Christ lives in me.
The life you see me living is not ‘mine,’ but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
I am not going to go back on that.”
Galatians 2:20 (MSG)
George Verwer truly lived a radical life.
From committing his life to Christ at sixteen until his passing, aged 84, the missions maverick from New Jersey made his entire existence about pressing forward to bring others to Jesus; no turning back.
“Everybody needs the chance that George Verwer had, that night in the Billy Graham meeting,” was his explanation. “I met the radical Jesus that night, and He invaded my life by His Holy Spirit. Every single day since, I’ve experienced His mercy and His grace, and I’ve been able to serve Him.”
His death on 14 April 2023 kindled a wealth of tributes honouring the multi-faceted personality who had global impact. Franklin Graham, son of Billy, called George “a giant in the world of evangelism.” Don Stephens, who founded Mercy Ships, said: “George’s drive to reach the whole world was legendary.”
Once asked how much of the world should be reached, George’s immediate reply was, “All of it, by every means possible.” Under his leadership of Operation Mobilisation, those means included literature distribution, education programmes, young people driving across continents to share the Good News, ministry from ships, relief and development assistance after disasters, refugee care, and embracing emerging technology. “George was like a hyped-up car with the power of a locomotive,” according to former OMer Virgil Amos. “He had dozens of projects going on in his mind at any given time!”
If some of his plans didn’t work out, George was indefatigable in keeping on keeping on. Setbacks were stepping-stones as he remained open to all God’s possibilities. A three-man summer mission to Mexico in 1957 grew into a global organisation serving in more than 147 countries today.
“George Verwer has challenged, preached, taught, pleaded, prayed, agitated, cajoled and mobilised the Church for action.”
The words of Doug Pennoyer, a dean at Biola University in California, from where George was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2009. Summarising George as “a man who has mobilised a generation and served the purposes of God in his generation,” Dr Pennoyer said:
“He has lifted the Church’s eyes to see the world as God sees it and emboldened us to pray the Lord of the harvest to thrust out labourers into his harvest field. What kind of labourers? Not the perfect ones, but the willing ones. Consecrated lives, willing to go anywhere, do anything, pay any price, for the glory of God.”
Lindsay Brown, former general secretary of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), knew George for more than 40 years: “People were attracted to this guy because he didn’t take himself too seriously – he recognised his own fragility and weaknesses or fallenness, but that God can work through such a person. I’m sure that’s a major reason why God continued to use him.
“And that shapes the whole movement as well, because when the leaders acknowledge their need of repentance, then everybody else recognises the need themselves. That comes right through OM, with all the emphasis on humility and brokenness and hunger for reality.”
Short-term for the long run
A major shift in mission participation came about in the 60s. It may not have been invented by George Verwer; Youth With A Mission (YWAM) was on a similar track. Both agencies spearheaded short-term opportunities as a way of involving Christians without previous mission or ministry training.
George explained: “I believe that’s one of the reasons God has raised up movements like OM, YWAM and others: to give people a short term in which they can give thought, get to meet people who are involved in missions, get exposure to other nations – to the situations and, yes, to the problems. The short-term mission movement has launched more long-termers than any other movement.” Teams worldwide will have members who initially came for a summer, but realised God had a plan for them to stay.
Lindsay Brown (IFES) is also a historian and author on mission. He observes: “Many mission agencies which use a short-term approach have really learnt it from OM in some way. The impact that introducing that has had on global mission is inestimable; through hundreds – if not thousands – of different mission agencies, small and large, all around the world. I don’t think it’s been catalogued, and on balance, the contribution is overwhelmingly positive.”
Into all the world
“George did not look for the easy places but seemed to find regions of the world that were extraordinarily difficult,” observed Leland Paris, director of YWAM’s branch in Tyler, Texas.
Often emotional in prayer and preaching, George wore his heart on his sleeve and the nations were always on his heart. World-map jackets became his trademark, along with a giant beach ball globe held aloft as he pointed out countries where Jesus is little-known; revealing how well-informed he was on issues and praying passionately for far-off places.
“His bold obedience to Christ has left a legacy at OM that is characterised by a desire to go to the least-reached areas of the world,” said Doug Pennoyer, in 2009. George was no longer leading OM and it would be almost another decade until the current mission statement was adopted – but it is in essence Verwer’s vision: We want to see vibrant communities of Jesus followers among the least reached.
Greg Livingstone, who would later found Frontiers, felt called to serve overseas after George assigned him to pray for a nation Greg couldn’t have found on the map. “We knew that this guy had vision,” says Greg, “The idea that we could drive out to India in these old vehicles and make a difference… I told him, ‘George, I don’t even know where India is.’ He said, ‘Just keep driving east – you can’t miss it!’ We somehow had confidence that it wouldn’t be a mess; it would work out. OK, there was a naivety there; but because of the Holy Spirit, we just knew this was a man you could follow to the ends of the earth.”
George didn’t just go to but with people from all nations. Nigel Lee, of the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF), reflected on how serving in the 60s shaped him: “We found ourselves on international teams – this was very, very good for us – made up of people from nations that we had hurt, or invaded, or bombed, or been hurt by – and we were together on those teams. We were given responsibilities at the age of 20, 21, 22, that you would never have imagined. It was life-changing.”
Lindsay Brown’s year on board Logos in Africa in the late 70s expanded his awareness of the global Church George had tapped into: “In some ways, OM pioneered the practice of encouraging people from the non-Western world to consider serving cross-culturally and even moving into leadership – international leadership – without playing down the role that North Americans and Europeans continue to have. So it wasn’t a rejection of the contribution of the Church in the West, but Verwer was saying that God can raise up people from Senegal or Ghana or Malaysia or wherever, just as much as He can raise up Westerners.”
“Six months before he passed away, I asked George what had kept him going: was it his love for the nations?” recalls Katherine Porter, one of OM’s associate international directors. “He looked back at me with his sharp blue eyes and paused. ‘No,’ he replied ‘My love for Jesus. It's always been a discipleship story. The nations grew out of that story. It's always been Jesus.’”
George wrote and spoke about a revolution of love; language which chimed with young people in the 60s but made their conservative parents or churches wary. Racial segregation was still in place in the USA when he began OM, yet George welcomed volunteers like Virgil Amos when other missions weren’t accepting black candidates. “He esteemed me to be better than himself. He never caused me to feel inferior, or somewhat less than, when I was around him,” recalls Virgil. “George was a model to me regarding how the true Christian life should be lived. He was a bright light and a force for righteousness for millions of individuals.” Dr Amos served in leadership with OM before founding Ambassadors Fellowship.
George’s counter-cultural methods (including giving opportunities to Christians who had experienced divorce) did attract criticism in some evangelical circles, but the direct-talker prioritised time on his knees, was winsome in his genuineness and could bridge denominational or doctrinal divides. “He could build a coalition and speak to various churches,” says Viv Thomas, who’s been with OM since 1976. “He knew the main things he wanted to pay attention to and didn’t make it too complicated – that way he could reach as many people as possible.”
Lindsay Brown travelled with George and shared many a platform at conferences. He considers Verwer a great statesman: “Because he spoke positively, never negatively, about other mission agencies in public, I would say he was a very rare breed and from my perspective, he was one of the most outstanding North American missionary leaders in the world over the last 60 years.”
A friend to many, for life
“George is a friend of mine; I miss him when he is not around. Perhaps the most staggering thing is that I suspect there are hundreds of people living all over the world who feel exactly like I do,” Viv Thomas wrote in his book, Future Leader (1999).
“People felt privileged that this great Christian leader was their friend, knew about their family and kept in touch with them,” says Tony Kirk, the former director of OM in the UK. Recalling the sight he was met with on visiting George’s living room, Tony says: “When I opened the door, he was standing there with his Dictaphone, surrounded by hundreds of prayer letters from people all over the world. They were everywhere: on the table, the chairs, even the floor – and George was going around praying for each person, then dictating a letter to them. George was authentic.”
Andy Hawthorne, founder of The Message Trust, says, “I’m so grateful to have been one of many hundreds of people whom George prayed for regularly, and have loved his timely phone calls shouting at me not to give up, often from some far-flung place in the world. Has there been a more beautiful, eccentric, fruitful fire-starter in the kingdom for the last 60-plus years than my friend George Verwer?”
Big-hearted. Grace-awakened. Sporadic yet faithful. Not always gentle, but genuine. The depth of feeling as people describe the relationship they enjoyed with George is remarkable. For a man whose annual schedule crammed in 300 speaking engagements (in what would be other people’s retirement years), how he found time to keep up such a vast correspondence – or had the capacity to retain details about his thousands of contacts – seems staggering. It energised George. People mattered to him because they matter to Jesus.
Rev Kevin Bidwell says, “When George bonded with you, he was like super glue. He would stick with you through thick and thin.”
The man who acknowledged his own temptations and invented a word for how God works in spite of – even through – believers with failings, Messiology (2016), emboldened others to open up. OM’s current international director, Lawrence Tong, observes: “With George, you could confess your mistakes, your shortcomings, and you would not feel judged and condemned. If anything, you would feel the embrace of God coming out of the man.”
Pastor and academic Tony Sargent commented: “Thousands have received his letters. Broken leaders have known his balm, exhausted missionaries have been rejuvenated, successful businesspeople have seen how vital they are to the kingdom.”
Researcher David Greenlee, editor of Global Passion (2003), a compilation of essays examining George’s contribution to mission, dedicated the book thus: “Revolutionary realist, compassionate visionary, passionate servant, grabber of the impossible, friend of failures… For your Christ-centred life, inspiring leadership, transparent integrity, irrepressible humour and gracious zeal… In appreciation for the volumes you have written into our lives, and the lives of countless others.” George and his wife were clearly moved as the book was presented to them. “We just want to serve 100 per cent,” was his humble response.
Only heaven can tell
“When the history of contemporary missions is recorded, the name of George Verwer will be writ large. His ability to enthuse the unenthusiastic, mobilise the immobile, motivate the unmotivated, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable is without parallel.” Pastor and author Stuart Briscoe wrote, twenty years ago.
Can George Verwer’s impact around the globe be measured? Is there a way to count how many books he distributed, lives he influenced, people who've heard about Jesus through OM’s outreaches?
What is known – this side of heaven – is that, over the years, the movement has mobilised upwards of 250,000 people into mission involvement. More than 100 million people have come into contact with God’s Word and the gospel lived-out through ministries on land and on sea over the last 65 years. The scope widens further when up to 300 other mission organisations started by people who came from, or were influenced by, OM are factored in.
Author Randy Alcorn ventured to put a figure on George's reach: “I imagine people are lined up for miles [in heaven] just to thank him for bringing them the gospel. (There’s no way to know exactly, but I believe it is safe to say that at least tens of millions of people – likely over a hundred million – have come to faith in Jesus through the many ministries of Operation Mobilisation.)”
Passing the mantle
George stepped down from leading OM on his 65th birthday, but mobilising was in his DNA. Then, for almost twenty more years he travelled extensively, spoke, wrote and fundraised prolifically, lived frugally in order to meet others’ needs generously, and mentored younger leaders insightfully.
In February 2023, George shared news of his declining health with supporters but assured them that in the hospital, he’d had “a powerful experience with God, in which all burdens for ministry and wrestling with global suffering have been lifted.” He said, “God assured me that I’ve done my part and I need to leave the rest with others and Jesus.”
“To hear him say those words, that he felt released from the heavy burden he held, was very powerful,” says Mark Soderquist, who served as George’s assistant in the mid-80s. “I don’t know that there’s anybody who loved the whole world as much as George did, as far as humans are concerned, and had a desire for them to come into relationship with Jesus.”
George had grabbed the globe and preached with urgency for two-thirds of a century. His visual aid may have been a lightweight inflatable, but the Great Commission task weighed on him. Before each meeting, the figure in the world-map jacket would be bowed in prayer for God to raise up more workers to shoulder the burden. George had knelt over maps in vigils since his college days. “There is not one corner of the world that he has not wept over,” says Mark Soderquist, “Then God gave him the peace, the freedom, that he could let go.”
Hundreds of times, George took off his map jacket and gave it away to a fellow kingdom worker – handing over his own vestment as an investment in others, for the cause of Christ. The mantle multiplied and spread across the world. Andy Frost, director of Share Jesus International, is clear on what happens next: “The baton is now in our hands.”
Rev Celia Apeagyei-Collins, an OM board member, wrote, on George’s passing: “The true measure of a man is not evaluated in what he leaves for others but also what he leaves in them. You tick both boxes, George. Thank you for an awesome legacy left us; we will not squander it.”
“Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, for ye know your labour in the Lord is not in vain.”
1 Cor.15:58 (KJV)