Joel Hunter Interview

Read more of Kim Lawton’s February 12, 2009 interview with Joel Hunter in Lakewood, Florida.

Joel Hunter

Q: Tell me about Northland Church. Obviously, it’s grown so quickly. It’s so large. What need do you think the church is meeting? What is the niche that is really filled here?

A: This sounds awful, but I think we’re just a generic church. I think we care about people, we love people, we try to help them in their spiritual life, try to help them in their practical relationships. The thing that’s probably a little bit different is that we’re a distributed church in that we emphasize what goes on outside the building rather than what goes on inside the building, and we want to equip people for living great lives where they are. So we’re constantly trying to get the resources to them in their everyday lives rather than making them come to a building. But we are just one of 300,000 churches in the US and we don’t count ourselves any better or worse. We’re bigger and we’ve really never been able to figure out why. I got the statistics just for this month, and there is 1200 more attending this month this year than there were this month last year. Nobody can figure out why. We are not a “church growth” church. We just try to preach the best we can from Scripture, try to help people where they are in their lives and love them and encourage them—people are desperate for encouragement—and try to help the world get better. And whether that is about community service or it’s about shaping social policy, whatever that’s about, we are trying to make this world more like heaven. Jesus taught us to pray that “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” So that’s what we’re trying to do.

Q: You have also used technology, especially online. Why did you choose to use that route to help minister to more people?

A: Most people don’t really want to go into a church building. They have a very personal relationship with God, and they would rather be in a familiar territory when they worship. This goes a lot for the younger generation. My generation is kind of used to church, doing the “church” thing, but a lot of people aren’t. So when we built this building we built it as a communications device, and the selling point to the congregation was you are not building a building that can just seat 3000 people at a time. We can seat three million people at a time if we have enough broadband, and we have enough people who can gather around a computer screen, worship with others, and so we have people worshipping in Starbucks. We’ve had a person, when it came time to take membership vows, and he had to catch a plane, he was in the airport, he stood up in the airport and took his membership vows because he was online with us and he was going through the worship service with us. So we just wanted to not be geographically limited, and we have partners all over the world, and we don’t want to be culturally limited either, so we will worship with them periodically. We worship with our partners in Egypt or Ukraine or other places, and they do the same. There’s just a lot more of the church now that is using technology to build relationships, because people of my generation—it was important to be in a building together. For people who are 30 years old, that screen is intimacy to them. I mean, that’s a window to them, and there’s nothing artificial to them about that, and so we just wanted to connect with as many people as we could.

Q: Does that change the nature of what happens on Sunday morning, what happens inside the worship service?

A: It does. We are very aware of the congregation that is not in this building. We have several different congregations in buildings around central Florida. We have probably 1200 or 1500 sites around the nation and the world at any given time worshipping with us in the worship service. So when we take Communion we say at the beginning, “Get your Communion elements because we will be taking Communion together.” When we ask for people to contribute, for example, their favorite Scripture on hope, we will have some people in the main headquarters sanctuary, so to speak, but we will have somebody from Germany: “This just in from Christina in Germany, this in from Suzie in South Dakota., this is from…,” and so all of them can participate whether or not they are onsite.

Q: Shifting beyond here and looking at the evangelical world a little more broadly, I’ve heard some people suggest that perhaps evangelicalism is in a bit of identity crisis right now, trying to figure out who they are, where they are going. Do you agree with that characterization?

A: Well, we like to call it growing up. I think there is an ever-maturing identity for evangelicals. I think especially in the political realm we went through a phase more recently when we were known for what we were against rather than what we were for. We were pretty narrow in what we were paying attention to rather than very broad. Now that wasn’t true in Jesus’ time, because Jesus was very broad in what he did, very positive, very loving. And so I think the church in different cultures goes through different phases according to what is happening in that culture. But I do think that evangelicalism is changing, and you will always have people who are just kind of staunch and, you know, mad: “I want to talk about these, and anybody who doesn’t agree with me probably isn’t really, you know, on the mark.” But I think much more of evangelicalism now, especially when you talk about the next generation, really isn’t so bound up with some of the more institutional concerns. They really are saying, “Church? Fine. All the traditional things? Great. But just tell me how I can help. Tell me what I can do to be more like Jesus in world, to love people like he loved them, to serve people like he served them. It’s much more important to me than knowing theological intricacies to be practically of use and of good.” And so I think you’re seeing a maturing of the movement right now.

Q: I want to talk about politics in a minute, but what are the spiritual implications or challenges that go along with that kind of a shift?

A: The spiritual challenge here is that you have to know Scripture well enough to go back to the source and to be able to focus on God instead of an institutional church. Not in lieu of, you know, the institutional church is still valuable. It’s a place of belonging, it’s a place of help, it’s a place of teaching, but having said all that, if your emphasis is following God in your everyday life for the people who are right in front of you, then you’re going to have to have the kind of relationship with God, a personal relationship with God, that doesn’t require a church program in order for you to act. And so along with this maturing of evangelical Christianity, there has to be a more practical kind of education religiously. In other words, it can’t be just “I’ve got to memorize the Apostle’s Creed.” It is, “I’ve got to know in this situation what would Jesus do and I’ve got to take responsibility for doing it.” And so that’s kind of where things are going right now.

Q: Some people are suggesting there is a leadership void compared to previous generations. Do you see that?

A: It’s always tricky when you talk about Protestantism, because we don’t have a pope, you know? And with some of the passing of the old lions—you know, the Billy Graham, Bill Bright, and some these old folks that everybody kind of looked to because they were world-famous leaders—you do have another generation. And, again, with these past few decades people looked at some of the more public faces, the more mobilizing voices, the [Rev. D. James] Kennedys and the Falwells and all of the rest of the folks that really got a lot of media time. What you’re seeing is a very solid group of evangelical leaders developing and kind of a new constituency growing up with a broader agenda. You will never see just one person leading the way, because evangelicals don’t do that. We are much more collaborative in our leadership, much more appreciative of the differences, and we operate well in ambivalence. But what you will see is a new generation of leaders, some of them my age, some of the younger, because they’re gifted, they have great visions, they mobilize great organizations. So that’s what you’re going to see in the years to come.

Q: What are your hopes for Obama’s faith advisory council that you’re a part of?

A: The hopes are very new, because this has just started, just started, so I’m not sure of all of their hopes for this advisory council. I know we have been given four priorities, but there is a larger development here. First of all, I have great respect for the president, and I respect his personal belief in God and his desire to want to do the right thing as far as God is concerned, and I so respect his observation and respect for the largely religious character of this nation and his acknowledgment that you can’t separate that religious character from political life, and so why not try to incorporate it in its breadth, in a broad spectrum, and use the mobilization possibilities to really get people of faith to serve and improve the nation? So I love that. That’s what I would hope for this particular advisory council—that we could work on a broad policy agenda that would mobilize people to actualize their faith. Now as a pastor, see, I always want to be of spiritual encouragement to someone, so I hope that along the way I could be of encouragement to the president’s spiritual life, because that’s what a pastor does. That’s what we care about. But beyond that I’m very excited about working with a very broad spectrum of people to see how our faith communities can really solve the problems, or help solve the problems of this country. The problems of this country and of the world are way too big for a government to solve, and way too big for faith communities to solve. We have to partner together, and if we can do it in ways that don’t blur the lines between the institutions of religion and government, and that’s very important, the institutions, I say, you know, not the individuals, because those lines are already blurred, but we’ve got to watch the boundaries of church and state. Those are very important. But there is so much that can be done. I mean, 99 percent of the stuff that we do can be done without even going near the boundaries of church and state, because they can be personal, they can be community-based, they can be faith-based individually, and for us to feel like we’re a part of solving the countries problems when we are in such deep weeds right now as a country, I mean economically, there’s so many people hurting economically, there’s so many people who are confused about the kind of lifestyle questions and the kind of cultural wars going on. If we can be called into service, then we cannot only help the country, we can help the church mature. This isn’t just about helping the country. The church needs to mature itself. Sometimes I think people think the church can save the country, when really some types of political responsibility can help save the church from just dabbling in religious intricacies.

Q: Is there a danger, though, that being in an official capacity, even though I understand it’s not government employment, could in some way blunt or make one reluctant to perhaps be prophetic or to, as people say, speak truth to power? I’ve had a conversation with someone who says no pastor or priest should be a part of something like that because then he or she can’t really speak the truth to these people.

A: Well, I agree that no coward should ever be part of something like this, but the president has made it very clear—and this is another thing I like about him—he is not looking for “yes” people here. He’s looking for people on this council that will have a prophetic voice, and all of us made the agreement that we would not be on the council unless we could be blunt-honest about the dangers we saw, about what was not going right, and what we had real problems with, and probably what we couldn’t participate in. And so there’s not only a permission to be prophetic, there’s a desire to hear that voice, because when that voice gets raised it’s not just your voice; it’s the constituency you come from, and any political leader, if he’s honest, and if he wants what he’s going to do to last, is going to have to hear what constituencies have to say, not just what people in his office will say in order to get into his good graces. So that is a danger, absolutely. But we’ve addressed that, and we will continue to address that.

Q: I interviewed some years ago a clergy member who was close to the Clintons. During a difficult time he was brought in as a spiritual advisor, and he was candid about sitting in the Oval Office and having the leader of the free world talk to him, and it’s pretty heady stuff, and I’m wondering if you’re at all concerned about being pulled into that in a way that might change you in some way or have an effect on you.

A: Yeah, you’re always concerned about that. I mean, if you are human and you realize the position of power that this person has, then you are aware that this is an honor, this is a privilege, I mean, to be in the Oval Office, to walk in there and to look at that desk where the presidents have just signed these tremendous bills and have changed—and all the people that have been in that Oval Office. There’s a sense of history, and I was a history and government major, and so there’s a real sense of privilege. However, you say all that, you can say all that, and you’ve got to realize what happens with me personally, I just don’t take myself that seriously. I mean, I don’t feel like I’m somebody that’s got that much power, or there’s nothing else I want to get to, you know, I’m going to be a pastor for the rest of my life. There’s nothing I have to lose. Here’s a guy that’s going to be there eight years at the longest, you know? And so the idea here that goes through my mind is this is not the person that I’m going to be answering to. That’s a way higher thing, and on Judgment Day when I stand before God I’m going to have to answer to what I’ve said. If I didn’t do things according to how I read them in Scripture, if I didn’t voice the truth in love as I saw it in Scripture, then I’m in judgment, I’m in trouble on Judgment Day for my works, not for my sins those have been paid for by Christ, but for my works, so that’s the accountability that I have, and for those of us that—you know, most of the people in that room have been in positions of authority for a long time. That’s why we’re in that room, and so we’re not quite as intimidated as—I mean, we’re used to talking with people in authority, we’re used to having phone conversations where you get off the phone and you go, how did I get to be in this place that I just had that conversation? So it’s not quite as intimidating as it might be, as it might seem, but yet you’ve got to watch yourself, and I have to keep saying, “Lord, this is for you. I’m here to do your work. I’m here to be a voice for the gospel as well as I can,” and if that gets me off the council in a record time, then I’m off the council in a record time.

Q: How do you stay spiritually grounded to have that kind of strength or fortitude?

A: Well, first of all it’s important for me every day to spend a good deal of time in Scripture and in prayer. That’s kind of like the, you know, I do the—physically I work out every day, you know, so I can stay healthy. Spiritually that keeps me healthy; it keeps me oriented in the right direction. Secondly, I’m surrounded by people who tell me the truth. My wife tells me the truth, but my wife is my biggest fan. She doesn’t tell me the truth to take me down a peg or two. She just thinks I hung the moon. I have no idea why she thinks that. She’s fooled herself all of these years, and I’m not telling her anything different. But the point is that I don’t have to seek approval of other people. I’ve got a wonderful family, my wife and my kids and our grandkids, so it’s not that I’m looking for something else, and when you are satisfied with the love that you have, when you realize that you walk in the grace of God, when you realize that your family is just as crazy about you and you’re crazy about your family, then it’s fairly simple not to take yourself so seriously and have to be a world-changer and get all distracted with all of these grandiose ideals and ideas. You can just get up every day and do what’s right with what’s right in front of you, help out whoever you can, and go to bed every night and sleep like a baby, and so that’s just—I think I’ve got a life like anybody else. I think what I do is not so different than anybody else, except maybe in different circles, but I just live my life as best I can, and I just pray that I’ll do God some good.

Q: You’ve been active in some interfaith circles. I know you’ve worked on Islamic-US issues and other interfaith things. How do you relate across religious lines, offering respect to people you differ with theologically without in some way compromising your own faith or what you believe to be truth? How do you walk that line? A lot of people have a hard time figuring out how to do that.

A: First of all, it’s fairly simple to maintain respect and even admiration when you get to know people. I love these guys, I really do. I mean these other faith leaders, as I listen to them I’m much more fascinated in listening to their stories and their perspectives. I need their perspectives to get a fuller picture of who God is as a Christian, I mean, because it’s not like God is absent or God has somehow avoided Muslims or Jews or all the rest of these folks. They have a faith that I think appreciates a side of God that I could find in Christianity, but I see it more readily when I’m with them. So in a way they are a spiritual mentor to me. Having said that, though, Christianity is a faith of relationships, of a personal relationship with God made possible through Jesus Christ and his sacrifice, so therefore, as I have these relationships with other faith leaders, as they get closer, we are very free in talking about what we believe and about—I am more free many times in talking in about what Christ has done for me and about what price he paid on the cross for all people with another religious leader who wants to hear what I want to say. He doesn’t want me to tip-toe around it; he wants me to be honest. I’m sometimes more free with a person like that than I am with a person in an elevator where he may have been a Christian a long time ago, and my eye starts twitching when I start talking about it. So the point here is that the better relationship you build, the more free you are to share with people what you really believe, and then you let God take care of the rest. It’s not my job to convert people, you know? Only God can move in the spirit to change somebody’s heart and establish a relationship. I can’t do that, so I don’t have to worry about it. I just love them and serve them as best I can, and we swap stories, and I leave the rest to God.

Q: How serious do you think the issues of these interfaith relations are in our world today?

A: I think they are absolutely critical for the future. I cannot picture a long-lasting peace without religious leaders having actual relationship together and caring about one another, because if all you have are these tender and vulnerable treaties, you know, these diplomatic papers, and you still have a bunch of people at these grass roots or a bunch of religious leaders that not only distrust people who are different but that are angry at people who are different, then that peace isn’t going to last very long at all, and we’ll never be able to cooperate in solving some of the larger problems of the world. However, if faith leaders and ultimately people of different faiths can serve together, can get to know each other on a personal basis, can appreciate each other as a person and as a person of faith, I’m telling you, that will move the ball down the field when it comes to world peace. So I just don’t see long-lasting peace in any section of the world happening without faith-based community relationships, interfaith relationships.

Q: What have you learned from your relationships, especially with Muslims, which has been a particularly tense one in our country?

A: Yeah, it has, and I have such a deep appreciation for my relationships with Muslim leaders. First of all, they are very honest about what they think and about—Christians by and large are scared to death of Muslims. But Muslims have at least been trained as to respect Jesus. They believe Jesus was a prophet. They believe in the virgin birth. They believe in many of the issues, and so for many Muslims it’s good to talk with a Christian. What are we scared about here? In this culture, we have been so slanted by the association of Islam with terrorism that we’re very reluctant to have that conversation. So every conversation I get in, it’s really one of respect. Muslims have a tremendous reverence for God, tremendous reverence for God, and I love that, and they have—they really want to know what you think, and how we can work together, and what are we afraid of here? So I have built several very close relationships in the Muslim world, a very close relationship with an imam here in town. He’s one of my very good friends. We do a lot together. I love him, and I love his family. The same ob-gyn delivers his babies that deliver my grandbabies. We’ve just got this relationship. So basically what I’ve learned is we’re trying to love God as best we can, and we’re trying to work together to love other people.

Q: We have footage of a recycling event your church has done, and I know this has been an issue for you quite some time—creation care. I am wondering if you are seeing with the evangelical world a greater embrace of this issue. For a long time there just seemed to be a real reluctance to get involved. Are you seeing that change, and have you felt that impact?

A: There is a change. Again, this may have to be a generational change, but we’re talking more and more with leaders. We just hosted an event last week of evangelical leaders here addressing just exactly that challenge. There’s two problems here. First of all, people are generally ignorant about the science. All they hear are the sound bites on the radio and the sound bites on the television, and they have been linking this issue with a political agenda rather than an actual consensus of science, and so many evangelical Christians are reluctant to see this as a consensus, so there’s a lot of teaching that needs to be done. The second problem is people really don’t address a problem until it’s an emergency, and so they’ll look out the window and say, “Man, it really looks cold out there. Must not be global warming, you know?” And they’ll read this stuff that says coldest January on record and say pshaw, and so instead of understanding this is not about global warming, it’s about global weirding, about the nonlinear effects of climate change, and there are very many new nuances of climate change and understanding the interaction of a very complex system, but yet the ultimate and undeniable effect that this is going to have on the poor—they just kind of brush it off, so we have our work laid out for us. But I do believe that, again, this administration is going to be helpful because they take the problem seriously, and maybe as more and more leaders acknowledge the problem the general population will, too, but in the evangelical world we’re still having a push back.

Q: Our show did a survey which found that larger numbers of younger evangelicals do see things like the environment and poverty as pro-life issues.

A: Exactly. Again, this goes along with expanding the issue, not in lieu of, not denying the others. Pro-life is very important and will always remain in the foreseeable future a central issue for me and other evangelical leaders. But to expand the pro-life movement to the life outside the womb, to understand that 5,000 children under five die every day from poverty-related causes, directly related to poverty, that’s a pro-life issue; to understand that AIDS is a pro-life issue; to understand that climate change, to understand that even in some instances our issues with immigration, all these other issues, certainly peace, world peace—pro-life issues. These should be just as important to us, those lives should be just as important to us as the baby in the womb, and so we just have to expand that picture.

Q: I want to ask you about your prayer at the Democratic Convention. The issue is always whether or not to pray in Jesus’ name, and you chose to work around that. What kind of reaction did you get?

A: Oh, on the one side I had a wonderful encouragement, especially from non-Christians and from many Christians who understood what I was doing. I got raked over the coals with a lot of Christians because I didn’t hijack the prayer and only pray it for Christians. But as I explained, several things: first of all, we did get, the Christians got to say “in Jesus’ name,” so we didn’t deny anybody that, and if you were there the stadium was booming with that. By the same token, to make somebody or to cow somebody to silence as you pray in Jesus’ name, or to somehow make them seem like they’re praying in Jesus’ name, is really a sacrilege because only Christians can pray in Jesus’ name. It’s in the power of Jesus, so it’s the wrong way to use that ending. If you’re serious about it you can’t use it asking people who don’t believe it to say it. Ultimately, the greatest thing about this was that not only was it a prayer appropriate for a public venue where people had different faith traditions, but my wife sat beside a lady on a plane on the way back, and she said, “Your husband was the one who said that prayer?” and she said “Yeah.” She said, “I was so shocked that an evangelical would respect those of us, I’m an atheist, but I was so shocked that an evangelical would actually respect me enough not to make me go there and not hijack that prayer.” And Becky said, because she’s just really interested in people, “Tell me about what you believe, tell me why you’re an atheist.” Well, they talked for the whole plane ride, and by the time the plane landed the lady goes, “I live 30 minutes from your church. Give me your address, and I’m going to show up just to check it out.” Well, I mean, just the—this isn’t about who gets converted, this is about someone feeling respected enough that they would give a window in their life, as it was very apparent from the beginning of that conversation that she wanted nothing to do with the evangelicals, but because I had respected her then there’s some openness to say, well, maybe we can have a relationship. That was wonderful.

Q: As you’ve done interviews and gotten more attention, people around the country are getting to know you. I’m wondering what you feel people don’t know about you that you wish they did, as they’re making judgments and assumptions?

A: You know, I don’t—I have no desire for people to really know who I am. I’m an—you wouldn’t believe this, but I’m an introvert. I could spend all day in a library and just be perfectly content, as long as my wife was one stack over. These things really stretch me, you know. I feel like I’m put here for a reason, but I’m not a very self-revealing person. I just do what I can, and there’s really not much there to know, honestly. I’m just real simple. I get up every day and I eat and I study and I talk to people and I try to help where I can, so there’s not much to find out.