SHAWNEE—Missions leaders from Southern Baptist 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” 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 Jerry Rankin, president of the International Mission Board. “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.
“I hope the Lord doesn’t take too seriously what everyone has said about this world not being worthy of me—at least for awhile,” Willis said with levity, in reference to his health battles. 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 Tom Elliff, a fellow Southern Baptist leader who counts Willis as a close personal friend. Elliff, former pastor of Del City, First Southern, recently served as the International Mission Board’s senior vice president for spiritual nurture and church relations.
“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.”
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 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 Jimmy Draper, retired president of LifeWay, 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.