Nick Warnes didn’t grow up in the church, but now he’s planting one.  

To some, that might seem surprising. To Warnes, it actually seems quite natural.

Warnes is organizing pastor for Northland Village Church ― a ministry experiment of San Fernando Presbytery, the Evangelical Covenant Church, and Glendale Presbyterian Church ― in an urban neighborhood of northeastern Los Angeles.

Northland Village is an example of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s fledgling effort to create 1,001 new worshipping communities in the next 10 years.

Warnes grew up in a family he describes as full of love, but without ever hearing about Jesus. It was when Warnes was in high school that a Young Life leader befriended him and invited him to summer camp, where he heard about Jesus for the first time.

Through his involvement with Young Life, which led to a leadership position while he was in college, Warnes eventually found himself working in the church.

“I was working for the church as a Young Life church partner — employed by the church and running the church’s youth group, but also working with the local Young Life club,” said Warnes.

It was this time working for Young Life that Warnes credits with teaching him how to be a church planter. “Young Life taught me that the church isn’t supposed to be a place where you sit and wait for people to come. Instead you outwardly build relationships with people,” said Warnes. “That idea of church was really normal for me.”

When people around Warnes began suggesting he think about church planting, and when Warnes felt that God was nudging him in that direction, he realized he needed to listen.

Warnes attended an assessment training for potential new church development pastors. During a presentations on being ‘missional’ a participant made the comment, “I think ‘missional’ is becoming such a broad term—we should start using the word ‘incarnational.’”

“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” said Warnes. “This word, incarnational, was what we were using ten years ago in Young Life, and now all of a sudden it has become the hip word again. Incarnational is how I was taught from the beginning.”

For Warnes the term incarnational isn’t necessarily or only about incarnating Jesus inside the building with the walls, but rather wherever and in whatever context one happens to be. “Incarnational is not rocket science — it seems so obvious, in light of the reading of the life of Christ.”

“Incarnating means a lot of time listening to people’s stories and then helping them find traction within the larger story of God,” said Warnes. That, is, in his perception, much of what he does in his role as a pastor.  

Warnes is quick to point out that it is not about listening to people’s stories as a way to then get them to come to church, or to get them to do anything in particular.

“If I were to try that in this neighborhood people can see it right away and you’d be called what you are — a shallow person who is trying to use friendship for manipulation,” said Warnes.

“I think people are tired of church plants coming into town with the hero syndrome, as if they were coming in to convert the pagans.”

Just how does a new church plant, and its pastor, enter into a neighborhood?  

“We believe that God is already an active part of this neighborhood and already doing amazing things — we just want to connect people’s stories to what they are already experiencing,” Warnes said.

It is that belief and that trust which form the foundation of this new ministry experiment which has, as its core, a focus on reconciliation.

They are working from a reorientation, explains Warnes, away from a Christendom mindset and toward more of an ‘exilic’ one. “In our neighborhood it is quite clear that Christendom is over,” said Warnes, noting that it is no longer the church that is at the center of the life and decisions of the neighborhood and the city.  

“We are finding our story in the exilic expressions of the faith through the stories of Israel, through Paul and through Jesus — working from the fringes, which we find to be quite an exciting place to be doing ministry.”

Part of the exilic mentality is also a reorientation to the idea of power. It the idea of doing ministry not from a place of power but of weakness.

“We are trying to be faithful to the mission that God is calling us to and for whatever reason, it seems to be working right now.”

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.