by Becky Hobbs

     If you attend Northland Church in Orlando, Florida, you're just as likely to worship with believers in Africa as well as neighbors from around the block. That's because in 1998 the leadership sensed that God was calling the 11,000 - member congregation toward a new form of church, one which reflects His triune nature of both singularity and plurality. They dubbed that form "a distributed church."

     "Our mission is to see connected Christian communities worshipping the triune God together with generations growing in ministry everywhere everyday," explains Senior Pastor Dr. Joel Hunter. "God wants us to look beyond our own church to build relationships through worship with believers here and around the world."

     Last year Northland held its first concurrent service with a small church in New Hampshire. With cameras on both ends, worshippers at each church could see and hear the other during worship. Last fall, they held a concurrent service with a sister church in Namibia, Africa, which included both children's and adult services.

     "Because we believe that God is gathering believers from every nation and tribe," says Joel, "we will be a ministry resource for like-minded Christian believers throughout the world. We will seek out those relationships in which we can partner for strategic purposes, demonstrate Christian unity, and enhance the environment for our partners to minister effectively."

     Concurrent worship is only one facet of an overall Northland mission goal to gather a variety of people from different backgrounds who can learn to live in a Christ-like way with each other.

     "We want to have a new appreciation for the sovereignty of God and the global nature of His family," says Joel. "We don't want people to be content with their own parochial mental image of the Lord. Instead, we want to challenge them to a much broader and deeper comprehension of their Maker and all He affects."

     Northland embraces people from a wide variety of cultures and denominational persuasions. They enjoy freedom in Christ concerning personal convictions and lifestyles not specifically addressed in Scripture and value tolerance of differences within the congregation.

     God gifts different churches for different emphases. Some are concerned mainly with evangelism, some with service, some with fellowship. Northland's goal is the balance and depth of all these toward the spiritual maturity of the individual. They care more for wisdom than knowledge, more for pursuing the purpose of life than simply supplying religious activity. To that end they want to establish a church family that encourages commitment to Christ, provides relationships in Christ, and trains Christians to give their lives in service by the power of the Holy Spirit.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

     Northland began in the mid-sixties with three couples who wanted to share their faith, train others in discipleship, and help fulfill the Great Commission. They first met in homes, then in a nearby school library. The congregation grew from six people to 350 and established two sister churches. For the next eleven years they met in a school cafeteria before purchasing an abandoned, rat-infested roller rink. Since Joel came in 1985, they have experienced amazing growth. In addition to pastoring Northland, he is also Adjunct Professor of Practical Theology at RTS/Orlando and the author of Prayer, Politics, and Power and five books in The Journey to Spiritual Maturity Series.

     Today seven worship services a week accommodate some 6500 attenders, beginning with one service Saturday evening, five services on Sunday, and one on Monday evening. The sanctuary originally held 800 before they expanded it to seat 1200, but they still turned people away. Currently, a 2500-seat facility is being planned.

     The church is also committed to helping other churches get started. Crossroad Community Church in the East Orlando area, Faith Community Church in DeBary, Town Centre Community Church in Lake Mary, and Hunter's Creek Community Church are examples. They ask Northland members to help start these churches and to attend them.

     Northland's Resource Center carries over 10,000 Bibles, books, tapes and CDs to help equip Christians for ministry. Through a creative arrangement, RTS/Orlando's Counseling Center provides pastoral care in counseling to Northland members.

     "We are really excited about the partnership," says Gary Rupp, Associate Professor of Counseling at RTS/Orlando. "All of our counseling students must complete a practicum, so the arrangement allows them to meet their requirements and provides the pastoral care Northland members need. About fifty-three per cent of our patients are affiliated with Northland." Joel & Becky Hunter

     Northland's Minister of Pastoral Care is Kevin Urichko (RTS '94) and currently a D. Min. student. On the Pastoral Care staff is another RTS graduate, Gerald Jones (RTS '96). Michelle Ranson (RTS '96) is Northland's Director of Counseling and Pastoral Care Center.

     Northland maintains a comprehensive and well-planned website at rq.northlandcc.org with all the information that anyone would want to know. Posted on the website each week are devotions by a team of writers for every age group from children to adult. Built around Joel's upcoming Sunday sermon, members can prepare for the message all week.

     In the worship services, Northland attempts to include both historic and global spectrum of styles. Vernon Rainwater, Pastor of Student Ministries and Worship, assimilates the ideas of creative worship. He strives to keep the congregation's focus on God and make the worship experience personal even though it is in a corporate setting.

     "I believe our first calling as Christians is to love God and enjoy Him forever," he says. "One of the biggest challenges with worship is bridging the gap between different cultures."

     An offering plate is never passed during the worship service. Instead, people may tithe or leave gifts in boxes at the rear of the sanctuary. "We feel that as people grow to maturity in Christ, giving will come naturally. Especially with concurrent worship services they see the family relationship with believers across the world and want to give to God's Kingdom."

A MINISTRY FOR EVERYONE

     "We value personal ministry as an indication of growth in spiritual maturity," says Joel. "Therefore the church provides the environment and the support needed by its members to be effective in their own avenues of Christian ministry.

     Northland indeed has a ministry designed for absolutely anyone. In addition to small groups, over twenty specialty groups abound, such as Widows Support, Cancer Support, Chronic Mental Illness. New Life Victorious Groups focus on recovery from addictions.

     "The tendency for some churches is to expect the Sunday worship service to meet more needs than it is capable of," says Joel. "However, people in large churches can experience the same benefits as those in smaller churches; the format and structure of the activities is just different. For example, people's needs correspond to various sized groups - small group discussion, large group get-togethers, or work groups to accomplish tasks."

     Other ministries include True North Productions, whose goal is to bring people to Christ through drama. Northland's Foundation for the Arts and Education encourages and develops a community of artists who will use their gifts to glorify God. It also seeks to stimulate production of art that glorifies God in the church. Marketplace Ministries works with Christian organizations and other local churches to mobilize and equip Orlando's young business professionals to minister at work.

LOOKING FOR GOD'S OPPORTUNITIES

     Joel feels that many churches will adopt Northland's approach to ministry that transcends traditional borders. With the communications revolution and world travel made easy, believers will finally realize that God has family beyond our local congregations and denominations.

     The evangelical church must address two critical issues in the 21st century, says Joel. "First, the idea of the parish church with a missions program is too limited for the future," he explains. "We must change our paradigm from 'us' and 'them' to 'we -- here and there.' If you're in God's family, you're still family no matter where you live.

     "Second - and this goes to the heart of the issue, especially for larger churches - we must drop the self-serving attitude that says we can come to church only to have our needs met rather than to serve as broadly as possible. Every pastor must admonish his congregation to be ministry-oriented; every person should have a ministry. This is a key Reformation doctrine, but with the development of the parish mentality, the preacher does it all. This attitude extends to other nations; when I preached in Namibia, I found that pastors carried ninety per cent of the ministry load and were absolutely exhausted."

     Northland looks with great anticipation to the future, knowing that God will teach them along the way what He wants them to do. Joel and his staff deliberately do not limit the church by making long range plans. Rather, they step out in faith as God leads. They are content to know that the relationships made will be those brought to them by God's providence, and any accomplishments will be according to the opportunities God brings their way. So far, God has indeed blessed that attitude more than any of them could have imagined.



Reformed Quarterly, Volume 19, Number 1
© 2000 Reformed Theological Seminary
Articles may not be reprinted without permission.

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Last updated 4-5-2000.