Wayne Northup ’98 is widely recognized as a successful church planter, but he is quick to point out that his call was not to plant churches, but to reach a city.
Flashback to 1997, when one of his North Central professors told Northup, a Pastoral Studies major, he’d been chosen to represent the school on a mission trip to New Orleans. All of the other Assemblies of God colleges were going, so Northup agreed to represent the school. He had no idea it would change the course of his life.
Discovering a love for New Orleans
The night he arrived for the mission trip, he and a friend went with their host to New Orleans’ famous French Quarter to eat. “I didn’t even know what that was,” Northup recalled, “but I found myself in the back seat and just started crying for no reason on the way to the French Quarter—kind of awkward in a car full of three guys.
“I didn’t know why I was crying, and the closer we got to the Quarter, the harder I was crying.” Northup said the tears continued when they entered the restaurant to the point that he had to excuse himself. He returned to the car, continuing to weep uncontrollably, “And the only thing God said was ‘I’m going to give you love for a city,’” Northup remembered. “My heart was ripped out for the city of New Orleans.”
Just a few months later Northup felt God speaking to him again, telling him to take a generation to reach a generation, and he soon after took a van of 12 students from North Central to minister to people in New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras.
That mission trip grew to an annual outreach that has continued for 20 years, and North Central is sending a team to participate in 2018.
Winding path, clear destination
Until 2010, Northup’s love for New Orleans continued to be demonstrated primarily through the annual outreach trips. After his 1998 graduation from North Central, he married Kristi Shields ’00, and embarked on a ministry career as an evangelist, serving at churches such as Stone Creek Church in Champaign, Illinois, under Gary Grogan, in Minneapolis at Emmanuel Christian Center under Nate Ruch, and at The Oaks Fellowship in Dallas with Scott Wilson.
He and his family were enjoying a good life, traveling, preaching in schools and large churches. “We were serving on staff in Dallas with our best friends,” Wayne said, but noted that in all the years of traveling, no place really felt like home—except when he was in New Orleans. “We knew it was just a matter of time till God moved us.”
At the Assemblies of God General Council gathering in 2010, Wayne remembers a service where he felt like God was speaking and told him it was time to plant in New Orleans. “So we left everything. We lost money on our house, took a pay cut, and brought our kids to New Orleans.”
Not long after moving to New Orleans, Wayne began to have major health challenges. A PE News article by John Kennedy explains:
“Six months after embarking on his first church plant, Wayne A. Northup awakened one morning and couldn’t breathe. Northup always had lived with mild asthma, but on this day he couldn’t even walk up the stairs in his house.
A battery of tests spawned various asthma-related treatments prescribed by doctors, ranging from downing unhealthy doses of Prednisone to walking around with intravenous tubes hanging from his body. Besides side effects that included weight gain and abscesses, Northup struggled with fevers, infections, and — still — breathing difficulties.
As the weeks of health troubles dragged into months, Northup, a usually faith-filled Christian, began to hear Satan whispering lies: the New Orleans church he planted would fail; he would die; he would leave behind his wife, Kristi, and the couple’s two children, Libby and Lincoln.
For much of his first two years as pastor of Saints Community Church, Northup couldn’t get out of bed.”
Northup’s condition eventually received an accurate and treatable diagnosis, but despite breathing through compromised lungs, he is grateful that his health crisis led him to a new place in his faith, one where he experienced not only the power of Christ’s resurrection, but also “the fellowship of His suffering.”
Serving in the extremes
The resolution of Wayne’s health challenges did not mean everything became easy. Kristi Northup, who serves Saints Community Church in the areas of business administration and worship, said there is nothing she can compare it do when talking about serving in New Orleans, but what makes it difficult is also what makes it beautiful.
“The thing about New Orleans is that it’s like the colors are brighter,” Kristi said. “The shadows are darker, the lights are lighter…everything is heightened. The food tastes stronger. The beauty is more beautiful. The poverty is more severe….
“It’s such an extreme place. The sin is more extreme. The weather is more extreme…the food…the music…everything. And the things that are heartbreaking are so heartbreaking. That is part of New Orleans—you can’t have one without the other.”
Kristi observed that because of deep traditions in New Orleans culture, it takes years to develop relationships and trust. She grew up as a missionary kid in South America, and said it has taken everything she ever learned on the mission field to get to know the deep, rich, unique culture of this Louisiana city. “It’s as extreme and experience as living in Chile or Guatemala,” she said.
Sabbatical and next steps
The rewards of this “cross-cultural” church plant are real, but so is the stress. Wayne said finances are a regular issue, in part because of the poverty of the city. “It seemed like five-and-a-half years here would have been a normal ten years in other cities,” Northup pointed out. He was tired last fall yet ready to keep pressing through, but his elders intervened. “They said ‘You can take a sabbatical before the nervous breakdown, or be forced to take one after,’” he shared. He was humbled by the show of support, including an offering from the congregation to send them on sabbatical.
This summer, Wayne, Kristi, and their kids Libby and Lincoln, spent six weeks away. Most of their time was in the Boundary Waters area of Minnesota and a cabin in Taylors Falls. He didn’t even take his cell phone.
Through their time away, God showed Wayne his perspective needed adjustment. “He spoke to me about the quantity of my prayer time, not just quality,” Northup said. “When I got back I told our team we’ve got to be praying more to get where we need to go. If we’re going to reach the city, God has to be the one to do it.” Wayne and his staff now spend an hour-and-a-half praying every morning.
The Northups, who are expecting their third child, are committed to New Orleans for the long haul. “The problems here only the Gospel can solve,” Kristi observed. “There is no amount of funding, no government programs. Only the blood of Christ can change people’s minds and hearts.”