynda, made a trip to Albania to talk with college students there, and out of habit, David brought his ventriloquism figures along.

While David was performing, an Albanian asked him to perform for a televised variety show. The show was the only one produced in Albania, and most of the country watched it. Lynda called it "Star Search, Miss America, Candid Camera and Jay Leno all rolled into one."

After the show, says Lynda, "Everywhere we would walk, people would walk up and comment on his performance, but they weren't speaking English."

So David would sign autographs on the backs of Four Spiritual Laws booklets printed in Albanian, knowing they could learn the gospel by reading the tract. David's translator for the show, Avni, also became "famous," an asset which later helped Avni bring the JESUS film into a village that had not heard the gospel.

The Pendletons returned to Albania in 1995 and that year also went to South Korea and western Canada. Each time David would do his comedy, he was reminded of the passion he had for it and the effect his gift had on people—even those who spoke other languages.

"Ventriloquism is such an intriguing art form," says David. "Anything that catches people's eyes can be used, not only to bring joy, laughter and entertainment to people, but also for a ministry to bless people, and hopefully lead them to Christ."

David began to feel like God was calling him to use his unique gifts fulltime, but it was hard to find a ministry into which comedy would fit.

In 2001, the Pendleton family -- which now included sons Joshua and Jacob -- joined Keynote, the music ministry of Campus Crusade.

Just like the Keynote bands, David toured, only he used stand-up ventriloquism instead of music to explain the gospel. Lynda schedules her husband's appearances -- nearly 100 shows per year at corporate banquets, in prisons, at church events, for military units and on college campuses. Occasionally he entertains audiences younger than 16, but half of his performances are to purely adult crowds, and the rest are mainly family audiences.

David now uses four figures in his performances: Aunt Tilly, a 94-year-old lady whom he fashioned after his grandmother; Buford the Dog, a basset hound; Vern the Vulture, who is actually a cockatoo but thinks he's a vulture; and Mack Elroy, a boy who is witty and likes to cause trouble. David also still has Otis, whom he retired in 2001, but still brings out to perform occasionally.

While Dave is usually able to present the gospel message during his performances, he considers his routines more of a "planting ministry." He captivates his audience and makes them laugh, then gets them to think about God and consider the importance of having a relationship with Christ.

After one show at a junior high school, David gave out his DVDs and later got a letter from a girl who received one. She wrote that "the little sermon part" of the show really explained what it meant to be a Christian in a way that clicked with her. As a result, she understood her relationship with God better and told David she planned to pursue deeper answers with her youth pastor.

David's DVD has had a greater ministry impact than the Pendletons ever anticipated.

David's ministry is also unusual, even among those in Keynote, because he does shorter, more frequent performance trips when he is traveling. This allows him to spend more time with his family, something Keynote director, Chris Zaugg, respects about David.

"He loves hanging out with his kids," says Chris. "He's a great family guy."

There is also the distinct nature and skill of ventriloquism that sets it apart from other ministries.

"When done skillfully, ventriloquists make you believe these puppets are actually alive," says David. "I am creating an illusion of life, and that just brings delight to people. As a Christian, I can use this art to bring glory to God and joy to people."

Now, through the voices of Aunt Tilly, Mack Elroy, Buford the Dog and Vern the Vulture, David is creatively and comically using his gifts to tell others of their need for Jesus.

And while he's at it, gets them to laugh, too.