Funeral services were held Saturday for Pastor Emeritus Morris George Cornell Vaagenes, former leader of an Arden Hills megachurch for nearly four decades, who died this week at 93.
He was the longtime pastor at North Heights Church, which was founded in 1946 and operated for years in a 450-seat church in Roseville. Its Arden Hills property was added in 1985, a 43-acre campus bigger than the site of the Minnesota Vikings stadium, with a full-sized basketball court, a racquetball court, several chapels and a cavernous sanctuary with 1,350 seats.
Vaagenes is credited with sparking a spiritual movement that followers say transformed the lives of more than 650 million Christians across the world, a movement that originated at his North Heights Church. Under his leadership, the church was hailed as one of the most influential Lutheran churches in the country.
Vaagenes grew up in the Lutheran Free Church, a denomination that valued the mystical gifts of the Holy Spirit, as the child of Norwegian missionary parents in Madagascar. He graduated from Augsburg College in 1951 and Augsburg Seminary in 1954. He received his master of divinity in 1970 and then his doctorate at Luther Seminary in 1979. In the 1950s, he worked in Madagascar for four years and was president of Renewal International, supporting mission projects in Madagascar and spiritual renewal in churches.
In the 1950s, Vaagenes made contact with leaders of the West Coast charismatic movement in the church, focusing on giving himself over to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. After returning from serving as a missionary for the Lutheran Church in Madagascar, Vaagenes visited the Cathedral of St. Paul on his day off and asked for God’s help.
“I sliced up my life and laid it bare,” Vaagenes said. “I could feel the vibrations go through me. I’d had that feeling before, but I always felt it would be presumptuous to say this happened or that I had a unique experience.”
His Cathedral experience was credited with sparking a movement in the 20th century Christian church. “Vaagenes would spend the next two decades pushing at the seams of global Lutheranism hoping to open Christianity to the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit,” according to a past Pioneer Press article.
“Once I became identified with the charismatic movement, my old buddies at church conventions would avoid me,” Vaagenes said in the article. “For 15 or 20 years, I was an outcast. I was the most mocked pastor in the church.”
Those who knew him said he was known for his down to earth nature. He liked to sit with confirmation students and have a conversation over a soda pop before they were confirmed. He was known for his great sense of humor and quick wit.
Vaagenes was pastor of the Arden Hills church from 1961 to 1999. The church, with more than 7,000 members, maintains two campuses in Arden Hills and Roseville. In addition, it includes several ministries, an academy, a preschool, karate association and dance academy. Vaagenes retired as pastor of North Heights Church in 1999, and was succeeded by Robert Cottingham.
In 2002, the church left the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and joined the Alliance of Renewal Churches. The church faced challenges in 2015 based in disputes over church personnel, doctrine and finances, laying off half its staff and closing its Roseville church. Services are now offered at both campuses and online.
“This is a hard loss for many,” the North Heights Church said in a news release about Vaagenes. “The church has lost a prayer warrior and an influential figure. A family has lost a beloved member. Hundreds have lost a personal friend. What Pastor Morris Vaagenes started can and will continue. The community can find comfort in his signature prayer: ‘I can’t. You (God) can. Please do. Thank you. Amen.’”