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By Mark I. Pinsky of The
The stage at the front of the old skating rink is crowded with professional musicians: three guitar players, an eight-piece brass section, a trio of female vocalists, a drummer, a pianist and a keyboard player. When the spotlights come on, the group moves easily from soft rock to Gospel to Latin numbers. A youthful audience of more than a thousand responds. They rise from their seats beneath the hall's vaulted ceiling, clapping, swaying and singing along to the infectious music. After the fast-paced musical set, a man resembling a middle-aged Johnny Carson takes over. He captivates the crowd for the next 45 minutes, telling stories and gentle jokes and sometimes introducing short skits. The minister, Joel Hunter, roams the stage and bounds up and down its wide steps, his voice amplified by a small, cordless microphone clipped to his tie.
Wait a minute. The minister?
Welcome to Northland Community Church in Longwood, named the 11th fastest growing church in America in 1995 by the magazine Church Growth Today for increasing membership from 3,000 to nearly 4,000. The church now claims that a total of more than 5,000 regularly attend its seven weekend services. It is one of only two non-Catholic churches in the United States to hold that many services, according to John Vaughan, editor of Church Growth Today. Already the third largest Protestant congregation in Central Florida, Northland recently acquired land adjoining its campus as well as property across the street, including an older church building.
The church's style of worship - a liberal use of orchestrated Christian rock and a conservative,nonthreatening Biblical message - may be the direction that American Protestantism is heading, observers say. In many ways, Northland's nondenominational congregation and magnetic pastor fit the profile of what observers of religious trends call the ''Next Church.'' From Southern California to the suburbs of Chicago, these megachurches are drawing thousands of ''seekers'' - baby boomers with young children and their generational successors, the baby busters of Generation X - with a mix of entertaining Sunday worship and a full spectrum of family services. The best-known of these congregations are Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., and Saddleback Valley Community Church in Mission Viejo, Calif. Over the past two decades, similar churches in California have been so successful they have spawned independent minidenominations. Because so many Next Churches are independent, it is difficult to say how many exist nationally, in Florida or even in Central Florida. And no one can say for sure whether they are drawing people away from mainstream churches or attracting those with no church affiliation.
However, what is clear is that these congregations are flourishing, attracting thousands of worshipers and causing traditional churches to sit up and take notice. The type of worship that churches such as Northland offers ''certainly has caught on in a lot of churches around the country,'' said George Barna, president of a California market research firm that tracks trends in religion. ''It's only one of a number of models, but it's a real player.'' Barna, who spoke at a pastors' seminar at Northland last year, said the church struck him as an example of ''guerrilla Christianity in touch with the grass roots.'' Some critics charge that Next Churches are too trendy, that their theology too watered-down and that there is not enough prayer. Others suggest the churches disguise their conservative beliefs with a slick veneer of theatricality. ''There's a very large suspicion about fast-growing churches, that they're selling out,'' said Hunter, Northland's senior pastor. While not identical, Next Churches have a lot in common, beginning with the generic exterior of their buildings that rarely include crosses or steeples. Inside, there are few religious symbols, no choirs, pews, hymnals or lecterns. Dress is often informal and no offerings are taken. Typically, Next Church worship services include scripture verses in modern English, a large dose of contemporary Christian music and big screen videos. And -- most importantly -- preachers such as Hunter who tie the Bible to the ''busyness and boredom of everyday life'' for people who find ''the faster you go, the emptier you get.''
A Dynamic Pastor
At Northland services, Hunter often bends at the knees to emphasize a point, occasionally sinking to a crouch and raising one hand as if guarding someone on a basketball court. Other times, he slips a hand inside his double-breasted suit jacket, smoothing it like a nightclub performer. Whatever the gesture, his other hand is always holding a Bible.
At a recent service, the 48-year-old pastor asked worshipers whether it would be sacrilegious to start a sermon with a quote from University of Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight -- on the need to practice and prepare in life. He went on to talk about relationships, traffic, diet, exercise, anxiety and substance abuse, warning the audience that ''nothing is going to give you peace except God.'' Hunter is the author of four books and host of a radio show, Fit for the Journey, heard on 20 stations around the country. In Central Florida, it airs on 95.3 FM (WTLN) on Saturdays at 9 a.m.
The key to Northland's success, Hunter said, has been ''translating the concepts of what is traditional Christianity, that will be true forever, into a language and into a style that people can assimilate.'' Katie Fletcher, a 19-year-old UCF student, said she is drawn to the church by Hunter's ''dynamic speaking'' and ''the practical way that he preaches Jesus Christ.'' Chris Ganski, 21, another UCF student, said that all he found at other churches was ''empty ritual, a husk and shell of Christianity.'' Ganski said at Northland he felt ''a real sense of God's presence. This is what Christianity is. The church is a community -- a living body -- not a single event on Sunday morning.''
Young people are not the only ones impressed with Northland and Hunter. Harold de Roo, 72, regularly goes to the 5 p.m. Sunday service at Northland, even though he also attends his own church. ''Joel is a tremendous communicator,'' said de Roo, director of church relations at Reform Theological Seminary in Maitland, where Hunter is on the adjunct faculty. Although Northland can be considered a megachurch, worshipers say they do not get lost in the huge membership. They gather in small, home worship groups each week and attend other church activities aimed at groups such as singles and seniors. Unlike some well-known Next Churches, Northland did not develop on the basis of any market survey nor is it a photocopy, said Daniel Hardaway, 36, of Maitland, a member for more than 5 years. ''They didn't set out to be a megachurch in Orlando.'' While Northland may not have set out to copy the blueprint of any other church, it has arrived at a similar place, and this is largely Joel Hunter's work. Northland was founded in 1972, but members say the congregation did not take off until 1985. That's when Hunter arrived from Indiana, where he had been the pastor of several Methodist churches. Over time, largely through word of mouth, Northland has become popular with ''church shoppers,'' people who have drifted away from regular attendance for one reason or another. But their spiritual hunger and their need to impart moral values to their children has turned them into religious ''seekers.''
Contemporary music used
Some have have come to Northland from mainline denominations. Hardaway, the father of four young children, attended a Presbyterian church before moving to Central Florida several years ago to work on the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ. After looking at 30 area churches, and despite a reluctance to join a large congregation, Hardaway and his wife were drawn to Northland. Hunter and other ministers at the church ''are not compelled to thrust their theology upon the whole congregation,'' he said. At the same time, Hardaway was concerned enough about Northland's theological underpinnings that he met privately with Hunter, where ''all my questions were satisfied.''
Similar elements of worship and preaching have been incorporated at large Orlando congregations such as First Presbyterian Church, which was rated the 21st-fastest-growing church in the country in 1995 by Church Growth Today. First Presbyterian's minister, the Rev. Howard Edington, has introduced more contemporary and ethnic music. The church orchestra plays contemporary Christian music from time to time, he said, and the traditional pipe organ has been refitted to be able to play electronically. A young people's singing ensemble performs regularly with the choir.
Back at Northland, a recent service ended on a symbolic note -- literally. After his message, Hunter asked the congregation to bear with him as the musicians returned to the stage. The group, he said, had ''transformed something secular into something sacred.'' With minor lyric changes, they were going to make ''the highest use that Beatles music has ever been put to,'' Hunter said, as a large screen descended from the ceiling and the band struck up some familiar notes from the group that once claimed to be ''bigger than Jesus.'' As the lyrics flashed up on the screen, worshipers sang ''Got to get you into my life.''