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Rick Ferguson killed in auto accident; led Denver church to array of ministries

DENVER (BP)–Rick Ferguson, one of Southern Baptists’ leading pastors in the western United States, was killed July 25 in an auto accident near Hays, Kan., en route to a family reunion in Missouri.

Ferguson, 47, as senior pastor of Denver’s Riverside Baptist Church, sparked an array of ministries. Among them: local and international missions and church planting; a crisis pregnancy center and soon-to-open home for unwed mothers; “Hope for Today” TV and radio broadcasts; and creative outreach to ethnic groups, cowboys, sports enthusiasts and motorcyclists.

The fatal one-car accident, according to news reports, occurred as Ferguson’s son, Justin, 17, was driving. Shortly after noon on Interstate 70 three miles west of Hays, the front left tire of the family’s 1999 Ford blew out. The vehicle, which was pulling a boat, went out of control, slid broadside and rolled two and a half times.

Ferguson, in the front passenger’s seat, died in the accident; his son and wife, Kathy, who was in the back seat, were treated for minor injuries at a local hospital and released. Ferguson’s 22-year-old son, Brett, and daughter, Katie, 18, were following in a separate vehicle, also en route to the extended Ferguson family’s annual reunion at Windermere Baptist Conference Center in Missouri.

In addition to his wife and children, Ferguson is survived by his parents, Wilbur “Menk” and Valene Ferguson. Menk Ferguson is minister to senior adults at First Baptist Church, Arnold, Mo., and was a bivocational pastor for more than 30 years for several churches in the Jefferson (Mo.) Baptist Association while also being a state employee.

Mark Edlund, executive director/treasurer of the Colorado Baptist General Convention, said in a statement released July 26, “In the death of Rick Ferguson, Colorado has lost a key pastor, leader and friend. I don’t believe there is another leader in contemporary Southern Baptist life who demonstrates a greater passion for worship or burden for the lost than that exemplified by Rick.

“In the decade that Rick led Riverside, the church planted more than 30 new, innovative churches, sent thousands on mission and raised up countless new leaders,” Edlund said. “While we mourn this tremendous loss, we in Colorado celebrate a life well lived and know that for decades to come Rick Ferguson’s impact on the kingdom will go on and on.”

The funeral had not been scheduled at Baptist Press’ deadline July 26; funeral arrangements are being handled by Denver’s Olinger Mortuary.

Ferguson, a native of Cedar Hill in the St. Louis area, became Riverside’s pastor in 1992, at a time when the church’s membership had dwindled to 400. Under his leadership, the church grew to 4,000 members and, through his “Arms Around Denver” initiative, began congregations among Hispanics, African Americans, Vietnamese, Indonesians and others — including cowboys and bikers.

Speaking at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s commencement in May, Ferguson said, “Our model in the church is Jesus Christ — not CEO-style leaders, but servant-style leaders.

“At the Last Supper, while the disciples were pulling out resumes to see who would be the greatest, Jesus picked up a basin of water and a towel and began to wash their feet. Jesus is still in the business of washing dirty, defiled feet,” the Denver pastor said, urging the graduates to “lead with creativity, lead with passion, lead with contrition and a broken heart. But leave here today with a towel and a basin.”

“The Lord gave Rick a big church and allowed him to see it become a great church,” Rob Norris, director of missions for the Denver Baptist Association, said in a statement July 26. “Rick’s vision for evangelism and church planting was fueled by his passion for people who need to have a personal relationship with Jesus.”

While Ferguson’s death “is shocking and heartbreaking news,” Norris said, “The only one not surprised by this event was the Lord himself. Rick was a dear friend and a joy to work with. … Our prayers are with Kathy, the children and Rick’s church family, Riverside Baptist Church.”

Ferguson was elected first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention during the SBC’s 1998 annual meeting in Salt Lake City, for which he served as chairman of the Committee on Order of Business.

Ferguson held a master of divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and a doctor of ministry degree from Luther Rice Seminary in Atlanta. He also was a 1978 graduate of Missouri Baptist College in St. Louis.

Before moving to Denver, Ferguson had been pastor of First Baptist Church, DeSoto, Mo., seven years.

Morris H. Chapman, president of the SBC Executive Committee, said in a statement to Baptist Press, “The news of the tragic death of Dr. Rick Ferguson comes to us as a deep shock. Rick Ferguson was a man of integrity, and respected by all who knew him. His visionary leadership and evangelistic ardor helped him to build one of the truly great evangelistic churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. He was one of the bright young leaders emerging in our Convention, blessed with a keen, creative mind, which he employed for effective ministry. His gentle, sweet spirit had enabled him, though he was still a young man, to become accepted as a statesman among his peers.

“Rick loved the Lord, his blessed church, the great kingdom of God, the Word of God, and he loved the lost,” Chapman said. “His life was marked by a deep fidelity to the Scripture and a vibrant compassion for those who do not know the Lord. Rick will be missed by all of us here. We are praying for his wife and children, his extended family, the church staff and the membership of Riverside Church during these days. We commend them all to the rich grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Our hope, as Rick so often preached, is in the dear Lord.”

Ronnie Floyd, pastor of First Baptist Church, Springdale, Ark., in nominating Ferguson for SBC first vice president in 1998, described the Denver pastor as one of America’s “young, premier Christian leaders.” In an announcement of his plans to nominate Ferguson, Floyd had said, “Rick Ferguson pastors one of the greatest Southern Baptist churches in the West. … Southern Baptists need an upcoming leader like Rick Ferguson … . He is a true spiritual champion and a great leader among us.”

In a July 25 statement to Baptist Press, Floyd said, “I believed in Rick Ferguson. He was a passionate communicator and leader. I saw him as being one of the greatest younger pastors in the ranks of our larger membership churches. His family, Riverside Church, the city of Denver and all of our Southern Baptist family will miss him. I grieve for his family and the church greatly. As I think of him, I only know to trust Jesus this afternoon.”

An announcement of Ferguson’s death on Riverside Baptist Church’s website states that the congregation “mourns the loss and celebrates the life of our pastor … . If you would like to send your message of condolence or encouragement to the Ferguson family you may do so by sending an email to [email protected].”

A popular speaker in Southern Baptist life, Ferguson recounted how God led Riverside Baptist Church through a process of awakening, adjusting and activating to more effectively impact Denver for Christ, in a message delivered at a North American Mission Board “On Mission ’98” conference at LifeWay Ridgecrest (N.C.) Conference Center.

Riverside was a city-center church recovering after some previous internal struggles when Ferguson said he began envisioning filling the 3,000-seat auditorium two or even three times every Sunday.

Then, however, he and other church leaders realized that even as a mega-church it still would only be impacting less than one-half of 1 percent of the city’s population. Thus, the congregation decided to become a reproducing church, planting reproducing churches, now numbering more than 30 in Denver and elsewhere in the West.

“There was a spiritual awakening in our church when God told us where he wanted us to go,” Ferguson said. The adjustments involved a complete reevaluation of the church’s mission and ministries, he said. Existing structures were changed to fit the new vision. A multicultural emphasis was added to help start congregations that never would have been reached otherwise. Leadership training and discipleship became top priorities.

He noted that rather than the new congregations making the central church suffer — which he said is the fear of many pastors — the opposite had occurred.

“Isn’t it amazing that the more you give away the more God supplies? It just works that way,” Ferguson said. “We preach that way in our financial stewardship, but what about in our spiritual and evangelistic stewardship?”

A feature about Riverside’s multifaceted “Arms Around Denver” church-planting ministries appeared in the June/July 1997 issue of SBC Life, published by the SBC Executive Committee. Audio archives of Ferguson’s “Hope for Today” broadcasts can be accessed at http://www.oneplace.com/ministries/hope_for_today/Archives.asp, while texts of numerous sermons he preached can be accessed at http://www.hopefortoday.com/download.htm.