Bill O’Brien, a former Southern Baptist music missionary acknowledged as a leading expert in 21st century global missions, died Saturday. George Mason, pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, announced his passing on social media, saying his father-in-law and brother in Christ “did not wake up on this side of the veil.”
Bill and Dellanna O’Brien served 12 years as missionaries in Indonesia before he joined the administrative staff of the Foreign Mission Board in Richmond, Virginia, in 1976. For 15 years, including nine years as executive vice president, he was responsible for implementing goals of Bold Mission Thrust, a vision for “every person in the world shall have the opportunity to hear the gospel of Christ in in the next 25 years” adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1976.
Publicly launched in 1979, the same year the election of fundamentalist pastor Adrian Rogers as SBC president kicked off the inerrancy battle known as the Conservative Resurgence, Bold Mission Thrust helped move the focus of Southern Baptist international mission strategy to evangelizing unreached people groups rather on national borders.
In 1980 O’Brien described “nearly limitless” opportunities for women to serve in missions at a time when pulpits were virtually non-existent for women in Southern Baptist life called to pastoral ministry. He modeled his support for Baptist women in ministry by leaving his job at the FMB when his wife was named executive director of Woman’s Missionary Union in 1989.
Moving to Birmingham, Alabama, O’Brien in 1991 became founding director of the Global Center at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, a resource for data and conferences ranging from urban strategy, conflict transformation and world Christian mission. He also taught missions at Beeson Divinity School before his retirement in 2000.
The couple moved to Frisco, Texas, and became members of Preston Trail Community Church, where their son-in-law Paul Basden is senior pastor. Dellanna O’Brien died in 2008 from injuries sustained in a fall at their home.
When the tsunami hit Southeast Asia in 2004, O’Brien assembled a community development organization to work with survivors in Aceh, Indonesia, and for the next eight years facilitated a network of churches that provided personnel in the fields of medicine, agriculture, early childhood education, micro-finance and athletics. During that time he also served two years as mission scholar-in-residence at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary.
In 2014 O’Brien became executive director of the Gaston Christian Center, a unique religious complex that houses multiple ethnic congregations and various ministries opened in a rapidly aging and declining Gaston Oaks Baptist Church.
He also taught as adjunct professor at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies in Washington, D.C., and at Dallas Baptist University.
Bob Garrett, Piper Chair of Missions at Dallas Baptist University, hailed O’Brien as “one of the great leaders among Southern Baptists in his generation” in a comment responding to Mason’s Facebook announcement.
Dean Dickens, a former missionary who served 16 years in the Philippines, said O’Brien possessed “mission instincts that were so ahead of his day” and described him as “a globally astute thinker far ahead of his time.”
Linda McKinnish Bridges, former president of Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond and one-time SBC missionary, termed O’Brien a “warrior spirit” who “guided this young woman missionary to light and life when those around me were full of taboos and prohibitions for women preachers.”
Bill Leonard, founding dean and professor of divinity emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, called him “a dear friend and mentor to many of us.”
In recent years O’Brien was active at Wilshire Baptist Church, serving as a deacon and Sunday school teacher and singing in the choir.
A memorial service is scheduled 1:30 p.m., Monday, Feb. 10 at Wilshire Baptist Church. His sons-in-law Wilshire pastor George Mason and Paul Basden, senior pastor of Preston Trail Church in Frisco and McKinney, Texas, will officiate. The service is set to be streamed for viewing online.
Survivors include his wife, Charmaine, three children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.