William R. O’Brien, former missionary to Indonesia and retired executive vice president of the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board, IMB), died Feb. 1 at age 86.
O’Brien was a creative visionary and an out-of-the-box thinker who led others to do the same, said IMB executive vice president Todd Lafferty. O’Brien helped Lafferty and others find their place in missions, Lafferty said.
“During Mission 90, an SBC Student Missions Conference,” Lafferty said, “Bill O’Brien spoke of the great need to reach the Muslim world with the gospel, and he also challenged students to partner together with other Great Commission Christians to finish the task.
“Taking that challenge to heart,” he said, “my wife and I landed in a Muslim megacity in our first assignment overseas.”
Jerry Rankin, IMB president emeritus who also served in Indonesia, said it was no surprise when O’Brien was tapped to serve as executive vice president alongside Foreign Mission Board (FMB) President R. Keith Parks.
“Bill was ahead of everyone in spinning possibilities of alternative futures and innovative marketing,” Rankin said. “Ideas and proposals that kept others off-balance were embraced due to his charismatic personality and the spiritual vision that drove him.
“As new missionaries arriving in 1970,” Rankin said, “we were immediately impressed with the visionary and innovative ministry of the O’Briens. They seemed to function in a different realm of possibilities for engaging Indonesians through music and the arts.”
While doing student work in Yogyakarta (“Jogja”), for instance, O’Brien met Indonesian choreographer Bagong Kussudiardjo and asked him to choreograph the parable of the sower and the seed as a traditional Javanese ballet. When it was performed at a Christmas concert, O’Brien said, he saw 500 students transformed from spectators into participants.
“Meanwhile Bagong invited Baptists to start a church in his living room and he and his wife and one of his dancer-daughters were baptized into the church,” wrote O’Brien in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research in 2006.
The best was yet to come. When Bagong later choreographed the life of Christ, it was presented in Jakarta to government officials and other leaders. “In a culture dominated by both traditional and folk Islam, getting someone’s undivided attention for three and a half hours nonstop to talk about Jesus is difficult,” O’Brien wrote. “When Bagong’s dance comes to town, people flock to see the story.”
O’Brien and his first wife, Dellanna West O’Brien, were appointed in 1962 as missionaries to Indonesia, where he taught music at Baptist Theological Seminary of Indonesia, directed radio and TV programming for Indonesian Baptists, and later worked with students.
After resigning from missionary service in May 1974, O’Brien was a consultant for the Anvil Foundation, a Christian foundation working with community development, and was pastor of Lake Country Baptist Church, both in Fort Worth, Texas. While in those roles, he began making connections with international Christian leaders outside Baptist circles, an experience that gave him a new perspective on the world.
O’Brien joined the FMB staff in Richmond, Va., in 1976 as secretary of the denominational coordination department, which related to other Southern Baptist agencies and leaders. He was FMB executive vice president from May 1980 to December 1989, and played a key role in raising funds for the International Learning Center, completed in 1984. The center provides training for IMB personnel going overseas.
After his wife Dellanna became executive director of the Southern Baptist Woman’s Missionary Union in Birmingham, Ala., O’Brien became FMB executive director of public affairs and served from January 1990 until February 1991.
O’Brien took early retirement from the FMB March 1, 1992, and became founding director of the Global Center at Samford University and missions professor at its Beeson Divinity School. He served on the board of directors of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute for six years.
O’Brien later served as the inaugural Missions Scholar-in-Residence at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary, as adjunct professor at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies, and at Dallas Baptist University. He was president of the American Society of Missiology for the 2003-2004 term.
Following the tsunami that devastated Indonesia and other southern Asia regions in December 2004, the O’Briens served a year and a half in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, as volunteers providing trauma counseling, renovating buildings and assisting women with securing small business loans, among other humanitarian relief efforts. O’Brien helped assemble a community development network that continued providing aid in Indonesia.
The Texas Baptist Foundation presented O’Brien the 2015 Innovator Award for Creativity in Missions, given to an individual or organization whose model for missions is an inspiration for others to adopt. O’Brien also was founding director of the Gaston Christian Center in Dallas.
Born in Fort Worth, O’Brien received the bachelor of science from Hardin Simmons University, Abilene, Texas, and the bachelor of church music and master of church music degrees, both from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS). He received an honorary doctorate from Hardin Simmons University. In 2001, the SWBTS School of Church Music presented O’Brien a Distinguished Service Award.
Before missionary appointment in October 1962, O’Brien was interim Baptist Student Union director at Arlington State University in Texas; minister of music for churches in Amarillo, Dallas, Pasadena, Childress and Pampa, Texas, and Carlsbad, N.M.; youth director for several churches, and an associate pastor in Pasadena, Texas.
O’Brien is survived by his wife of 10 years, Charmaine; children Denise O’Brien Basden (Paul); Erin O’Brien Puryear (Rick); and Ross O’Brien (Lisa); as well as six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his first wife of 56 years, Dellanna.
A celebration of O’Brien’s life will be held at 1:30 p.m., Feb. 10, at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Mary Jane Welch is a writer for the International Mission Board.)