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Avery Willis Diagnosed with Leukemia

January 8, 2010

Avery Willis is a 1956 Oklahoma Baptist University graduate and the namesake for OBU's Avery Willis Center for Global Outreach. For more information about Avery Willis, click here.

Avery Willis, a former senior vice president of the International Mission Board and author of the MasterLife discipleship series, has been diagnosed leukemia, he announced Jan. 6.

Via Twitter, Willis wrote, "Doctor diagnosed me as having a rare form of leukemia. Prognosis is not good for earth but for heaven in a few months. Thanks 4 UR prayer."

In a special prayer letter to friends released the same day, Willis said he had been struggling with health problems during the past six months and received news Jan. 5 that a bone marrow biopsy tested positive for chronic leukemia.

The next step, he said, is to determine through a DNA test whether it is chronic monocytic leukemia or chronic mylo monocytic leukemia. Treatment could include a weekly shot or a pill, he said.

"My doctor's hunch is that I have the more problematic form of leukemia, the CMML form, which has a less positive prognosis," Willis wrote. "He went on to explain that statistically from the time of diagnosis the typical patient with the CMML form has 6-20 months but if it turns out to be the CML form the prognosis is anywhere from 18 months to 4 years of life expectancy."

Willis, 75, has asked his doctor to refer him to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for further care. He and his wife Shirley reside in Bella Vista, Ark., where he is executive director of the International Orality Network, working to reach oral learners worldwide with the Gospel.

Also in the prayer letter, Willis quoted his life verses, Psalm 71:17-18, about God's faithfulness over many years. He asked friends to pray that God would heal him and grant many more years of service if it is His will, and he requested prayer for "maximum service in the time available."

"At times like these the peace of God floods my soul. I have no regrets and have told the Lord many times that when I am no longer useful that I am ready to come be with Him," Willis wrote.

" ... In the midst of your concern for me I want you to compare my situation with the four billion oral learners who haven't heard and don't understood the Words of Life. At least 1.5 billion people have never heard of Jesus. They are the ones who need our attention and prayers," he added.

Willis retired from the International Mission Board in 2004 after 10 years of service as senior vice president of overseas operations. From 1964 through 1978 he was a missionary in Indonesia, where he developed the prototype for what would become the MasterLife discipling process.

Between the mission board assignments, Willis worked in various roles at the Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources) from 1978 to 1993. Before becoming a missionary, Willis was pastor of three churches in Oklahoma and Texas for 10 years.

He and Shirley have five children and 15 grandchildren "who are dynamic Christians," Willis said.

In comments to Baptist Press Jan. 7, Willis emphasized the urgency of the missions task and said even though he was surprised by the leukemia diagnosis, God was not.

"It's really going to be interesting to see what God has in store for all of this, especially in light of the fact that 2010 is probably the biggest year that I've been involved in missions and prayer and discipleship," Willis said.

He described DNA21, a forthcoming movement he hopes will reclaim first century discipleship in the 21st century.

"I think it's time to go back to the New Testament and have New Testament discipleship that results in evangelism and missions. I don't have any question this is going to happen," Willis told BP. "The Lord has done too many things to think otherwise. He's led in ways and relationships and connections and needs in the Southern Baptist Convention and in the home missions world that are just unprecedented.

"Of course I would like to stay around and watch it from earth, but I can do that from heaven," Willis said. "The challenge I've been making is, 'Start a discipleship revolution in your sphere of influence because I don't think it's something that we do in general but we do in very specific commitments.'"

"The greatest need right now is discipleship because that produces the fruit. So many times we look at evangelism as the fruit, but you also need the root, and that is a close relationship of walking with the Lord," Willis said.

"When you have that, then evangelism and missions flow out of that. Who knows? Maybe this is a way for God to get the attention of people back on what He first gave us in the Great Commission, which is to make disciples of all nations. Obviously I think it's a very critical time in the United States as to whether we're going to be in on God's title agenda or whether we'll miss this opportunity."

DNA21 is set to launch at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in April, Willis said, and in Colorado Springs in August.

"It's interesting how God has led me, partly through this illness and partly through the schedule, to slow down and write so that I think everything is in place," Willis said.

"By August we will have about four books plus DVDs and other resources to start a movement first for individual disciples and second for families and how we can establish a biblical worldview for our families. Third, to move to a small group process of meeting in homes and reaching out to the communities around us. Many of them don't come to church and aren't attracted to church anymore, but they would listen about coming to homes," he said.

During the past decade, Willis has been involved especially with the concept of orality, which is communicating the Gospel to people who "can't, don't or won't read." He has seen a tremendous response to those efforts overseas, he said, and he believes God is bringing the emphasis to the United States now.

"If we'll pay attention to how Jesus made disciples, then we'll follow His pattern. I think small groups and Bible storying using the curriculum of the Bible in telling the stories of the Bible and applying those to everyday life will bring revival to churches," Willis said.

"It will also open up the avenues back to the people who have sort of written the churches off their agenda. What I'm praying and looking for is that churches will step up to the plate and do that."

Willis particularly wants to challenge leaders to step forward and demonstrate the DNA21 model.

"This is really a call to leaders to step up and say, 'Whatever is my sphere of influence, I want to use that to the maximum to make disciples of all nations. It starts where I am, but it goes all the way to all unreached people groups of the world.'

"I think this is a pivotal year, and I don't have a question that God has been orchestrating this because He sure orchestrated my life in a lot of ways and slowed me down to get some of these things done in the last six months. I'm just excited to see what's going to happen," Willis said.