MEMPHIS, Tenn. (BP)–Even in the face of death, friends say, Adrian Rogers exemplified the Christian faith he spent a lifetime sharing.
The longtime pastor at Bellevue Baptist Church in suburban Memphis and the three-time Southern Baptist Convention president died Nov. 15 at the age of 74 following a battle with pneumonia and cancer.
But days earlier — before he slipped into unconsciousness — Rogers delivered a message to those gathered in his hospital room that won’t soon be forgotten. At the time, doctors were preparing to place Rogers on a ventilator, which would prevent him from speaking.
Steve Gaines, Rogers’ successor at Bellevue, was in the room.
“The last thing I heard him say was, ‘I am at perfect peace,'” Gaines, who succeeded Rogers this year, told Baptist Press.
Gaines and others then left the room, but Gaines decided to go back in to see Rogers “one more time.” By then, Rogers was on the ventilator, unable to talk, surrounded by doctors and nurses.
“His eyes and my eyes caught one another,” Gaines said. “He looked right at me and he gave me a thumbs up. That’s just him — he was Mr. Positive. He was an awesome guy.”
Rogers died just five weeks after leading a one-day preaching conference in Naples, Fla., as part of his newly founded Pastor Training Institute. It was the first time he had led such a conference. In hindsight, it also was the last.
“I can’t believe [he’s dead],” Gaines said. “It just happened so quickly…. I believed with all my heart that when he went into the hospital just a little over a week ago, that he would be coming home, that this was just sort of a temporary setback, that they would hook him up with some oxygen and he would be OK. And that’s just not what happened.”
Yet in the few short weeks that Gaines was Rogers’ pastor (Rogers kept his membership at Bellevue), Rogers provided a shining example of both leadership and humility.
Immediately before Gaines preached his first sermon as Bellevue pastor Sept. 11, Rogers washed Gaines’ feet on the Bellevue platform, using a basin of water and a towel as Gaines sat in the pastor’s chair. It was all Rogers’ idea.
“At first we were going to do it in a private time, in just a simple way,” Gaines said. “He did not do that for a show or anything like that. But he and I both prayed about it, and we both felt like it would really be a wonderful thing for the church to experience.”
Rogers also placed a cloth mantle on Gaines to symbolize the passing of the torch.
“After the foot washing, Dr. Rogers … called my wife up and his wife up, and they laid hands on us and prayed for us,” Gaines said.
Foot washing, Gaines said, “symbolizes the heart of a servant” and is modeled after Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet.
Rogers, Gaines said, epitomized humility.
“He was never impressed with himself. He never was one to brag about himself,” Gaines said. “The Bible says, ‘Let another person’s lips praise you and not your own.’ He never, ever brought attention to himself in any way. I believe that one of the reasons that God exalted him is because he humbled himself. That’s just the way he lived.
“He was aware, obviously, that God had done great things through him. But he always gave Jesus the glory.”
Paul Pressler, the retired judge who was a leader in the Southern Baptist Conservative Resurgence, said Rogers “was always a reluctant candidate” for SBC president.
“He loved preaching more than leading the convention, which spoke to his humility,” Pressler said.
Amazingly, Rogers’ first great-grandchild was born the day before he died, in a hospital across town. The family, Gaines said, had prayed that the birth would not take place the same day Rogers died.
“And the Lord honored that,” he said.
In addition to his great-grandchild, Rogers is survived by nine grandchildren, four children, and his wife, Joyce Rogers, whom Rogers often referred to as his “grade school sweetheart.” Bellevue Baptist church members were known to look up to the Rogers as the model Christian couple. Joyce Rogers still has a love note that her then-future husband dropped on her desk in sixth grade.
They met in fourth grade and married in college.
“She’s the only person he’s ever dated, and vice versa,” Gaines said. “I just talked to her. She’s doing well, but it’s hard.”
Gaines’ sermon Nov. 20 will be on heaven, but not because the church’s former pastor died.
“That was just the way the sermons fell,” he said. ” … I had planned this sermon series back in August, and had no idea at that time he would be … in heaven. That’s just the way the Lord arranged it.”