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US megachurch pastor Joel Hunter to step down from Orlando church he founded


Joel Hunter

Rev Joel Hunter walks up the sanctuary steps at the Northland, A Church Distributed in Longwood, Florida, in 2006. Rev Hunter is among a handful of increasingly high-profile evangelical leaders preaching new politics. PICTURE: AP Photo/John Raoux

Megachurch pastor Joel Hunter, who tried to lead the nation’s evangelicals toward more moderate, centre-right positions on issues like climate change and immigration, is stepping down as leader of Northland, a Church Distributed, in Longwood, Florida.

In a statement issued Wednesday to members of the congregation, Lead Pastor Vernon Rainwater described Rev 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.”

Rev Hunter declined to comment on the circumstances of his departure and plans for the future until church elders approve a statement he is preparing. 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.

For the past two decades, Rev 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.

Rev 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 advisor to President Barack Obama, praying at the Democratic National Convention.

Under Rev 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 per cent 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 Rev Hunter’s minister son, Isaac, committed suicide.

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

In the pre-dawn hours of 12th June, 2016, a police officer on the scene of the shooting, a Northland member, called Rev 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, Rev 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 LBGTQ Task Force.

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

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



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