God’s Story: The Ministry and Life of Dick Hillis
The life of Dick Hillis starts in British Columbia and then Washington state in the early 1900s. Dick was born into a Christian family and was exposed to the gospel from an early age. His mother was in constant prayer for him and his twin brother, but Dick still did not receive the gospel. As a teenager, Dick had a desire to get rich. He worked in a local convenience store and concocted a plan to rob the register, take a train to the coast under the guise of visiting a relative and board a ship to China to make a fortune off the people there. Dick was successful in the first steps of his plan and made it to the shipyard. However, because of his age, Dick could not get on a ship headed for China. Out of money and with no hope of getting rich, Dick was forced to return home. There, he was met with grace. He was able to work with the store owner to work off the money he had stolen, rather than going through legal prosecution. Eventually, Dick decided to join his twin brother at Biola, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. While there, Dick was saved by God and committed his life to Christ. His life was transformed from mischievous trickster to faithful servant. As Dick grew in his relationship with God, he began to feel a call to missions in China. He was initially resistant to this call because of the way he had looked at China in previous years. He wanted to make sure that he was truly called to China, rather than just wanting to go there selfishly. Dick’s call to missions in China persisted, though, and he truly felt it was the Lord calling and not himself. Therefore, he began missionary training.
First Steps in China
In 1933, Dick Hillis began his journey to China as the youngest missionary accepted by the China Inland Mission. During the boat ride journey over, Dick battled against loneliness and anxiety as he was unable to communicate with the other passengers in Chinese. Landing in Shanghai left Dick overwhelmed and confused in the new and unfamiliar city. He began his missionary and Chinese classes before his relocation to the rural farmland of the Honan Province. His mission field was set, but his confidence and loneliness still plagued him. Dick evangelized to the people of the Honan Province; however, he felt he failed to make any real progress within God’s Kingdom. Receiving word of a nearby conference for defeated missionaries, Dick attended, ready to throw in the missionary towel. However, he was encouraged in the fact that other missionaries also felt like failures to the Lord. Dick decided he needed to readjust his strategy to reach more lost souls and grow the believing population.
Back in Honan Province, Dick gained a missionary partner named Kong, a devoted servant of God. Once, when Dick was preaching, there was a cry for help in the village. A man had been possessed by an evil spirit and needed an exorcism before harming himself. Remaining calm, Kong began to sing hymns and recite Bible verses over the man. Dick was amazed by Kong’s trust in the Lord and faithfully joined him. By the power of God, the evil spirit fled from the man’s body into a nearby dog, killing the dog instantly. Dick was astonished by the physical power of God, and his soul was refreshed and set ablaze. Reflecting upon Matthew 4:19, Dick realized he needed to make fishers of men rather than just share the gospel. To help both spread the message and develop the newborn Chinese Christians, Dick created a program to effectively disciple the farmers of Honan into “fishermen.” They would spend months together training, growing in the Word, and learning how to disciple others around them. This method of evangelizing would go on to be part of Dick Hillis’ legacy in the future.
Across the sea in China, Dick dreamt of the girl Margaret whom he met in college at Biola. Hearing his pleas, God granted Margaret to be his wife and partner in the dangerous mission field of China. The Hillis family grew amidst the impending doom and chaos of war. While neighbors and villages were plundered and as sickness came and went, the Hillis family’s obedience to God was unwavering as God’s faithfulness never failed. During the communist control of their village, Dick met an inspiring communist lieutenant. Fully knowing he would perish charging a walled city, the lieutenant was so convinced of the communist cause that he was willing to die for it, even for a mile’s advance. Dick asked himself how far he would be willing to go to share God’s message. Feeling convicted, he decided to live his life fully for Christ and to be obedient to God’s calling. With the ongoing wars in China, many missionaries including the Hillis family were forced to leave China. The Hillis family returned to the States to begin their new chapter.
In May 1950, the Hillis family sailed to the United States. Along the troubling voyage, Dick worried about their future life; China was home. As ideas ran through his mind, he considered becoming a professor, which would provide a steady income for his family in Washington where he had grown up. God planned otherwise.
In July of that year, Dick was invited to a 1-week missionary conference in Indiana, called Youth For Christ. He listened to inspiring speakers, sang hymns, and enjoyed fellowship with other believers. Towards the end of the conference, a man announced he had received a call for help from Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, who was the wife of the Nationalist President who had fled to Taiwan from the communists. She pleaded on behalf of the war-weary soldiers in Taiwan who needed the hope of the gospel. Dick had no desire to return after his own war experience, but God seemed to be calling him there. Dick requested three things as signs from God that he should undertake the three-month mission trip. One-by-one, God provided two mission partners and financial support for his family and himself.
Dick and his partners flew to Taiwan. They were overjoyed by the response from thousands of soldiers who received the gospel and, therefore, loved the God that gave peace and courage after a disastrous war. But, when soldiers spoke Mandarin and churches spoke Taiwanese, how could they be discipled? They adapted a correspondence course from the Navigators to fit the needs of such a multitude. Dick served alongside Canadian missionaries, Jim and Lillian Dickson, who had worked to improve health conditions in Taiwan for the past several years. From leprosy clinics to maternity wards to kindergartens, Jim and Lillian were renowned as individuals who genuinely loved the people of Taiwan. Dick’s mind soon expanded to Taiwan as a whole. He visited aboriginal tribes in the mountains and traveled through great cities. However, of the thirteen million Taiwanese people, a handful of missionaries would not suffice. Locals needed to be mobilized themselves. When the three-month trip was over, Dick went back to the United States, but now with a heart for Taiwan.
Because of the heart Dick had developed for the Taiwanese, he considered returning to Taiwan. Because of financial backing to start a mission organization, Dick was able to do this. The goal of his mission organization was the same as his evangelistic strategy from the time he was in Honan Province: to teach people to be disciple makers. He took this approach to the people of Taiwan, but the mission quickly expanded beyond Taiwan’s borders. Neighboring islands were reached, and news of the mission spread. A Christian basketball team was formed to share the gospel through sports to those who may not otherwise hear it. The organization was invited to Brazil. Dick thought of his friend Hans and met with him to try to encourage him to go to Brazil. Right after he brought it up, Hans told Dick that he had felt called there! Later, the mission expanded to Greece. Because the mission grew so rapidly, Dick and his family moved back to California to take a more central role in the organization. The name of Overseas Crusades is truly representative of the work being done.
Dick eventually decided to step down from his role as sole leader of Overseas Crusades in order to be able to minister better to missionaries abroad. In doing so, he was able to share his story of walking through war with Vietnam missionaries escaping the war-torn country. Dick passed the presidency of the organization onto his friend Luis Palau who was renowned for his work in Colombia.
After suffering grief through the death of Margaret, Dick traveled with others from Overseas Crusades on a tour of China. While visiting a government-approved church there, Dick realized the need in China for true gospel teaching and discipling. He realized that it could happen through radio broadcasts; therefore, he partnered with Far East Broadcasting Company (FEBC), thus opening yet another mission field for Overseas Crusades.
God used Dick Hillis in an amazing way. The believers, missions organizations, strategies, and example Dick left are part of a rich legacy given to the world. As he finished his life of ministry, he carried out gospel proclamation to China by radio by partnering with the Far East Broadcasting Company (FEBC), as mentioned earlier. They were able to reach many more people who lived under the restrictions of Communist government religious policy than they would have otherwise. Furthermore, Overseas Crusades, now called One Challenge International, continues to impact the world with the gospel.
Dick Hillis’ life demonstrated three main areas that should be emulated, especially by other Christians. Prayer was definitely a defining factor of the Hillis family. As he said in a recording of one of his speeches, Dick stated that things happened “in answer to prayer” (Hillis, One Challenge, 2012, 02:04). He would ask the Lord to provide, to give wisdom, and to save people, all of which God faithfully answered or answered in a way that turned into a blessing. Examples include stories such as God providing a Jeep for the Hillises, keeping them safe during the wars and battles, and providing funds and people for their ministries over the years.
The second example of a godly person that Dick Hillis demonstrated was his ongoing faith in God. He trusted God to provide and care for him. This probably explains why Dick prayed so much. He relied on God to have the right timing, and he humbled himself to God’s plan, even if it was not what he desired.
The third aspect of Dick Hillis’ life was his ministry strategy of making fishers of men. It is an exhortation to all Christians not to rely on one’s own strength or ideas, but rather to trust in God and look to him for power and wisdom. When Dick was discouraged with few converts and felt the burden of trying to share the good news with everyone, he then searched the Scriptures. He especially studied Jesus’ ministry strategy to see what God’s Word said about evangelism and how to multiply believers. There, Dick then discovered the idea of the “fishers of men” strategy, which included sharing the gospel, but then discipling and equipping the believers to turn and go back into the world to share the same good news. After Dick put that strategy into place, the Lord blessed him by giving him fruitful results. “Every heart with Christ, a missionary; every heart without Christ, a mission field” was one of Dick’s most famous quotes that embodied his evangelism approach. Because of Dick’s history and study, missionaries can have a better strategy for how to reach people with the gospel. In addition, Christians should learn from Dick to seek God and his Word first over ourselves and others.
Dick Hillis’ story is essentially all about God. God saved Dick and led him to China. God brought Dick through loneliness, discouragement, plenty, war, sickness, as well as many other things. God heard Dick’s prayers, and he used Dick to bring many people to Himself. This story shows God’s love and care for the world, how God loves the Chinese people, and how God can use one man to bring Him glory. After Dick passed away, this was posted on the website of his obituary, which shows Dick’s impact on the world: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints. Those of us who follow in the steps of Dick Hillis give thanks to God for his faithful example as a choice servant of God…” (Adams, 2006).
Photograph of Dick Hillis: Screenshot from Winebrenner, Jan. Steel in his Soul: The Dick Hillis Story. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1985.
Main Source Used:
Winebrenner, Jan. Steel in his Soul: The Dick Hillis Story. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1985.
Adams, John. (2006, January 13). Precious in the Sight of the Lord is the Death of His Saints [Entry]. Dr. Dick Hillis. Gazette.com. https://obits.gazette.com/us/obituaries/gazette/name/dick-hillis-obituary?id=26306410.
Hillis, Dick [One Challenge International]. (2012). Celebrating the Past [Video]. Vimeo. 02:04. https://vimeo.com/54467492. One Challenge International. Accessed October 30, 2023. https://onechallenge.org/.