As I reflect on back on important people in my life and ministry there is a man that impacted my life in such a profound way and is the reason I decided to walk with God. I was twelve when my parents left a small church and brought me to a large church in Indianapolis. The pastor at the time, N.A. Urshan, while a great man, was in my eyes, old. He was in his early fifties, his messages seemed to be over my head, and church seemed to be all about what I couldn’t do. It was just a couple years after we started attending that pastor Urshan left for a position in St. Louis and a new pastor was voted in. The new pastor instantly arrested my attention. He was 25, had a smile that wouldn’t quit, was energetic, 6’7”, played basketball, and had a passion for sports. I was 15, loved sports, especially basketball and needed a person of influence.
Within months of James Larson becoming my pastor, I had surrendered my life to Jesus, was filled with the Spirit, and my life was forever changed. He was fun, charismatic and creative, loved to worship, and his messages were convicting, yet relative to me as a teenager. I didn’t think that fun and God could go together, he showed me differently. In his daily life I saw his humanity, he didn’t mind mixing it up when playing basketball, in fact, he instigated some of the fights during the games, he was highly competitive. Playing softball, he was brash, and could hit a ball a country mile. His messages often brought up the Minnesota Twins baseball team or the Vikings football, all which appealed to me.
Once at a men’s retreat, there was a pontoon on a small pond where we were staying. It was there for people to dive off of and there was a sign that said, please don’t sink the pontoon. I still see 20 or so men with him on the boat and him yelling, “coming on guys, we just need a couple more and we’ll have this thing sunk.” That was my pastor. He loved God, but he loved fun.
He and his wife were incredible people of prayer. My passion and commitment to prayer is directly a result of watching their lives. Multiple times a year we would have prayer and fasting revivals and every night the place filled to capacity. Miracles happened, lives were changed, but most of all, those who set under James Larson developed a lifelong love for prayer. Beyond the prayer revivals, he would be in the prayer room before every Sunday service, crying out, circling the room, praying, and pleading for God to move in the service. His passion for prayer was contagious, the place would be packed, so much so that people would be waiting in line to get in the prayer room. It was commitment to prayer that fueled my love for prayer, my ministry, and caused me to teach so passionate about the need to have a daily prayer life.
One word described his love for worship, tambourine. Leaving the prayer room, he would immediately head to the platform, grab his tambourine and lead 1500 people in worship. He loved the presence of God and showed others how to do it decently and in order. He had an uncanny ability to follow the Spirit, could easily call an audible in the middle of a service, and his messages nearly always had crowds in the altars, moved by the power of the Word. His worship made me a worshipper and someone who understood as a leader, I was to lead in worship.
James Larson had vison like no one I’ve met. He had the faith to build a new building when the church wasn’t sure there was enough money, brought the name Calvary Tabernacle to the forefront of Indianapolis, and reached the community in some of the most creative ways seen. He rented Market Square arena for a service, had life changing crusades, and did things that were so innovative. Who will ever forget the campaign, “Go to Heaven Indy.” He rented multiple billboards all over the city, had commercials on many local stations, and everyone had a “Go to Heaven Indy” bumper sticker.
He also understood there needed to be fun times for the church family. I fondly remember fall outings, church picnics, and spaces he created for the church family to make memories. His love for doing things outside of the box, for doing things that were original, is what gave me my vision and creativity as a pastor. He taught me to be original, not a copy, to do what no one else was doing, and it’s what propelled the many incredible events we did for nearly 20 years at Life.
Though he was pastor of Calvary Tabernacle for just ten short years, he is the reason I would go on to be in the ministry. Though his direct influence in my life was short, I’ve always considered him my pastor. He was part of the passion behind my teaching at Indiana Bible College and one of the men I tried to emulate as I pastored at Life Connection.
I saw him recently and though he had had just turned 70 and health not quite as good, nothing had changed. When he saw me, he jumped out of his seat with that same big smile, bellowed out my name, and hugged me like a big bear. Though he was never Mary’s pastor, she got the same huge hug. Then came the questions about my parents, my sister, and my kids. You would have thought I was his best friend. I think that’s how everyone feels after coming in contact with him.
Thank you, James Larson, for being one of my heroes of the faith, for teaching me to value prayer and the Word, and being a man of great influence on my ministry. I will forever be grateful.