Why I have been weeping over the death of George Verwer
or seven things I learned from my friend and mentor
This article is dedicated to my friend and Operation Mobilization (OM) co-worker Vera – George Verwer’s faithful ministry enabler for over 40 years. I know that in the midst of the family’s loss, you were family too. Faithful, long-suffering, making all possible in ways most never imagined – I got to see it first-hand. This amazing life was possible because of your dedication and sacrifice. Thank you, from all of us.
I have wept more the last couple days than I have in a good long time – in some years, actually. When I first heard of George Verwer’s death, I felt sad but not overwhelmed. My plate was full, and I just kept going with a large to-do list for a few days. I knew George was dying and was hoping to see him in person on my trip through London the following week. I knew it was his time, and it was OK – it would be a holy celebration of a life lived for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Actually, a reason to rejoice more than to weep.
Working in my office chair two days ago I began to weep, and I knew it was for George. I continued thinking and crying a bit through the night and could not sleep. I had to digest, why am I weeping for George’s death? It has taken me a couple days to figure it out, and I think it will be a blessing to share it with you.
If you read tributes, like I have the last few days, you will see a list of some amazing accomplishments: things George did, radical things he said, the number of workers OM have been involved in sending, the story of ocean-going Gospel ships, and the fact that he may have mobilized more international workers than anyone in his generation. But none of the tributes have said much about the man I actually knew. If you want to read about his founding of OM, missiology, finding balance, or his speaking at a thousand different events you can find that somewhere else. Although incredible, these things have almost nothing to do with why I am weeping for the loss of my friend and mentor, George Verwer.
The first thing that surprised me about weeping for George (first of three reasons, in honor of the numbered sermon’s George always gave) is that I loved him. After being one of his traveling “gophers” for a year nearly thirty years ago, I never would have said that then…
The journey started just with George being in my life. My father was a fellow Moody grad and had gone on one of Moody’s first mission trips to Mexico. My dad said he was a wild man for the Gospel – but in a good way. Being Student Council President at a Christian school, I got him invited to spiritual emphasis week and got to spend time with him and his current Gopher, Mark. It was an impacting week for the school. I thought, I will do this gopher thing after college. I wrote George over a year in advance from graduating from college, and he said, “I do not usually take requests from college students outside the OM family but for your dad, and our mutual relationships, you can be my gopher.” Basically, as the Gopher you drive, sell books, travel everywhere with him or on special assignment, and do anything that needs attention for his ministry.
It was a hard year, but we did pretty well together. In fact, well enough that I was a go to Gopher advisor for years after. I would get a call or email from a young man saying, “George said we should talk in order for me to get ready for the year ahead.” I had two basic principles during those phone calls: 1) Do not expect it to be anything close to your preconceived notion of what life-on-life discipleship should look like and 2) have one single minded goal – BE A SERVANT. Serve George, serve his co-workers, serve people at the 350+ churches and conferences you will visit this year. If you go in with that mindset you will do great. That is what I did for my year; decided no matter what it felt like or how little I seemed to matter I would make serving my one thing.
During that year a Gopher was probably with George more than he was with his wife, Drena. I am talking 24/7, 7 days a week. No walls, no pretense, no façade. And what was the most difficult for me was that in that entire year George never slowed down, looked me in the eye and said, “Matt, how are you doing, what are you thinking, how can I pray for you?” It was not like any discipleship bootcamp I had ever envisioned, not like any Paul to Timothy relationship I ever heard about, even though George would use this metaphor for working with his gophers. One situation to encapsulate the difficult part of what I experienced, happened when the ship Logos was in Florida and George was speaking there at an event and my wife Laura and I were also in Florida with our newborn son. Laura also knew George because although it was not usually allowed, I was dating Laura the year I was a Gopher – a whole different story. We drove several hours and he greeted us loudly in front of other OM leaders, “hey Mack and Laurie!” I was thinking afterwards, “I spent a year with you, often seven days a week, and you got our names wrong???” But it goes back to my advice for new Gophers – serve, serve, serve. And when you are sick of it, serve some more – that is your job and your only expectation. Anything else is a bonus.
Now 30 years later, when I am a little more seasoned and a little wiser, I look back and can gladly say I was George’s Timothy, and my life was forever changed. So, I weep because I loved George.
The second reason I wept for George is in thanks to God because so many of my ministry’s and my life’s core values are a reflection of what I learned from George Verwer. It took a long conversation with my wife to help me figure this out, but as I thought it through deeply, I realized that one after the other, many of the best principles of ministry I have tried to grow for 30 years are straight from George’s life. In some weird way, after all this time, I finally understood that George was actually a “Paul” to me, and I was a “Timothy,” even when he forgot up my name.
Here is what I am not reading in the tributes I have seen so far. George’s actual genius was that he loved God with all he had, with every flawed bone in his skinny body. And this was so part of him, it was clear to all. He was totally and absolutely convinced that everybody needed to know a God that had poured out such grace and life on a sinner like him. And that belief was so strong and that life so vibrant, it was fully and absolutely contagious.
The rest of what God did with George is only commentary on these simple truths. All the rest are details of what God does with a person like that.
Now on to my topic – which reminds me, how many half-torn scraps of paper did I see him have in his hand going up to a pulpit, about to speak to a thousand people as the guest of honor, with something scribbled like “The five ways God increases faith”? Now, it was likely point one would be 20 minutes, he would get sidetracked, point two was 5 minutes, and points one minute each. In fact, in one audio teaching the producer said, “this is great, but I have no idea what to call it, there is no main subject, no cohesive point.” It ended up with the title “George Verwer Straight from the Heart.” Yep, that was George.
So here are the seven things I learned from George Verwer:
- My message is second
George always started a message with 3, 5, even 7 books in his hand. He would come back to the book table and pick titles according to his message topic, the age of the audience, and the direction of the Holy Spirit. “These books changed my life,” he would yell from the front. “This one is for a backslider like me. This one helped me learn how to defeat temptation. And Operation World will teach you how to pray for…” – then he opened a page and read aloud about a people group nobody in the room had every heard of. “Have you every prayed for the Kurds in Turkey?” was one of his favorites. George was praying for the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey long before they were in the national headlines.
He knew the main points of his message would probably pass quickly for most, but a book could be read, reread, underlined, and meditated on. Now these years later, I understand this was a totally radical mindset – to start every message by essentially saying that these other people’s messages are more important than mine. “I needed to hear this… my life was changed by this… this book has done more to….”
Who does that? Who makes their main message second every single time, as they highlight all the things they needed to learn from others before they even start on their own teaching?
- Nobody is too small to do great things for God
Lots of ministries talk about the fact that you can make a difference if you take part in this special project or serve in this way. But George lived this out every day, person by person. It was not merely a recruiting method or a slogan.
Let’s take two examples. There are just two or three people in my twenty-five years of ministry that would reach out to me saying, “How are you doing Matt? I was just praying for you, what project is on your heart right now?” One was George. I was small, doing relatively small things, in a tiny mission, with few who knew about our work. George did not care. He was regularly praying for me, more than I was praying for him. And that was true for literally hundreds of other people.
I have heard his testimony probably a few hundred times, it was a part of maybe every other message he spoke. And every time, the lady who prayed for him at his high school took center stage. She prayed that he would come to know Christ and that he would become a missionary. There was a reason for that being the core of his story – he was telling us that everything we did mattered, that God could use us no matter where we were or how small we seemed. Prayer mattered; our work mattered. Without the prayer of one faithful woman, OM may not exist.
- I do not care if you drive, as long as were going in the same direction
George had no ego, no horse in the race, no care for who did the work, as long as it got done. As OM’s founder of course he had a special place for OM in all he did, but he was just as excited if another ministry did the needed gospel work or got the credit. George wanted to find what God was doing and empower that, first and foremost. That is why hundreds of ministries have been birthed out of OM. George led with an open heart and an open hand from the very top. Once, in our early work in Nigeria, Oasis was in trouble and perhaps would have gone under. George gave us a container of books to get us through, and it would not be the last. He would call and say, “Do you have a container going to Nigeria? What books can I put in it?” Then he would personally make a list, 100 of this, 500 of that, 2,000 of this, and, of course, hundreds of the book “Grace Awakening.” OM had book ministries around the world that could have taken every book he had for legitimate needs, but George gave to all without partiality.
- God uses broken-down flawed people who love him greatly
George’s messages almost always highlighted his personal failure. He really was an open book – in a way that cannot be said of many people. One moment he could talk about being a natural backslider and the next he was talking about a radical example in his life of giving it all for Jesus. You got both in the same package, both authentic, both true, both up close and personal. He would concentrate on his own flaws and God’s triumphs right next to each other because he knew you were seriously flawed just like him and if God could use him, he could also use you. There are not a lot of people that actually live like they believe that.
In my own case, it meant coming to understand that even if his idea of discipleship was not exactly the more relational experience I expected, within George’s personality and limitations, he loved me faithfully and genuinely. And when he knew he was not living up to God’s standard, he was quick to repent.
- You can be mega-motivated and super passionate through to the end
Peter Hammond, a missions leader George connected me with in South Africa, wrote this in his tribute: “At the Global Consultation on World Evangelism held in 1997 in Pretoria, George Verwer spoke to the Missions leaders in a special mission executives section of the consultation. He was going through the unreached people groups and came to the Krongo of the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. He shouted out: ‘Peter Hammond, you go to the Nuba Mountains! Here, take the Krongo people as your project.’ He handed me the file on the Krongo, an unreached people with no known converts.” As a result, Peter became part of the Krongo’s gospel story.
My point is, by this time George was one of the most well-known mission leaders in the world, and he was still passionately giving individual challenges to individual missionaries he knew and loved. This stayed with George to the very end. There are very few men of this standing who lead this many people and keep their passion for the small and the lowly until the end. His first love for Jesus and for the lost never waned. Two ocean-going ships, tens-of-thousands of workers mobilized from a hundred countries, and the burden of leading a mega-complex multi-cultural movement never eclipsed his simple passion for the unreached.
In his 70s George was still leading small groups and nights of prayer out of his passion to petition his Heavenly Father for unreached people.
- The Gospel and saving the lost comes before all else
George knew that a sinner, saved by grace, fully committed to Jesus was the most powerful force in the world for justice and mercy. The Gospel was central in everything he did.
- God cares about your emotions
When it came to getting my PhD in New Testament, George was not openly critical, but he wondered aloud something like, “Do you really need that kind of degree when you could be a tent-making missionary in Uzbekistan, doing something nobody else is doing? We have lots of theology teachers… But I guess if that is what God is calling you to, I do believe in balance.” Even here George made an impact on my life. My topic of study was emotion in NT, a greatly misunderstood subject in the church. Many Christians are realizing that emotions are God-given and important and that is good. But that is only half the story, the other half of emotions’ role in our life is most often absent in the new wave of teaching on emotion in the church. The missing half is that God cares what you are emotional about – what you feel – and that it aligns with God’s heart for the world, the poor, and the lost. Emotional transformation is at the heart of loving God and neighbor well. George’s life-on-life discipleship played a big part in my understanding that God cares very much about what you love, why you feel joy, and what makes you angry.
This is already too long, but give me another few paragraphs, OK? Before DEI, offices of diversity, and all the rest, there was George and OM; bringing together thousands of people from over a hundred countries to live and work together for the Gospel. Before the day of short-term missions there was George and OM showing people that everyone had a role to play in missions. George launched some of the greatest book ministries in the world as well. There are probably 20 more ways he was a pioneer for the great commission in the last six decades, and everybody tagged along behind his ground-breaking innovations.
George was like the Energizer Bunny on steroids after drinking five shots of expresso – no joke! We gophers had to live with this. George, in our era of scripted corporate identity was the ANTI-BRAND – he was never on message but always on point. “Straight from the heart.”
He was just on the Gospel “brand” no matter what it took, no matter who was doing it, no matter what it cost.
George did not build OM, he was not exactly a builder. God built OM through George’s great love and his pursuit of the great commandments of Jesus in the depths of his heart. That love gave him a radical other-centered humility that allowed a contagion to rise up wherever he went. That is really what it was: a holy contagion for loving Jesus that people, like me, caught from George Verwer. That was his method of discipleship. In one of his last written communications, he said that as he was in the hospital being treated for cancer and God gave him peace that he had done all he could for the Gospel. His race was run and he could enter his rest. That is how he lived every moment: in a radical pursuit of proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ to the world.
I had the privileged to know and be known by George, and somehow, through the messiness of life, I was discipled. There are a couple people in the great cloud of witnesses I sometimes think of on a prayer walk or during a difficult time. I think, “Are you watching me? Did I do that OK? Did I honor what you taught me?” Now, I have three men I will look to in this way the rest of my life – one is named George.
And remember, there is a third reason I found myself weeping over the death of George Verwer. We are losing a generation of leaders that seem very difficult to replace in their depth of commitment and bold proclamation of the Gospel. Where are the next generation of people with this kind of single-mindedness and absolute Gospel-centered-ness? And when we find them, is the Church willing to listen to these voices if they are not polished, do not have the right social media following, or slick media presentations to back them up? How should you and I step up in his honor and be true to his example as a member of the great crowd of witnesses looking down on us? I will be thinking about that for a good long time.
George called his way of life, in the words of the KJV, “Redeeming the time.” That phrase was on his lips a lot. And like the way the NT quotes the OT, I think he was calling to mind not just a phrase but a passage. And although singing was not a strong point for George (if you were standing next to him it could be grating), I think God the Father is enjoying his voice in worship now anyway. I wonder if in Glory George will be able to carry a tune… I guess someday I will find out for myself.
So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity [redeem the time] in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly but understand what the Lord wants you to do. Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:15-20, NLT)
Matthew Elliott received his PhD in New Testament studies from the University of Aberdeen and serves as president of Oasis International, a nonprofit that works to grow discipleship by publishing African voices – including the ground-breaking Africa Study Bible. Matthew lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains where he and Laura love to open their log cabin doors to anyone needing to be encouraged for a dinner or a weekend retreat. He has a special interest in the topic of emotions in the Bible, a topic he has written on extensively. He served at Operation Mobilization and proudly as George Verwer’s Gopher from 1990-92. www.oasisinternational.com
This is submitted by Matthew Elliott of Oasis International. Oasis International is a Missio Nexus member. Member organizations can provide content to the Missio Nexus website. See how by clicking here.
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