‘Trying something better’
New church development working to build community, trust, faith in Los Angeles
July 18, 2011
ATWATER VILLAGE, Los Angeles
“The answer to ‘bad church’ isn’t ‘no church’—it’s trying something better,” said the Rev. Nick Warnes. Warnes is pastor of Northland Village Church, one such attempt at ‘trying something better.’
Northland Village Church, which began to have public services on Easter 2010, is in Los Angeles’ northeastern corner.
“The trend has typically been toward planting churches in the suburbs — we were adamant that we were going to go toward the city,” Warnes said.
Location is not the only thing that makes Northland Village somewhat unique in the new church development world. A graduate of Fuller Seminary, Warnes didn’t grow up in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and was preparing for a call to church planting.
“In talking with a mentor about my call he said, ‘You should talk to the PC(USA) — I hear that the presbytery is looking for new things,’” Warnes said.
What resulted is a partnership between Glendale Presbyterian Church, the Presbytery of San Fernando and the Evangelical Covenant Church. The rather unusual partnership was initiated by the presbytery, which had the humility to realize that the ECC was more equipped with the resources and training needed for NCD work.
“In the past, when the presbytery would plant a church, it meant, “Let’s raise $5 million, construct a building and hire a ‘professional’ to set up a big public launch,” Warnes said. “To their credit, they were willing to embrace the adaptive shift and try something new.”
With a launch team of about 30 people, the group began sharing meals together in the summer of 2009 as part of a discernment process.
“Since then we’ve been working on a three-year frame — year one for listening, year two building community relationships, and year three participating in what’s already going on,” Warnes said.
By joining in what the city is already doing and by serving the city in this way, the folks from Northland Village have built a reputation as people who are willing to help out.
It is this transition from location to relationships that Northland Village is trying to foster and encourage.
“We have experienced a great deal of blessing in connecting with de-churched people,” Warnes said, adding that many of those have been wounded by their previous experiences of church. It is often slow and difficult work to build trust among those who have lost it.
“We knew that the work would be slow and take patience to understand the pain that the church has put people through,” Warnes said.
Because of that, Warnes sought out humble people who would be able to withstand the slow pace of the task.
“I didn’t grow up in the PC(USA) — didn’t grow up in the church,” Warnes said. “I’ve been surprised by the humility of the PC(USA), the San Fernando Presbytery, and Glendale Presbyterian Church’s willingness to take a big leap of faith together.
“The PC(USA) has been amazing to support a brand-new expression of faith in a tough part of L.A.,” Warnes said.
And not only that — the partnership went forward with the church plant in the middle of the financial crisis, and when Glendale Presbyterian itself was without a pastor itself.
Reaching out to changing communities can be a challenge for more traditional and established churches.
“I don’t think that churches set out to turn inward to maintain their structures, but that is so natural it ends up being what happens as a church grows,” Warnes said. “What we are asking is, how can we keep the mission of God at the forefront of all of our decisions?”
From a more logical and practical standpoint, Warnes said that if the institution starts, grows and dies without reproducing, the story will eventually end.
“If the story is going to continue, then church planting must continue to grow in the midst of people who are making disciples,” he said.
Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.