Published: March 2007
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Northland is Orlando's hottest megachurch. It got its start when an itinerant preacher named Joel Hunter had a spiritual epiphany: His dream of creating a church intersected with a piece of Orlando real estate—in this case, as he puts it, "an old roller skating rink with dead rats in the walls." A small group of people had turned the skating rink into a church; they asked him to become their pastor. More than anything, Hunter had wanted to minister, as he puts, "to people in need of mercy. We took one look," he adds, "and said: 'We're home.' "

Like many Orlando pioneers, Hunter came from the American heartland, in his case Indiana, and for him too Orlando was a revelation. Its emerging human diversity, as well as its growing global connectedness attracted him. "My wife and I didn't want our three sons to grow up speaking only one language. We saw that Orlando was a metropolitan microcosm of what the world was becoming. We wanted to be a part of that," he says.

"Globalization is not just economical," Hunter says. "There's an incredible crumbling of institutional walls that have kept us people of faith apart," he says, adding, "The next realm of the Church is interactive." Global interactivity is already a reality at Northland, thanks to a two-million-dollar "concurrent worship site." Giant video screens and high-speed computer links allow the Northland congregation to worship together with congregations in Africa and Ukraine. It all flows from Hunter's prime tenet of faith. "The church is not in any one place," he says. "It's in the hearts of the faithful." This approach helps explain the rather cumbersome subtitle of "Northland: A Church Distributed."

This inclusive message also helps explain why, even on a Monday night, thousands of people worship together here. "The Monday evening service," Hunter says, "is for all the people who have to work weekends—the Disney characters, the pizza deliverers, the chefs and maids who make our days of rest possible." He adds, "It's also for the guy who doesn't want to have to choose between worshipping and taking his boat out on Sunday."

On January 1, 2007, Hunter was to become the next president of the Washington, D.C.-based Christian Coalition. He stepped down as president-elect in November, however, citing a philosophical difference with the board's focus on purely "moralistic" issues, including gay marriage and abortion.