The changing face of missions: an interview with Avery Willis
by Rick Warren

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Avery Willis recently retired after 10 years as Senior Vice President for Overseas Operations at the International Mission Board, where he played a major role in restructuring the organization to reach unreached people groups around the world.

Rick Warren: Avery Willis and I are sitting outside in the wonderful Southern California sun on a Sunday afternoon.  Avery's been a big influence in my life over many, many years.  Some of you know him as the originator of Masterlife (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), an excellent resource to introduce into your church's discipleship program. But, until his recent retirement, Avery was also the premier mission strategist for the International Mission Board

Avery, what is your definition of mission and missions?

Avery Willis: Mission is the purpose of God – that he would be glorified and that the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters do the sea. Missions is the activity of God's people, who are going on mission with him. Missions is what we're doing and mission is what he's on. 

Rick:  So if I want to be on mission it's really about getting on God's agenda. 

Avery:  Exactly.

Rick:  How would I do that as a pastor?  How can I help my people get on mission?  How can I mobilize my people to do what God wants them to do?

Avery:  I don't believe you can mobilize anyone to do anything you're not doing. Therefore, mobilization starts with the pastor.  Probably the biggest roadblock to reaching the world is the pastor because he is so circumscribed his world to a local situation that he does not see the global part. Or if he does it's a sermon, it's a department or it's a portion of his life.  It's not that God is global.  I like the word that's been coined on the Internet "glocalization." It's both local and global at the same time. I would say first of all, pastor, you need to go out and get involved in missions yourself.  Take a vision trip with somebody that's going. Get your own heart engaged with those people.  Once God captures your heart for those people, then his mission will begin to invade your life.

Rick:  How has mission education changed from the older ideas of "read about it" and "study about it?"

Avery:  It has actually turned all the way around 180 degrees. It used to be we studied about it so we'd know. So hopefully we'd feel something about it, and we might do something about it. It's just the opposite now. You go do something about it; then you want to study more about it. 

Rick:  And today with people looking for an experience, that's a natural. I talk to a lot of guys who really feel guilty about world missions.  When you talk to them they say, "I know I need to care for the world; I know I need to care about what God is doing around the world, but I am so swamped with my local problems." You know as well as I do that the devil will make sure they have plenty of local problems so they never catch that vision. Is there anything a guy can do that will help him either make the time or find the time to get outside of that local congregation?

Avery: That goes back to the definition of mission - God is on mission. What is his mission? And if his mission is that all the people in the world will have an opportunity to know him and worship him and be in heaven with him from every tongue, tribe and nation – that's what's on God's heart. Our problem is we want to get God on our agenda instead of getting on his agenda. If we really get on his agenda, we'll find out that our local agenda, where we may spend most of our time, is in synch and in harmony because we're focused.

Rick: And isn't there the principle that if you give your life away, God takes care of your needs?

Avery:  Exactly.

Rick:  And the more unselfish you become the more God blesses you. When you get on his agenda God assumes responsibility for your needs.  What do you think is the biggest movement out there that God is working in?

Avery: I think the biggest movement is what is called the Third World Missions Movement. Those who once received missionaries are now sending missionaries. They're catching the fire. Unfortunately, so many times missionaries that went out did not carry that same heart to get others out immediately on mission. They said, "You've got to mature so long. You've got to get this strength before you can send out missionaries like we were sent out with a board and such like that." So what I see now is people just taking off to do missions. In fact, in China, where some people were training house church leaders, they started talking about Acts 13. One lady said, "That's me. I'm called." Right on the spot. They said, "According to this, we're supposed to pray about this and commission you." So at about eleven that evening they went ahead and had a commissioning service for her. One person talking the next morning, said, "I want to talk to that lady who wants to be a missionary." The others said, "Haven't you heard? She recruited somebody else and they left on the 3:30 bus." 

Rick:  So one of the ways you know that God is at work is the process of maturity – being converted, called and sent; all these things are going faster. What are some exciting revival spots you see happening today? 

Avery: That is the exciting thing today. We (the International Mission Board) are tracking many church planting movements in some form. I got the word (and I'm not sure I can remember the statistics on it) about one that's been going about two years and they already have like 600 churches. Another - in the last six years - has planted 1,300 churches. Another in China has grown from 500,000 to ten million - explosive growth!

Rick: Of the top common denominators that you find in rapidly exploding, exponentially growing church planting movements – a dozen or so – what are the most important 2 or 3 you think that lead to a movement?

Avery: The number one is prayer. None of them start without prayer. We cannot start church planting movements. Only God can start church planting movements. So getting the church to pray. Second, abundant gospel sowing.  If you want to reap abundantly, you have to sow widely. You have to touch a lot of people and get the opportunity to come to know Jesus out there. Get it out to the crowd.  Immediately begin to train and work with the persons so that from the very beginning they're going out and telling their story. 

Rick: What role does obedience play? 

Avery: Obedience is the heart of the whole matter. Unfortunately, we don't learn that very easily. It's occurred to me, as we're doing this taping, that the more intellectual you become the more abstract you become, and the less you actually put into practice.  So it's easier in one sense for someone uneducated to obey and follow than it is to get a Ph.D. to follow. 

Rick: I think that is why there are not many wise and learned as Paul says. We make the mistake in Western culture thinking that if we've written it down on notes, we've assimilated it, but we haven't.  We've heard it, but knowing and doing are two different things. 

Avery:  From the head to the heart to the feet is a big jump.

Rick: There are a lot of pastors who get the Ministry ToolBox who are not Southern Baptist, but they'd like to work with an organization that's making a difference.  How could they do that?

Avery:  Just ask us! I apologize to all the other churches around the world that Baptists have been so isolationist – trying to say, "We can do it by ourselves without other people" - when it actually takes the whole body of Christ to get the job done. So whatever we have that's available, whether that's the Church Planting movement booklet, video, or working with you on the field, we'll do it. We train a lot of people who are not Southern Baptists in missions - how to be strategy coordinators, how to nurture church planting movements. So if they'll just contact us, we'll be glad to work with them.

Rick: Explain this title - Strategy Coordinator. What is that and how could I be one?

Avery: A Strategy Coordinator is a person who generally takes one people group or a segment of the population. That's exactly what you've done here with a segment of the population in southern California – you have been the strategy coordinator for that people group.  So a strategy coordinator has to think big picture. Not "what can I do?" But "what's it going to take to reach these people?" That's a different question. The question "what's it going to take?" all of a sudden throws me on the resources of others and of God. How can I get others involved with this task? How can we get it done? Not just "what can I do with it?" The strategy coordinator then becomes a catalyst to pull together whatever needs to be done to get the job done.

Rick: And they own it and they study and they research. Obviously there are a lot of churches in the Purpose-Driven Church movement who'd like to cooperate with each other – with the whole global evangelization and helping to take the gospel around the world.  How can churches cooperate?

Avery:  I think to focus on what Jesus did, and what God does. In Genesis 12:2-3 when he spoke to Abraham he says he wants to bless all peoples.  In the Great Commission it's "disciple all nations." In Revelation you have all tongues, tribes and nations worshipping Jesus. He's trying to get the message across that he's focused on people. What I see is churches gathering around a people group. It's the most practical way to do it. Coming out of the Amsterdam meeting with Billy Graham (in 2000) we have been working to provide resources for any church who wants to take a people group and say how do we go from zero to where we're really engaged and connected with them?  And seeing that people group reached whether we're actually in the trenches with them or we help somebody else to get there.

Rick:  Here's a guy that just caught the vision.  "I want my church to adopt a people group."  Where should he go first? 

Avery:  There's a website "" that has like 365 people groups on it. These are people out there and you can connect with them and see who's involved. The Adopt-a-People-Clearinghouse is another organization that works on that. 

Rick: You can also contact our own international director Mark Carver.®-

©Copyright 2004. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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