FORT SMITH, Ark. (BP)–My hero died Nov. 15. It’s difficult even to type those words. Dr. Adrian Pierce Rogers, pastor emeritus of Bellevue Baptist Church in suburban Memphis, Tenn., is in heaven. No doubt he is enjoying his well-deserved rewards for loving Jesus, his “love worth finding.”
There are just a few people that God brings into our life for the long haul. Dr. Rogers was one such character for me. Bible teacher. Godly example. Loving family man. I didn’t know him but I knew him. He’s been my “distance mentor” for over 20 years. Through his ministry of preaching and teaching, Dr. Rogers (respectfully and affectionately referred to by my friends and me as “The Big A”) influenced more Christians than any other pulpiteer of the 20th century. At the risk of ringing a note of despair, he was the last of the “great ones.”
How many preachers haven’t heard him? Or if they haven’t heard him personally, how many wished they would have? And that voice! I dare say all of us preachers took a moment in the silence of our sanctuaries and did our best to imitate that rich baritone clarion of good news. Hopefully, no one else was listening.
Around the lounge areas and dining rooms of Bible colleges and seminaries, when a point was to be made about a theological issue or even a nuance of biblical interpretation, at some place in the conversation someone would say, “But Adrian Rogers said….” What does that tell us about his influence? Just a few weeks ago I decided to restudy the book of Revelation. What did I do? I went to the bookstore and bought “Unveiling the End Times in Our Time” by Adrian Rogers.
I’ve said for years that our heroes should be dead. It’s true, you know. That way they can never disappoint us. But when I heard Dr. Rogers had died, I wished I had never said it. All those who loved his teaching (and in turn loved the man) knew this day would come. It’s what he preached and lived and anticipated. But while he lived, he didn’t come up short as our hero. He didn’t disappoint us. Not in sermon, speech or action. Selfishly, I wished he could have lived on … here, on earth.
I had the chance to meet him once. I was in St. Louis for the Southern Baptist Convention. I saw him at the corner, preparing to get into a van with his wife and some of his associates. I was alone (in more ways than you can imagine). Young pastor. Unproven church planter. A little bewildered and frankly, pretty afraid. My ministry had moved into uncharted territory. And there he was. All I could think about was how many times he had welcomed me into his church service through Love Worth Finding.
More than once, I had driven from my home outside of St. Louis to Memphis to hear him preach on my vacation Sunday. There he was. I hesitated. I didn’t want to bother him. Yet, I thought, “I’ll never have this chance again.” So, with all of the gumption of a kid in the presence of a giant I said the only thing I could say: “Dr. Rogers (pause). You’re my hero!”
With that golden voice he responded, “Tell me your name, son.” I did, and we talked. He listened. The gaze of his godly countenance rested squarely on me. Time stood still, though we talked only for 15 or so minutes. I knew he was such a busy man and I kept thinking, “He needs to go,” and I would start to head off the conversation. But he didn’t budge. In the middle of a busy day, after preaching to thousands of busy pastors, at the intersection of two busy streets in a busy city, Adrian Rogers conversed with Ken Parker like I was the only person in the world at that moment.
I couldn’t further his career or enhance his ministry. I couldn’t give him a single thing. It’s not like he could get in the van and say, “Joyce, I just met Ken Parker!” And his wife was so gracious, too. Not once did she motion for him to hurry. I’m sure my story could be repeated by countless others. Sometimes it’s disappointing when you meet your hero. Not so with this man. He was greater in person than he was in my imagination. That makes his stature even larger to me.
No, I didn’t worship the man. I know he was fallible (though he battled for Southern Baptists to embrace the concept of an “infallible Scripture”). But what a difference he made for so many of us, the generation of 20 and 30-somethings he called his “young preacher boys.” He fought, won and was able to celebrate the victory of rescuing a denomination on the fast track to destruction via the path of theological liberalism. If it wasn’t for Adrian Rogers and the kind of leadership he garnered, and the kind of leaders he attracted, our denomination would be divorced from biblical fidelity. And through it all he remained the quintessential Christian gentleman.
His wife’s words were the only things that moved him to tears at his retirement celebration. “Thank-you for teaching me to love the Word of God in a way I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for you,” she said. “Thank-you for helping me to love Jesus more than I ever thought I could…. Thank-you for loving me and being faithful to me. You’ll always be my one and only sweetheart.”
I hope my life causes my wife, Lori, to sum up my ministry with similar reflections. It’s one thing for your staff, your church, your deacons and your associates to say you’ve influenced them, but the gracious words of a wife are the sweetest.
But even with all his accomplishments, the ironic thing to me is … well … for 15 minutes one hot summer day, Dr. Rogers took the time to chat with me. He asked about my family, my church, my ministry and my convictions. I sent him a letter a few weeks later and received his response. At one of the lowest points of my pastoral life, Dr. Rogers wrote, “Thank God for the work that He has done in your life. If you were a corporation, I would want to buy stock in you … There will be opposition but don’t worry about that. It only proves that you are on the right track.” I’ve reread that letter hundreds of times and received the impetus to carry on.
Then he closed with an invitation to Memphis for some heart-to-heart fellowship. I framed the letter and placed it in my study. I know I won’t have the chance here for face-to-face conversation, but someday we’ll talk again. Now that he’s in Heaven, I’m sure by now a lady named Betty Parker (my mother) has already tracked him down, and said, “Dr. Rogers, do you know my son?”
With full knowledge of his influence and full knowledge of my lack, with an understanding twinkle in his eye, I can imagine him saying, “Yes ma’am. I believe he took the time to stop and talk with me three years ago in St. Louis. Fine young preacher boy. Don’t worry. I think he’s going to make it.”
Ken Parker is pastor of Southpointe Family Church in Fort Smith, Ark.