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Joel Hunter to step down from Orlando megachurch

The Rev. Joel Hunter walks up the sanctuary steps at Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood, Fla., on Dec. 14, 2006. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

ORLANDO, Fla. (RNS) — Megachurch pastor Joel Hunter, who tried to lead the nation’s evangelicals toward more moderate, center-right positions on issues such as climate change and immigration, is stepping down as leader of Northland, a Church Distributed, in Longwood, Fla.

In a statement issued Wednesday (Aug. 2) to members of the congregation, Lead Pastor Vernon Rainwater described Hunter, 69, as “a man of integrity, full of compassion for others, and infectious love for Jesus Christ. … His life and ministry have been a catalyst for worship and service throughout this city and around the world.”

Hunter broke the news to staff and Northland leadership Wednesday, after returning from a sabbatical. In a letter released Thursday, he said, “I believe God will continue using Northland in wonderful ways, but He is calling me to focus my life on a new season of ministry outside the four walls of the church.”

Following Jesus’ example, Hunter said, “I will seek to include the un-included in the Kingdom,” in three concrete ways: community Bible teaching, assisting the homeless and building a Christian network. “My experience, relationships, and apostolic gifting are at their highest potential and I will spend them in the most productive way possible in this final season of my journey.”

He has led Northland for more than 30 years, beginning when the congregation met in a former skating rink. No date was set for his departure and until then he will continue preaching at Northland.

For the past two decades, Hunter urged his fellow evangelicals, in the pulpit as well as in the pews, to make common cause with Catholics, mainline Protestants, Jews, Muslims and other faith communities on single issues on which they could agree, such as human trafficking, homelessness, hunger and prison reform. In a pragmatic — and astute — effort to engage fellow evangelicals, he embraced a biblical approach to the environment and climate change, calling it “creation care.”

Pastor Joel Hunter. Photo courtesy of Regal Books

“Joel Hunter was a leader in the evangelical social justice movement,” said Frances FitzGerald, author of “The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America.”

“For many years he led his congregation to work for the good of the community as a whole.”

Faith leaders from other traditions lauded Hunter’s work, especially his ability to remain faithful to his own theological beliefs while reaching out to others.

“He is true to evangelical core values and at the same time rethinks responses based upon a changing world,” said Rabbi Steven Engel, of the Congregation of Reform Judaism in Orlando. “He is principled in teaching and exhibits what it means to be an evangelical in a respectful and nonjudgmental manner, thus leading me as a Jewish leader to a greater understanding and embracing of his faith perspective.”

Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida and, with Engel, a co-host of the weekly “Friends Talking Faith” public radio show, agreed.

“I found Pastor Hunter to be a wonderful and a faithful ambassador for Christ,” Musri said. “I especially treasure working with him and traveling nationally and internationally to bring mutual understanding, respect and love between Christians and Muslims.”

In 2012, Hunter helped organize a faith response to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, in nearby Sanford, Fla., and attended the trial of the man accused of killing him.

In his biography, posted on Northland’s website, he outlined his approach to activism:

“I am not partisan, nor am I politically oriented. But as God has ordained three institutions — the family, the church, and the government — I work as a pastor in all three of these arenas to promote love and caring and service, especially to those who need it most.”

Hunter had less success in steering white evangelicals away from being taken for granted as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party. He served as a spiritual adviser to then-President Obama, praying at the Democratic National Convention.

President Obama shares a laugh with pastor Joel Hunter, center, and Joshua DuBois, director of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, in the Oval Office on Feb. 1, 2012. Photo by Pete Souza via The White House Flickr stream (http://flic.kr/p/bEToK2)

He formally left the Republican Party in 2010, registering as an independent, explaining to Christianity Today magazine, “I was never comfortable being identified with a political party, but the hyper-partisanship and the outside voices hijacking legitimate political debate is not something of which I will be a part.”

Hunter remains a national player in the evangelical world, a board member of the National Association of Evangelicals and the World Evangelical Alliance.

In a rare misstep, in 2006 Hunter stepped down as president-elect of the Christian Coalition, just months after accepting the post. He explained that he was unable to persuade the conservative organization to expand its policy agenda to include fighting poverty and global warming.

“I wanted to expand the issues from only moral ones — such as opposing abortion and redefining marriage — to include compassion issues such as poverty, justice, and creation care,” Hunter said in a statement. “We need to care as much for the vulnerable outside the womb as inside the womb.”

Under Hunter’s leadership, Northland grew from 200 members to 15,000, although in a 2013 interview he said that ecumenical and political activism may have caused as many as 1,500 members, or 10 percent of its membership, to leave the church.

However, the compact, upbeat Midwesterner was sanguine about the departures, likening membership departures to separating the wheat from the chaff.

“There is no such thing as safe leadership,” he said.

The Northland community was shaken in 2013 when Hunter’s minister son, Isaac, killed himself.

Most recently, Hunter has been passionate in calling on evangelicals to reach out to the LGBTQ community, particularly in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting, which took the life of 49 patrons as well as the shooter.


READ: What I learned after the Pulse nightclub shooting


In the pre-dawn hours of June 12, 2016, a police officer on the scene of the shooting, a Northland member, called Hunter at home, and the minister rushed to the site to minister to those in trauma. His experience was compared by some to St. Paul being struck by lightning on the road to Damascus.

Two days after the shooting, more than 2,500 mostly white Protestant evangelicals and Pentecostals gathered at First Baptist of Orlando, another megachurch on the city’s suburban edge. On the program, Hunter had been scheduled to deliver “A Prayer for the LGBTQ Community.”

Instead, he told people in the cavernous sanctuary that since he had always been part of a powerful, majority community — straight, white, Christian males — and had never been “part of a vulnerable or a persecuted community,” he was ill-equipped to speak on the subject. In a dramatic move, he stepped aside and relinquished the microphone to Victoria Kirby York, national campaigns director with the National LGBTQ Task Force.

“We still have far too many people who don’t believe that God’s love extends to others,” said York, making no direct reference to evangelicals’ previous opposition on issues such as gay marriage, and their belief that homosexuality is a sin.

In the days and weeks following, Northland provided material support to the Pulse victims’ families, survivors and friends. And Hunter continued to speak out on the issue of acceptance.

(Mark I. Pinsky is an Orlando-based correspondent)

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Mark I. Pinsky

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  • Good for hunter for speaking out about the evangelical jihad against gay people.

    What is truly ironic is that that “For the past two decades, Hunter urged his fellow evangelicals, in the pulpit as well as in the pews, to make common cause with Catholics, mainline Protestants, Jews, Muslims and other faith communities on single issues on which they could agree, like human trafficking, homelessness, hunger and prison reform.”

    They all disagree about the nature of god and his message to the world, and so many of them firmly believe that their way is the only way, the others are damned at best, and eligible for pogroms at worst. And as for gay people, it is ironic that Hunter has to plead with them to lighten up and let people live their lives, instead of trying tro enact their personal and religious prejudices into the civil law that governs all of us.

    And all will tell you that they are religions of love and peace.

    All of them.

    There is one hell of a disconnect going on here. The question is, does Hunter know it?

  • Under Hunter’s leadership, Northland grew from 200 members to 15,000, although in a 2013 interview he said that ecumenical and political activism may have caused as many as 1,500 members, or 10 percent of its membership, to leave the church.

    These days, a lot of “mega”-churches are actually “MAGA”-churches.

  • As a member of Northland Church I can assure you Pastor Hunter is very aware. He has been building relationships and bridges with people who disagree for over 3 decades. He was the first Republican to pray at the Democratic National Convention with Obama was nominated and later went on to be part of President Obama’s religious advisors. He had Matthew Vines speak, a Gay Christian activist for the LGBT community at our church, If you want to know more about Pastor Hunter you can hear his Sermons/podcasts online and I recommend you read his book Right Wing, Wrong Bird.

  • I am willing to wait and see what Rev. Hunter himself says when his official statement comes out.

    (Although, at 69, nobody is going to fault him for stepping down on the basis of age alone. He’s outlasted a lot of pastors already.)

  • Such a shame to lose a leader who understands what leadership is, based upon principle and integrity. Too few of these people around any longer.

  • One of the last members of the endangered species, Moderate Evangelicals. This extremist evangelicals have done more to undermine American Christianity than any other single cause including atheism and secularism. A truly misguided religious cult.

  • Any gesture from an evangelical Christian that is truly Christian is lovely and reassuring. It is, unfortunately, becoming rarer by the hour. Hunter, Cizik and others are rescuing Jesus from his evangelicals and evangelicals from themselves.

  • when was the last time you ever attended any church? It’s obvious you haven’t with vile statements as you use a lot of hubris to put down anyone associated with religion. Many churches i admit are having their own issues but all individuals do have issues.

  • what do you mean by “extremist” you could easily say all of the above..which is more than likely your stance.

  • I am a proud Unitarian. Please don’t assume anything about me or my belief system. Your assumptions so far have been dead wrong.

  • Well there you go you believe in *Universalism: All roads lead to the same point when the reality it’s not biblical in context.*..look it up- it’s just another way of saying anything goes and doctrine doesn’t matter when in reality it does matter other wise post modernism conveys in one’s mind- “it’s what it means to ME”-.
    a new context that is going around for many churches that don’t have their roots based in Christianity is MDT: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. A lot of mega churches like Osteen is a perfect example of ” feel Good and live happy” when no real structure of doctrine needs to be thought about..good luck in your quest for truth.

  • The pope believes in Universalism as well..I don’t..he is dead wrong in conveying truth properly..it s sad to see even the catholic church so dissuaded by him as well heretical. Once Catholic and proud to be out of that Works environment. Catholic also means – universal

  • I’m sure you will be offended, but if I don’t say the truth then I feel like I didn’t warn you that would not be Grace..for you to get out of an environment where creating a feel good atmosphere is a cover for truth..not all roads lead to the same end. Buddha wasn’t sure if there is a god and many take God out of context for the purpose of post modernist sentiment. I had to wrestle with this to come to a conclusion i made

  • I am an older white evangelical who became a political independent over 20 years ago. Rev. Hunter represents for me what all evangelicals should strive to attain–a love for the truth of the gospel combined with a deep love for others, especially those with whom you may disagree. Sadly, the political left and the political right in this country continue to grow more extreme and hostile in their interactions with each other and in society. Unless we find a way to put this genie back in the bottle, we are heading for the same kinds of conditions that plagued Sarejavo, Bosnia in the early 1990s.

  • “If you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.”
    …………………………Friedrich Nietzsche

    I am an inquirer and not a believer.

  • “Ah! what a divine religion might be found out if charity were really made the principle of it instead of faith.”
    – Percy Bysshe Shelley

  • Remeber even the philosophers of the 20th century could never say “I stand neutral” there is no nuetrality when the truth is spoken; one either for it or against it.

  • Something’s bugging me, Mark I. Pinsky, about this guy, Joel Hunter. It’s the stigma of the 2 words associated with him – those nasty O-word and M-word.

    (1) No, I’m not talking about his “moderate, center-right positions on issues” and “common cause with Catholics, mainline Protestants, Jews, Muslims and other faith communities on single issues”.

    (2) Not this either: that “courageous stuff” he did about “the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager”.

    (3) Nor this: his “reach(ing) out to the LGBTQ community”, while “speak(ing) out on the issue of acceptance” on their behalf.

    (4) Not even this: his dual support for “gay marriage becom(ing) civil law” and for “protections for the churches that choose not to marry gay couples”, against “lawsuits” and from “be(ing) forced into something that would violate” those churches’ “conscience and … faith.” (Source: Christianity Today Online, May 2012, “Joel Hunter Responds to Obama’s Gay Marriage Endorsement: Skye Jethani interviews Dr. Joel Hunter”.)

    (5) Also not because as one of the “13 founding members of Public Faith”, he had “formed (said) … group to stand in contrast to conservative Christians who have endorsed Republican nominee Donald Trump”, while “address(ing) evangelical Christians who find themselves unable to support either Trump or Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.” (Source: Yahoo News, August 29, 2016, “New evangelical group seeks to distance Christians from Trump”, by Jon Ward.)

    (6) Neither this: his “oppos(ition to) an anti-Sharia bill in the Florida legislature because, once passed, “Senate Bill 58 … and House Bill 351” will become “an unnecessary law that increases bias and heightens animosity between Christians and Muslims—which makes respectful dialogue and sharing Jesus with them all the more challenging.” (Source: Charisma News, March 28, 2013, “Joel Hunter Responds to Accusations of Islamist Association”, by Jennifer LeClaire.)

    All of the above are his many very good deeds, actually. No, the O-word and M-word that I can’t stand are OBAMA and MEGACHURCH.

  • So, “member of Northland Church”, what’s going on in your MAGA/mega-church? What d’y’all do to the guy? Let me guess you guys no longer progressive to his liking?

  • Megachurchy & anti-Trump is what this guy is. Contradictions finally caught up with him. That must be it.

  • Sounds desperate. Come to terms yet with everything about him? His Jesus stuff too? Why a nod to that?

  • “rescuing Jesus” – Hunter won’t like hearing that. Jesus won’t either. Maybe you need “rescuing” by Jesus – not the other way around. I need “rescuing” – just not by you for having said such an offense.

  • Evangelicals are the one group that have not seen the decline in membership that other mainline religions have, which means that either people are staying with their evang faith (whether progressive or conservative) or evangs are attracting and keeping younger folks (maybe both). The younger generation, especially, seems to hew to a more moderate evangelicalism that embraces creation care, immigration reform and social justice issues — all things that in a secular sense would put them in the “liberal” camp politically, even though they remain conservative eschatologically.

  • If I considered it an offense, I wouldn’t have used that word. If the truth offends you…

  • For He said ” I am the way the truth and the life no one comes to the Father but by me. I didn’t say it, take it up with Him..he’s only listening

  • The only thing that I’m on the fence about with Rev. Hunter is the “climate” issue. As long as the love he extends to the LGBTQ community in his ministry does not lead to a contravention of the Word of God, I’m good. And I’m all for stewardship of God’s Creation, including mitigating humanity’s rapacious approach to the earth’s resources, but I’m still not convinced that what is occurring with respect to the planet is wholly a function of human activity.

  • The potential for a violent and far reaching civil war, culturally speaking if not otherwise…and I would not discount otherwise.

  • I think that it’s important for Christians to work to prevent climate change as much as possible. More than anyone, it will affect the vulnerable that we are supposed to protect. I see where you are coming from about humans not quite being able to cause such large scale change, but it is surprising how much of an effect people have had on the atmosphere. (carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than all recorded history, which I find alarming). I’m glad youve thought some about the issue though! (I must sound like some liberal person, I’m not really)

  • AS I read the above article with Joel Hunter he is one of the many who give up JESUS, the doors of the true church are always open for whoever wants to come in to hear the preaching but most important to ACCEPT Jesus Christ, there is not a True Christian to stop them for they will who accept JESUS are led by the HOLY SPIRIT and their Free will, all sinners right now can come to JESUS by HIS terms not theirs they must turn from the Bondage of Sin & Lucifer if not then they will suffer, I was a sinner and still am a sinner but I am a Saved I battle everyday Lucifer he wants me back and if he could he would kill me and he has tried but there is a work to be done and when my time is up so be it, so my message to all, stay in the Faith, Pray have that Prayer time everyday with our FATHER who LOVES You, no one Loves like GOD, I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me PHILIPPIANS 4:13. I AM BROTHER LEONARD BAGDOL.

  • Kev, so right you are, I also was at one time a Catholic, on the way to hell until I met my Savior JESUS CHRIST, I am a teacher some time preacher, but always a SOUL WINNER, we are in a world that our GOD has it all written down for us to know and see for ourselves what is coming, we need many JOHN THE BAPTIST out there, the Last of the Prophets. I AM BROTHER LEONARD BAGDOL.

  • You are one of those ‘lucky’ souls who have more answers than you have questions. I live by the words of Vaclav Havel: “Keep the company of those who seek the truth. Run from those who have found it.”

    For that reason, I must run from you.

  • When Pastor Hunter was hired the church was only about 200 members, We don’t like the “megachurch” label but we do love the Obamas.

  • Pastor Joel was Spiritual Advisor to President Obama. He prayed at the DNC when Obama was nominated. Michelle Obama spoke at our church during a “Let’s Move” faith and communities event. Many conservatives had and still have a problem with that.

  • Popularity in itself is not a good measure of social value. And, if evangelicalism can evolve by embracing religious tolerance, social justice, inclusivity, and environmentalism, I would be the very first to applaud it. So far, I only see well-meaning fundamentalism.

  • If someone is in ‘error’ it equates a response, for I fear that a soul could be lost for eternity when the answer is so “simple” the gospel is very simple ABC Acknowledge Believe Confess

  • Ah I see. Personally I think it’s good that he was able to influence the president. If I remember right, he did call Obama when he announced his support for gay marriage, to tell him that he was disappointed in the decision. So he didn’t sell out his beliefs for the position. I see that as strong character, but not everyone will.

  • Translation: CarlosV F doesn’t know why Hunter’s stepping down from his own church. Megachurch does that to its out-of-scale occupants, you know.

    I was correcting somebody here for saying your megachurch is a MAGA-church. Hunter an anti-Trump, I told the commentator. So your point is redundant and evasive at once.

  • But NATO, UK & USA broke up Yugoslavia using Muslims per the usual strategy. They won’t do that to 1 of their own fellow empire-builders, although Muslims are scapegoated here too.

  • Ah so. Church still as atypical Christian conservative organized religion as the one Hunter put together. Thanks for your input. I’m gauging reasons for his stepping down. So it’s not church is pro-Trump, he’s anti-trump – hence divorce! No, something else. Funny would be if it’s because what one commentator here said – health and age issues he’s having. I was gonna say disappointing after the hype from RNS. Well, then, set your house in order, brother Joel Hunter. Time to end it all and start your eternity with Jesus after sleeping off until He returns to destroy empires and empires and empires, where we live. You go, God. Yeah, let You do dis.

  • Rick Warren at 1st Inauguration. Jim Wallis White House guru. (Tony Campolo all that for Bill Clinton.) And now found out; Joel Hunter White House guru too. Now see, what we have here sure ain’t Christian Right Evangelicals, but Church Growth Seeker Sensitive leaders. Plus the Prog Leftist (courtesy of Sojourners, my former support group when I didn’t know what I was doing). Let me guess: Jim Wallis is going to do an editorial on his mag, just like he did in solidarity with Russell Moore.

    Something’s brewing on the other side of The-81%, yo. Strategize, strategize, Do something, anything.

    American Christianity – mmm so appealing donchasink?

  • “Personally I think it’s good that he was able to influence the president” – just as Paula White and Robert Jeffress is now “able to influence the president” what’s-his-name-in-the-White-Christian-House?

    You are as consistent a hamburger as McDonald’s. It is. You are.

  • “Joel Hunter he is one of the many who give up JESUS” from among “the many” JESUSES out there as per the 1&Original’s prophecy in the gospels. So that means brother Hunter may the follower of the same JESUS as mine – but I don’t care to think and dwell on that scenario. That’s his bitznes with da Judge. But, brother LEONARD BAGDOL, preach it, I say, preach it!

  • What do those people who influence Trump have anything to do with this case? They are awful, and irreverent.
    It seems like this pastor had an opportunity to minister to the president. I’m not sure what’s wrong with that. Again, he didn’t compromise his morals in doing so.

  • We just got the news on Wednesday, the Lead Pastor posted a letter on the church website and shared it on social media. Pastor Hunter just got back from sabbatical but I’m sure in the coming weeks he’ll address his decision to the congregation. If I were to guess he’ll prob start a non profit and dedicate more time to work with the poor and homeless at the national level.

  • Megachurches is so 90’s though, everyone’s leaving the megachurches and doing the coffee house thing now.

  • So. That the Christian Right’s influencing Trump right now is OK. It’s how they’re influencing him that’s not OK.

    Commit to that radical distinction of perspective, then. From now on, correct authors and commentators of RNS articles from here on, telling them, Hey, let’s not pounce on the Christian Right just because they’re influencing Trump, but on HOW they’re doing it. Because, remember? We didn’t say anything when Hunter was influencing Obama, because how he was doing it was NOT “awful, and irreverent”.

    Fair enough.

    The whole world’s watching. You. On this pledge.

    Better yet, I’ll review your previous posts on this.

  • Retro-like, y’mean? The Jesus People of the 1960s started “the coffee house thing”.

    Yup, Christianese speaking American Churchianity going nowhere.

  • Well, I absolutely agree that we have done a very poor job of stewarding the earth, and this out of greed, indifference, and sloth. In recent years we have gained a better understanding of how our activities affect the planet. All of this is a reflection of the Fall as I see it. My sense of the future as framed by the apocalyptic preview presented in Revelation and other scripture inclines me toward the perspective that ultimately, due to the cupidity of humanity, we will not be able to effectively sustain our stewardship efforts. This does not relieve us from our responsibility before God to ameliorate both our present activities, and our efforts on behalf of the less fortunate who will feel the more immediate impact of our choices.

  • I believe you are right about humanity’s responsibilities (and how we are probably going to fail them). This was a good talk, thanks!

  • I think you are taking this way too seriously. “The whole world is watching you on this pledge”? I don’t believe I am notorious around the planet (yet).
    Okay though, really, Joel Hunter is a good man, whereas those 2 people you mentioned influencing Trump are bad. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.
    Personally, I want good pastors ministering to President Trump, so long as they don’t sell out their beliefs or morals in doing so. Perhaps they would lead him to repentance and change. That’s the optimistic scenario though.
    Too many Christians have embraced the President and his policies (Right now I think Donald Trump may be a man the Bible would describe as ‘wicked’). However, any opportunity to preach to him should be taken.

  • Too bad he didn’t advise the Wahhabite Muslim Barak Hussein Obama to ask Jesus of Nazareth to be his Savior and Lord. The Quran, Haddith are NOT compatible with the Bible. We have a Govt full of death believers , Muslims. Their creed is, “Occupy until you conquer.”

  • I think some are missing the most important point… We all have free will, Christ did not come down and demand that we follow him. Instead, he demonstrated his agape love- that loves all- sinner & saint, Jew and Gentile. It was this love and compassion that drew sinners to him that caused them to seek his council and opened their hearts… not constant criticism and ridicule. He did not (and does not) look down on others and/or require that they change, as a prerequisite for his love and grace, so therefore, neither should the church. The job of Christians is to live lives for Christ so that his spirit can draw and convict. It’s not about you or your religions leanings, it is about dying to self so that Christ can do the rest.

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