Read more of Kim Lawton’s interview about Joel Hunter with veteran religion writer Mark Pinsky of Orlando, Florida.
Q: Let’s start with Northland. To what do you attribute its huge growth?
A: I attribute it truly to Joel Hunter and his charisma; also his ability to understand what his congregation was and what it could be, which is to say a suburban, middle-class brand of modern evangelicalism.
Q: How did he meet that need? How did he try to attract those people?
A: Joel Hunter had a message, a fairly consistent message before he came here, but over time I think he fine-tuned that message the more he got to know his people, who his people were and the things that were important to them, which is why I think he began to broaden the agenda of the things he talked about in the wider world.
Q: What are some of the things he stressed that really attracted those suburban folks?
A: I think he understood that there came a time in the ’90s where evangelicals were looking for a more moderate voice, a more centrist voice, and a voice that looked at the larger issues in the world than just issues of gender and sexuality.
Q: But that’s not to say he’s a liberal—
A: Not at all, not at all. You can tick him off on all the key issues. I mean, he’s against gay marriage, he’s against special rights for gay people, he’s against abortion. But at the same time, having said that, he says that there are other issues that engage both the people of his congregation and evangelicals more broadly.
Q: And what are some of those issues?
A: He’s been a chief advocate, an early adapter with regards to the whole green issue—greenhouse gas emissions. He got into that issue very early, studied it, and came to believe it is really one of the pressing issues of our age in a sense, a moral issue as well as an environmental issue.
Q: We have footage of a big recycling event at his church, where he had people bring in computers and other hard-to-recycle things to church. Talk a little bit more about how that environmental issue turned out to be a theological issue for him.
A: It did. He was a person who early on accepted the whole idea that environmentalism—that could be described as something called “creation care,” that you could be religious and evangelical and also be an environmentalist even if you were uncomfortable with the term “environmentalist.” He learned a lot. He travels all over the world. He goes to conferences. He reads very deeply and broadly, and Hunter found that this was an issue that could engage his congregants both on the ground, in the congregation, where they live, with all these recycling events, but also it represents a broader global issue, that if you act on a local level it can have an impact globally, because of the whole thinning of the environment, the thinning of the ozone level, that people could connect what they did in their daily lives with issues that face the entire world.
Q: Certainly evangelicals are known for the impulse to share their faith, to convert. Does he do that? Is he upfront about that?
A: He is an evangelical in the sense that he always shares his faith. He doesn’t push it into people’s faces. He’s a very subtle person, and I think you would probably include him in that group that does their evangelizing by example, which is to say by modeling their own behavior and their own message. They believe that will draw people who are unchurched, who are not in faith, to their faith and their flavor of evangelicalism.
Q: And it seems like he’s been fairly successful at it.
A: He has. The congregation has grown and grown and grown through his leadership. His sermons are great. He’s a very entertaining speaker, he has a great sense of humor, he puts people at ease, and I think that accounts for the growth. The growth of the congregation has not been entirely steady. As he has become more prominent and spoken out on a variety of issues, he has lost people, and he acknowledges that. But he says, “I am a leader, and I accept the consequences of my leadership, and it may be that I will lose some people.” But because he’s a pastor, even of a megachurch, he understands where his people are. So he knows he can get out in front of them, but not too far out in front of them. Not so far out in front of them that he is actually losing people in a dramatic matter. People will trust you even if they don’t agree with every single issue that you speak on.
Q: One of the hallmarks of his church has been its use of the Internet and Web-casting the service. He seemed to bypass the whole televangelist mode and go straight online.
A: Hunter’s been an early adapter both in issues and technology. In a way, he’s kind of a techie guy, because he grasped the impact of the Internet and how that would enable them to reach other congregations and expand without building bigger buildings especially. So he began locally, and there are a number of satellite services in the central Florida area. But then he’s gone as far as Cairo and Europe and Africa, and he understands that it is a fairly low-cost way of sharing his faith and growing the congregation into a worldwide congregation.
Q: He’s also achieved some prominence recently in the political world. Talk about to the extent to which he’s all of a sudden become a new voice in the political-religious world as well.
A: Hunter’s done much in the political world, as he’s done in the theological world, which is to say he supported Mike Huckabee in the Republican primary and was a real booster of Huckabee. Yet at the same time he’s a very engaging, moderate guy who says, “I have Democrats and Republicans in my congregation, and there’s no reason if we want to make common cause on these issues, on public policy, why we can’t reach out to every one.” And so he’s made himself available to the Democrats as well as to the Republicans, and he has sufficient credentials both in his congregation and nationally that he could do that without serious consequence to his base.
Q: But there has been some controversy. He prayed at the Democratic Convention, and now he’s on Obama’s faith council. Is this sitting well with everybody in the Republican evangelical world?
A: Not at all, but there’s a seismic struggle going on for leadership in the evangelical world, and he has planted his flag with more moderate, centrist, broader agenda evangelicals like Rick Warren, for example, and once he makes his decision he doesn’t back down, and he has the kind of self-confidence that good leaders have. They know where their constituency is, or where their constituency will be before too long. So if James Dobson or Richard Land or other of these sort of “Old Bulls” of the evangelical movement criticize him he doesn’t really care, because his primary constituency is still his megachurch, which is why these people who are moving into leadership tend to be megachurch pastors rather than heads of ministries or national broadcasting groups. They are rooted in where there people are. Their base is secure.
Q: You mentioned a little bit earlier some people were leaving the congregation. Why?
A: Well, these are people who are more traditional, more conservative evangelicals who believe in the more narrow agenda of sexuality and gender. They’re also uncomfortable with some of the allies that Joel Hunter has made. He believes in making coalitions on an issue-by-issue basis, and that puts them together with—sometimes—with people who support abortion rights, for example. On greenhouse gas emissions you make common cause with those people. Hunter is easy with that. He’s self-confident, and he says, “This is what we believe. We can make common cause with people we don’t always believe.” But there are people in the evangelical movement both in his congregation and nationally who won’t do that, who won’t sit down at the table with people they don’t agree with on other issues.
Q: To what extent does he in some ways embody this controversy that’s going on for leadership and maybe the direction of evangelicalism and how that’s going to interact with the culture?
A: Well, as the older leaders of the evangelical movement, the heads of ministries and broadcasting groups, age and die, there is a struggle for leadership over the evangelical movement, and there is a group, of which Joel Hunter is a major part, which believes that evangelicals are now primarily a middle-class suburban movement that they ought to engage in the broader discussion. They should lower the volume on their rhetoric, so they are more center right than far right, they are less strident, they are more moderate, they believe in a broader agenda, and they tend to be 10 or 15 years younger than the group they would like to supplant or succeed. They also tend to be megachurch pastors, and they believe in a whole spectrum of issues and not being so scary to most Americans, and Joel Hunter is not scary to most Americans. No one would accuse him of being a holy roller, for example. He’s really kind of a buttoned-down evangelical who believes in the base issues of evangelicalism but in his style and at the edges really broadens the appeal. I think he sensed that there was a time during the Bush years when most of America was getting kind of antsy about evangelicals, in their view, pushing the rest of America around. He understood that, and he said we need to ratchet down a little bit the tone of the discussion.
Q: How is he regarded in the central Florida community?
A: I think he’s well regarded. We had a generational shift in our community, where a number of the pastors at the main megachurches retired, primarily, and as that changed he stepped into leadership. He didn’t force his way, but Northland is a big church. It’s one of the biggest churches in this area, and as these older, more influential local pastors retired, at that point Hunter stepped forward and helped fill the vacuum, so he’s a pretty prominent evangelical in the central Florida area.
Q: Some Americans had never heard of him, and all of the sudden they saw him at the Democratic National Convention. Now they see him hanging out with Obama, being part of his faith council—
A: Or sitting next to Muhammad Ali on the inaugural platform
Q: Exactly. He’s all of a sudden got this national platform. What do you think people should know about him as they’re just getting introduced to him?
A: I think he’s a very sincere person. I’ve been covering the evangelical movement for close to 20 years now, and I see the cracks and the flaws, have seen them over the years. No one is perfect, and he’s not perfect. He’s a man of some ambition, I think he will admit to that, but he lives his faith, he has a good family life, at least that which we can see. He doesn’t live extravagantly, he’s relatively modest in the way he lives his life, and with him I really believe what you see is what you get. At the same time he is ambitious he’s also modest, and he puts people at ease. He makes people feel good when they listen to him. He makes people want to be better people, I think, in his sermons. That’s the kind of sermonizer he is, and he’s a short guy, relatively speaking, and he’s not intimidating in that sense.
Q: As he steps more and more onto the national scene, what are the challenges he might face?
A: I think if he steps too far too fast that’s always a problem. If he flies too close to the sun his wings will melt, I think. But he’s a very careful person, and he’s made these moves step by step. He could reach too far. He could try to take the coalition further than it wants to let him go. We have the example of Richard Cizik, who was in that cohort of younger leaders, more moderate leaders, and he misspoke or said something he really believed in an arena he really should not have done so, as far as evangelicals are concerned, and he gave his enemies an opportunity to chop off his head. I think that’s probably the greatest risk that Joel Hunter faces, that he will reach too far in a coalition or reach out perhaps to someone or some group that evangelicals think are wrong.
Q: Say a little more about his episode with the Christian Coalition.
A: Even when Hunter seems to misstep, it’s not really a misstep. When he took the job at the Christian Coalition I think he understood that he was taking a risk for the things that he supported, so that even though he did not take that job—eventually he was forced out—he really won, because the issues on which he lost his job were the right issues as far as the coming evangelical movement is concerned. He’s where evangelicalism was going, even if he wasn’t where the Christian Coalition was going. They couldn’t adapt to him, and ultimately I think they will or they’ll fold.
Q: We talked a little bit about how he’s regarded in the community, but let’s speak specifically about the interfaith world. He has been involved in some interfaith dialogue, and I know that he has been involved in some Muslim dialogue overseas, but also there’s a strong Jewish community here in Florida. How is he regarded among other faith groups?
A: The previous leaders of the evangelical and the Christian community more broadly here were not all that big on interfaith dialogue, and as they left the scene and as Hunter assumed his role as a local leader he was at the forefront of reaching out to other faiths, whereas in the past evangelicals only spoke to each other. They didn’t even speak to the mainliners, but with Hunter he not only speaks with the mainliners, he speaks with the Muslims and the Jews. He’s been very out front. He’s made common cause with our Catholic bishop on immigration reform and lowering the tone of rhetoric in the previous presidential campaign, whereas our Protestant leaders before that would never have reached out to the Catholic bishop, and so he’s reached out to other Christians, non-evangelicals, and to Muslims and to Jews and to Hindus in a way that’s really set a new tone for the religious community locally.