Bert and Colleen Elliot: Two “Average” Followers of Jesus Who Left an Example of Faithfulness

At my home church in January 2006—the fiftieth anniversary of the death of five missionaries in Ecuador—I interviewed Steve Saint, son of martyr Nate Saint, and Mincaye, one of the tribal warriors who killed the missionaries and later came to faith in Christ.

Picture at the Elliot homeAfterward, my wife, Nanci, and I, along with our friends Stu and Linda Weber, joined Steve McCully, son of martyr Ed McCully, and Bert and Colleen and other Elliot family members, including Gilbert and Susan Gleason, for dinner at Jim and Bert’s childhood home in Portland, Oregon. We spent an unforgettable afternoon with members of three of the five martyred missionaries’ families.

What I most enjoyed that day was time spent talking alone with Bert Elliot. When I asked him about their ministry in Peru, Bert’s eyes lit up as he said, “I can’t wait to get back from furlough!” At that time, he and Colleen were in their eighties and nearing their sixtieth year as missionaries, with no intention of retiring. They were vibrant—still joyfully excited about reaching people for Christ.

Prior to that Sunday I knew a great deal about Jim Elliot and Nate Saint, and a little about the three other missionary martyrs. I knew absolutely nothing about Bert and Colleen. Though aware their home was less than two miles from where my wife grew up in Portland, we didn’t even realize that Jim had a brother. We had no clue that in the 1940s Bert and Colleen attended the same college that Nanci and I had attended in the seventies, then known as Multnomah School of the Bible.

Bert and Colleen youngAfter returning home that night, I searched online and found only one article with much information about Bert and Colleen. It said they’d planted over 158 churches in Peru. (Of course, Bert didn’t tell me that.) They served Christ faithfully, almost completely under the radar of the church at large.

I will never forget what Bert said about Jim that day in his childhood home. Tears formed in his eyes as he spoke. “Jim and I both served Christ, but differently.” He paused and cleared his throat. “Jim was a great meteor, streaking through the sky.”

Bert stopped there. He didn’t go on to describe himself, but here is what came to my mind: Unlike his brother Jim—the shooting star everyone learned about in LIFE magazine and numerous books—Bert was a fifth-magnitude star, a mere pinpoint of light, rising night after night, faithfully crossing the same path in the sky, to God’s glory. A star so faint that no one knew its name or pointed it out. Millions have quoted his younger brother, Jim, who went to Ecuador three years after Bert went to Peru. But I’ve never heard a sermon or read a book quoting from Bert Elliot. Not until Gilbert Gleason, nephew to the Elliots by marriage, wrote Love So Amazing.

Gilbert writes, “Bert and Colleen serve as the right kind of examples for ‘average’ followers of Jesus, proving that, for most of us, substantial, supernatural impact is achieved through simple daily faithfulness, listening to Jesus and loving people in His name.”

I’m struck by Gilbert’s description of Bert and Colleen being “average.” Of the well-known modern martyrs, Jim Elliot has become—and in some ways, in real life truly was—an almost mythical character. I’ve read what he said and did, and, while he’s had great impact on my life, at times he seems far beyond me and other mortals. I’m tempted to think of Jim as a superhero to admire, rather than an example to follow.

Bert was different. He wasn’t like the sprinter who wins the Olympic gold medal. He was like the clerk or custodian who jogs a nine-minute mile three miles a day and, over his lifetime, runs much farther than the pro who retires at thirty. Bert and Colleen just kept serving, faithfully and joyfully, for sixty-two years. They modeled true humility and sacrificial love for God and others.

Missionary work sometimes culminates in unforgettable martyrdom. More often it involves what Eugene Peterson called “a long obedience in the same direction”—years spent dying daily to self and living moment-after-moment for Jesus. Certainly, I believe Jim Elliot’s reward is considerable, but it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that Bert and Colleen’s is greater still.

After visiting Bert and Colleen in Peru, Lars Gren, Elisabeth Elliot’s husband, wrote, “They are available for any who call or ring the doorbell, whether expected or unexpected. Along with open doors, there are the Bible studies, their involvement in the Christian School . . . Plus an exceptional drug program leading addicts into a new life based on Scripture . . . All this after fifty-six years on the field with no thought of the rocking chair or hanging out a shingle saying, ‘Busy. Please call again.’ What a life of service.”

Bert and Colleen may not have made much difference on Google and Twitter, but God was their Audience of One. He says a book of remembrance is written for his faithful servants (Malachi 3:16), and Jesus promised, “If anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward” (Matthew 10:42, NIV).

Bert and Colleen ElliotBert and Colleen’s life reminds me of the man Jesus described in a parable: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure that a man discovered hidden in a field. In his excitement, he hid it again and sold everything he owned to get enough money to buy the field” (Matthew 13:44, NLT).

When we read he “sold everything he owned” to obtain the treasure, we might feel sorry for him, because his sacrifice was great. But he didn’t feel sorry for himself; on the contrary, he couldn’t believe how fortunate he was! (The point, of course, is not the value of temporary treasure, but the eternal treasure it represents.)

Though Bert and Colleen served in Peru over 75 percent of their lives, they would say the sacrifice was nothing compared to what they gained, even in this life! And gauged by their forever lives, the payoff will be unimaginable and eternal! Because their sacrifices were eclipsed by joy, to them they seemed small.

In 2012, a few days after Bert died, I wrote an article about him that, in God’s providence, was reprinted by many, including Focus on the Family. I’m delighted to say you can now find far more about Bert and Colleen than I was able to when I first tried. Certainly Love So Amazing provides a great wealth of information unavailable until now.

It was a great honor to be asked to speak at Bert’s memorial service, but I had to decline because of a prior commitment I couldn’t cancel. I was amazed to learn that Colleen died the day before Bert’s service! It became a memorial for both of them. I wished I could have been there. But there’s something far better than a wish, and that’s the promise of Jesus: I will see Bert and Colleen again—and will partake in a joyful reunion with countless Christ followers I’ve known and far more I haven’t met but will. It is not wishful thinking that one day all of us who know Jesus will walk the New Earth together. It is a certainty bought, paid for, and written in Jesus’ blood.

If you love and follow Jesus as the Elliots did, you won’t have to regret that you didn’t know Bert and Colleen. Because one day you will. In countless magnificent dinners and other celebrations, full of laughter and delight, we will meet and hear the stories of thousands of people from those 150-plus churches God raised up through His faithful, humble, and happy servants, Bert and Colleen Elliot. And that will be a tiny sampling of the adventures that await us, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Love So Amazing: The Missionary Biography of Bert and Colleen Elliot is available on Amazon in print and on Kindle.

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries