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Avery Willis honored for vision, passion, obedience in missions

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–International Mission Board trustees honored Avery Willis as a visionary servant leader — and as an ordinary man whose heart belongs completely to God — in celebrating his retirement from 25 years of missionary service.

God has moved in the most remarkable ways during Willis’ career, IMB President Jerry Rankin said.

“We could not overstate the significance of Avery’s leadership as senior vice president of overseas operations,” Rankin said during the Feb. 3 celebration in Richmond, Va. “When Avery came to that position 10 years ago, we had just reported 2,000 new churches started around the world; this past year we reported 16,000 new churches.

“Ten years ago, we had rejoiced in reaching 251,000 new believers baptized, but this past year the reports exceeded half a million new believers, more than twice as many. In 1993, only about 1.3 percent of church members overseas were in discipleship training; today it’s 13 percent — 900,000 believers.

“During his tenure, the board has sent out, trained, equipped and nurtured more than 7,600 new missionaries.”

Willis would be the first to admit that those accomplishments were God’s, not his, Rankin said. “But we all know that as Avery walked with the Lord, as he provided vision, passion and strategic leadership, nurturing the leadership of others, modeling a servant leadership and walk with the Lord for all of us, God has blessed and honored his obedience and commitment to serving the Lord.”

Born in Lepanto, Ark., Willis and his wife, the former Shirley Morris of Nowata, Okla., were appointed by the International Mission Board as missionaries to Indonesia in 1964. He worked as an evangelist and church developer for six years before transferring to the Baptist seminary in Semarang, where he served on faculty for two years and as president for six years.


During those years, God’s Spirit began moving in great power across Indonesia, sparking a revival in which 2 million people opened their hearts to Christ. Faced with the tremendous challenge of training so many new believers and church leaders, Willis helped pioneer innovative strategies for extension education and led the way in developing the prototype for what would become the MasterLife discipling process.

Millions of Christians in the United States and around the world have benefited from the MasterLife experience, said John Kramp of LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, Tenn., who worked with Willis promoting MasterLife and other courses in LifeWay’s Lay Institute for Equipping series.

“God put a message in Avery’s life,” Kramp said. “He used his gifts in writing and speaking and training to literally mobilize thousands and thousands of people to take up the cross daily and follow Jesus.”

A longtime friend said the seeds of Willis’ effective ministry were sown when, as a student at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Willis told God he would do everything he could to be a man whose heart belonged completely to God.

“We hear the expression that the world has yet to see what God could do with someone who truly and completely gave himself to the Lord Jesus Christ,” said Harold Hendrick, a gospel radio broadcaster from St. Louis. “They may not be the only ones, but Avery and Shirley Willis are among those who, in role modeling and fruit bearing, have shown us what the world would see when one gives himself completely to the Lord Jesus Christ.”


Emeritus Indonesia missionary Catherine Walker of Richmond, Va., recalled how Willis, then a new missionary in his early 30s, told her God had given him a vision of being a missionary to the whole world.

“MasterLife of course, was written in the Indonesian language for Indonesians,” she said. “But one year on furlough he facilitated getting it into English, and as soon as that was done it began to be translated into many other languages.

“I thought then, ‘This is beginning to fulfill his conviction God had given him that he was to be a missionary to reach the whole world.’ Now he himself has gone in person to so many countries, telling the people about Jesus and the wonderful truth about what He does for us today.”

Another missionary colleague praised Willis as a leader who nurtured others but also was committed to telling the truth.

“Avery is a man who gives those who work with him direction but at the same time freedom,” said Clyde Meador, who served with Willis in Indonesia and then again on the International Mission Board staff. “He is a man who allows us to grow and yet gives guidance to that growth.

“But there is one way I’ve come especially to appreciate Avery over these years, and that is I’ve come to call him Nathaniel, a man ‘in whom there is no guile,’ but a man who continually speaks the truth as he sees it unto the Lord, a man who seeks always to lead others in the correct path.”

Like John the Baptizer, Willis consistently directed people toward Jesus, said John Floyd, who once directed IMB work in Europe under Willis’ leadership and now serves as a board trustee from Memphis, Tenn.

Quoting John 10:40-42, Floyd told Willis: “All across this world, the things you have said about Jesus are true. Yes, it is about Jesus, but we praise God just for you, because you have pointed to Him and many have come to believe.”


Willis said his desire has always been to just be a mirror for God’s glory, a mirror that reflects all praise back to God.

“Whatever has been done and whatever has been said is God’s work; it isn’t mine,” Willis told the audience. “Any accomplishments go to Him.”

He recalled that a reporter once asked the legendary Corrie ten Boom if she ever felt proud of her accomplishments and worldwide renown.

Willis said ten Boom replied: “Young man, the donkey that Jesus rode into Jerusalem never once thought they were clapping for Him.”

As a college freshman, Willis realized that even though he was what many consider a good Christian, he was a follower of Christ in name only.

“There was a critical point where I realized I was a nominal Christian, though I went to church five times a week, tithed and all those other things,” he said. “I still was a nominal Christian because I wasn’t a disciple carrying the cross.”

Willis said that, like Moses, he told God he wasn’t leadership material and God replied with 2 Chronicles 16:9 — “For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him.”

“What that says is God is looking for somebody. In fact, He’s looking for anybody who will have a perfect heart toward Him,” Willis said. “It doesn’t mean you’re perfect but that you have a heart of obedience wholly loving the Lord.

“And I said, ‘Lord, I am so ordinary that if you do anything through my life you’ll get all the glory, because everybody will know it wasn’t me.'”


Willis expressed “deep, deep gratitude” for those who partnered with him in ministry over the years, foremost among them his wife, Shirley.

“I’m so thankful for Shirley. We celebrated our 48th wedding anniversary in December,” he said. “This lady is the reason I could do so much and be gone so much. She did all the tough stuff, the service stuff. It’s been such a blessing that she’s made that possible for me and allowed me to minister instead of always having to be encumbered with things that would prevent that.

“As I look across the faces here, so many chapters of my life are right here in this room. I have to say that no one does anything very significant for God by themselves. It’s always the body of Christ and God putting people together.

“We’re all standing on somebody’s shoulders, and I thank God for the teams He has put me on,” Willis said. “It’s impossible to do this job. It really is, and these folks have really done this job. God has put me with the best people in the world. I’m just amazed as I look around … at what God has done through them.

“It’s a sense of God’s fulfillment, because He gave promises and He’s fulfilled them. We’ve seen what He has done, what He intended beforehand and has maneuvered, because we were willing, to put us in the right place to do the right things, and He has done things we never could have imagined.”

Though he has formally retired, Willis said he is by no means finished with missions ministry. He plans to spend up to 30 weeks each of the next two years teaching overseas and helping develop “Following Jesus,” an oral version of MasterLife designed to disciple and train the 70 percent of unreached people who learn through stories and not by reading.

He also will continue his speaking and writing ministry and will teach “Lead Like Jesus,” a book he recently co-wrote with business consultant Ken Blanchard.

Retirement from one position merely stokes the fire and renews his passion for ministry, he said.

“This isn’t a retirement; it’s a refirement. I’m just quitting my day job so I can go serve the Lord in ministry.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: REFIREMENT and CREDIT TO SHIRLEY.

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  • Mark Kelly