George Verwer truly lived a radical life. He met the radical Jesus at age sixteen and served him until his death aged 84 on April 14.
Today, Saturday June 17, a thanksgiving celebration of his life will be live-streamed at 14:00 UK time (15:00 CET) from the centre of his adopted home city of London today.
George was indefatigable – in prayer for far-flung nations, in evangelism of those yet to hear about Jesus, in mobilisation of the ‘ordinary’ to do the ‘extraordinary’, in fund-raising for his countless new projects and in correspondence to fellow labourers around the globe. He always amazed me by sending personal birthday greetings – whether on my birthday or not!
One of the first stories I heard about the radical George was how that he and his new bride Drena headed off to Mexico for an evangelistic honeymoon, paying for fuel by exchanging wedding gifts!
When he turned 80, he visited 20 cities around Britain by train from Brighton to Glasgow simply to meet anyone who wanted to talk with him. He warned his friends there would be no programme. They would have to just look for him in Starbucks, Caffe Nero or Costa in the train stations. By his reckoning, he had travelled over a million miles on British Rail since 1962.
George started Operation Mobilisation in 1957 to use every means possible to spread the gospel, including literature distribution, education programmes, ship ministries, trans-continental mission treks, disaster relief and development assistance, refugee care, and embracing emerging technology.
He pioneered a movement offering short-term opportunities for anyone without previous mission or ministry training. He believed that the short-term mission movement had launched more long-termers than any other movement.
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.
He often confessed his own temptations, fragilities and weaknesses, but, stressing humility and brokenness, believed God worked through such ‘earthen vessels’. His word for how God works in spite of – even through – believers with failings, Messiology (2016), emboldened others to confess mistakes and shortcomings, without feeling judged and condemned.
George saw the potential of literal vessels too, launching the work of the Logos in 1970 as a floating book exhibition able to enter ports usually closed to Christian work. A second ship, the Doulos, re-commissioned in 1977, was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s oldest active ocean-going passenger ship. After the Logos ran aground off Cape Horn in 1988, with no loss of life, she was replaced by a converted car-ferry re-christened Logos II. In 2009, the Logos Hope was added to the OM fleet, the fruit of a radical visionary.
Many launched into missions through OM went on to lead other ministries, including Greg Livingstone, founder of Frontiers, whom George challenged to go to India. Greg told George he didn’t even know where India was. ‘Just keep driving east,’ said George. ‘You can’t miss it!’
Lindsay Brown, who served with IFES and Lausanne, says the year he spent on board Logos in Africa in the late 70s expanded his awareness of the Global Church. He reflects that George had tapped in to the global mission potential of the majority world, encouraging people from the non-Western world to serve cross-culturally and to move into international leadership. Brown, who sometimes travelled with George and often shared conference platforms, 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 few months ago, my friend Katherine Porter, one of OM’s associate international directors, asked George what had kept him going: was it his love for the nations? ‘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 stepped down from leading OM on his 65th birthday, but for almost twenty more years continued to travel, speak, write and fundraise, living frugally in order to meet others’ needs generously, and mentoring younger leaders.
The movement he founded has mobilised over 250,000 people into missions, enabling some 100 million people to connect with God’s Word and the gospel. Up to 300 other mission organisations were started by people who came from, or were influenced by, OM.
What a legacy!
Till next week,