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We all know that the most effective leadership development takes place in a true mentoring relationship, where life impacts life on a frequent basis. We learn many invaluable lessons from one who has more experience, not only by verbal instruction but also by example. Jesus’ training of the Twelve provides the classic example, of course, but the Bible also gives us Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elijah, the schools of the prophets and Paul and his friends, especially Timothy. Parents train their children this way – or ought to.
Perhaps the second most effective method involves coaching, either in person or virtually. Again, the relationship is crucial, because conversation allows for questions and answers, probing problems more deeply, and mutual encouragement. Classroom instruction probably comes last, though that is the most commonly employed method of developing leaders.
In all these contexts, however, I have found that stories of real people can be powerful instruments in God’s hands. The most effective preacher, teacher, and trainer I’ve known was David Adeney. He taught the Bible clearly, of course, but he did something more: He brought biblical narratives to life by telling stories about people in the Bible, famous Chinese Christians, “ordinary” Chinese believers whom he knew, and his own life.
My own life is a testimony to another medium involving stories: Biographies of Christians. As my wife and I were applying to the Overseas Missionary Fellowship in 1974, we were encouraged to read one of the many biographies of J. Hudson Taylor, the founder of the China Inland Mission, which became OMF after missionaries had to leave China.
Night after night, as I read Taylor’s story aloud to my wife, I was struck by his example of faith, love, sacrificial labor, and suffering for the cause of the spread of the Gospel among Chinese. Since then, I have read the classic two-volume biography by his son and daughter-in-law and the seven-volume Life and Times by A.J. Broomhall at least four times each, in addition to Roger Steer’s excellent biography. The main lesson I derive from his story is the necessity of abiding in Christ, resting in His love, and turning to Him in faith for all our needs, both spiritual and material.
Other people’s lives have also made a huge impact on me. These are too many to name, but include St. Augustine, Athanasius, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, George Taylor’s successor D.E. Hoste, Amy Carmichael, Gladys Aylward, Carl F.H. Henry, and a long list of Chinese Christians, like Pastor Hsi, Wang Mingdao, and, most recently, Zhang Rongliang. The list also contains people who weren’t church leaders, but who served God in their daily life, including politicians, generals, writers, and housewives like Sarah Edwards and Martha Washington. I once took a couple of years to read through the Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals.
In fact, biographies have had such a huge influence on me as a Christian and as a missionary that I have spent much of the past dozen years writing and editing them. As editor of the online Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity and co-editor of Studies in Christianity, a series of books published by Wipf & Stock, I have had the privilege of “hanging out” with dozens of really great heroes of the faith, both men and women.
As I read about their struggles, failures, and triumphs, I see some common traits of stellar disciples of Christ: they immerse themselves in the Word of God; pray with faith and without ceasing; endure hardship as good soldiers of Christ Jesus; give thanks under all circumstances and for all things; submit themselves unreservedly to God; work with others; focus on the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ; rely on the Holy Spirit; and spend their lives for the spread of the Gospel and for the glory of God. And they persevere.
They provide some warnings, too. None of them was perfect, as even Paul admitted. Most of them worked too hard, often to the detriment of their health. All too many neglected their families. Some had little patience with lesser men. Too often, they thought they were right and didn’t respond well to criticism or contrary opinions (though exceptions were many and marvelous to behold). Kingdom-builders failed to collaborate with others or to share power. Pioneers forged too far ahead of others, only to find themselves alone, exposed, and vulnerable to all sorts of temptations. In their eagerness to improve society, some of the super-achievers lost sight of the centrality of Christ and of faith in Him as the only source of life.
So, where should you start? May I suggest you look up some of the China-related names in the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity? Then you could read one of the collections of longer, but still short, biographies in the Studies in Chinese Christianity series: the three volumes of Salt and Light, or Builders of the Chinese Church, each with about ten stirring accounts of men and women who were inspired by Christ or by the Christian faith to serve God and those around them. Other books in the series focus on individuals: Liang-Fa, the first Chinese evangelist; Lit-sen Chang, the great theologian and apologist; and Timothy Richard. General histories (On the Road to Siangyang and The Rushing on of the Purposes of God) contain shorter sketches of outstanding Chinese Christians as well as missionaries.
My favorite? Hudson Taylor still tops the list. You’ll find him both in the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity and in Builders of the Chinese Church (available at Amazon and in Kindle edition).
Whether your work and ministry involves China, the point is the same – read biographies, learn from people’s stories, and help others by sharing about the work of Christ in people’s lives.