(Joe Willis was appointed an Evangelist in 1996 and served the Lord as a Region Leader in the London International Church of Christ. Later, he led the Birmingham (England) Church and oversaw all the congregations of northern England and Scotland. Sadly, in 2003, Joe & Kerry Willis left the full-time ministry and moved to Kerry’s home city of Brisbane, Australia. In time, their faith led them to initiate the Brisbane Remnant Group of the SoldOut Movement. In April of this year, Joe left his very lucrative job to move his family to Los Angeles where he presently supports Kerry and himself to train full-time with the vision to lead the Crown of Thorns Church planting to Sydney, Australia in 2014! Joe & Kerry have become dear partners in the gospel to Elena & me! KM)
“In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:33
When I studied the Bible to become a Christian in 1990 in London I can honestly say, that this was NOT my favourite Scripture. My life had been a mixture of “champagne and razor blades.” Although I went to one of the most prestigious schools in England, it also meant I left home to board at the age of eight years old. By the age of 23, I had lived in many European countries trying to find my feet in life. With that came a darker side, where I delved into multiple relationships, drugs, major bouts with alcohol and crime. In essence, I was looking for someone or something to quench my soul, to find the purpose for this meaningless life. The price of my soul was to not live for me. Yes there was smoking etc. to give up, but the real price tag was my selfishness – doing what I wanted, when I wanted.
Once I had given up everything and was baptized, I finally found peace. There were still scars that needed to heal and character issues, but passion for God’s Word was primary, and a desire to convert the whole world at any and every cost was a “given.” After a year of being a Christian, I went into the full-time ministry in London. At first it went well. A girlfriend soon followed and I was even preaching to large crowds. Somehow in the midst of all this my heart got damaged – mostly immaturity on my part. I did not speak up when I saw others –who should have known better – sinning. Resentment, faithlessness and some harsh discipling soon followed. It is hard to remember all the specifics, but what I do remember is that three years after I had first said “Jesus is Lord” I was out of the ministry, single, in the church but in a different city, out of sight and therefore out of mind of those who I had been close to in those early years. I found myself praying and praying to God, telling Him how unfair life was as He had taken away my dream of the full time ministry, my girlfriend, my friends… No one had told me about these costs! The price tag for salvation felt too high! Was it really worth it? Was the world really that bad after all? The conceived utopia of a perfect church with perfect Christians in it was burst. No one told me that the price of salvation included a broken heart and forgiveness of those who I thought should have known better.
Though this was a dark period for me, it was also the first time I really “got to grips” with the cross. Repeatedly meditating on the cross showed me that Jesus went through it all and He does understand; He was let down by His friends, deserted, even abused, misunderstood, forgotten and had what little He had taken from Him. In time, I did heal, as the greatest wounds are healed by faith. I started to understand that God’s methods of training us to be useful to His purposes are to experience pain and learn to master it, to use it to our advantage in sharing with others. (Hebrews 5:8) Little did I know that like a vaccine, these first years as a disciple were preparing me for a greater trial later in life.
I remember the changing point; it was at a conference. I made a decision to respond to every sermon as if I had just become a Christian. One thing led to another, and in 1994 I went back into the full-time ministry in London and met my wonderful wife Kerry! (London was the place I said I would never go back to!) Over the next ten years we led several groups in the UK and also had the addition of our two children, Luke and Ally. During 2002, we were honoured to serve as the leaders of the Birmingham Church (which at its peak was 320 members), as well as having had overseeing roles in the Scottish churches, Manchester, Leeds, Coventry, Leicester and Oxford. We served alongside some of the greatest men and women I have ever known.
Then, to the shock of many, persecution came from within the church. What happened in 2003 in the churches in the UK for those of us who were there was nothing short of tragic; whichever way you look at it – and whoever you want to point the finger at – the only person who won was Satan. I was in all the first meetings, even in Henry Kriete’s discipleship group. What actually happened then and what I have been told by others happened then, are very different. For my own part, it did not surprise me that people “en masse” came and brought many of my failings and sins as a leader before me. When you lead for so long, you say and do many things you wish you could take back. What I was not prepared for was the feeling that I could not even visit the church I loved due to the viciousness of the personal attacks. When those incidents started to happen on my door step at home and in front of my children, with no thought to the impact to my then five year old children, I went into protection mode. Many things in only a few months led to me resigning and in the end we decided to move to Australia, to be close to my wife’s family.
Then, it was out of the frying pan and into the fire. On arriving in Brisbane, Australia in 2003, we walked into a church that had split only some weeks beforehand. I truly believe that everyone was trying to do what they thought was best or right; you may even say that “everyone did as they saw fit.” (Judges 17:6) What was now happening was that instead of one big movement with one main leader, there were several small groups with one main leader, as churches overseeing other churches went out the window at that time, so did discipling. What happened during that time solidified my convictions on discipling, as it is so easy for not only an individual’s heart to become deceived, but also a whole church without outside help will go astray and become lukewarm. I am sure the churches in Revelation did not think they were doing badly. But that is why the letters had to be written to them, because sin is deceitful. (Hebrews 3:12-13) My belief was and is that God wants one unified worldwide movement (John 17) that holds to the same standard of Jesus teaching in every church, no different than what I was first taught as a young disciple. (1 Corinthians 4:15-17) As a result of not seeing this, we left the group in Brisbane we had joined, as the teaching we had known at first was not being adhered to. The new price tag for me? Doing it when there’s no one to commend you.
A small band of people that had left the two remaining churches in Brisbane started to meet with us at our house to try and find encouragement. Knowing that I needed help, I sought it out from various leaders around the world. The only one to return my phone call out of everyone was Chris Chloupek in Phoenix, Arizona. I had read on the internet that he too had started a group in his living room, and he in turn shared about what he had saw happening in Portland: healing, hope, vision, and a stand against the waves of doubt and confusion. When this happened lots of things came up about “associating” with Kip McKean, how it was “all his fault things had gone wrong.” Wanting to deal with the past and find a future, Kerry and I decided to spend all our savings to visit first the Chloupeks in Phoenix and then the McKeans in Portland in 2006 to put Matthew 18:15 into practice. If I believed they were in sin for doing what they were doing, I needed to love them enough to tell them and help them, not sit in a group and be slanderous.
We came, we fellowshipped with the Christians in both churches. I found them to be humble for the most part, and surprise surprise, the Christians were not perfect! I talked with Chris and Kip about my concerns and how I viewed things from the outside. In fact, The First Principles’ wording was even changed that week as a result of me bringing things up with Kip. I left having to deal with and face MY issues. That’s what happens when you put Matthew 18 into practice… you leave those you talk to so they go to God, then you are left to face God yourself. After we returned to Australia, we met with our small group and shared how excited we were about what we had seen. On the first Sunday back, to our astonishment, due to our decision to join this radical “new movement,” everyone in our small group said they did not want to fellowship with us. The new price tag for Kerry & me was doing it alone.
In time, our little group grew to only five. We have helped our friends, Ian and Margo Clague grow stronger, and also helped another sister Brenda James sort out much of her life before she went to be with God, just one week before we left Australia in April of this year.
Why move to Los Angeles? Well it was not because I was doing well spiritually; it is because I wanted to do well spiritually. I had become comfortably numb with my unfruitfulness, as it says in Mark 4:18-19. I have two 14 year old children and I know that when I get to study out with them what the Bible says “a disciple is” and what “God’s church should be like,” they will see through all of my excuses: “Well you don’t understand, but…” Either my life is demonstrating God’s power and the fulfilment of His promises or it is not. And frankly, it was not.
The price tag this year? Giving up my job as National Operations Manager with my company, a very large salary, selling our house at a loss in order to get the money to support myself here in the USA, our savings, the confrontation of leading my wife and children. We first tried to move to Los Angeles five years ago, but Satan threw everything but the kitchen sink at us, and so we became “spiritually paralyzed.” Not wishing to continue “to insult the Spirit of grace” (Hebrews 11:26-29), I just knew I must not let any obstacle or any person stop me this time.
Does the price tag seem too high now that we are here? Well I can only share with you what I have seen since I have been here, best put in Jesus’s words: “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.’” (John 8:31) I see a group of Christians that resolutely expect the Bible to be put into practice; the Bible is out all the time, in conversations, lessons… it is all about God and letting Him lead you and His people. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” (John 13:35) I see deep genuine love for my family and me. I have many wounds to heal and things to deal with, yet I am treated with undeserved respect, patience, gentleness, understanding and I feel valued. From being greeted at the airport by over 70 people like some wounded returning war hero, being given furniture for free to help set us up, to the incredible family atmosphere of church. There is a devotion and love here to help each other that I have not seen in years. “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:8) There are people becoming Christians all the time and people like myself having their hearts restored. Even in the small group of the church I am in, the AMS Region, I have witnessed these 60 “sold-out disciples” dynamically grow through 12 baptisms and restorations in the last 12 weeks! After being in a little group in Australia where despite our hard work and hospitality we did not bear much fruit, it is refreshing to see the Spirit work, and I want to be where the Spirit of God is working, not where He is not.
What I have also seen in being here is the depths of my own selfishness, as I see the inspiring obedience, love and fruit. I see examples of how to practically implement these qualities and now have a hope of living the life God really wants to give me. The love of the disciples here has helped me throw off the sadness of the devastation of the past, to focus my anger on Satan not on others, to resolve to get back in the war on God’s side, and not put up with the unfinished job of the world being saved. What am I looking forward to is seeing a unified worldwide church that outwits Satan and his schemes, that brings the hope of great marriages, families and healed lives to the millions of people in thousands of cities; to not let the past be the ceiling of my spiritual fervour, passion and impact on Satan’s kingdom, but to die saying “we may have stumbled at the first attempt, but boy we learnt from it, and so we became much more of what God had always wanted us to be!” The price tag was and always will be worth it!