The Art of Cyber Church
Butternut Squash Soup is calling, but Joel Hunter stands glued to CNN in his living room in rainy Orlando.
Lunch can wait another minute, because details about President Barack Obama's meeting with a foreign leader might be coming. When the news anchor switches topics, Hunter, satisfied, quickly joins his wife, Becky, at their glass dinner table.
One of Hunter's megachurch staffers gleefully picks on his boss, recalling when Hunter sat next to boxing legend Muhammad Ali at Obama's inauguration: "You should've given him a little nudge on the shoulder, just to say you've been in a fight with Ali." "Oh yeah," Hunter replies sarcastically. "I can see the headlines now: PASTOR PUNCHES PARKINSON'S PATIENT."
Politics and media are strong siren calls, and Hunter doesn't ignore either's pleas. His national profile emerged after he resigned from the Christian Coalition in 2006, saying the organization was unwilling to expand its mission beyond fighting abortion and same-sex marriage. During the 2008 presidential election cycle, Hunter prayed at the Democratic National Convention last summer and with the President on Election Day.
Journalists often looked to Hunter during election season as the de facto voice of moderate evangelicals. But the Orlando-based pastor who helped Northland, A Church Distributed grow from 200 to 12,000 people in 20 years has established himself as one of the country's most innovative church planters.
"Politics is one venue in which the Lord can work, but his plan A has always been the local congregation," Hunter says. "My calling is to be part of that frontline ministry."
A Church Distributed
At first glance, 61-year-old Hunter appears closer to retirement than to the Blackberry addict he is. Wearing a black suit, white shirt, and blue tie with his white hair carefully combed to one side, he names Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice as his favorite book and classical music as his choice of tunes. "I've never really been a hip-hop kind of guy," he says with a laugh as he pretends to twist a baseball cap on sideways.
Most church planters value the vitality of youth, but Hunter sees his age as an asset. When members of his congregation become angry that he prays with a Democratic President or experiments with worship on an iPhone, he shrugs it off.
"It's like being a grandfather when your grandkids are throwing a temper tantrum. You say, 'They're having a bad day,'" he says. "Grandfathers have the benefit of having perspective without having the necessity of control."
Even with his grandfatherly perspective, Hunter quickly led Northland to use the Internet to plant a local church far beyond Orlando. Mark Pinsky, former religion reporter for The Orlando Sentinel, has written about Hunter for several years and describes him as a quintessential early adopter of technology—with a slight difference.
"There's a tendency for some in the church world to fall in love with technology as a magic bullet," Pinsky says. "If Joel didn't have a message and a presentation, all the bells and whistles in the world wouldn't make him what he is today."
Hunter began pastoral ministry at a Methodist church in Indiana after receiving his master of divinity from Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. He and his wife then moved in 1985 to Orlando to lead Northland's 200 congregants.
Like many U.S. churches, Northland saw a surge in attendance after September 11, 2001. Finding the church feeling cramped in a roller-skating rink turned worship area, employees dragged fiber-optic cables across a field to create a second site at a high school down the road. This paved the way for an eventual multi-site approach; Northland now has three other sites in the Orlando area.