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Missions leader Avery Willis dies at 76

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Avery T. Willis Jr., creator of the MasterLife discipleship series and former mission board executive, died Friday morning, July 30, after a seven-month battle with leukemia. He was 76.

The retired senior vice president of the International Mission Board was known for his passion for missions, discipleship and making the Gospel known to “oral learners.”

“My dad graduated to Glory early this morning,” Willis’ son Randy wrote in a statement. “This is not a time to mourn as those who have no hope … This is the time to celebrate a life.

“I thank each of you that have visited, called, written and prayed over his past seven months,” Randy Willis added. “Your words of encouragement meant so much to him and to all of us. What a privilege to hear of the lives he impacted during his 76 years. May that influence extend through the generations.”

In January 2010, Willis was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia.

He leaves behind his wife Shirley, five grown children, 15 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Friends regard Willis as a man committed to the Lord’s work — 14 years of mission work in Indonesia with the Foreign (now International) Mission Board, later stepping into the role of senior vice president for overseas operations in 1993. He wrote and contributed to numerous books and materials, including the MasterLife discipleship series and “Biblical Basis of Missions.”

Willis was a key proponent of Bible storying — orally telling stories from the Bible as a method of discipleship and a simple, effective way to communicate the truths in the Bible.

“His passion for engaging unreached people groups led in directing orality strategies among multiple mission agencies,” said Jerry Rankin, IMB president.

“It would be impossible to comprehend this side of heaven the extent of global evangelization that will continue to sweep the world because of Avery’s witness, leadership and influence among Southern Baptists, national Baptists conventions around the world and other Great Commission partners.

“His walk with the Lord was authentic,” Rankin added. “His faith was contagious. His vision unlimited. To participate in a planning or strategy session with Avery was to be challenged beyond the ordinary and to catch a vision of possibilities characterized by the power and providence of God.”

Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, described Willis as “a Baptist statesman par excellence.”

“His contribution to the cause of missions and missions education will have sustained impact for generations to come,” Rainer said.

“I remember with gratitude the value of his ministry to my own life, especially through MasterLife and his insightful book, ‘Biblical Basis of Missions.’ He will be missed by all, and my prayer is that the Lord raises up others to continue where he left off, for the cause of global missions and Kingdom growth.”

Willis was born on Feb. 21, 1934, in Lepanto, Ark. He received a bachelor of arts degree from Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee and master of divinity and doctor of theology degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

Willis served as pastor of Center Point Baptist Church in Wilburton, Okla., from 1954-56; Sunset Heights Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, from 1957-60; and Inglewood Baptist Church in Grand Prairie, Texas, from 1960-64.

Following his years as a pastor, he and his wife were appointed as missionaries by the Foreign Mission Board, serving with their children in Indonesia from 1964-78.

Willis devoted the first six years of his mission service to evangelism and church planting. He spent the next eight years with the Indonesia Baptist Theological Seminary. He was a professor at the seminary for two years and its president for six years, during which time he wrote the MasterLife series of discipleship handbooks that eventually were translated into more than 50 languages and used in more than 100 countries.

After missionary service in Indonesia, Willis served for 15 years with the Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources) in the adult discipleship department.

Longtime friend and former president of LifeWay James T. Draper Jr. described Willis as “God’s gift to Southern Baptists.”

“I have known Avery Willis for more than 30 years,” Draper said. “When I struggled to have a plan to help disciple converts in our church, it was on the back of an envelope at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport that Avery … explained the basic concept of MasterLife.

“It was under his supervision that ‘Experiencing God’ was released in the early 1990s,” Draper added.

“It was my privilege to call him friend and partner in ministry and to serve with him at LifeWay for several years before he [returned] to the International Mission Board.

“His influence is truly global.”

Willis returned to the IMB in a vice presidential role in 1993 and retired in 2004. At the “Amsterdam 2000” conference on evangelism, Willis realized the need for discipleship materials for oral learners. Seventy percent of unreached people groups are functionally illiterate, and the majority of people in the world either cannot or will not read.

Willis worked with eight Bible storytellers to develop audio recordings of 400 Bible stories.

In 2004, Willis helped organize the International Orality Network, which focuses on oral learners. He also helped develop a Bible storying-based discipleship program for American churches that has been piloted by Real Life Ministries in Idaho.

Despite his leukemia diagnosis in January 2010, three months later Willis launched DNA 21: Discipleship Revolution, a conference at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to teach church leaders how to start Bible storying discipleship in their churches.

During the past year, Willis also worked with Mark Snowden, lead storying trainer for the North American Mission Board, to write the book, “Truth That Sticks: How to Communicate Velcro Truth in a Teflon World” to be released by NavPress.

Morris H. Chapman, president of the SBC Executive Committee, said Willis “embodied the ‘faithful servant’ with his passionate pursuit of reaching the lost and teaching the saved. His lasting legacy will not be just the ‘orality’ strategy of storytelling the Gospel that he championed abroad and at home, or the MasterLife resources found in church classrooms. His enduring heritage will be the lives changed because his love for Christ stirred his heart to reach one more soul. Southern Baptists will miss his leadership and service. He was a wonderful brother and colleague in Christ.”

David W. Whitlock, president of Willis’ alma mater, Oklahoma Baptist University, where the Avery T. Willis Center for Global Outreach has been established, described Willis as “a marvelous servant of God with an unmatched passion for global missions. At his core he was simply a man who truly loved and served the Lord, and only heaven will reveal the true impact of his life. You could not be with Dr. Willis for even a few minutes without hearing his passion for reaching those in our world who have never heard the name and message of Jesus.”

Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Seminary, said the campus “has lost a dear friend and certainly a worldwide figure in missions and discipleship with the homegoing of Avery Willis. Because of his discipleship materials, Avery would be as close to a household name among Southern Baptists as any other figure. A loss of a man like this would leave a crater in Southern Baptist life were it not for the fact that he has so effectively filled his own crater with the thousands that he has discipled. God bless you, Avery Willis. Enjoy heaven til we join you.”

Willis’ funeral arrangements are pending. In lieu of flowers, he had requested that donations be made to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions or the International Orality Network.
Provided by the International Mission Board communications staff. A video tribute to Avery Willis can be viewed at www.imb.org/main/downloads/embedvideos.asp?flashvars=mvid=11485&mvidext=flv&cid=vid.

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