the shape of leadership

The Fellowship of His Suffering

A profile of church planters Wayne and Kristi Northup

Even as many residents and business owners were leaving New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Wayne and Kristi Northup were making plans to relocate to the devastated city to reach the people.

It was a step of faith that had started years earlier, in college at North Central University in Minneapolis, when the couple first sensed God calling them to New Orleans. After graduation, they led annual missions trips to share the gospel in the French Quarter during Mardi Gras. Then, in 2011 — six years after the hurricane and 14 years after hearing God’s call to New Orleans — they finally moved there to start Saints Community Church.

“Most people will go to places that are up and coming,” says Kristi, who serves as the church’s associate pastor and worship leader. “We were going to a city where half the population was gone.”

The Northups knew launching a new venture in an urban area still reeling from disaster would be difficult. But the couple didn’t anticipate the personal storm they were about to endure.

A few months after the church opened its doors, Wayne, who serves as lead pastor, became ill. It started with asthma-like symptoms that grew steadily worse. Over the next year, he experienced several bouts of pneumonia and underwent seven surgeries. Finally, a pulmonologist told Wayne the local environment was causing his problems.

“You have to leave New Orleans, or you’re going to die,” the doctor said.

“We had a call to reach a city.”                               — Wayne Northup

Lying in bed with a high fever, pneumonia, and a severe stomach virus, the 37-year-old pastor wondered whether he would survive long enough to fulfill his calling or raise his young children.

“In that moment, a thousand lies of the enemy came rushing at me: You’re going to die; the church is going to fail; you’ll never reach New Orleans; God has brought you here to end your life,” Wayne recalls. “I cried out to God, and I heard the Lord say, ‘You’ve only known 50 percent of Me. You’ve only experienced the power of My resurrection. This is the fellowship of My suffering.’”

Wayne later learned the cause of his illness: a treatable fungal infection that is unrelated to his geographic location. His lungs remain compromised, but Wayne now manages his symptoms through medication and therapy. He says the trial has given him greater compassion for the people of New Orleans, all of whom have suffered trauma in some way.

“I really gained empathy for people who are walking through hard times,” Wayne says. “That was when I became a shepherd.”

Saints Community Church is steadily growing, with an average weekly attendance of 250 to 300 — making it an anomaly in New Orleans.

“Some call New Orleans the church planter’s graveyard,” Wayne says. “Over the last 30 years, there has been little growth among the evangelical church here. What we’re experiencing right now is just tremendous.

“We didn’t have a call to plant a church,” he adds. “We had a call to reach a city. That call is the only thing that has kept us going.”

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2017 edition of Influence magazine.


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