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Dr Michael Griffiths: 1928-2022


Dr Michael Griffiths, dynamic author, speaker and former General Director of OMF, died at the age of 93 on 9 January

 
michael-griffiths (1)One of the 20th century’s foremost mission leaders, Michael’s sermons and books influenced a generation of Christians around the world, showing world mission to be an integral part of following Jesus. Above all, Michael was a passionate advocate of the Church, urging her to remember her calling to reach the world. And, since the early 1970s, the local church Michael and his wife Valerie called home and were supported by was Guilford Baptist Church.
 
Michael was born in Cardiff in 1928, but the family moved to Twickenham when he was two. He won a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital School in West Sussex, a boarding school catering for bright children from lower income families. Michael thrived there. It was also where he came to faith in Jesus Christ. He vividly recalled the day in 1942 when Alfred Schultes, an exiled German pastor, shared at the Christian Union meeting from 1 John in broken English: ‘Gott iss light. Gott iss luff. Gott iss laiaife.’ Schultes’ simple message that Jesus died for the sins of the world and that his light and life made a new, forgiven life possible for those who trusted in him, captivated Michael.  Michael met Alfred once again as General Director of OMF and they are now reunited before the Lord.
 
Michael went on to read Natural Sciences at Peterhouse College, Cambridge where he became heavily involved in the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, serving as its President and in other roles on the Executive Committee. His potential as a Christian leader was recognised early on. John Laird, general secretary of Scripture Union, made a list of ‘BWW’ – ‘Blokes Worth Watching’ to encourage and pray for. His list in the 1940s included Michael, alongside John Stott and Frederick Catherwood, later a prominent Christian businessman and politician.
 
Michael graduated in 1952, but stayed on at Ridley Hall to train for Anglican ministry. That December, he attended a conference on the English Puritans at Martyn Lloyd Jones’ Westminster Chapel, where he met Valerie Kipping, who he married in 1956. Incidentally, at the same conference, the theologian JI Packer got engaged to his wife Kit. The two couples would be united years later when Michael and Valerie taught alongside Packer at Regent College in Vancouver. 
 
In the event, an issue of conscience over infant baptism caused Michael to part ways with the Church or England and not pursue ordination. Instead he served with Intervarsity Fellowship (now UCCF) supporting Christian Unions around the UK. As Michael and Valerie looked to the future, serving overseas was a distinct possibility. 
 
At Cambridge, Michael had attended weekly prayer meetings for Africa, while Valerie was praying about a possible return to Israel, where she had served previously. It was to Japan, however, that Michael and Valerie were called. The call came through Ariga Hisashi, a Japanese student in the UK, who went on to become general secretary of KGK, the Japanese Christian Student Movement. Hisashi invited Michael to come and work alongside the student movement under OMF.
 
The night before Michael and Valerie sailed for Asia in 1957, he completed the manuscript of his first full-length book Consistent Christianity. A strong call for Christians to live out their faith, it set the tone for over 20 books, which took an honest, no-nonsense look at the church. His best seller was Cinderella With Amnesia, which asked whether the church had lost her memory, and her biblical calling to mission.
 
Michael and Valerie’s time in Japan saw them focus on student work in Tokyo. At one time he had responsibility for 110 universities there. He was a motivational leader. One Japanese student fondly remembered Michael telling his Christian Union to ‘stop being like a monastery’ and get out and share their faith with others!
 
Michael’s leadership potential was soon recognised by OMF. After a spell as deputy superintendent for Japan, at the age of 38 he was approached to be the sixth General Director of the mission. Michael recalled being asked by his predecessor, a New Zealander Oswald Sanders: ‘At such times we sometimes reveal our own image of ourselves and I blurted out: “What, someone from a broken home like me?’’’ His parents’ divorce in 1952 had a long-lasting impact on him.
 
Taking up the position in 1969, Michael brought the mission into a new era. While previous General Directors had been ‘Mr Taylor’ and ‘Mr Hoste’ and, as one historian put it, had ‘almost papal authority’, the new General Director was ‘Mike’ and gave greater authority to leaders to make their own decisions in the 11 countries they served in.
 
Mike Griffiths speaking at a cMichael was a visionary leader and was keen to increase the participation of Asian missionaries in OMF, which had begun in 1965 – and at the time he had already thought long overdue. At the Lausanne World Congress of Evangelism in 1974, he was frustrated at the underrepresentation of speakers from the Global South. Under Michael’s leadership, OMF teams increasingly had Koreans, Singaporeans and Filipinos working alongside North American, German or British colleagues. 
 
He also led the organisation through a turbulent period in international politics. In 1974 he received a letter addressed to him personally -  ‘Dear Mike’ -  at the OMF headquarters in Singapore making an impossible demand. Minka and Margaret, two OMF leprosy nurses in South Thailand had been kidnapped for ransom. The letter asked for US$500,000 in cash, and for OMF to urge for the withdrawal of Israel from the West Bank. Michael had to respond that OMF did not pay ransoms or enter political disputes. As Michael later reflected, paying the ransom would have meant ‘anybody short of cash would just collect their missionary and pay them in.’ Michael was in Borneo when he heard the news that Minka and Margaret’s bodies had been found.
 
The same year, Michael oversaw OMF’s entry into Cambodia, having persuaded his senior team to call for unmarried volunteers to serve there. While the five volunteers were only there for a matter of months before Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975, there was significant progress even in that time and the mission ‘had done what we could, while we could’, as Michael recalled in a 2016 interview.
 
Michael finished as General Director in 1980 and he and Valerie went to teach at London Bible College, where he served as principal. After a painful exit, becoming the first Professor of Mission Studies at Regent College, Vancouver was a wonderful opportunity for Michael and Valerie. Michael served among a hugely eminent faculty including Gordon Fee and Eugene Peterson, in particular reviving his old partnerships from his earliest days with friends and fellow Brits Michael Green and Jim Packer. Griffiths also threw himself into life in Canada, enjoying skiing, fishing and epic drives into and around the Arctic Circle.
 
Returning to the UK after three years at Regent, Michael and Valerie based themselves in Guilford, re-joining Guilford Baptist Church, which had supported them as mission partners since the early 1970s. Michael continued in active ministry well into his 70s and 80s, returning to his love of student work alongside Valerie as Ministers at Large for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. Closer to home, in their retirement Michael and Valerie enjoyed helping set up a church plant in their community under the auspices of Guilford Baptist Church.
 
Reflecting on his own journey to glory, Michael wrote:

‘As Christians, while one shares the common human apprehensiveness about dying, there is also the sense of waiting for a great adventure. The expectations of faith will now be fulfilled. Bunyan wrote about “the trumpets sounding on the other side” and that is something to look forward to.’

 
Michael leaves behind his wife Valerie and their children John, Bronwen, Nigel, and Glyn. The family are planning a Thanksgiving service for Michael in the spring.
 

Reuben Grace

 


 

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