Briarwood Presbyterian Church is a twentieth-century landmark in the American Presbyterian tradition. It served as one of the locations at which the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) was formed, a denomination whose present membership is nearly 400,000. Receiving its designation from flora local to the Cahaba Heights area, Briarwood’s humble beginnings and later success evidence a considerable faithfulness to the gospel and the broader cause of Christ.
It was in early June of 1960 that the first services were held at the church’s very first location in the Cahaba Heights Shopping Center. Though sequestered away in a meager building such as this, Briarwood was effectively met with immediate success, as the church quickly required a much larger space to gather for Lord’s Day services and its weeknight programs. Indeed, just four months later, Briarwood acquired a larger space on Highway 280, which was the location of the founding of the Presbyterian Church in America in December of 1973. This new location, while affording significantly more space, accommodated the steadily growing congregation only temporarily. Fifteen years later, Briarwood built its current location, which hosts several notable, world-impacting ministries, and has one of the largest church memberships in the PCA.
Fidelity to the Gospel
What accounts for Briarwood’s remarkable success? The depth of the gospel ministry fostered the church’s daily-increasing breadth. Dr. Frank Morehead Barker, Jr. (January 31, 1932–December 27, 2021), pastor of Briarwood for nearly thirty-nine years, had a profound gospel-oriented vision which was manifest in humble reliance on the power and providence of the Lord. This helps one understand the depth of the gospel ministry at Briarwood. Frank Barker’s life is a welltold story of fidelity to the gospel, a faithfulness cultivated by a thriving dedication to prayer. If the Puritans teach us anything about prayer, it is that prayer is a supreme work of utmost importance; it is the spiritual breath of holy living. And as Harry Reeder, who is the current pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church and who was immensely blessed under the tutelage of Frank Barker says, this is precisely what invigorated his ministry. Reeder remarks that “Frank Barker was the quintessential praying pastor.” Such devotion to prayer was frequently noted in his weekly sermons. Indeed, Frank believed what he preached when he said that God will “answer according to His wisdom and goodness when we pray” in a sermon in 2017.
Frank’s ministry was not, as many are today, bolstered by a strong or domineering personality. On the contrary, Barker was a “humble visionary” who habitually prayed that God would see fit to bring about great things through him, though not for him. Reeder says that “Frank did not have a big personality that noticeably filled up a room. What he had was a profound personal relationship with Christ, one that noticeably filled up his heart.” His service to Christ made the glory of Christ and His saving gospel the center. This is evidenced even toward the end of his life. After having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, Frank did not desire to escape the inescapable. No, he embraced it in his heart, for he saw “death as a promotion.”
He held fast to that blessed hope, sustained by the seed of faith, which will blossom most beautifully in the light of glory. The gospel taught him that death is no longer an executioner but a gardener.
One who sees his own death as promotion is one who, as Thomas Manton once said, attends to that which should be his greatest care, namely “that place where he [shall] live the longest.” This eternal perspective, which was fortified by daily prayer, was clearly manifest in his gospel ministry and in his regular conversations. Weekly sermons at Briarwood were, as Reeder says, “biblical, through and through.” Such a biblical emphasis distinctly points to the everlasting hope found in the gospel of Christ. Reeder continues, “His preaching ministry was always biblically faithful and filled with practical applications; it was Christ-exalting.”
Bob Shaw, one of the many converts of Frank Barker’s ministry, recently recounted that “Frank was an evangelist, first and foremost.” He almost invariably directed the conversation to eternity, asking, “Where do you stand?” For Frank, even traveling by car was an opportunity to share the gospel. Shaw said that “If Frank saw someone hitch-hiking on a major road in Birmingham, he liked to pick them up.” Driving these hitch-hikers to their destinations provided Frank with a certain audience to “speak about Jesus.” In one of these instances in 1965, which was early in Frank’s ministry, Shaw’s father was picked up and was led to faith in Jesus Christ. For Shaw’s family, this providential moment was decisive for the Lord’s continued work in his family. In fact, according to Shaw, “almost everyone in my family today is walking with Jesus.” Such eager devotion to prayer and the evangelistic efforts required by gospel ministry does not emerge ex vacuo. Oftentimes the brightest devotion is kindled in the darkness of sin and suffering by the God who calls light out of darkness. As Thomas Brooks once said, “flowers smell sweetest after a shower” and “afflictions are… the mother of virtue.” And when Augustine was cast down by a storm within his restless heart weeping a “mighty shower of tears,” the “darkness of doubt vanished away” by the illuminating light of the gospel. Augustine went on, by the grace of God, to become one of the most notable Christians of the Western tradition. Much can be said of Frank, who lived a “wild life,” and how he likewise, by the grace of God, went on to cultivate and foster world-impacting ministries.
Casting a Vision
Beginning in 1960, after an insistent navy chaplain led him to Christ, Frank Barker’s vision was cast and shortly thereafter began to materialize. From the initial agreement to plant a church within the Birmingham Presbytery’s jurisdiction in early summer to the charter of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in September, the setting for the Lord’s work through Frank Barker was established. The conspicuous and virtually immediate breadth of Frank’s ministerial efforts was subsequently seen. Frank was involved in the formation of a number of ministries spanning from elementary and high school education to college campus ministries, to missionary organizations and advanced theological education. Campus Outreach is one of those noteworthy ministries. Campus Outreach is a college campus ministry that seeks to prepare laborers for the lost world. In the 1960s, Briarwood had been involved in the coordinated efforts of Campus Crusade. However, due to a selective focus, this particular college ministry typically only served larger academic institutions. Frank was burdened by the reality that smaller colleges and private colleges had students who were afloat in the sea of cultural change, and thus they, too, needed the light of the gospel. This ministry quickly prospered and now has ministers serving at about 180 campuses in multiple countries.
Also conceived and organized in the 1960s is the reputable Briarwood Christian School. Briarwood Christian School was first prayerfully proposed at the Highway 280 location and has since grown exponentially to now educate over 1900 young students. Shortly after the founding of Briarwood Christian School, Briarwood held its first World Missions Conference. The Global Missions Conference just held its fifty-seventh annual conference, “Gifted to Serve,” which raised a significant amount of money to contribute to many missions efforts worldwide. It is striking to any observer of Frank’s life to see just how many ministries flourished during his early years.
This God-given ambition fostered by prayer carried on for many decades. Birmingham Theological Seminary was formed in the following decade in 1972. Birmingham Theological Seminary was first planned in light of an appreciable need for “men and women to be trained for Christian service.” To this day, Birmingham Theological Seminary facilitates Reformed theological education that is expeditiously ordered to evangelistic efforts. One can surely carry on enumerating the stories, testimonies, and the work of Frank Barker. In the midst of all this tangible success, Frank’s ultimate desire, Reeder says, was that “Christ would be honored.” And how fitting a description, for Frank’s favorite hymn was “To God be the Glory, great things He has done.”
As Peter Lillback recently said, Frank has left a legacy that is vast in impact. That legacy is marked by “Gospel-centered preaching, outreach and mission, all shaped by humble fidelity and persevering generosity in ministry for the glory of Christ.” Peter continued in a hopeful tone that “God might enable Westminster to raise up other pastoral leaders who would follow Dr. Barker’s godly example.” It is our collective prayer at Westminster that the light of the gospel of Christ would shine ever so brightly in the darkness and that Westminster graduates might powerfully participate in that work, calling those who still yet abide in this world to “turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18).
A Legacy of Faithful Ministry
In recognition of Frank Barker’s service to the cause of Christ, Westminster is pleased to announce the Frank Barker Chair of Missions and Evangelism.
This endowed chair seeks to honor Dr. Barker and his commitment to faithful, expository preaching and evangelistic efforts. As an endowed chair, Westminster will be financially afforded the opportunity to continue to facilitate rigorous theological education so as to train specialists in the Bible who are keen to evangelize in our increasingly tumultuous and adversarial culture. Should you wish to contribute to the newly founded Barker Chair, please visit https://www.wts.edu/donate.