Missions researcher David Barrett dies

Baptist Press
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Posted: Aug 08, 2011 6:52 PM
Missions researcher David Barrett dies
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--David B. Barrett, founding editor of the World Christian Encyclopedia, a former research consultant with the then-Foreign Mission Board, and a pioneer advocate for people groups still unreached with the Gospel, died Aug. 4 in Richmond, Va., after a brief illness. He was 83.

Barrett, a mathematician who began his career researching aircraft flight design at Britain's Royal Aircraft Establishment in 1948, began training for the priesthood in the Church of England after the RAE reassigned him to missile and bomb design, according to an obituary posted by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He was appointed to Kenya by the Anglican Church Missionary Society in 1956. After post-graduate studies at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University (1963-65), Barrett returned to Kenya and oversaw research for the Church of England in Eastern Africa for 20 years.

Barrett spent more than 10 years compiling and serving as editor of the World Christian Encyclopedia, which was published in 1982. In 1985, Keith Parks, president of the Southern Baptist Foreign (now International) Mission Board, engaged Barrett as a research consultant on the global status of Christianity. When that relationship concluded in 1993, Barrett continued to conduct research on global Christianity through the World Evangelization Research Center, which he had founded in 1965, and its successor the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (established 2003), according to the Gordon-Conwell obituary.

David Garrison, the International Mission Board's global strategist and author of the book "Church Planting Movements: How God is Redeeming a Lost World," worked closely with Barrett to present to Southern Baptists the challenge of reaching the world's unreached peoples. Together they developed the new missionary role that came to be known as "strategy coordinator."

"More than any other man, David Barrett showed us what the whole world looked like through the lens of the Great Commission," Garrison said. "He showed us how God viewed the world, and particularly the unfinished task. David Barrett defined for us, for all of us, the boundaries of the ends of the earth, what he called 'World A.' Once we saw the tragic plight of more than a billion unreached, unengaged souls, we set out for them with a passion. When David Barrett came to the Foreign Mission Board as a consultant in 1985, less than 3 percent of our mission force was deployed to this last frontier. Today, as a result of Barrett's prophetic push, more than 80 percent of the people groups our missionaries serve among are unreached.

"David Barrett was also the father of the 'nonresidential missionary' term and concept, what we later called 'strategy coordinators,' a new missionary paradigm that, along with the focus on unreached peoples and partnering with the broader evangelical world, served as cornerstones of the IMB's 'New Directions' that so radically shaped IMB and global evangelical missions in the latter decades of the 20th century -- and continues to shape us today," Garrison said.

While some IMB staff members and trustees were reluctant to engage an Anglican in Southern Baptist global mission strategy, Barrett's role transcended denominational identity, Parks recalled. Barrett joined First Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., when he moved to the United States to consult with the International Mission Board.

"We made it clear that David was not determining strategy, but providing research on which our strategic decisions were based. Much of the strategy of focusing on unreached people groups (UPGs), that was initiated in 1985 and which has continued to expand, can be traced directly to Barrett's influence," Parks said.

"David had such humility and was so self-effacing. I felt like he never did seek any recognition, never did consider himself to be as remarkable as we felt he was," Parks said. "He had a genius quality and was one of the most remarkable people I ever worked with, but he never acted like he felt he was that."

Jim Haney, the International Mission Board's director of global research, said Barrett played a key role in helping evangelicals understand the missions challenge before them and mobilize workers into the cause of taking the Gospel to those who have never heard.

"Today, 81 percent of the people groups engaged by IMB missionaries around the world are considered 'unreached,'" Haney said. "This percentage has continued to climb in our lifetime as our organization has prioritized those people groups that lack the resources to reach themselves.

"David Barrett's foundational work set these people groups before us, and it is because of him and those who served with him that our understanding of the harvest field has unfolded while mobilizing millions," Haney added. "Though never complete or perfect, research provides a framework for evaluating progress and suggesting new models of understanding. Certainly, this is the case with Dr. Barrett's contributions."

Justin Long, who worked with Barrett on the World Christian Encyclopedia, remembered his mentor as "incredibly, audaciously bold in standing for the unreached."

"He would say some of the most outlandish things. He would often sign his letters, 'Yours for the 1.2 billion unevangelized,'" Long recalled. "He would insist on the scandal of the church not reaching those who had never heard.... He had an extraordinary mind -- the Encyclopedia was virtually in his head -- and an incredible boldness.... I am sad to hear of his passing, but I know his life was lived to the fullest, passionately, seeking out God's will for the nations. I hope to do the same."

Barrett's contributions to the field of religious demography were extensive, and his published research continues to influence both Christian missionary effort and secular understanding of religious adherence, according to the Gordon-Conwell statement. His doctoral dissertation on African Independent Churches was published in 1968 as "Schism and Renewal in Africa: An Analysis of Six Thousand Contemporary Religious Movements" (1968). He also co-authored a companion volume to the World Christian Encyclopedia entitled "World Christian Trends." He also was a long-time contributor of statistics on global religious adherence to the Britannica Book of the Year and the International Bulletin of Missionary Research.

Barrett is survived by his wife, Pam; three children, Claire, Luke and Timothy; and two grandchildren, Amani and Eann, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper. Memorial contributions may be made to Hope for Humanity, Inc., Box 29117, Richmond, VA 23242 or International Mission Board, Box 6767, Richmond, Va. 23230 (memo: Somalia relief).

Compiled by Mark Kelly, senior writer and an assistant editor with Baptist Press.

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