Archived Sections, Lutherans in the Twin Cities

North Heights breaks mainline stereotypes

The Rev. Robert Cottington

The Rev. Robert Cottington

Suburban St. Paul congregation known for charismatic gifts

North Heights Lutheran Church was a congregation of 500 members 40 years ago when Pastor Morris Vaagenes was called to be its pastor. By now it has grown into one of the metro area’s largest Lutheran congregations.
Today the flock includes 8,000 members and 2,000 other participants and contributors listed in the church directory as “active non-members.”
When he came to North Heights in 1961, Vaagenes was faced with a congregation heavily in debt and split over merger of the former Lutheran Free Church into the then ALC (American Lutheran Church). Pastor Emeritus Morris Vaage-nes credits the Holy Spirit for uniting a divided church and for transforming the congregation into what North Heights has become.
“I just tried to stay out of the way and let the Holy Spirit work in the lives of the members. The Holy Spirit took this split church and united it,” Pastor Vaagenes said. In 1963, North Heights voted overwhelmingly to be part of the ALC.
In his role as emeritus pastor, Vaagenes does limited teaching and preaching at North Heights, and he maintains an office at the Roseville campus. However, he also heads an organization called Renewal International, which was formed to foster renewal among Lutherans nationally and internationally, and to raise support for mission projects in developing nations. North Heights is “a major hub for spiritual renewal and serves as a model,” Dr. Vaagenes commented.
The Rev. Robert Cottingham succeeded Dr. Vaagenes as senior pastor in 1999. He says of Vaagenes, “He is my spiritual father and my friend of 30 years … He is North Heights’ greatest ambassador.”
It was at North Heights that Cottingham, as a young man, came to personal and living faith in Christ through Pastor Vaagenes’ ministry.
Lutherans, as is the case with most denominations, seem to pay mere lip service to the Holy Spirit, rather than depending on him for their life and power, Vaagenes said. He explained that Charismatic Renewal is about restoration of the power, work, fruit and gifts of the Spirit in the church’s life and ministry.
The Spirit’s gifts include healings, miracles, faith, exorcism and speaking in tongues. These and other spiritual gifts are in evidence at North Heights, in its ministry and among its members.
The fruit of the Spirit includes love, joy, peace, patience. Both pastors say it is their desire, and that of the congregation, to give the Holy Spirit full freedom to manifest his love, presence and power in the life of the church and its people.
Prior to coming to North Heights, Vaagenes had been introduced to healing prayer through the Epis-copal Church. Consequently, he prayed for the sick with laying on of hands and anointing with oil. It was through the Episcopal healing movement he was introduced to charismatic renewal.
He brought renewal into North Heights in 1962, and he chose to introduce it in an evolutionary rather than revolutionary manner. “This is slower change, but [it] is more deep-seated and lasting,” the pastor emeritus added.
In 1972 the congregation adopted charismatic renewal with little fallout. The 10-year process suited Vaagenes fine. Since then large numbers have been attracted to the church, drawn by its vibrant spiritual life and worship services.
Pastor Vaagenes felt that the traditional style of ministry, which comes to members’ spiritual and emotional aid when they are in crisis, did not bear much lasting fruit. He chose to follow Jesus’ approach of “ministry to multitudes and disciples.”
According to Vaagenes, Jesus ministered compassionately to the whole person in the power of the Spirit. To them he extended the invitation to come and follow him. Those who left all to follow him became disciples. To the crowds he spoke in parables, but they often failed to understand what he said. To the disciples he revealed the secrets of the kingdom.
Pastor Vaagenes sought to emulate this approach. The needs of people were ministered to with care, and those seeking further instruction were mentored. In his early days at North Heights, Vaagenes used the intensive Bethel Series Bible study teacher training materials to train core groups of 12. Much to his surprise, and temporary dismay, he lost half of the first group — to the seminary and to missionary work.
He said, “The Lord reminded me that the first fruits belong to [God].” It was through subsequent groups, and through a dynamic spiritual awakening among the youth, that spiritual renewal became the direction of the whole congregation in 1972.
Admitting that he started out as a law-oriented preacher, Vaagenes acknowledged he didn’t have the ability to “read the Bible more, pray more, witness more, do more,” as the legalistic, law approach urges one to do. He said, “Then I discovered that I could not live the Christian life and do Christian service [by myself], and that God did not intend me to. Only Jesus was able to do this, and now he wants to do it in and through me by means of the Holy Spirit’s guidance and power.” He added, “It took time to grasp this ‘grace/gospel and faith response’ approach.”
North Heights has two locations. The two-campus ministry wasn’t really planned as such, but developed that way out of necessity. The congregation was outgrowing its Roseville facility in the late 1970s, and there was no available land for expansion. So, congregational leaders looked at where many of its members lived and selected a 46-acre site in Arden Hills, where there were no other churches within two miles.
Pastor Vaagenes said he never favored abandoning the original location. He was convinced God had placed the congregation in east Roseville for a reason. Now nine worship services are held on the two sites every weekend.
North Heights is known by many in the Twin Cities Lutheran community for its Advent and Easter music/ drama presentations, “The Splendor of Christmas” and “The Passion Play.” Thom Hardwick, North Heights’ minister of music, orchestrates both events. The 26 performances are regularly sold out.
Pr. Cottingham commented, “Churches our size have a responsibility to focus each ministry on the primary purpose of the church. That purpose is to build up the Kingdom of God by knowing Jesus ourselves personally and experientially, and to make him known in every way we are able.”
When it comes to membership, “there is no litmus test for those joining,” Vaagenes commented. “We use a basic confession of Jesus as one’s personal Lord and Savior, in which new members are invited to share their faith story.”
With its reputation as a charismatic congregation, how do North Heights members view other Lutheran congregations? “We do not want to judge others,” Vaagenes says. “Our concern is to inspire spiritual awakening and share spiritual gifts with others.”
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What members say about North Heights
Merlin & Linda Morken
“It’s our spiritual life line. Just as we go to a supermarket for food, North Heights is where we go for our spiritual food.” The Morkens found North Heights in the Yellow Pages. Merlin, who had been Lutheran, says his wife, who had been Roman Catholic, “was saved at North Heights.” He rededicated his life to the Lord there. Their activities include teaching, retreat leadership, prison ministry and serving as elders.
Karen & Cush Minar
Dissatisfied with their former congregation, the Minars found North Heights while “church shopping” and went no further. Karen, a Sunday school teacher, says for her the church experience must include spirituality, faith and friendships. She strives to make her teaching exciting, interesting, and based in Scripture. “After all,” she says “the world offers kids a lot — and we’re in competition.”
Says Cush Minar, who runs a north suburban auto dealership, “North Heights has provided an enormous growth in the Holy Spirit — the true meaning of Christ-ianity, not just attending a church. This church provides a powerful ministry, and it has given me the boldness to set aside time for a daily voluntary prayer at our auto dealership. It’s part of knowing and making Christ known.”