In the early 1960’s a non-traditional church was flourishing in Chicago, Ill. The congregation met in a rented warehouse and experienced vibrant, contemporary worship. It was called Circle Church and its pastor was David Mains. Throughout the nation, other congregations patterned after Circle Church began to spring up; one was Clearwater Community Church in Florida. When Lyle and Marge Nelson, members of Clearwater Community Church, were transferred to Orlando in the late 1960s, they searched in vain to find a church similar to the one they had just left. Feeling called to join with a handful of other individuals in planting a new church in Orlando, Circle Community Church was born. The congregation emphasized both contemporary worship and authentic relationships between believers.
Circle Community Church in Orlando flourished. But within a few years, the Nelsons, who lived on the north side of Orlando and were traveling downtown to attend church, felt called to help plant a similarly-focused church in the “north land” of Orlando in the Maitland/Altamonte area. Joining with another handful of dedicated believers, a new congregation was formed. The name selected for the new church was Northland Community Church, and the year was 1972.
Clearwater Community Church assisted Northland Community Church in finding its first pastor. John Christiansen, a Dallas Theological Seminary graduate, was called to lead the congregation. For a year the church gathered at the old Altamonte Elementary School on S.R. 436. From 1973 to 1984 the church worshiped in the cafeteria of English Estates Elementary School. Roger Franks, a graduate of Trinity Theological Seminary served as Northland’s first intern in 1974 and by the end of 1975 his role was expanded to co-pastor. Part of the philosophy of the church at that time was to remain numerically small in size, to never own a building, and to avoid traditionalism. However, as the church grew from a small congregation to more than 500 attendees, the need for a more permanent facility became apparent. A building committee was formed, and a new facility was located—the old, vacant Skate City roller rink on Dog Track Road in Longwood.
While considering the purchase of the Skate City property, two ministry perspectives emerged within the congregation. Some felt the Lord leading them to reaffirm the original philosophy of remaining a small congregation, which plants new satellite churches. This group left with pastor John Christiansen and formed a new church. The remaining group felt the Lord directing them to simply be faithful to the Spirit’s movement and not place a numerical restriction upon their form of ministry. This group proceeded and purchased the Skate City property in June of 1984. As the roller rink was in major disrepair, the congregation could not hold services on the site until August. In September, pastor Roger Franks announced his intentions to resign at the end of the year.
Left with a leadership challenge and a facility in desperate need of renovation, the congregation banded together in faith, prayed for God’s guidance and began a national pastoral search.
Through a series of God-ordained circumstances and relationships, the Lord brought Dr. Joel C. Hunter to Northland in June 1985. The first few years, ministry was hampered by the inadequate condition of the facility. The congregation was slowly making improvements on a cash-available basis with volunteer labor. A turning point occurred in the fall of 1987 when the elders determined to be obedient to the Lord’s leading and refinance the original loan, making it possible to hire a construction company to expedite necessary site improvements. The completion of renovations in 1988 was a milestone in the life of the congregation.
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 15,000, worshiping in Central Florida and worldwide via the Web. 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 would construct a new church building that would serve as a “distribution point” rather than a “destination.”
Completed in August 2007, Northland’s $42 million facilities in Longwood, Florida, were built for both the local congregation and those who worship concurrently at other locations. 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 facilities feature state-of-the-art technology with two-way interconnectivity that provides virtually unlimited seating for worshipers ... virtually. In fact, the fastest growing segment of Northland’s congregation has never set foot inside its facilities. About 4,000 worshipers attend church online each week, and many are beginning to gather into house churches to worship and serve together in their communities.
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.”