BELLA VISTA, Ark.?”Feed the sheep, guide them through the rough places and lead the lost ones to Christ.” That was the commitment Avery Willis shared in 1960 with the second Texas church he pastored. It remained his legacy through those early years of ministry while a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a 14-year tenure as a Southern Baptist missionary to Indonesia, 15 years leading adult discipleship for the Baptist Sunday School Board, and 10 years as vice president for overseas operations at the International Mission Board.
Willis died July 30 in Bella Vista, Ark., at the age of 76, following a year-long treatment for leukemia that had been in remission.
While attending Southwestern, Willis pastored Sunset Hills Baptist Church in Fort Worth (later renamed Hulen Street Baptist). The church planter who oversaw construction of Sunset Hills later church recommended Willis to take over his pastoral duties at Inglewood Baptist Church in Grand Prairie in 1960.
In accepting his second pastorate, Willis explained that he was not certain how long he would be able to stay, knowing he had been called to serve as a missionary. And yet he accepted, recalling in a 2007 interview with the TEXAN that he knew the Lord was providing the opportunity as a means of gaining more experience pastoring before becoming an overseas missionary. “God blessed and the church grew,” he shared. Within a year the debt was erased, the church experienced revival and world mission giving grew threefold.
He quickly implemented stringent standards for the teachers who would disciple members, with expectations of training, tithing, visitation prayer and soul-winning?elements he would later outline in his popular MasterLife discipleship material that would be translated into over 50 languages for use in over 100 countries.
Returning from the 1962 Southern Baptist Convention in San Francisco where he learned of “liberal teaching” at one of the seminaries, he devoted a series of sermons to Baptists beliefs and later guided members through an understanding of church covenant.
Willis joined with the New Life Movement conceived by Texan Dub Jackson to utilize laymen paired with pastors as a means of preaching throughout Japan and Hong Kong, China, and saw tens of thousands in attendance and hundreds of decisions for Christ.
Soon after, Willis was headed to Indonesia following appointment by the Foreign Mission Board in the summer of 1964, having completed his doctor of theology degree.
“Southwestern Seminary has lost a dear friend and certainly a worldwide figure in missions and discipleship with the homegoing of Avery Willis,” commented Southwestern President Paige Patterson. “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,” Patterson shared. “God bless you, Avery Willis. Enjoy heaven ’til we join you.”
A former pastor to Willis described him as “innovative, energetic and committed to the cause of Christ and missions.” Ron Boswell of Keller was a fellow seminary student with Willis, later standing in the same appointment service when Boswell and his wife, Marlene, were commissioned along with Willis and his wife, Shirley.
“Avery Willis was one of the most gifted men I have ever known. We were reacquainted when Avery and Shirley moved to Richmond to serve on staff of the IMB and joined Grove Avenue Baptist Church where I pastored.”
“During those seven years I found Avery to be a powerful preacher, faithful church member and generous in sharing his spiritual gifts and resources with the church,” Boswell said, adding that he often turned to him to “preach for me at a moment’s notice.”
Willis served for 14 years as a Southern Baptist missionary in Indonesia, working in evangelism and church development, then teaching at Indonesia Baptist Theological Seminary and later becoming the school’s president. He directed the discipleship and family adult department of the Baptist Sunday School Board, and played a major role in developing the MasterLife discipleship training program used worldwide by Southern Baptists and others.
Earlier this year, former LifeWay Christian Resources president Jimmy Draper of Euless, shared, “As is always true in Avery’s life, he had the world in his eyes and in his heart.”
He became senior overseas vice president at the International Mission Board in 1993, where he served until his retirement in 2003. Former IMB president Jerry Rankin said Willis possessed a vision that was unsurpassed as he visualized an entire world worshiping Jesus Christ, a focus that kept the IMB from being diverted by trivial pursuits, and a passion that enabled Willis to motivate and inspire others, according to an Oklahoma Baptist news release.
He continued to be involved in mission work, leading the International Orality Network, which encourages sharing the gospel through the creative telling of Bible stories to the four billion people who are primarily oral learners?two-thirds of the world’s population. Even in retirement, he traveled internationally half the year and most recently consulted with the SBC’s Great Commission Resurgen