Adrian Rogers: 32 years in Camelot

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This is the third biographical sketch of Southern Baptists’ greatest preachers/statesman/leaders. Following the stories/interviews highlighting the ministries of Dr. W.A. Criswell and Dr. R.G. Lee, here is the interview featuring the life and ministry of Dr. Adrian Rogers, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church near Memphis and three-time president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Adrian Rogers stood tall among Southern Baptists as pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis and as a leader during the Conservative Resurgence. BP/Special

No list of Southern Baptists’ greatest preachers would be complete without including Dr. Adrian Pierce Rogers, who was pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church from 1972 -2004. In fact, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson was on target when he wrote, “From unobtrusive origins, he rose to become the most prominent among Southern Baptist preachers … [And] to the outside world, a man with the stature of Adrian Rogers towers like a lone pine tree on a solitary mountain.”

Adrian Rogers, right, leads a prayer as Shirley Dobson, left, Chairman of the National Day of Prayer, and President George W. Bush bow their heads May 3, 2001 during the 50th anniversary of the National Day of Prayer event at the White House in Washington, D.C. ALEX WONG/Newsmakers

In an effort to get some personal information about the life and ministry of the inimitable Dr. Rogers, Index editor J. Gerald Harris went to the suburbs of Memphis, TN, to interview Roland Maddox, one of the famed pastor’s closest and dearest friends. The love and respect Maddox has had for Rogers through the years became even more apparent during the course of the interview.

In the meeting with Roland he referred to the 32 years of Dr. Rogers’ pastorate at Bellevue as “32 years in Camelot.” (Camelot is the idyllic court of the legendary King Arthur characterized by peace, joy, and prosperity). I trust you will be blessed as you read this verbal portrait of one of Southern Baptists’ greatest heroes.

The Christian Index: How did you and Dr. Rogers become such great friends? What bonded you together?

Roland Maddox: Dr. R.G. Lee brought Bellevue to great prominence during his long pastorate, but near the end of his tenure of service the church started to decline. The church facilities were located in midtown and people were moving to the suburbs and neighborhood churches were springing up everywhere.

Dr. Ramsey Pollard succeeded Dr. Lee as pastor of Bellevue and had a stormy ministry. People thought, “Pity the man that follows R.G. Lee,” and years later they felt similarly about the man who would pastor Bellevue in the shadow of Adrian Rogers.

Roland Maddox, left, was one of Adrian Rogers’ closest friends, walking alongside and witnessing the pastor’s ministry at Bellevue Baptist Church firsthand. GERALD HARRIS/Index

There was a man in the church who was a journalist for The Memphis Press Scimitar and persistently wrote negative stories about Dr. Pollard and the church as well. One year the church leadership was having difficulty getting a budget approved. Following a contentious business meeting on a Wednesday night, Dr. Pollard requested that a vote be taken by the church to determine if he should remain as pastor. The following Sunday, a significant majority voted for him to stay. As a result, approximately 500 members left Bellevue and formed a new church. Many of the young people who remained at Bellevue were given significant leadership roles in the church. I was blessed to be one of them.

When Dr. Pollard retired in the spring of 1972, 16 people were placed on the pastor search committee. A godly lay leader at Bellevue, Al Childress, was elected chairman, and I was selected as vice chairman. We had three groups on the committee: one worked with the staff to ensure a smooth transition, one was responsible for pulpit supply, and our group actually became the search committee.

The program at Adrian Rogers’ funeral

Dr. Rogers’ name was given to us in two ways: a lady who heard him preach at First Baptist Merritt Island, FL, returned to Jackson, MS, with a glowing report about his message. She gave this information to my wife’s mother and urged us to consider him as a prospective pastor. Dr. Homer Lindsey, Sr., pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, also gave him a resounding recommendation. All 16 members of the committee heard Dr. Rogers preach, either at his church or at the Pastors’ Conference at the Southern Baptist Convention when it met in Philadelphia in June 1972. The committee voted unanimously to pursue the calling of Dr. Rogers as our pastor.

Because Dr. Rogers was on vacation, it took several days to reach him. When he returned my call and learned of our desire, he assured me that he was happy where he was and intended to go to heaven from Merritt Island. However, he did agree to meet with our committee. He turned his RV toward Memphis and spent several days here talking with the Pastor Search Committee.

We knew that leaving Merritt Island would be difficult, because in the eight years he had been pastor the church’s attendance had grown from 300 to 3,000. We were averaging only 1,500 in worship at that time.

During those days when we were convinced he was God’s man for our church we became friends. He was concerned about the liberalism in the Southern Baptist Convention, but I told him if he wanted to rescue the SBC from its descent into liberalism he would have a better chance of doing it from Bellevue, because of the church’s history and visibility in Baptist life.

The Christian Index: Obviously, he agreed to come to Bellevue. How did that happen and how did the church receive him on that first Sunday when they voted on him to become their pastor?

Roland Maddox: He was a bit reluctant to come at first and at one point said, “I don’t know if they will respond to my kind of preaching.” He agreed to come and preach, but not as a candidate. We had Adrian and Joyce and the members of the search committee at our house for supper and a time of prayer on Saturday night. On Sunday morning God came down. People filled the sanctuary and were weeping in anticipation of what God was going to do even before the service began. The place was saturated with the presence of the Holy Spirit. As Joyce Rogers writes in her biography of her husband “there was spiritual electricity in the air.”

Adrian Rogers, pictured here at the 1988 SBC annual meeting, was elected to three presidential terms. Many see him as the pivotal leader in the SBC’s struggle to make belief in the Bible’s inerrancy a bedrock commitment of all convention entities. SBHLA/Special

After the service the Rogerses were asked to go back to the pastor’s study so the search committee could give a report to the congregation. All 16 members of the committee testified as to why they thought Adrian Rogers was God’s man for their church and the congregation voted unanimously to call him as pastor. He did not know that the church was going to vote on him being the pastor that day, but Gene Howard, the chairman of the deacons, announced that he had received a unanimous vote. Howard then asked that the Rogers family be brought to the platform.

When he told Dr. Rogers that the church had just voted unanimously to call him as pastor, Adrian inquired, ‘Are you asking me to come as your pastor?’ The deacon chairman said, ‘Yes!’

Adrian responded, ‘I’ll come.’ He came in September 1972. A wonderful 32-year ministry began that very day.

Adrian and I continued to remain close through the years. I told him, “If you will preach and provide the leadership we need, we will do whatever it takes to serve you and this church for God’s glory.”

The Christian Index: How would you characterize Dr. Rogers’ demeanor and personality outside the pulpit? What was he like when not engaged in the work of the church?

Roland Maddox: He was absolutely delightful to be around. He was the same in any situation as he was in the pulpit. There were not two Adrian Rogers. He had a great sense of humor and could carry on a conversation with anyone. He had the ability to make everyone he met feel respected and important. He was a magnificent communicator, both personally and in the pulpit.

The Christian Index: What were some of the things Dr. Rogers enjoyed doing for relaxation and enjoyment?

Roland Maddox: The family was extremely close. Joyce and the kids loved music and there was a lot of music in the home. He enjoyed sports, particularly college football, but he was not preoccupied with it. He was a star athlete and the captain of his West Palm Beach high school football team, but his primary interests were in his calling and his family. He could fit into any kind of group; and he was fun to be with in any kind of situation. Regardless of the circumstances he lived what he believed.

Before he died, Adrian Rogers wrote a letter to Love Worth Finding contributors, telling them that although “the messenger is gone, the message must continue.” ADRIANROGERS.ORG

The Christian Index: What would Dr. Rogers likely say was the most inspiring, moving moment in his ministry at Bellevue?

Roland Maddox: There were so many great moments. It would be hard to select just one incredible moment. That first Sunday when he came to preach and was called as pastor was remarkable in every way.

However, I will say that it was an amazing day when Dr. Rogers presented the idea of moving to the new location. We had entertained the idea of expanding our properties at our location in midtown, but the firm we consulted in Dallas, TX, said we would have to build two 500-car parking garages to accommodate any plans to expand our facilities at that site.

After looking at other church campuses and a few sleepless nights, Dr. Rogers asked some laymen, “Do you think we need to relocate?” The men immediately agreed to pursue the idea. Since Morris Mills and I were in the real estate business, the pastor asked us to begin to look for suitable property east of Memphis on Interstate 40. It became evident that the acreage in that part of the county was far less expensive than the land in midtown where the church was located. It wasn’t long until we found a large tract of land comprised of several parcels, each owned by different individuals or families. We were able to acquire almost 400 acres for the new Bellevue campus in a two-month period.

We prepared a detailed presentation for the deacons and the church, anticipating every question that might be asked. However, before we could make our proposal to the congregation The Memphis Commercial Appeal learned about the plan to relocate the church. They decided to report it on Saturday before the church was to be informed on Sunday. On Sunday morning Dr. Rogers told the congregation, “I have told you for years that you can’t believe everything you read in the newspaper. Come tonight and hear the real story.”

The three huge crosses in front of Bellevue baptist Church can easily be seen from I-40 and have prompted truckers to call the church “Fort God.” GERALD HARRIS/Index

When the motion was presented to relocate the church the building was packed. There were only two families who voted against it and they both stayed in the church and continued to be active.

As we planned to move to our Canaan, the groundbreaking featured bulldozers pushing down large 12-foot signs representing the giants that needed to be defeated before we could possess the land. The signs had words like pride, fear, laziness, carelessness, prayerlessness, and unbelief.

 When we finally moved to the new location, the presence of God was evident in multiple ways. Prior to the first Sunday in the new building many people walked from the old property in midtown to the new location, a distance of almost 15 miles, over a period of several days. The processional to Canaan included the church’s marching band, a Chest of Memories, and an array of banners. When the people arrived at the new campus they were welcomed by the sound of trumpets from the rooftop of the worship center. On that first Sunday, November 19, 1989, there were 14,000 people that attended back-to-back services. It was incredible, but it was just one of the highlights of 32 years in Camelot.

The Christian Index: I know the Thursday Men’s luncheon became a significant event in the life of the church. What was your perspective on that luncheon?

Roland Maddox: There was an average attendance of 900 men for those luncheons. One young man from East Tennessee, a med school student, was invited by a friend to one of the luncheons at Bellevue and commented, “The food was great; and the man speaking (Rogers) was good and said some things I had never heard before. I went back the next Thursday and said, ‘That man believes what he is saying; and sometime later I also started believing what he was saying.’”

Joyce and Adrian Rogers share a moment upon Adrian’s retirement as pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church.

The Christian Index: What was the focus, the heartbeat of Adrian Rogers’ life?

Roland Maddox: Jesus was the focus of his life, and he showed us all how to love Jesus Christ fervently!

The Christian Index: Describe the spirit of the congregation when Dr. Rogers preached. What kind of atmosphere characterized Bellevue when he preached?

Roland Maddox: We all knew he had an uncompromising allegiance to the Word of God. So we listened to him with joy, excitement, and anticipation. Thousands were saved during his years of ministry. Many, many members during those days will tell of how his preaching impacted their lives dramatically. No longer was the Christian life to be “business as usual.” By his example and by his preaching, he set a standard for us to reach far above anything most of us could have imagined. He once told the deacons, “If I drop a handkerchief, I want you to be ready to preach by the time it hits the floor.” The church grew consistently for 30 years. The membership increased from 8,000 to 29,000.

The Christian Index: We all know that Dr. Rogers was a powerful preacher, but he must have also been a great pastor. I remember that there was a shepherd’s staff leaning against the casket during the memorial service to illustrate his role as pastor. What kind of pastor was he?

Roland Maddox: Obviously, when you are pastor of a church as large as Bellevue it is impossible to spend significant time with each member. But when he could, Dr. Rogers visited those in leadership positions in the hospital. He treated everyone with grace, love, and fairness. He spent a great deal of time speaking to as many people as possible when he was at the church. Everyone felt like, “He’s my pastor.”

The front page of The Memphis Commercial Appeal carried the news of Adrian Rogers’ funeral, noting the longtime pastor’s iinfluence in the city.

The Christian Index: Dr. Rogers is known as the champion of the Conservative Resurgence and his three terms as president of the SBC came at a crucial time. He even admitted that his part in turning the SBC to its conservative roots might have the longest-lasting effect and be the most significant accomplishment in his ministry. How important was the role he played in that resurgence?

Roland Maddox: It was vitally important. I was in some of those meetings with the leaders of that movement and when there was a significant decision that needed to be made they all looked to Adrian to find out what his position was on the issue.

His uncompromising position on the Word of God and comment to the Peace Committee will be etched in Southern Baptist history until Jesus comes. On one occasion someone asked him why everyone could not just get together. He said, “I’m willing to compromise about many things, but not the Word of God. So far as getting together is concerned, we don’t have to get together. The Southern Baptist Convention, as it is, does not have to survive. I don’t have to be the pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church. I don’t have to be loved; I don’t even have to live. But I will not compromise the Word of God.” I think those words were the turning point in the effort to restore our denomination to Biblical inerrancy.

The Christian Index: I understand that you are on the board of directors for Love Worth Finding, the media ministry of Dr. Rogers. How many radio and television outlets are still broadcasting Dr. Rogers’ sermons?

A shepherd’s staff rested on the casket of Adrian Rogers, longtime pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church, during his Nov. 17, 2005 funeral service. MORRIS ABERNATHY/BP

Roland Maddox: Obviously, the number of outlets changes from time to time, but LWF is heard on over 2,500 radio stations and the television broadcast is available to over 109 million television households in the U.S. The broadcasts also go around the world to more than 194 countries in English and Spanish. There is also worldwide coverage provided by the Internet.

The Christian Index: Dr. Rogers always spoke of his wife, Joyce, in glowing terms and they seemed to have an ideal relationship. What was the secret to their happy marriage?

Roland Maddox: They never quit being sweethearts. They met in the fourth grade and Adrian often said they didn’t get serious until the seventh grade. He proposed marriage to Joyce when she was 17 years old and they were married after his first year in college. In Joyce’s book, Chosen to be a Minister’s Wife, she writes a chapter entitled “How to Have the Best Marriage in the World.” There is no question but that their marriage was exemplary.

The Christian Index: After Dr. Rogers resigned as pastor at Bellevue he planned to devote his time to training young pastors, but unfortunately that was short-lived. Will you share some insights about his illness and death?

Roland Maddox: He resigned as pastor on September 10, 2004. Shortly thereafter he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He held several institutes for young pastors, but he grew weaker as the months passed by and we learned that the cancer had metastasized to his lungs. On July 10, 2005 Bellevue called Steve Gaines as pastor and he preached his first sermon on September 11. On that Sunday Dr. Rogers washed the feet of the new pastor to show his love and support for his successor. He then placed a mantle on the new pastor’s shoulders to signify the transfer of sacred trust and ministry. Two months later he died and the entire city mourned his death.

Editor’s note: Adrian Rogers was one of my heroes. He retired as pastor of the 29,000-member Bellevue Baptist Church when the church was thriving. The Memphis Commercial Appeal stated that more than 10,000 multicultural and multigenerational mourners gathered to show their respect and admiration for Rogers at his memorial service.

Upon returning to Atlanta after that service I wrote: “As I saw my hero lying in the casket, the feeling was surreal, hard to believe, almost impossible to accept. I had figured him to be immortal, invincible, and incorruptible. And of course, he is all that, but now he belongs not just to us, but he belongs to the ages. He is no doubt rejoicing in his celestial home and undoubtedly “kicking up gold dust on the streets of glory.”

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