It has been observed that God brings deliverance and help to hurting people through others who have suffered from the same oppressions and hurts. So it is with me.
My childhood was a story of two extremes. On the one hand, it was a wonderful time with all the elements of the American dream. Unfortunately, that was followed by the nightmarish collapse of my home through alcoholism, prescription drug addiction, and divorce. When I came to Christ at age 17, I had a passion to help young people who were caught in the same traps that had snared me. This has been the driving force behind every phase of my fifty years of ministry.
Willie at age 5 with Roy Rogers
Ed George and family. He was the son of a Texas Ranger and was led to Christ by a Methodist circuit rider in 1888.
My dad was a professional rodeo cowboy and his early years were spent on the rodeo circuit. Bill George rode bareback broncs, Brahma bulls, and wrestled steers in rodeos from Madison Square Garden to Cheyenne, Wyoming. In the 1950’s, television was flooded with westerns, and guest appearances of movie stars like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were common occurrences at the bigger rodeos. My mom would dress me up in jeans, a western shirt, cowboy boots, and a big cowboy hat and my dad would take me around to meet these stars. The other cowboys would call me by name and give me candy. I loved the rodeo life! When we weren’t on the road, my family lived in a small Texas Panhandle town with all the elements and warmth of Mayberry, USA. I spent time with cousins, aunts, and uncles who also lived in the same town. I have many wonderful memories of that short time. We had everything a family could want – except a vibrant relationship with Christ. Both my parents had professed faith in Christ but neither of them made time for church or meaningful engagement with a spiritual community. So, over time, like so many other families, my parents grew increasingly hostile to each other and in the summer of 1962, my mother left my father and took me and my younger brother to live in Fort Worth.
The city was a radical change from the small town with its safeguards of family and community. Within three months, my mom turned to alcohol for comfort and our tiny apartment became an emotional hell. She attempted suicide with sleeping pills that fall. I ran two miles across the north side of Fort Worth, in the middle of the night, to get help from my grandparents. I was 10 years old. A few weeks later during Christmas holidays, she slashed her wrists in the bathtub. A concerned co-worker found her and got her to the hospital.
In the next three years, the suicide attempts stopped but the nightly drunkenness and abuse grew worse. My mom was a beautiful woman who could function in the business world during the day but became a monster in the evenings. My brother and I were the only ones to see this dark side of her personality. There were no adults in our world to which we could turn. We made the best of it until we both left – I at 13 and my brother three years later at age twelve. During those years, the power of the generational curse began to take root in me. As much as I despised alcoholism, I began to drink at age 15. My drinking steadily grew and by age 17, I found I was unable to have fun without drinking.
Willie with his uncle Keith
But then, God intervened in the course of my life. James Robison came to Irving McArthur High School where I attended and gave a motivational talk to the 2,600 students. I was impressed by his amazing ability to connect with teenagers. So with the influence of my football coach, I went to hear James preach at a local church. It was the turning point of my life. I was the first person to walk the aisle in that 2,000-seat auditorium on Thursday night, February 19, 1970. I wholeheartedly surrendered to Christ and my new life began! At the end of that school year, I moved to Wheeler, TX to live with my mother’s youngest brother, Keith Johnson. Keith had just taken his first time pastorate at a tiny church. My uncle Keith was my boyhood hero and he was more of a dad to me than my own father had been. He taught me how to work, how to walk in integrity, but mainly, how to know God! I became part of a church family for the first time in my life. I also became aware that God had placed a call on me to pastor.
In 1973, our small church started a bus ministry and, by default, it was mine to run. Because of the large numbers of kids that we were able to pick up, our small church began to grow by leaps and bounds. These unruly kids quickly overwhelmed their Sunday school teachers! I decided to relieve the pressure by taking the elementary kids into a class of their own. With little instruction or formal training, I began to preach with illustrated sermons and exciting stories about a cowboy character named “Gospel Bill”. The kids loved these stories and they began to learn about God’s love and care for them. Even though I knew I was called to be a pastor, I could see that God had anointed me to teach a generation of children. I followed that anointing to an international ministry.
Willie as Gospel Bill ca. 1984
Dry Gulch USA
In 1982, I launched The Gospel Bill Show, a 30-minute TV program for children – I became the character that I had told so many stories about. The popularity of the program grew until it was carried by more than 100 stations and every Christian satellite network in the country. I complemented the outreach with huge family rallies in churches from coast to coast as well as training seminars for children’s workers. In 1986, the ministry bought a raw, undeveloped parcel of Northeast Oklahoma timber and built Dry Gulch USA – a camp and retreat center that drew campers from all 50 states and numerous foreign countries.
One of the three Christmas Train locomotives
The powerful crucifixion scene at the end of the Christmas Train
Dry Gulch became a western movie town and soon had three narrow-gauge steam locomotives. In 1996, I launched The Christmas Train, an amazing train ride through billboard-sized pictures of the Gospel story, from creation to the resurrection of Christ. This unique event hosted 1,000,000 riders in its seventeen seasons of operation and was voted a top-100 tourist attraction in America.
The first building on our new church property (1994)
Pastor Willie George preaching
Pastor Willie George at Oneighty
But, the call to pastor was still there. After 6 months of prayer and soul searching, I and my team launched Church on the Move in Tulsa. The church began in the smallest way but by January of 1991, it had grown to 3,000 people. Over the following years, Church on the Move has become one of the nation’s largest, most innovative churches. But in 1995, I realized our youth ministry was not keeping pace with the rest of the church. It was anything but a model for other churches to follow. I realized that no matter how good the youth pastor, the lack of involvement of the senior pastor determined the success or failure of the ministry. The Holy Spirit directed me to Malachi 4:6, “And He shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers…”. With this conviction, I relaunched the youth group and called it Oneighty. The nuclear group of 250 teenagers eventually grew to 2,500 in average weekly attendance. Thousands of young people came to Christ. This amazing success attracted pastors from all over the country with a vision of reaching their own young people. COTM built a revolutionary youth ministry complex and began to host national events for youth ministers.
Church on the Move in 1999
Church on the Move in 2009
As my own children became parents themselves and entered their thirties, I saw a disconnect between them and our regular church services. I could always count on my son Whit to level with me and by 2003, he convinced me that we were not going to reach the next generation of adults without significant changes. In the 1980’s, I had witnessed the loss of influence of two of my ministry heroes. These two men, who had been amazingly successful, were clearly dropping off in influence and effectiveness. I knew the same thing could happen to me if it happened to them. So, I began to give the younger generation a voice. I let them talk to me about the ways we did church and I realized that a major shift was taking place. I would either make adjustments or COTM would slowly become irrelevant. I made the decision to change our style without changing our essence. It paid off. The changes so resonated with other young church leaders that we launched the Seeds Conference in 2011. The conference was an immediate hit and the young leaders in churches across America brought their pastors to see the model of change firsthand.
Transition to a new leader, Whit George
I knew that a leadership transition at Church on the Move was inevitable. During the decade from 2007 to 2017, I began to prepare my son Whit to take the Lead Pastor position. People always ask me how I knew that Whit was the man for the job. It was simple – Whit had the same shepherd’s heart for church that I did. So in July 2017, Church on the Move introduced a new Lead Pastor. I knew this was absolutely the right decision but it was still very difficult to step back. My motto has become, “I am still on the team – I’m just not the starting quarterback anymore.’
Pastor George at Rocker W Ranch
Pastors at Rocker W Ranch
Pastor Willie George and Deleva
Today, I am focusing my efforts on mentoring the pastors and leaders of my own kids’ generation. Through myfaithroots.com and Rocker W Ranch, I am hosting retreats, providing counsel and insight, and speaking in local churches across the country.
During a reflective prayer session a few years back, I asked the Lord why I no longer had a ministry to children. I knew without a doubt that I had followed God’s leading to do all the things I had done. He answered me in this way: “I never called you to children’s ministry – I called you to a generation.” I realized then that I have followed my own children and their generation as a teacher and mentor. When they were kids, I was Gospel Bill. When they became teenagers, I launched Oneighty. And now that they’re adults, I’m the old sage who cheers from the sideline. And like the Apostle John said at the end of his life, this is my sentiment: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.”