Denis Lane was born in December 1929 in Tottenham, North London, the son of a solicitor. His family soon moved to Worthing and Denis was educated at Shoreham Grammar School. A bright, serious pupil, he was also a gifted pianist, winning a place at the Royal Academy of Music at the age of 16.
He declined the offer in order to pursue law and was still only 19 when he received an LLB from London University in 1949. But law would not determine his future. Having been converted in his mid-teens, in 1950 he began training for the Anglican priesthood at Oak Hill Theological College.
The following years were instrumental in determining Denis’ path in life as he married his sweetheart, June, in April 1953 and embarked on the first of two curacies. These years, first at St John’s, Deptford in South London, and then at St Stephen’s Church in Cambridge, gave him valuable experience in pastoral ministry and preaching. They also quickened his interest in mission, in part through the influence of Alan Stibbs, a China Inland Mission (CIM) retiree who was vice-principal at Oak Hill.
His interest in mission also grew through his reading about the lives and testimonies of the likes of Hudson Taylor and Isobel Kuhn. And so, increasingly, he and June began to feel a call to work overseas, amongst the Chinese — just as the CIM, now known as the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, was simultaneously being forced out of China and into the farther reaches of Southeast Asia.
So it was that in 1960, after being commissioned by their home church of St Matthew’s, Worthing, they set sail for Singapore and a period of orientation and language study. By now, they had a one-year-old son, and were destined for Perak in North Malaya. Many years later, still hopeful that China might re-open for mission work, Denis would learn Mandarin. But in those early days, he and June studied Cantonese and were sent to a small mission station in Chenderiang, to the east of Tapah in Perak. It was a brutal introduction to missionary life, living in a small shack on the Tong Wah Rubber Plantation with a corrugated iron roof that magnified the heat of the equatorial sun and made conversation impossible because of the awful din caused when it rained, which it did most days.
In those early days of the 1960s, mission work was largely about handing out tracts in the street or setting up an easel by the road, using felt figures to tell Bible stories to children. It also involved developing language skills as you went – alongside hours of lessons from a local teacher. Denis had a natural linguistic flair and he gained a measure of fluency by the end of his first term – enough to allow him to preach in Cantonese when the opportunity arose.
But it was largely unrewarding work carried out during a time of significant political unrest when westerners were not always welcomed, particularly in rural areas. It was also lonely as June had to remain at home caring for their infant son.
Those first four years saw many changes for the family, not least the addition of two more children, born in Kuala Lumpur. Their time in Chenderiang was short and, soon, they found themselves in a small house next to a rubber factory in Slim River, about 60km away. Here, Denis befriended a Chinese tailor who took him on visits to the surrounding villages of an evening where they preached and handed out tracts.
Then, it was on to Telok Anson (now known as Teluk Intan). There, Denis ran a youth group and held Bible studies and English lessons for young people whilst sharing in the ministry of St Luke’s Anglican Church. A number of future leaders of the church in Malaysia would come from the group of youngsters taught by Denis during those years, among them Sadayandy (David) Batumalai, dean of the Seminari Theoloji Malaysia from 1984 to 1990 who subsequently served as archdeacon of Perak, Johor, Melaka and Negeri Sembilan, as well as Robin Arumugam, long-time vicar of St John the Divine in Ipoh.
Denis’ term finished in Tapah, with him preaching regularly at All Souls’ Church in Cameron Highlands as well as in Tapah itself, at the newly-built Emmanuel Church.
A year of furlough in England followed before the family returned briefly to Tapah in 1965. Denis’ legal training and administrative abilities had come to the attention of the mission leadership and, before he had completed a full year back in Malaya, he was summoned to OMF’s headquarters in Singapore to take on the role of extension secretary, one of the first of a new generation of mission leaders being put in place to pick up from an aging leadership. During this time, Denis and June attended St George’s Garrison Church (now known as St George’s Church), an affiliation that was to endure for several decades, and where Denis was a frequent preacher.
A second furlough, which began in 1969, saw Denis given responsibility for overseeing the regionalisation of OMF’s UK set-up before a return to Singapore, where he was appointed overseas director, a new position which replaced the old role of assistant general director upon the retirement of Arnold Lea.
The role and ministry of missions was changing fast and OMF was now beginning to receive candidates from Asia itself. So Denis was commissioned with setting up the structures necessary for Asian countries to provide a home support system for these missionaries, a job ideally suited to his abilities. Former OMF general director David Pickard commented, “Denis' role in setting up the Asian home councils was a major step in the internationalising nature of OMF. This gave him wide access to key young leaders throughout the region and was a critical moment in their development as young leaders and OMF's trajectory in intentionally welcoming Asian colleagues to the mission.” Patrick Fung, himself later a general director of OMF, and the Reverend Ken Lo are among those who name Denis Lane among their early influences.
Denis also had general oversight of the mission fields which required many visits around Asia and gave him the opportunity to “pastor the pastors”, visiting field directors and, with his wife June, providing vital personal support for those watching over fields of mission which, in some cases, numbered several hundred missionaries. He also took a strong lead in OMF’s leadership development, pioneering seminars for leaders, directors and superintendents, and wrote the mission’s first Superintendent’s Handbook as a manual for the mission’s leaders.
Two particular events marked out that first decade of mission leadership for Denis. The Vietnam War still raged, Cambodia was on the brink of a genocide that would shock the world and in South Thailand, Muslim rebels roamed the countryside, making it a dangerous place to be. OMF had a leprosy hospital at Saiburi on Thailand’s south-east coast and on April 20, 1974, two of its nurses, Margaret Morgan from Wales and Minka Hanskamp from Holland, were lured away from a leprosy clinic they were conducting in the area. The rebels used the pretext of providing care for some sick patients in the nearby mountains. Ten days later, a ransom demand was received for half a million dollars, along with a request that OMF write a letter to the Israeli government in support of Palestinian rights. Neither were demands that the mission could comply with.
Denis Lane flew to Thailand immediately and met with field director Isaac Scott as concern for the two women grew. A meeting with representatives of the kidnappers proved unsuccessful and, for almost 12 months, nothing more was heard of the nurses. Then, in March 1975, a man confessed that he had shot both women in the head on the instructions of the rebel Muslim leader, who wanted to establish his authority and command the allegiance of his followers.
It was a crushing blow for the whole field of missionaries in Thailand and Denis felt that blow as keenly as anyone. Right as it may have been not to pay a ransom that would have endangered the lives of every other missionary in the country, he knew that the decision he and Isaac Scott had prayerfully reached, unavoidable though it was, had in part cost the lives of two dedicated nurses. Returning to Thailand to attend the funerals of the murdered women in Saiburi was among the darkest days of his life.
Tragedy struck again four years later when a minibus carrying medical staff and their children home from a picnic was struck head on by a truck, instantly killing five adults and seven children and seriously injuring five others. The accident left the Manorom Christian Hospital in central Thailand with only one remaining surgeon, whose first job was to operate on his five-year-old son, saving his life. It was another devastating blow to the mission, and to the Thai field in particular. Once again, it fell to Denis to walk alongside the Thailand field director, now David Pickard, as they led their missionaries through the dark days and weeks of doubts and questions that followed. Never were his pastoral gifts more needed, nor more severely tested. These events left their mark on Denis, as they did all who were touched by them.
Though the burden of leadership weighed heavily on Denis at this time, nonetheless the 1970s was a period of change and growth in many areas. Even as the decision was made to withdraw missionaries from Vietnam, others began working in Cambodia, withdrawing only when the situation became too dangerous and, even then, continuing to work amongst Khmer refugees in camps along the Thai border. Denis Lane was at the heart of this decision-making process and he felt very deeply the responsibility he shared with others in sending missionaries into such dangerous regions. Perhaps for the first time in his life, he knew genuine fear as he visited Phnom Penh, which would soon be engulfed in one of the most appalling genocidal wars of the century.
Back in Singapore, June had become involved in leading a Bible study for students at the then Nanyang University. Alongside Dr Lucille Ramish, professor of linguistics at the university and herself a former OMF missionary in Malaya, June discipled a group of young people who would eventually become the heart of a new church in the city. In October 1977, Evangel Baptist Church was formally registered. June and Lucille continued to teach the young people and, though his Anglican allegiances obliged Denis initially to stand back from this process, he soon saw the hand of God in his wife’s work and became a regular guest speaker, formally becoming the church’s pastor-advisor in 1989.
All three retained a connection with Evangel for the rest of their lives and were remembered with honour and affection by all those who shared with them during those early days of the church’s foundation. Pastor, teacher and director of Graceworks, Dr Tan Soo Inn, is just one who went on to full-time ministry from this group, describing Denis as “like a father to me”.
For Denis, expository preaching had become a driving force. His gifts as a preacher were widely recognised across Southeast Asia by the mid-1970s and he was receiving invitations to preach from across the region, as well as to lead preaching seminars for Asian pastors. Two significant developments came from this. Firstly, he wrote a handbook on expository preaching, principally aimed at Asian pastors, called Preach The Word, which became required reading for anyone entering the ministry with a desire to communicate God’s word thoroughly and directly. Preach The Word remained in print throughout Denis’ life and new editions were consistently requested from the publishers. Despite its focus for Asian pastors, it was a book that was used worldwide for its simple, forthright clarity.
The second development was that Denis and June were invited by Pastor Ha Yong-jo, founder of Onnuri Community Church in Seoul, South Korea, to lead a series of preaching seminars and Bible studies for that church’s pastors and their wives. Such was the success of this initial visit that the ministry of Denis and June Lane through Onnuri became an almost annual event, with Denis speaking to the men and June teaching the ladies. The Lanes’ relationship with Onnuri, as with Evangel Baptist Church in Singapore, was to remain throughout their lives and in 2009, Torch Trinity Graduate School of Theology (now known as Torch Trinity Graduate University) in Seoul awarded Denis an honorary doctorate in ministry (DMin) in recognition of his contribution to the work and growth of the church in South Korea.
In addition to Preach The Word, Denis Lane authored several other books, including A Man And His God and The Cloud And The Silver Lining, based on sermon series he had preached on Abraham and Ezekiel respectively; One World, Two Minds – Eastern and Western outlook in a changing world – a valuable resource for those moving between cultures in understanding the contrasting mindsets and promoting cross-cultural understanding; Tuning God’s New Instruments, described as “a handbook for missions for the two-thirds world”; God’s Powerful Weapon, a guide to prayer; When God Guides, 10 principles for guidance, alongside testimonies of the same; and Keeping Body And Soul Together, an account of one mission’s attempts to balance social justice and mission in a meaningful and holistic way.
Denis continued in leadership of OMF until his retirement in 1991, becoming the mission’s first director of home ministries in 1982 and serving alongside four general directors, gaining a reputation amongst his colleagues as a man of prayer and an able and wise leader. He found his relaxation at the piano or listening to his beloved Beethoven and was a regular on the tennis courts at OMF headquarters. He was a deeply private man, aware of his limitations but determined to serve God as best he could and committed to providing a level of caring and sensitive leadership for those under his care.
Even in retirement, Denis served as a non-stipendiary minister at his local church of St Margaret’s in Angmering, Sussex, where he preached regularly for as long as he was able to, mentoring yet another generation of young preachers starting out on the journey he was completing.
As China began to open up to visitors towards the end of the 20th century, Denis allowed himself to dream that he might see the day when he could fulfil his youthful ambition to serve in that great country. But this was a dream that would never come to pass. Nevertheless, the impact of his life and ministry, first in North Malaya, then in Singapore, as a mission leader, administrator and counsellor, as an early mentor to the young Evangel Baptist Church, as a teacher and mentor to Onnuri Church in Seoul, as a writer and encourager and as a standard bearer for what he saw as the essential commitment to expository preaching and the development of young pastors and teachers in that discipline, is impossible to measure.
Denis Lane died on January 31, 2017 from pneumonia, aggravated by Alzheimer’s from which he had suffered for several years. His thanksgiving service on March 14, 2017 at St Margaret’s was a glowing testimony to a life of dedicated service in Asia. It was led by his friend and colleague, former OMF general director David Pickard, who commented, “Denis was, in his leadership and Bible ministry, a huge inspiration. I knew I could share ideas, challenges and difficulties with him and always gain valuable insights. I was hugely indebted to him.”
But the final word belongs to the Asian Christians Denis Lane impacted so significantly through his life and teaching. One Malaysian lady, writing to the family on hearing of Denis’ death, said, “What is lasting is the legacy of your family’s sacrifice in bringing the gospel to Asia. From our church, more than a dozen young people are now serving God full time.”
Dalleen Ha, whose church in Seoul benefitted from the teaching and mentoring of both Denis and June Lane over three decades, reflected, “They were the most beloved foreign speakers of Onnuri Church. The whole style and direction of Onnuri and other churches was set firmly through numerous changes made during their visits each year. Their seminars were the most sought after. Pastors Yong-jo Ha, Han Heum Ock, Daniel Lee, and Jung Gil Hong saw their churches thrive as they offered the methods of expository preaching they learned and adopted from Denis’ teaching. They respected Denis and June and loved them dearly. To this day, the Korean churches are following the paths of Denis and June.”
And from Reverend Robin Arumugam, a lifelong leader and pastor in the Malaysian church, this tribute: “He really was a people person. I was busy organising meetings while he was listening. His heart was open. His ears were open and he listened. When he related to a person, they felt like he was their best friend. When he was talking with you, you were the only person on the face of the earth. He loved people. That made all the difference. A man of faith who recognised that God ‘did not give him a spirit of fear’, who knew that God would give him the strength to cope with his work and that nothing was too hard for God. He was my mentor.”