Dr. Michael Griffiths, former General Director of OMF International died at the age of 93 on 9 January 2022.
An enthusiastic, visionary leader, Michael Griffiths had a remarkable and multi-faceted Christian ministry as a leader, teacher and writer. Above all else Michael was a passionate advocate for the church to take up her global mission to share the good news of Jesus Christ in all nations.
Michael was born in Cardiff in April 1928. Moving to London, he won a scholarship to attend Christ’s Hospital, a boarding school catering for bright students from lower-income families. Michael thrived there and, in 1942, came to faith in Christ through the witness of Alfred Shultes, an exiled German pastor. He went on to study Natural Sciences at Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Michael’s time at Cambridge coincided with dramatic growth of the Christian Union, where he served on the executive committee as President and Missionary Secretary. Through this he met, among others, an earlier generation of China Inland Mission / OMF workers including Home Director Fred Mitchell and Mildred Cable, who he recalled ‘looking as though she had never left her hometown of Guildford, instead of a woman who had crossed the Gobi desert and travelled the Silk Road many times.’ ‘They were such impressive people,’ he wrote later, ‘it never occurred to me that I would ever be qualified to join the mission they belonged to.’
Michael graduated from Peterhouse in 1952, but stayed on at Ridley Hall to train for Anglican ministry. At this time Michael met his wife Valerie, at a conference on English Puritans at Martyn Lloyd Jones’ Westminster Chapel in Kensington. Both felt a call to serve overseas, though Michael had been praying for Africa while Valerie was praying over a return to Israel.
Student ministry in England and Japan
In the event, Michael did not progress into ministry in the Church of England. He agreed to part ways over an issue of conscience over infant baptism. Instead he served with the InterVarsity Fellowship (now UCCF). He worked as travelling secretary, supporting Christian students around the UK. While this involved some preaching and training, he was happiest when joining late-night evangelistic meetings among students over cups of hot cocoa.
The night before Michael and Valerie sailed for Asia in October 1957, Michael completed the manuscript of his first full-length book Consistent Christianity, which was published in 1960. Writing would become a significant ministry for Michael, completing more than 20 books, many of which were translated into multiple languages. George Verwer, founder of Operation Mobilisation, described Michael’s second book, Take My Life, as one of the greatest books of the century.
In Japan, following language learning and a spell of church planting work, Michael served in student ministry in Tokyo. At one time he was responsible for no less than 110 universities in the capital. His infectious passion and enthusiasm helped galvanise many Christian student groups to evangelise. One student fondly remembers Michael telling his group that they needed to ‘stop being like a monastery’ and get out and share their faith with others!
Michael’s leadership potential was soon recognised by OMF, who asked him to serve as Deputy Superintendent for Japan for a time. Nevertheless, the call in 1966 to consider becoming OMF’s sixth General Director still came as a surprise and he was initially hesitant to take on the position.
Becoming General Director in 1969 at 41, he was one of the youngest individuals to take on the role. Having never served in China, he was well placed to lead the organisation through a significant period as it continued to adjust to leaving China and instead serving in 11 countries across East Asia. Under his leadership, it also became increasingly diverse in its membership as he worked with OMF teams to develop the inclusion of Asian missionaries that had begun in 1965. As a result, international teams of North American, German and British workers were increasingly joined by Singaporeans, Koreans and Filipinos. By the time Michael finished as General Director in 1980, the fellowship was made up of around 900 workers from 22 different countries.
While he dearly loved the original principles drawn up by organisation’s founder, Hudson Taylor, there were many regulations that covered minute details which he felt were convenient rules of thumb rather than the unchangeable laws some older colleagues considered them to be. So, in his time as General Director, he transferred more authority to six country leaders that freed them to make decisions that fitted the situation on the ground. At an OMF conference, he was later presented with an impressive volume labelled ‘Mike’s Mission Handbook’. On closer inspection, however, the inside pages were entirely blank! He was passionate about finding the best ways to share the gospel, build up the church and serve the members of the fellowship – even if that meant thinking outside of the box at times.
Michael was also keen to see greater cooperation between mission agencies and led the way through a merger with the Borneo Evangelical Mission in 1975. His entrepreneurial zeal was well matched to the brilliant mind and administrative skills of Overseas Director Denis Lane, who helped make Michael’s ideas a reality.
The mission faced some significant challenges in Michael’s time as General Director. He was among the first to advocate sending workers into war-torn Cambodia in the 1970s, something colleagues were initially reluctant to do. He oversaw the organisation’s entry into Cambodia in 1974 and exit 11 months later. Michael reflected on the challenges of this time in a 2016 article for Billions magazine, while Don Cormack, who was one of the five OMF workers who volunteered to go to Cambodia, shared more of this poignant story in his book Killing Fields, Living Fields.
The same year also saw the kidnapping for ransom of OMF nurses Minka Hanskamp and Margaret Morgan in South Thailand. Michael received a letter addressed ‘Dear Mike,’ demanding half a million dollars and the withdrawal of Israel from the West Bank. Michael had to respond to say OMF did not pay ransoms – to do so would have left other missionaries vulnerable to ransom as well – or get involved in political disputes. He later reflected: ‘This experience was shattering, as was news of their deaths a year later.’ This moving story is related in Phylis Thompson’s book Minka and Margaret.
More broadly, his time as General Director increased Griffiths’ profile as a gifted and popular speaker and writer. This included not only OMF conferences around the world, but also events such as the Keswick Convention in England and the Urbana student conference in the USA.
David Ellis, who was OMF’s Field Director in Indonesia when Michael was General Director, recalls driving him and Valerie through the length and breadth of Java and ‘enjoyed his mischievous Welsh sense of humour and witnessed approvingly the warm loving relationship that existed between him and Valerie. He had an enquiring mind and he showed a keen interest in everything he witnessed on that journey through Java with a constant barrage of perceptive questions.’
Into theological education
Moving on from OMF in 1980 and handing over the role of General Director to James Taylor, a descendent of the organisation’s founder, Michael and Valerie went to London Bible College. Michael served as principal there for nine years and was able to enjoy three of his life-long enthusiasms: students, Bible teaching and missions. Under his leadership the college graduated around 100 students a year.
The 1990s took Michael and Valerie to Canada, where he was the first Professor of Mission Studies at Regent College, Vancouver. In this role, Michael wrote twelve new courses and enjoyed the opportunity to read and study widely. A great enthusiast of outdoor pursuits, Michael also enjoyed skiing, fishing and exploring the Rockies and the Arctic with Valerie. They were also reunited with old friends and fellow Brits Michael Green and JI Packer, who were also teaching at Regent at the time.
Returning to the UK, he and Valerie were able to serve together as Ministers at Large for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students until 1998. He loved serving among students once more and seeing and encouraging the growth of the global church, including the opportunity to visit South America for the first time and minister to students in Columbia, Peru and Brazil. He continued to be highly productive well into his retirement, supporting student mission, writing, studying and getting involved in his local branch of the RSPB.
At the service where he handed over the role of General Director, Michael reflected on Acts 13:16: ‘Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed.’
OMF’s Millions magazine summarised his message:
‘Like David, all men are mortal, their lives are at best brief and marked by sin and failure. But God will use men to work out His eternal purposes provided they are repentant, dependent and obedient. Through serving God’s greatness rather than their own, God’s servants will themselves be truly blessed and the instrument of his blessing to the world.’
How true this was of Michael Griffiths.
‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them.”’ (Revelation 14:13)