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FIRST-PERSON: Why read missionary biographies?

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) — We generally consider seeking counsel to be approaching the “gray-beards” in our lives — those who are older, who walk closely with God, who have made wise decisions in their own lives — and asking them their thoughts on a matter.

This is crucial to do; these dear saints are a grace gift from God to each of us. They have watched us grow in our Christian life and witnessed the times when we ran ahead of God or lagged behind His leadership. It is such a blessing to be able to lay our dilemma before one who knows and loves us and seek their counsel.

Yet, counsel also comes from even older saints as well.

I love to read missionary biographies, and I always have one or more going. I keep them on my nightstand, in my carry-on, downloaded onto my Kindle, and have shelves in my study dedicated to these biographies, including many favorites that I re-read from time to time.

Reading missionary biographies is another way to seek counsel that allows us to peer into the lives of those who went before us, who ran the race and finished well, and to glean wisdom and insights that we need for decision-making and growing in personal discipleship.

Here are five reasons why reading missionary biographies is wise and helpful to gain counsel from those who went before us.

1. Embracing a call

We are able to “watch” other missionaries struggle with their call to missions, learn how their family members came to accept this new life the Lord had given them. There is something powerful about overhearing another’s call to ministry that puts our own in perspective. It is amazing how much we can relate to a brother or sister from a former time as they walked — or wrestled — with the biblical, theological, practical and logistical concerns connected to accepting a call. We almost sense that we are walking with them as they leave their lives that had been so planned out in order to embrace radical abandon to the newly discerned will of God.

2. Getting started in missions

We find Christian companionship as we walk with others through their search to find a sending agency and answer objections from their dearest relations regarding their “crazy” decision to leave for missionary service in foreign lands.

3. Pushing through the hard times

We are encouraged when we read of their disappointments, setbacks, frustrations, and how ministry-stopping challenges melt away through their perseverance and persistent trust in God.

Sometimes a pastor whom missionaries had poured into for years, spent long hours to disciple and promoted among others as the “real deal” falls away and returns to the world. At other times the new couple who had answered the call to join them in the work is turned back by a family crisis or denied visas by bureaucratic red tape. Knowing that others before us faced and overcame similar setbacks can encourage us along the way.

4. Examples of recovery from sin

While many new missionaries are well-versed in biblical teaching about living the Christian life, reading missionary biographies allows us to see “Christianity with skin on.” Reading of occasions when they sinned, lost their cool, became frustrated with or separated from other missionaries or nationals, but then pressed through to the grace side of it all gives us hope.

5. Missions education

Missionaries in the past faced many of the same cultural, missiological, methodological and relational challenges every missionary will face. Reading the stories of their lives provides a missions education that is more than mere speculation. It is the actual story of receiving and giving grace over and over again, finding the keys to reaching and teaching new cultures, and planting churches in gospel-hostile places.

Whether the book is a missionary’s complete biography, an autobiography, or story of an event in missions history, lessons can be learned that will benefit and offer counsel for missions ministry today. Their stories certainly are not authoritative prescriptions for the way missions must be conducted today, but I believe the Lord caused their stories to be preserved for us today and that we would be wise to learn from their hard-won lessons. Listen to their counsel, because “being dead they still speak” and teach us today.

Here is a list of missionary biographies recommended by David Sills:

— Thirty Years Among South Seas Cannibals by John G. Paton

— Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot

— The Journals of Jim Elliot by Elisabeth Elliot

— Jungle Pilot: The Gripping Story of the Life and Ministry of Nate Saint by Russell Hitt

— Bruchko: The Astonishing True Story of a 19-Year-Old American, His Capture by the Molitone Indians, and His Adventures in Christianizing the Stone Age Tribe by Bruce Olson

— Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret by Dr. and Mrs. Howard Taylor

— A Chance to Die: The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael by Elisabeth Elliot

— Uncle Cam: The Story Of William Cameron Townsend, Founder of the Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Summer Institute of Linguistics by James and Marti Hefley

— To the Golden Shore: The Life Of Adoniram Judson by Courtney Anderson

— Faithful Witness: The Life & Mission of William Carey by Timothy George

    About the Author

  • David Sills