Still the one: Alabama preacher marks 65 years with the same congregation
ROANOKE, Ala. — In 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent…
‘Go West, young man.”
At age 27, with a Bible degree from Oklahoma Christian University and five years of experience preaching in Vermont, Bruce Henderson did exactly that.
In October 1973, Henderson moved roughly 2,900 miles west with his wife, Wanetta, and their two young daughters. They relocated to Carson City, Nev., the state capital, for him to serve as the minister for the Airport Road Church of Christ.
Little did Henderson know that he would remain in that role 50 years later — eight times longer, so far, than the national median for Protestant pastors, according to Lifeway Research.
“You know, I just kind of leave it up to God,” Henderson, now 77, told The Christian Chronicle in a recent interview. “I’m still excited about ministry.”
The small Nevada congregation had around 40 attendees when he began, and most of them were middle-aged, Henderson said. A few were couples like Henderson and his wife — in their 20s with young children.
About one month after Henderson and his family moved to Carson City, Linda Smith, 76, and her husband did the same. Smith said the first time they attended the church, Henderson invited them to have dinner with his family.
“He cared enough about us to follow us from the church building to our apartment to see if we wanted to go have pizza,” Smith said. “He was so young back then. After talking to him and his wife and everything, we just really fell in love.”
With a population of less than 20,000 that year, Carson City had one Church of Christ, and Henderson led it. He started his ministry in the community as soon as he could.
“I think I was fairly open-minded, and I was just really excited to be in a new place,” the minister said. “The potential for growth was high. We just began doing what we could, and growth came.”
Bruce Henderson is Jeanine Bryce’s older brother.
“I don’t have any bad stories to tell,” Bryce, a member of the Memorial Road Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, said as she recalled their childhood.
When Henderson and Bryce were young, their father was an oil geologist, which meant they moved frequently to follow oil fields. Because of this, Bryce said, they never developed the habit of going to church on Sunday nights or Wednesday nights — only Sunday mornings.
Henderson was the reason their family started getting more involved in church, Bryce said. One Sunday in 1961, when Henderson was 14, he got baptized.
“That night, we were in the living room watching TV, and Bruce came in and was kind of dressed up,” Bryce said. “‘Mom said, ‘Where are you going?’”
“‘I’m going to church,’” Bryce recalled Henderson responding. “‘I became a Christian today, and I’m going to be all-in.’”
Soon after, the whole family started going to Sunday night and Wednesday night assemblies as well as volunteering in the church kitchen and teaching Sunday school classes.
Henderson’s devotion to ministry can be attributed in part to his parents and grandmother, Bryce said. Every summer, the two siblings would stay with their grandmother for several weeks at a time, and she read from the Bible with them every morning.
“It was a routine we both developed in our very young years,” Bryce said. “I think that probably instilled in him a thirst for the Word and to spread the Word.”
Today, Airport Road remains the only Church of Christ in Carson City. Henderson said the nearest sister congregation is 25 miles away.
“I’ve always thought that the church needs a presence in the community,” he said. “Bringing people joy and peace and God’s comfort — whether you’re in a building or in a hospital or in a jail — is pretty important.”
With a population of 3.1 million, Nevada has only 27 Churches of Christ with roughly 2,600 adherents, according to a national directory published by 21st Century Christian.
When a small group of Christians gathers in a place like Nevada, Jesus becomes their everything, Henderson said.
“The key out here in everything is, light doesn’t make much sense unless there’s darkness,” Henderson told the Chronicle. “We do have darkness here today, and that’s our task.”
From 1974 to 1986, Henderson led a ministry at the state prison system in Carson City and began a weekly 15-minute radio broadcast at Airport Road.
In 1986, he began spending time at the local hospital as the volunteer chaplain. He continued that work for over 35 years, only closing that chapter because of eyesight troubles.
For a while he wrote a weekly column in the newspaper. He also volunteered at a homeless kitchen and spent time as a chaplain at state legislature sessions.
“Every one of my chapters has been really exciting, but there has been downtime in every one of them,” he said. “Not everybody was in tune with prison ministry, for example.”
Because there were no courses in ministry when Henderson attended college, he said, it took him a while to realize that ministry is “much more than public proclamation.”
One day, he visited one of his friends from Airport Road, an older lady who had recently returned to the congregation.
“I said something about me being her preacher,” he recalled. “She said, ‘I don’t like that name. You are my minister, and you minister to me.’”
Airport Road is still welcoming new members. The congregation counts 50 consistent attendees, Henderson said, including eight added this year.
Some members have been there for decades. Others only recently joined.
“I couldn’t tell who had been there forever and who hadn’t,” said Steve Beach, 74, who placed membership five years ago. “I think that’s a reflection of Bruce’s leadership, too.”
Henderson’s style of public speaking attracts Christians and others.
He emphasizes the positive side of the Bible but does not ignore the “fire and brimstone type of stuff,” Beach said. “You never get lost during one of his sermons. He doesn’t preach forever just because he can — he keeps it around 20 to 25 minutes.”
“One of the things I would want to say to young preachers is, make sure it is all centered in Jesus. In the midst of all of our preaching and all of our good efforts, we need them always to be preaching Jesus.”
Henderson said he has grown a lot during his half-century at Airport Road. Starting out, he envisioned himself preaching to big congregations and ministering to large crowds.
“I’ve come to see that ministry is being the body of Christ in one-on-one situations,” the minister said. “That has changed my preaching and my outreach. It is very easy to settle into a ministry of maintenance instead of outreach.”
A few years ago, Henderson started putting a quote from John 12:21 — “Sir, we would like to see Jesus” — on the pulpit so he could see it every time he preached.
“One of the things I would want to say to young preachers is, make sure it is all centered in Jesus,” Henderson said. “In the midst of all of our preaching and all of our good efforts, we need them always to be preaching Jesus.”
A few months ago, the Carson Tahoe Regional Medical Center honored Henderson for finishing 37 years of service as a volunteer chaplain. Although that chapter is closed, he said he still plans to minister to his church and in the community for as long as he can.
He has no plans to retire.
“The only thing I can think of,” he said, “is that God has wanted us here.”
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