By Canon J John
George Verwer died on Friday 14 April 2023 at the age of 84. With his passing the church has lost a man who had an astonishing global influence on the way the church carries out its vital task of sharing the good news of Jesus. In Operation Mobilisation – known as OM – that George started and led for over 40 years, quite literally countless thousands of individuals have been brought to Christ and, no less significant, an equally vast number of Christians have been equipped to share their faith with confidence and boldness. Many church leaders that I know can say how formative their time – long or short – with OM has been for their lives and ministries.
It would take a very large book to do any kind of justice to the many extraordinary labours that George undertook for the gospel, and here I can only give you the briefest outline of his life.
George was born in New Jersey in 1938 and, through the remarkable influence of a praying neighbour and a gospel challenge from Billy Graham, came to faith at the age of sixteen. George began his Christian life as he was to go on: totally committed to spreading the gospel. He soon introduced many of his classmates to Jesus. Then, drawn to areas unreached by evangelism, he went on a mission trip to Mexico where he shared Christ and distributed Christian literature.
He studied at Moody Bible Institute where he instigated nights of prayer, organised evangelistic ventures and met and married Drena Knecht, who was to become his life-long partner, helper and encourager. As his missionary ventures extended to Spain, the Communist Bloc and the Muslim world, George, with his astonishing ability to motivate and lead others, created Operation Mobilisation. His dynamic and compelling advocacy and the fact that OM offered a variety of programmes of evangelism with few requirements, soon drew hundreds and then thousands. In 1964 George had the remarkable idea of using ships to visit countries, ‘sharing knowledge, help and hope’.
The result was many years of extraordinarily fruitful ministry with a succession of vessels, the most recent being Logos Hope. In 2003 George stepped back from leading OM to work on special projects.
Always radical, OM has had – and continues to have – a global impact. It’s no secret that in many of those countries where the Christian faith is forbidden and punished, there are men and women either from OM, or influenced by OM, who are building God’s church at the risk of their lives.
Throughout his life, George was a popular conference speaker and preacher of extraordinary power and a remarkable authority. I’ve no doubt that as news of George’s passing spreads there are many people saying, ‘Oh, I heard him speak forty years ago and I haven’t forgotten the impact that he made on my life.’ George’s influence was spread even further by the punchy no-holds-barred books that he wrote and then by a presence on the internet.
I was privileged to know George and I have no hesitation in using the word unique to describe him. Like many great people, George held together what could have been opposing aspects of life. He was a pioneer missionary but also someone who found an astonishingly fruitful niche as the creator and leader of an organisation. He was a passionate radical but without the criticism so often associated with radicalism. He was a man who always looked heavenward in prayer but at the same time was intensely focused on what was happening on earth. Although he took his role as OM’s figurehead seriously, he had a compelling and sometimes outrageous honesty. I had George on one of my Facing the Canon interviews and I can honestly say it was one of the most unpredictable interviews I have ever had!
Above all, George was a man of mission and let me mention three areas that inspired me.
First, George modelled mission. He didn’t simply subscribe in some intellectual way to the need to take the gospel to the ends of the earth; he gave everything he was, and had, to the task. If ever an evangelist truly ‘walked the talk’ it was George. He was supremely committed to missions to the extent of wearing clothes that almost everybody else would have consigned to the rubbish bin. He made a habit of turning up at conferences or preaching engagements wearing a flamboyant jacket displaying all the countries of the world. George set out a standard of discipleship and lived it.
Second, George was a motivator for mission. It was commonly held amongst Christian students and others that going to hear George Verwer speak on missions was a very risky business indeed. There was a very real danger that you would leave the meeting having signed up for serving on a ship or for distributing Christian literature in some country you couldn’t even place on a map.
Finally, George was a mobiliser for mission. He didn’t simply inspire people to become missionaries; he made it as easy as possible for that to happen. His choice of the phrase Operation Mobilisation for his organisation was utterly appropriate. Almost single-handedly, he threw the door open for people to try mission. He offered various opportunities in different places for different lengths of time, and insisted on little more than a willingness to share the gospel and to endure various inconveniences and risks. At a time where mission was becoming more and more ‘professionalised’ George somehow was able to throw open the doors for ordinary Christians.
There will be much said in praise of George Verwer and I have a suspicion it will almost all be merited. Yet above it all I hear George’s own voice, echoing that of Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:1 (NIV), ‘Follow my example, as I have followed the example of Christ.’
George Verwer – a hero of the faith and promoted to glory.