The Legacy of Bruce Larson – some reflections

In the fall of 1987 I started work in the youth department of University Presbyterian Church in Seattle. It was an interesting time in America with the advent of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” calling forth a new level of conservatism not only in politics, but in religious life. This was the era of the birth of the ‘megachurch’ – the neo-cathedral movement where Willow Creek and Saddleback moved from church plants in movie theaters to massive, swirling corporations with parking lots bigger than Idaho. University Presbyterian Church (UPC) experienced a similar jump in the 1980’s, but remained a “church” in the fullest sense of the word in large part to its pastor – Rev. Bruce Larson. Under Bruce’s leadership UPC’s membership nearly tripled to 4,400, and the church moved into its new building that includes a large multipurpose wing that was dedicated “Larson Hall” in his memory. But it is not the legacy of growth that Bruce left behind in his decade as senior pastor of University Presbyterian Church from 1980-1990. For those of us who worshipped and work alongside Bruce in those halcyon days of power ties, Preppy Handbooks, and Amy Grant moving to mainstream radio play, Bruce provided a legacy of flesh and blood faith amidst the artifice of church growth where it was depth, not size, that was the measure of ministry. After he ‘retired’ from UPC in 1990 (he made a commitment that someone should not be the pastor of a church longer than a decade and he stuck to it) and then served for five years as the co-pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in California – a decision some saw initially as a ‘sell out’ for the mega-church of mega-churches. Rather than celebrate the grandeur of the Garden Grove mega-structure, Bruce came to the Crystal Cathedral to try and draw the church back to being about people – a bold move and certainly counter to the trend of the time. This was the embodiment of Bruce’s focus on ‘relational theology’ – what he termed in his book No Longer Strangers as “a rediscovery of the worth and importance of the individual as over against content, methods, techniques, theories of personality, or ‘the group.’” This was not a focus on individualism and consumerism that was viral in the 1980’s, but the gift of grace each and every person offers to the world by virtue of being created in the image of God. He returned to the Pacific Northwest in 1995 where he loved the land where the mountains meet the sea (he was an avid sailor) and continued to write and reflect on not only what it means to be a faithful Christian, but what it means to be a deep and compassionate human being. Of his 23 books and pastoral commentaries, it is worth noting that Bruce coined the term “The Emerging Church” as the title of one of his books long before the current trend made it into a brand rather than a theology. Bruce passed away on December 15, 2008 at the age of 83 having battled Parkinson’s disease in his latter years.
It would be a crime to delimit his vast legacy to one phrase, but for many folks who had the gift of Bruce’s legacy and ministry as part of their Christian journey, the notion that “Every member a minister” continues to shape what it means to be in ministry. That it is not the unilateral power of investiture from minister to laity that is the task of the clergy – as if what it means to be ordained is to be a divine Pez dispenser . Rather, the church is a collective of gifted, talents, equipped ministers who should be encouraged and released to ministry for and with the world around us. The Pastor as ‘reminder’ of personhood and holiness already present in each and every person forged in the Imago Dei, is the task of ministry over and against programming, marketing, building buildings and counting the numbers of downloads of our sermon.
I still have a tattered copy of No Longer Strangers on my desk at the University, sitting alongside other books that have shaped me over the years. Even as I look at it now with its very dated 1971 ‘mod’ book jacket, I am challenged to think about what it means to the church these days as clergy chase after the latest and greatest programs and technologies to ‘win’ people to their respective pews. Just this year, Bruce’s predecessor Earl Palmer stepped down after over a decade of ministry at UPC. For many, UPC is framed around Earl Palmer’s dynamic teaching from the pulpit with clear and engaging homiletics weaving Greek word study with CS Lewis’ Narnia. To be sure, Earl Palmer’s ministry in the 1990’s engaged people’s minds in powerful ways. But as someone who has watched with great church over two decades both from within and from outside its walls – one could safely say that while Earl reminded UPC of how much smarter and intellectually robust the Gospel is than some people think, Bruce reminded those us who were sitting in that larger sanctuary and walking the hallways of UPC in the crazy days of the 1980’s just how loved we were by an amazing God who cared for us as “unique unrepeatable miracles.”
Quite a legacy that I hope is celebrated in the ministries of those who remember that we are truly “no longer strangers.”

1 Comment

Leave a Comment

  1. Jeff,
    Our connection with Bruce Larson was definately from the pew. Dave and I attended UPC as newlyweds from 1983 – 1989, at least twice a year, sometimes more. We did attend the new members class – where we were challenged that every member was a minister and was called to a mission… Dave and I felt this was much too radical and decided not to join as a result. We did however continue to attend sporatically… until we moved in 1989 to Cleveland, OH. During that move we realized that one of the things we would miss most in Seattle was… UPC and Bruce Larsen! We immediately joined Bay Presbyterian Church in Ohio – accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior and started our journey of finding the ministry and mission that Christ intends and empowers us to fulfill. Thank you for writing this great tribute to a wonderful man who broke ground in our hard hearts and planted a few seeds that later bore witness to HIS truth in our life. Melissa Eller

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s