DENVER (BP)–More than 3,700 people gathered July 29 at Denver’s Riverside Baptist Church to celebrate the life and honor the ministry of pastor Rick Ferguson. Those attending the memorial included church family, present and former staff, and pastors and denominational leaders from across Colorado and the United States.
Ferguson died July 25 in a one-car accident near Hays, Kan., as he traveled with his family to an annual reunion in Missouri. His youngest son Justin, 17, was driving a family vehicle when a tire blew out, leading to a rollover. Justin and Ferguson’s wife of 26 years, Kathy, were treated for minor injuries and released from the hospital the same day. Ferguson’s two other children, Brett, 23, and Katie, 19, were traveling behind in another automobile.
News of the tragedy devastated the Denver congregation and it promptly convened for prayer. By Sunday, the church had been inundated by e-mail letters from around the world expressing love, sympathy and compassion for a man who had led Riverside to grow from 400 members upon his arrival in 1991, to more than 4,000 at the time of his death.
On Sunday, the church’s two campuses met for one joint worship service, with Sunday School and other activities canceled for the day.
“In the last few days, the Fergusons have gathered in their family room to love on each other and bond,” said Rick Lewis, senior associate pastor, as he opened the Sunday service, which was attended by more than 3,500 people. “This place, today, is our family room. We’re going to love on each other and bond as we worship in the face of despair. The world needs to know the kind of hope we have.”
A single red rose laid on the chair normally occupied by Ferguson.
“Every week, Pastor Rick stood here as the lead worshiper of this congregation,” said Joel Allen, minister of music. “Today, he’s the lead worshiper in heaven.”
The theme of the Sunday service was the undeniable holiness of God, as the congregation sang and shared Scriptures that reminded of the sufficiency and sovereignty of God. During an extended time of prayer, the altar was filled as entire families came forward to pray.
Staff members shared Scriptures and words of encouragement throughout the service.
“Rick’s first love was this church, right after Jesus and Kathy,” said Duane Arledge, minister of missions. “I’ve watched for nine years as this church birthed church after church after church. And he loved each one of those churches and pastors as much as he loved this church. Every time he talked with one of those pastors, he lit up just as a parent does when talking with a child.”
The eight people baptized during the morning’s service represented a cross-section of the Riverside family, illustrating the ethnic diversity of the church, including children, adults and a married couple.
In his native language, Stanley Pouw, the bivocational pastor of Riverside’s Indonesian Fellowship introduced and baptized a young Indonesian man who accepted Christ two weeks earlier at a youth camp.
One of the new believers baptized was from the church’s newest church plant, a south campus in suburban Denver that meets in a movie theater on Sunday mornings.
“This is what Pastor Rick gave his life for,” said Roy Spannagel, associate pastor, from the baptistery. “And it’s what Christ died for.”
As an act of worship and celebration of new life, a standing ovation followed each baptism.
During a particularly poignant moment in Sunday’s service, Ferguson’s widow, Kathy, addressed the congregation.
“We’re fine,” she said. “Thank you for grieving with us and loving us. You’ve returned ministry tenfold to us. We’re deeply honored to be a part of this church family.
“Psalm 23 has brought me great personal comfort in recent days,” she said. “It’s brought peace, solace and comfort as we’ve tried to grasp the realities of Rick’s death.
“Not only is the Lord my shepherd, but he’s the shepherd of this church and he has been all along,” she said. “Rick was his vessel, but God was the shepherd.
“Everything in this psalm is totally available from God and is sufficient. The events of July 25 haven’t changed that one bit.
“If you ever thought this church rested on Rick’s shoulders, you’re mistaken,” she continued.
“The days ahead are just as filled with excitement, growth, vision and power. God will use more vessels, but God is the shepherd of this flock. I love you,” she said.
Tom Elliff, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church, Del City, Okla., was vacationing in Colorado and preached at the Sunday worship service at Riverside.
He read from Psalm 147:3 as the basis of his message, “He heals the broken in heart and binds up their wounds.”
“There’s a ministry in broken hearts,” Elliff said. “God is the God of all comfort who comforts us in our tribulations. We’d never know that if we didn’t have broken hearts.
“There’s no place to take a broken heart, if you want it healed, than to the Lord,” he said.
“Scripture says he ‘binds it up.’ That’s so it won’t get infected. God says, ‘I’m going to limit the capacity of this event so it doesn’t destroy you.'”
At the close of the service, Ferguson’s father, W.E. “Mink” Ferguson, pastor of senior adults at First Baptist Church in Arnold, Mo., also challenged the congregation.
“Riverside is a pacesetting church throughout the Southern Baptist Convention and the world,” he said. “Your faithfulness to the Lord in the days ahead is important. Others around the world are watching your faithfulness to God’s calling. Keep that vision that God gave your pastor and you followed. God is faithfully fulfilling that mission.
“We have a hole in our heart that only God can heal,” he added. “But God has been faithful through this. He’ll stay faithful to the end.”
In addition to Monday’s gathering in Denver, a funeral is planned July 31 at First Baptist Church, Arnold, Mo.
When Monday’s memorial celebration commenced, the attitude was decidedly joyful.
Robin Holland, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Denver, one of more than 30 mission churches initiated under Riverside’s “Arms Around Denver” church-planting campaign led by Ferguson, offered a welcome to the overflow audience.
In noting many of Ferguson’s accomplishments in his tenure as pastor, Holland said, “This man — before he did all of these things, he got on his knees and asked Jesus to be his Lord and Savior. That day, Rick Ferguson was born again. And he was heaven-bound. So today, we will continue to remember Pastor Rick. We will continue to celebrate and praise. And do you know what Rick will say from heaven? He’ll say, ‘Hey! That’s it!'”
Rick Helger, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Neosho, Mo., and Ferguson’s brother-in-law, read Ferguson’s obituary, saying, “When Rick came to Riverside in 1991 his passion was to pastor a church-planting church that planted church-planting churches. His life is a testimony of the lordship of Jesus Christ and the difference one man can make for kingdom’s sake.”
Robert E. Reccord, president of the North American Mission Board, followed with words of appreciation to the church for its generosity with its pastor. He noted that Ferguson’s book, “The Servant Principle,” published by Broadman & Holman in 1999, had been adapted into NAMB training material that had been taught to more than 8,000 other pastors across the United States.
“I have four descriptions about a man I loved so very much,” Reccord said. “First, he was Christ-centered. He recognized that every person has a Christ-sized vacuum in their heart that only Jesus can fill.
“Second, he was family devoted. He prayed daily that Kathy would not just be a pastor’s wife but would be all that God had called for her to be. Likewise, he prayed that his children wouldn’t be known as ‘Rick’s kids,’ but instead as men and a woman of God.
“Third, he was servant-hearted,” Reccord said. “He loved you, church family. I know. I tried to hire him, and he wouldn’t leave.”
“Fourth,” Reccord said, “He was kingdom-focused. He was on the leading edge of what the pastor of the future has to be. He understood Revelation 7, and that if heaven is color-blind, then it must start here.”
Riverside’s youth praise band, Altar Bound, fronted by Ferguson’s son Justin, then performed “I Can Only Imagine.” The performance was followed by a video montage of Ferguson preaching to the Riverside congregation.
“There are two fundamentals about living John 15,” Ferguson was seen saying regarding his life verse. “One — Jesus is the vine. Two — you are the branches. These two fundamentals are summarized in four words – ‘not I, but Christ.'”
Ferguson’s love for people of every race was highlighted by his friend and colleague, Gerald Durley, pastor of Providence Missionary Baptist Church, an African American congregation in Atlanta. Durley, a 1959 graduate of Denver’s Manual High School and former basketball teammate of Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, left Colorado in 1960 for the South, where he joined Martin Luther King Jr.’s social battle for racial equality.
He spoke of the first time he met Ferguson, when the Denver pastor and choir from Riverside visited Durley’s church during a trip to the 1999 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Atlanta.
“In 1999,” he said, “Rick was the ‘the man.’ He was the first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention. He could have preached in any pulpit he wanted. But rather than going to another white church, he sought us out. We saw that he was a man anointed by God who transcends Southern Baptist life. What I saw was a man who was the manifestation of the dream spoken of by Dr. King on Aug. 23, 1968. This manifestation was coming through a young white pastor from Colorado. And he wasn’t just talking it, he was living it!
“Coretta Scott King sends her greetings and will be forwarding a letter of love to the family soon,” he added.
“This past Sunday,” Durley continued, “we had a memorial service for our dear friend Pastor Rick. We started out quiet and prayerful, but we ended in a joyful celebration where we just thanked God for sharing him with us for a time!”
Several people followed with testimony about how their lives had been impacted by Ferguson’s ministry as pastor. Debbie Swanson, Ferguson’s secretary for the past two and a half years, said, “His greatest gifts were teaching and preaching. His greatest passion was his family. The man who preached on Sunday was the same man who lived it Monday through Thursday in the office. I’ve never seen him compromise his integrity. He believed God hears and answers prayer. He wept for his church and yearned to be with you. Never underestimate the power of an obedient life.”
Ten-year-old Colton Price said, “I was diagnosed with cancer when I was 4 years old. Pastor Rick believed God would save me and had a great plan for my life.” After reciting 1 Corinthians 13, he added. “This is Pastor Rick. He is love. When I grow up I want to be a pastor just like Pastor Rick. I love him dearly.”
Colleague Trevor Bron said, “I believe in Jesus because of Rick. Rick, like Jesus, pursued me in the darkest time of my life. He took it upon himself, giving me endless chances after numerous defeats. He continually shared the truth, and I never doubted his love. I experienced Jesus in Rick because in Rick I experienced love and grace and understanding and acceptance.”
David Nigro, a Riverside deacon and Sunday School teacher, added, “Pastor told me how to be saved and then taught me how to be sacrificial. I will never forget working at a harvest festival one year. It was after midnight, and Pastor was sweeping the floor. I said, ‘Hey Pastor, why don’t you go home?’ He just smiled and kept on sweeping.”
Brad East, currently on staff at First Baptist Church, Arnold, Mo., said of his 18-year relationship with Ferguson, “I am a better man for having known and served alongside Rick. He was faithful when it counted most. The most enduring contribution he made to my life was his friendship. I will miss that, a lot.”
In offering the memorial message, Ferguson’s oldest son, Brett, preached from his father’s Bible. “Today, we will see how to bring glory to God in the three seasons of life. In a sense, my dad is preaching this message, but I get to edit it. Mom would have loved to do that on any given Sunday!” he said.
“First,” he said, “you bring glory to God in your happiness by doing two things. You have to acknowledge every joy you experience is a gift from God. Then, you have to recognize that God is the source of all things.” Brett Ferguson remarked that his dad voiced continual gratitude for the blessings in his life of salvation, family, a loving church and a vision to serve.
“Next,” he continued, “you bring glory to God in your times of pain in four ways. You must first believe God is sovereign. Then, you must trust his sovereignty. Then, you must believe there will be joy again. And finally, you bring glory to God by learning what God wants you to learn.
“You can view my dad’s death in one of three ways,” Brett said. “You can think of it as an accident. But if God can’t even control a tire of a car, there’s no way I’m giving him control of my life. You can think of it as an attack from Satan. But if that’s the case, then God is impotent. Or, you can realize that it is an appointment. It is a beautiful, hurtful, gloriously painful appointment where God has much to teach us and will bring himself glory through it. This is my choice, and it is God’s truth.
“Also,” he said, “you bring God glory in your time of death by doing these things: First, you have to bring him glory in life to bring him glory in death. Next, you must leave a legacy. My great-great-grandfather prayed to God that God would bring from his loins men who would preach the gospel. My great-grandfather, my grandfather, my dad, and now I, my brother and three cousins all have an abiding passion and love for Christ. That is a legacy, and one I intend to continue. Finally, you must realize the key. That key — ‘not I, but Christ.'”
Ferguson’s son concluded by saying, “My dad’s final words to me are recorded in an e-mail I didn’t get to read until Friday after he was gone. He said this to me: ‘Stay faithful, no matter what.'”