Missions leaders from Southern Baptists and other global agencies gathered to honor the legacy of longtime outreach strategist Avery T. Willis Jr. during a banquet titled "Tribute to a Vision" Thursday, March 4, at Oklahoma Baptist University. In greetings which arrived from around the globe, Willis' peers stated that only eternity would reveal the impact his vision has had on the world.
"Many would recognize those of whom the world is not worthy, and that is the reflection I would have about your life," said Dr. Jerry Rankin, president of the International Mission Board. Other friends shared the same sentiment about Willis. "If anyone has walked with the Lord in obedience, you are the man," Rankin said.
In early January, Willis, 76, announced he has been diagnosed with leukemia. In good spirits during the banquet, Willis announced that while his disease is in remission, it means his leukemia is "on the run," but not yet cured. He asked all attending to pray for a cure.
Dr. Avery Willis Jr. shares how God called him to a life of ministry during his days as a student at Oklahoma Baptist University.
"I hope the Lord doesn't take too seriously what everyone had said about this world not being worthy of me - at least for awhile," Willis said with levity, in reference to his health battles. In all seriousness, Willis noted he hopes to continue his journey of faith, joining God at work.
Willis testified that, as a student on OBU's Bison Hill campus, he roamed what then were nearby fields, in deep spiritual search of God's plan for his life. He said he made an agreement with God: "I am so ordinary. If you do anything with my life, you will have to get all the credit." God took Willis up on the agreement, directing him around the world to envision plans that would eventually lead countless people to faith in God, followed by deeper discipleship opportunities.
"Avery is, without question, the greatest visionary I have ever met," said Dr. Tom Elliff, a fellow Southern Baptist leader who counts Willis as a close personal friend. Elliff recently served as the International Mission Board's senior vice president for spiritual nurture and church relations, having served as a pastor for 42 years.
"He has an incredible sense of vision and can communicate that vision better than anyone else," Elliff said. "Because he has a vision, he has the ability to inspire folks. I've seen him walk into a room and talk to people about something impractical and even impossible, and they believe they can do it."
"Avery is, without question, the greatest visionary I have ever met," Dr. Tom Elliff said about friend and fellow Southern Baptist leader Dr. Avery Willis Jr. during a banquet hosted in honor of Willis March 4 at Oklahoma Baptist University.
Willis, a native of Lepanto, Ark., graduated from OBU in 1956 and has maintained close ties to his alma mater. The university's Global Outreach Center is named in his honor. He earned master of divinity and doctor of theology degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He has received honorary doctorates from OBU and Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo.
"I can think of no finer graduate to point to than Avery Willis," said OBU President David W. Whitlock. "There is no question that because of his leadership, OBU continues to lead in the number of graduates who serve as international missionaries. More OBU graduates serve than from any other university in the world."
Willis and his wife, Shirley, served as Southern Baptist missionaries to Indonesia for 14 years before returning stateside in 1978. While Willis said he didn't understand at the time why God brought him back to the United States from the mission field, in retrospect, his ability to visualize possibilities for expanding God's Kingdom have reached far and wide. He served as director of discipleship programs for the Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources), developing the MasterLife discipleship materials which have been translated into 50 languages and used in 100 countries around the world.
"As is always true in Avery's life, he had the world in his eyes and in his heart," said Dr. Jimmy Draper, retired president of LifeWay Christian Resources, pointing to Willis' work both through discipleship materials and his move to an international missions endeavor. In 1993, Willis became senior vice president for overseas operations at the International Mission Board, overseeing the work of the board's entire missionary force around the world until his retirement in 2004. Rankin attributed much of the planning and decisions still made at the IMB - as well as other accomplishments during his tenure as IMB president - to Willis' mission for global advance of the Gospel.
Dr. Avery Willis Jr. listens as Dr. Jerry Rankin, president of the International Mission Board, tells how Willis' vision, focus and passion have positively affected the board's work.
Rankin said Willis possessed a vision which was unsurpassed as he visualized an entire world worshipping Jesus Christ, a focus which kept the IMB from being diverted by trivial pursuits, and a passion that enables Willis to motivate and inspire others. He said, like Abraham, Willis never lived for selfish gain but was willing to sacrifice so everyone may come to faith in Christ.
After retiring to Bella Vista, Ark., Willis has continued active work in missions, traveling internationally approximately 25 weeks per year. He has served as a consultant to the Southern Baptist Convention's Great Commission Task Force. He also has served as a consultant to missionaries, as well as chairman of Epic Partners, a coalition of global missionary organizations, including the IMB, Wycliffe Bible Translators, Campus Crusade for Christ and Youth With A Mission.
Willis said despite the success of MasterLife aiding people around the world in discipleship, he has realized the materials do not reach the world's oral learners, noting 70 percent of the world's population is functionally illiterate. He currently is executive director of the International Orality Network, a partnership of major missions organizations committed to using oral strategies such as "chronological Bible storying" as a means of evangelizing and discipling oral learners. Willis said his heart to reach the functionally illiterate now focuses also on North America and the 80 million people who don't speak English at home.
"For some reason, God began to turn my heart toward home," Willis said.
Because less than half of Americans read proficiently, Willis said efforts to make disciples of Christ miss an entire population segment. People who cannot read will not feel comfortable in a traditional church setting, he said. But he believes God has given him a vision to reach these people, too.
"How are you going to stand before God and say, ‘We did everything we could to reach these people for Christ?'" he asked. "I am more excited about what God is about to do than I was about MasterLife. I have a deep conviction God is about to do a mighty work."
Willis said he hopes to see more of that work here on earth, rather than viewing it from a heavenly perspective. He asked people to continue to pray for a cure for leukemia, but also to catch a vision of how to join God at work.
"What do we do with the days we have left - whether we are gray-haired or just beginning to shave?" he said. "What are you going to do to make disciples of all nations?"