Interview spotlight: Dr. Joel Hunter – “Grace is more effective than we know until we really need it.”October 20, 2016
Dr. Joel Hunter is pastor of Northland Church, a congregation of from than twenty thousand in the Orlando area. He is also a spiritual adviser to President Obama. You can hear Joel Hunter’s sermons online at northlandchurch.net and more about him at pastorjoelhunter.com. We talked with Joel about how American Christians can better engage the culture, what it is like to advise the President, and how grace is sufficient in our weakness.
Listen to our interview with Joel, at 25:00 mark:
Carmen LaBerge: You have a long history of civic engagement. For folks who aren’t aware of all of your past and how, really, how the faith became ignited for you during the Civil Rights Movement and, in particular, was triggered by the death of Martin Luther King Jr.
Can you talk to us about how that really led you to the nature of your faith in Christ and really has provided the energy for your ministry along the way?
Joel Hunter: Yeah. When I was in college, I was a part of the Civil Rights Movement. When Dr. King was assassinated, I came to a crisis of faith. That’s when I gave my full life to Christ and devotion to Christ. Part of that giving him my life, was to advocate for those who were not included. The vulnerable populations. That went all the way from being vulnerable in the womb to being vulnerable outside the womb. I’ve always had as a part of my ministry, to make sure to try to include the people that would not normally be included. That’s just been a part of the way I’ve tried to love like Jesus.
Carmen: I wanted to start the conversation there because, I think that we hear a lot of, I’ll just use the word, apocalyptic, language in relationship to the election cycle that we’re in. We hear a lot of very heated, deeply partisan conversation, even among Christians, about the future of our country. I would love for people to hear you talk about where hope is really found and that it really … It’s important who wins the White House, but no matter who wins the White House, where are Christians supposed to be finding their hope?
Joel: Christ is our hope. I keep telling my congregation, God is still going to be God no matter who’s in the White House. He’s still going to be in control, none of this is a surprise to him. He is going to be working his will through his church, through his people and if one person wins, it’s going to go one direction, if another person wins, it’s going to go the other direction, but the point is that, God is going to work his will no matter who wins this election.
I know people like to exaggerate. There’s a certain level of us that never gets out of middle school, where we kind of like to be scared and so, we kind of spook each other out and all that kind of stuff. The point is that, our system is one of checks and balances. So, no matter who wins the White House, they’re not going to have the kind of power everybody gives them credit for. It’s up to us to make our communities better and different and the real power lies with the people and that’s what we have to realize.
Carmen: Joel, if you could wave … You wouldn’t wave a wand, but if you could assert your personal will over the people, what are the issues, let’s just grab three. What are the three issues that you would really, very much like to see Christians more seriously engaging in our culture today?
Joel: The first one is, I’d urge everybody to be a bridge builder instead of a divider. Satan has only ever had one strategy and that’s division and, ultimately, trying to get us to self-isolate, whether it be our group or ourselves. That’s his direction. That’s been his direction since the Garden. God, on the other hand, has given us the minister of reconciliation. If Christians really loved like we’re supposed to love our neighbors, ourselves, oh my goodness, what a different community we’d have. What a broader interest there would be in Jesus Christ.
The next thing I would say to people is, trust in the Lord with all your heart. Don’t lean on your own understanding. No matter what your life looks like right now, God … Another phrase is, we make our plans, but God directs our steps. I know a lot of people who just kind of given up hope, they’ve become cynical, they’ve become depressed, they’ve become fearful. Nothing could be further from what God wants for us. God wants us to have confidence. He wants us to have hope. Therefore, we need to trust in the Lord. He’s got this and we just need to follow him and respond to him.
Then, the third thing I would say is, let’s try to have a little humility and try to be servants instead of trying to win every argument or exert our authority over everybody else. If Jesus was serious when he said, “It shouldn’t be among you like it is over the gentiles, where they lorded over each other.” We shouldn’t always try to be having to apprehend. We should be like he was and take on the form of a servant. When we do that, when we genuinely are trying to help people and love them for who they are, God does remarkable things. That’s way more powerful than any politics. In the long run, it will do us way more good.
Carmen: As you were saying that, your response at the end there about humility, I immediately think about prayer when I think about humility. I think about the need to pray with a spirit of humility, not going to the Lord with this list of demands, but really humbling myself before him. I recognize my own tendency, particularly when I’m praying for people in leadership, to be praying my will. I’m going to ask you, how can we better pray for people who are in positions of leadership, particularly when we disagree with them?
Joel: Yes. Remember they’re people. When I’ve been with the President in the Oval Office … I’ve written him close to seven hundred devotionals now and he starts every day with a reading out of Scripture with a devotion. In my crisis times of life, he was very responsive to me. It was always about a person. When my little granddaughter got diagnosed with a brain tumor, he was one of the first people to call me up and say, “Joel, this is Barack. What can I do? I just heard.” When I started to fall apart, he started to take the pastoral role say, “Now remember, we trust in God here.” And so on and so forth.
There’s all these trappings of power and in people in your life, they all have titles or they all have something that would either make them a hero or a villain or whatever. They’re just people. My relationship with him, my relationship with everybody is just person to person. When you pray, that’s what you need to keep in mind. These are people, they have hurts like anybody else, they have loves like anybody else and so, “Everything’s level at the foot of the cross.” They say. We need to pray with people for what’s on they’re heart. We need to listen long enough and to be able to pray to a god who loves us, certainly, more than we love ourselves and then, to trust him after we’ve prayed and to know he’s got it.
There’s this sense in which, we tend to get carried away with issues or “God, please do this.” We make prayers, you said Carmen, a matter of trying to get God to do what we want. That’s not what prayer is for. Prayer is for trusting God to do what he wants, so that we can know that we’ve been a part of helping God do what he wants.
Carmen: Joel, when you talk about Ava, obviously, your heart is still very, very tender. I know that I speak on behalf of all of your brothers and sisters in Christ, that it’s a grief, particularly when it’s children, it’s a grief that we have a very, very difficult time bearing and we’d never be able to bear alone and it hasn’t been the only challenge that you and your family have faced.
I think that when you’re living your faith so publicly, in front of other people, maybe just a word to every Christian just to help us recognize that, no matter how high our profile, obviously not all of us are spiritually advising the president, but no matter how high our profile, we do all deal with the kinds of things that you and your family have dealt with in the last, I guess, five, six years. Just speak to every Christian. Christians of all varieties, regardless of their social media platform and their number of followers and their titles, about the nature of grieving in public.
Joel: I don’t know how to grieve in public, except just to put one foot in front of the other and keep doing the good that you can do. The devil wants us to give up, as I said before. That would be his greatest victory. When my wife and I have gone through what we have, both with our granddaughter and with our son, we were determined that the devil wouldn’t win and that we would trust in God.
As you can hear, the pain will always be there, but the trust goes even deeper. Grace is more effective than we know until we really need it. And then we know how victorious it really is. We live by the grace of God and whether it’s a regular day or it’s a day … I keep saying, I could never imagine the highs in our lives have been higher than we could ever imagine, the lows have been lower than we could ever imagine, but grace is sufficient. Knowing that God is carrying us through is exactly how all of us get through every day. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your challenges are, God will get you through and he will get you through in fine fashion. If you just keep on doing what you’re supposed to do and have trust that God is going to use you, even when you’re in pain, he’ll still have victory. That’s just kind of how we walk through it.
Carmen: I think that even in your answer, you answered the question by demonstrating transparency and vulnerability and humility and confidence in God and in grace in its sufficiency. I hope that you know that people pray for you and that people recognize that you have opportunities that not everyone has and that those come with great responsibility. I know that you receive them in that way. I think that you should know and be confident of the prayers of many people who deeply appreciate the way you are walking, by faith, in front of all of us.
Joel: Thank you, Carmen.
Let me just say this. Not only do we know those prayers, we feel those prayers. There would be mornings we could not get out of bed if people weren’t praying for us and we know it. There will be times when we’re sitting at the kitchen table and my wife will look over at me and she’ll say, “Somebody’s praying for me right now. Somebody’s praying for both of us, I can just feel it.” Thank you for your prayers and we never can underestimate the power of prayer. We, literally, feel it, so thank you.
Carmen: Absolutely. One of the things that I learned from you many years ago and you continue to bear this out in the life of Northland. You would say at the outset of worship, “Thank you for bringing the church into this building.” There would always be this articulation of the mission of the church. That was so unique to me, at that stage of my life. That was just not something that I felt like churches were doing fifteen years ago. There was this clear articulation of who we are and what we’re doing and why we’re here and where we’re headed.
Then, this notion that people would be allowed, in the context of worship, in the middle of worship, you guys would pass around a microphone and you would have these reports from the mission field. I will tell you that, that was pretty transformative for me. Having, to that point, really been in the context of worship that was a production that was done up front and yes, the people participated, but not in the same way that you were inviting participation at Northland. Then, at the end, there was just this clear sending out of the church to be distributed in the world. That’s a core passion of mine. What we are about here on The Reconnect, is we really do want every individual to understand themselves as an ambassador of Jesus Christ and as an agent of grace, in the world, on purpose, and for God’s purpose and that if you don’t bring God back into the conversation, then that’s a lost opportunity because you’re the person that he sent into that conversation to be present for him.
Give some encouragement to folks, because I know that this is just in your DNA, in terms of your understanding of ministry. Describe to people what it means to be a member of the church distributed in the world today. Encourage them in whatever part of the mission field they find themselves in.
Joel: This is really key and I thank you for asking that question.
We need to unlearn the word, church. We’ve associated it with a building, we’ve associated it with clergy, we’ve associated it with programming and with creeds and extravagant theology and all that kind of stuff. When the church started out in the first century, it didn’t have any of those. It just had believers who would go tell other people about Jesus Christ and that was the church. To this day, that is the church and that’s what we’ve got to remember. Every believer who gets in a conversation with someone else about Jesus or about how God loves them, gets in a conversation to help people get closer to God, that is the church.
When we worship, on any given weekend, there are people in three hundred and forty cities around the world that are connecting with us. Twenty-four countries. They aren’t connecting to a building, they’re connecting with each other and that is just a part of the church that happens to be connecting in that hour. The church isn’t the building, the church is the people who are worshiping God together and taking on their mission, they’re hearing something that will strengthen them spiritually and then, they’re immediately sharing that with others that God gives them opportunity. That’s the church. When, especially during the Protestant Reformation, one of the big deals was, the priesthood of all believers and we need to realize that every believer is a spiritual leader for somebody else. I hope all of your listeners can begin to see themselves in that way because whenever they’re helping someone else get close to God, that’s the church.
Carmen: There are folks, right now, who are in positions of spiritual leadership in our country who are very conflicted about the options that are before us, particularly, in terms of the major candidates from the two parties. There are also, even friends of ours, who do have the opportunity to advise one or the other of those candidates. Could you just speak a word of grace, maybe, over all of us?
I know that you acknowledge that you don’t have to be partisan in order to advise someone who is in a position of political power or authority. Can you speak to that? That we ought to be a little gentler with each other when our brothers and sisters have an opportunity to be in a spiritual advisory capacity. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they agree with everything that that individual is up to.
Joel: Absolutely. Thank you for the opportunity to say this. Christians, of all people, need to be nonpartisan when it comes to a spiritual capacity or spiritual role.
I remember years ago when I first started advising the President. This was when he was still running, the first time for President and he was a senator. Finally, they had the Democratic National Convention and they asked me to come and say the final benediction for the Democratic National Convention. I was kind of conflicted. I was a Republican and should I do this and Vonette Bright now in glory with the Lord said, “Hey, I don’t want you to do anything until you talk with Billy Graham. You got to talk with Billy Graham about this because I’m not sure this is the right thing to do.” So, I called Billy Graham up and Billy Graham said, “You’re a pastor aren’t you?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, when people ask a pastor to pray, they pray.” That’s the approach that I would always take. If somebody will accept spiritual encouragement from you, you give it, period.
Carmen: Amen. Hey Joel Hunter, thanks for the spiritual encouragement that you have given us today.