George the GOAT
By Bill MacLeod, Director, MissionConnexion
On April 14th, George Verwer, the self-deprecating, visionary-missionary who founded Operation Mobilization (OM), launched four ships dispensing Christian literature around the world, authored 20 books of which millions of copies have been distributed worldwide, went home to be with the Lord after a two-month battle with cancer. While growing up in Ramsey, New Jersey, he attended church, but did not come to follow Christ until he attended a Billy Graham meeting in New York City on March 3, 1955. At that point, everything in his life changed and he began to think about and act upon what it meant to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ.
George and I first met in 1995 when I phoned him at his home in England to ask if he would consider speaking for our annual church missions conference where I served as missions pastor. Hearing that I had previously worked for Promise Keepers, he told me straight up that that was nothing more than “a movement to put a person from [a particular political party] in the White House”. While I disagreed with him graciously but directly, I immediately respected his conviction and passion, to speak honestly even in a first encounter. He ended up coming; we became and remained good friends for nearly 30 years, and the Lord used him in an unusual way in the launching of MissionConnexion in 2001.
But what makes George Verwer deserving of the title of Missions’ “Greatest of All Time”? I want to share some of my own personal impressions and observations from watching him and the impact he has had on my life, and on the world over the years.
Matthew 6:33 – from the time he decided to follow Christ, George Verwer exemplified the practical truth of this verse: “But seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you…”
Gospel – one of, if not the largest mission organization in the world, OM today employs 6,800 workers in 118 countries, which came from George’ desire to not quit until every person on earth had had an opportunity to hear about Jesus…right up to his passing. Everything was focused on accomplishing that. Through his and OM’s efforts, over 1 billion people have been reached with the gospel by the time of his death. It is also estimated that 300 other mission agencies were also started as a result of contact with OM or launched by former OM’ers.
Prayer – has characterized every OM worker I have ever met. The first time I met Dale Rhoton, OM’s co-founder who traveled to Mexico with George in 1957, visiting Portland in the early 1990’s, he did not ask where the closest coffee shop was, but where they could go to pray. Personal relationships, not programs were most important to George. He maintained many prayer cards with people’s names, faces, and needs on them so he could regularly pray by name for them. He sometimes would call or write acknowledging that he was praying for me, my wife, and our kids by name that day. If he brought his big inflatable globe (or wore his signature world jacket) it was all for the purpose of being a prompt for prayer for the nations and peoples of the world. I have never met anyone so committed to prayer and being led by the Holy Spirit. That conviction flowed down to everyone who was part of OM.
Authenticity – spending time with George convinced me that the most righteous people I have ever met are those who you feel most at ease with, and I always felt I could be myself around George. He had a hilarious sense of humor – like the time he and his wife Drena and a few others of us were in a restaurant in Portland for breakfast where they had those little packets of strawberry and grape jam on the table. Some were in small plastic containers, and others were in more stylish, metal tins. He began to take the ones in the plastic containers and put them in his briefcase (which kind of reminded me of my devout grandmother who often would place a few packets of the instant coffee packets in her purse). So, I asked him why he hadn’t taken any of the ones in the metal tins, and he replied: “that would be stealing!” I sure didn’t take any, so he said “You, sir, have just been given the missionary test and you FAILED MISERABLY!” Other ways he carried himself and his zany humor reminded me of Art Carney from the old tv sitcom the Honeymooners, where he had that New York/New Jersey audacity and sarcastic one-liners. But beyond the fun and laughter, I loved how open he was about the struggles he had had and still had with respect to lust and pornography.
When he came to our church for our mission’s conference, I asked him to speak at a men’s breakfast on the Saturday morning before about his struggles. We packed the auditorium out with people coming from all over the Pacific Northwest as he spoke easily about his struggles. He spoke very candidly that it was like any other sin we can be tempted by, that he simply, and continually came before the Lord with it and surrendered it and the Lord continually gave victory. A lot of men have been helped by his honesty and openness because he opened up about being willing to be faithful to come daily to Jesus and acknowledge his weakness and complete inability to live the Christian life…unless Jesus was living it through him. His persevering to continue to surrender his will to Jesus was his secret, and another reason why I believe George was the greatest of all time.
Books – while still a student at Moody Bible Institute in 1957 George established “STL”, Send the Light as a Christian literature evangelism ministry to send copies of the Gospel of John from Chicago to Mexico. Eventually, STL became the largest Christian book distributor in the UK and the USA. The largest floating bookstore in the world is the Logos Hope, OM’s fourth and largest ship, which carries over 50,000 books. They always carry plenty of copies of books that have impacted George personally, like Roy Hessian’s “The Calvary Road”; and Chuck Swindoll’s “The Grace Awakening”, and, of course George’s own books, like Messiology. It seemed he was always offering me loads of free books, (which he would ship for free), and I used to feel guilty that I could not always take him up on his offers because we lacked the storage space!
Short-Term Missions – George and OM were among the earliest pioneers of short-term missions mobilizing thousands of students in summer months. In the Summer of 1962 OM’s first short-term missions teams moved into Europe, coming from the UK, Spain, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, the US and elsewhere. In the summer of 1963 more than 2,000 people blanketed Europe to encourage Christians and to carry God’s Word throughout the continent and find creative ways of getting it behind the Iron Curtain. OM teams were also starting in India and the Middle East in 1963. Today, upwards of 2 million participants in short-term missions come from America alone, and many evangelical churches offer some form of short-term mission experience. Additionally, it would be almost impossible to find a long-term, career missionary today who did not start out as a short termer.
Indeed, our own parent ministry, MissionWorks highlights MissionGuide which helps people find a short-term mission that fits their needs, MissionLinked which helps people raise funds for their short-term mission trip or special project, MissionArmor which offers reasonable insurance coverage for short-term missions, and MissionExcellence which provides a catalyst for excellence in mission endeavors by promoting standards through resources, training, membership, and accreditation. Most of what we see happening today began with George Verwer and OM over 60 years ago.
Urgency – his friend, and co-founder, Dale Rhoton, once said that George’s “comfort zone” was that he only felt secure when he was “risking it all” which kind of reminded me of how Phil Knight built the Nike empire. Whether speaking boldly to people about Jesus in light of his own failings, or their need to obey Christ, or entering into multi-million dollar deals, for example, to purchase a larger ship so that more Bibles and resources could be brought to seaports in unreached parts of the globe, George was always moving all his chips to the center of the table – and encouraging those who could, to join him. The time was short, and the time to act was always now, not tomorrow. Finally, there was one unusual yet significant way in which the Lord used George in the life of MissionConnexion.
In January 1999 my friend Scott Smith and I traveled up to Vancouver, Canada because George was going to be speaking at a large, annual missions event there and he had invited us to join him. Scott was a successful businessman in our church who had hosted George when he had spoken at our church missions conference in 1996. While we were there, George spoke to about 5,000 college students one night and when he came to the end of his message, he asked them to stand if they would be willing to commit their lives to fulfill the Great Commission and be “on mission for the Lord” no matter what field or career they went into. At least 80% of those in the hall stood on their feet and as we watched leaning against the back wall, all I saw in that darkened room was George giving the invitation, and thousands responding. I did not hear it audibly, but a voice in my mind asked, “what would it take to see this [scene repeated] in Portland, Oregon?” The Lord had given me a vision in 1994 of what would become MissionConnexion, but this was a clear signal from the Lord that it was time to begin gathering others to join me in prayer. There was an urgency to it. For the next two and a half years a handful of us did begin praying, before we launched MissionConnexion (then called “MissionsFest Northwest”) in November 2001.
We will always be grateful to the Lord for how He used George Verwer in the life and ministry of MissionConnexion, not to mention our own lives. If you are unfamiliar with this World-Mobilizer, please watch this excellent biopic on his life: George for Real | Full Movie, then watch George Verwer’s Final Blog.
George and Drena Verwer
Speaking at Student Connexion in 2018 with Ryan Fast.
Student Connexion November 2018