Sunday, June 28, 2009

New Wanderers - Northland Church

Up to now, the subjects of my "New Wanderers" series in my blog has focused on small Vineyard churches, very locally focused. But now, we move from the West Coast to the Eastern US - Florida, to be exact. This is the story of a megachurch of 12,000 that has left behind convention in order to embrace a most remarkable vision. It is not a Vineyard church either. But it is a most compelling and inspiring congregation as you will see.

I first heard about Northland Church from my fellow house church buddy Ken Eastburn who just returned from the church after being asked to visit there. The church leaders have recently announced their desire to partner with Global Media Outreach, the Campus Crusade online ministry to God-seekers from around the world, to plant one million house churches. That is not a typo. One million.

To get a little better picture of where a vision like this comes from, I have pulled a fairly large part of the the "about" post from Northland's website in what follows. I will be researching more, but I highly recommend you take a few moments to digest the following. I find it most inspiring:

The 1990s
With the initial renovation of the facility, God brought incredible spiritual and numerical growth to the congregation.

In the fall of 1990, the elders sent Dr. Hunter away on an extended retreat to hear a clarifying word from God concerning Northland’s future. Precisely, how did God desire for Northland to accomplish its mission of “bringing people to maturity in Christ”? From that mountaintop experience, Pastor Joel conceived, and the elders affirmed, the 10-year “Journey to Spiritual Maturity” emphasis that encompassed the entire worship and educational focus of all age levels of the congregation. In this journey together, one central preaching theme was focused upon for an entire year.

Attendance figures went from 300 to well over 5,000. The staff grew from four to 90; the church went from one service on Sunday morning to seven services throughout the weekend.

In the fall of 1997, the elders again sent Dr. Hunter away on retreat to begin envisioning the next millennium. He returned with a vision of a church unrestricted by geographical boundaries.

In April of 1998 the elders and pastors unanimously affirmed the vision: Northland would become a “church distributed,” arranging the church around the relationships of the congregation and partner ministries, rather than around a physical church building. Northland is calling people to follow Christ, distributing their lives every day in ministry to others.

During Dr. Hunter’s tenure, Northland has grown from 200 faithful souls to a congregation of 12,000, worshiping at sites located throughout Central Florida and at thousands of smaller sites online. This growth forced the church’s leaders to make a decision as to the future character of the church.

Pastor Hunter remembers: “We had grown big enough to become a society within a society. If we had wanted to just do the traditional things to accommodate growth (i.e. be in perennial building campaigns, keep motivating people to live as much of their lives at the church building as possible), then we could probably have kept growing. But growing what? Another megachurch?

“We would be promoting the unspoken message that our congregation was more important to us than other congregations and ministries, and furthering the Western mentality of the rugged individualism of a church while ignoring the larger community life of the church—a philosophy that is neither biblical nor appropriate.”
The solution? Northland’s would construct a new church building that would serve as a “ distribution point” rather than a “destination.”
Completed in August 2007, Northland’s new $42 million facilities in Longwood, Florida, were built for both the local congregation and those who will never set foot in the building. The new facilities offer plenty of room—more than 160,000 square feet of space. However, the intent was never to see how many people could fit under one roof; it was to facilitate ministry worldwide with other believers.

The 160,000-square-foot facilities feature state-of-the-art technology with two-way interconnectivity that provides virtually unlimited seating for worshipers…virtually.

Congregants worship at multiple sites throughout Central Florida, where they connect with neighboring Christians for support and encouragement and to better serve their communities. Each weekend, these sites are joined in concurrent worship. A two-way video connection allows different parts of the services to be distributed among the sites and gives congregants opportunities to interact with one another in real time.

Worshipers also participate at more than 1,000 smaller sites worldwide via Northland’s innovative Webstream application.

People in Northland’s congregation continue to take leadership of nearly every ministry effort inside the church, out in the community and around the world. Elders, pastors and paid staff don’t try to control the initiatives of congregants or the connections they make, and, they don’t watch over their shoulders unnecessarily. Dr. Hunter encourages Northlanders: “Do what you can, where you are, with what you’ve got.” And they do!

Together, he teaches, we can accomplish more because of our differences than we would on our own—without giving up our unique identities. Dr. Hunter concludes. “Fear and suspicion of differences limit the church’s spiritual maturity. Both spiritual and intellectual maturity, grow from differences. A distributed church uses contrasts to accomplish Kingdom purposes.”

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