Bruce Triplehorn, a missionary to Brazil with Encompass World Partners and author of the BMH book, Worship the Golden Thread, worked with the late Bill Burk from the moment the Triplehorns landed in the South American country in the 1990s. Upon hearing of Burk’s death on July 26, Bruce sent this tribute, which he had written in anticipation of Bill’s retirement after 59 years on the field. It is reproduced here with his permission.
Ten Key Principles That Have Shaped My Life That I Learned From Bill Burk
Bill Burk was from a different generation than I and we had different styles of ministries. However, I had the highest regard for this man, because he taught me principles that have shaped my life and ministry. Whenever I needed advice, he always gave me guidelines that made my course of action clear. Here are ten principles that I have picked up over the years from Bill. I have put them in my own words.
- Evangelism is a process. When I visited Bill Burk for the first time in 1985, I was still very confused about the gospel, being accustomed to the quick four-step presentation of the plan of salvation with an invitation and prayer at the end. He demonstrated that the gospel is about knowing Jesus first and not the plan of salvation. Going through the Bible chapter by chapter with an unbeliever and allowing Holy Spirit to convict the person of sin, righteousness, and judgment was a new concept for me.
- Evangelism is looking for God’s elect. The debate between free-will and election was an academic subject from my perspective, but Bill actually applied it to evangelism. It was not just theory for him, but it influenced how he evangelized. His methods were consistent with his theology. When I learned this, I felt freer to evangelize and allow God to convince people of their need for Christ.
- God’s Word is the only seed God has promised to bless. The methods that I was familiar with were tracts and illustrations. Bill demonstrated that one-on-one studies of the Word of God are the only tool that is powerful enough to convert sinners into saints.
- People learn more from your mistakes than they do from your successes. A couple who stayed with Bill told me that he took them out to an island (Cutijuba) where he had planted a church. He pointed out that there was no longer a Grace Brethren group meeting there. He then proceeded to tell them all of the mistakes that he had made that contributed to the closing of the church. Bill was always open about what he had learned from his mistakes, because people learn as much from that as they do from the success stories.
- As a church-planter, we need to focus on the most prepared. Leave the hard cases for your disciples. Bill would sometimes study years with individuals. Yet he was always quick to cut off studies with those who were not truly committed to learning the Scriptures. I asked him if he has cut off studies with people who later came to the Lord. He said, “Oh my, yes.” He proceeded to explain that he was there to find the most prepared and most willing. He said, “I leave the hard cases for my disciples.” That helped me see how I should use my time as a missionary.
- It is harder to fix the foundation of a church after it has started. Early in planting a church, if a firm foundation is not laid, there will be problems. He shared his mistakes, but also shared how he worked in laying a firm foundation on the Word of God. Bill often emphasized this and it changed the direction of my ministry.
- Don’t make disciples of yourselves. One of the first nights I went out with Bill in Barcarena, we met a man in the road who was obviously drunk. He greeted Bill with a smile and talked with us briefly. Bill commented, “One of my disciples.” I was not impressed. A little later, we saw another man who was full of the joy of the Lord. As we left that conversation, Bill said, “One of the Lord’s disciples.” Then I understood. No matter how hard we try to help people become disciples of the Lord, some will focus on us more than on Jesus.
- Allow leaders to emerge within the group. My missions theology teacher said that leaders should be trained in their environment. This principle is so obviously biblical (Paul did not ask Antioch or Jerusalem to send pastors to the churches he founded), that it is hard to believe that people have missed this. Bill applied this well, training his men in their homes. One of Bill’s favorite quotes was, “Success without a successor is a failure.” Put the ministry into the hands of the people.
- Avoid embarrassing people who are studying the Bible. One day, I went out on a visit with Bill in Barcarena. We were going to stop at a lumberyard to visit one of Bill’s contacts. After we stopped, Bill got out, leaned on his car and continued our conversation. I asked if we were going in. He commented that as he passed by, he noticed the man was smoking. He said he was waiting until he had enough time to finish his cigarette so as not to create an awkward moment for him.
- Never say an answer is wrong. When Bill visited us in Uberlandia during our first term, I invited him to go along on a visit to a couple that had shown some interest. As we went through an initial study, I asked a number of questions. The man gave very thoughtful answers while the woman gave some answers that were more typical of popular, religious thinking. I corrected her thinking a few times, but Bill defended what she had said, trying to make the answer fit somehow. I thought, “Wow, I thought Bill Burk was so committed to the Bible. Here he is defending an unbiblical answer.” Afterwards he explained that if you make a person feel that their answer is wrong, they will become timid and not want to risk giving a “wrong” answer in the future. Therefore, as we teach people, we should make them feel that they can participate and answer questions.
There are many other things that have shaped my life and ministry throughout the years, but these are the first ten that came to mind, and they all came from being with Bill.