Earlier this month, Northland’s governing elder board announced that Matt Heard has accepted a call as our Lead Pastor and that Pastor Vernon Rainwater is transitioning to a new role of Pastor Emeritus. After co-leading alongside Pastor Vernon since last September as Lead Teaching Pastor, Matt is looking forward to this new season in Northland’s story. Shortly after the announcement, we asked Pastor Matt a few questions to get to know him better and to understand how God is moving at Northland from his perspective.
Pastor Matt, we were excited to learn that you’ve been named Northland’s Lead Pastor. Since last September, you’ve been co-pastoring as Lead Teaching Pastor. How would you describe this season of transition that we’ve been in and what has stood out to you?
Thank you! I’m privileged and excited to be a part of Northland at such a pivotal time in its story.
Transitions, in any arena of life, are challenging to go through—you could say they feel like a “storm” that arrives into the journey of an individual, family, organization, ministry and, yes, a church. In all those instances, we first have to survive the winds and the waves. But then we also need to navigate through to get to the other side. The change from what “was” to what “is” to what “can be” is rarely a smooth experience, but with a story as significant as Northland’s, it is worth it to keep putting one hopeful oar-stroke after another into in the water.
Arlene and I have a deep sense of calling to continue “rowing” and even “sailing” with such a great community of God’s people. I deeply believe the future is bright for this church—open water is ahead—but it’s so important that we now humbly and courageously row together, confident in Christ’s authorship, enablement and assurance that “He who began a good work in us will complete it.”
One thing that has definitely stood out is the distinct and multifaceted ways the men and women on Northland’s staff team have impressed me. Not only are they extremely gifted, they have also demonstrated their tenacity, showing up and rowing every day, day after day—many of them for a decade or two!—and their fruitfulness, faithfulness and calling to our church is extraordinary.
These past months have been a valuable time of adjusting to a new day, assessing the amazing legacy of Northland under Pastor Joel Hunter’s leadership over the years, and beginning to dream about the future. We’re at a place where we can more clearly see the potential for our church. The challenges are great, but so is the “kairos” opportunity.
We want to ask you more about that opportunity you see for us moving forward, but first we’d like to ask you some questions that would allow our church family to get to know a bit more about you. Pastor Vernon and others have talked about how you’ve been a friend of Northland for more than 20 years. Could you tell us about that and do you have a favorite memory from those early days?
Years ago, when I was a student at Reformed Theological Seminary here in Orlando and also helping start the Greater Orlando Leadership Foundation (now Lifework Leadership), I was asked to speak at a Northland men’s gathering. That’s when I met Vernon and many others and began to get to know Northland a bit more. Not long after that, our infant son, Joel, had a very serious health crisis. Arlene and I still gratefully remember how the pastors and community of Northland cared for our family.
For a couple years around 2000, I would preach here (for all seven weekend services in the Rink!) about once a month, and in 2015 I started coming back to again preach about one weekend a month. It’s been a gift to see Northland’s journey and influence grow over the years.
Could you tell us a bit about where you grew up and your family?
I grew up in southern Alabama in a small town called Monroeville (its claim to fame is being the hometown of Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird”). My dad was VP of Industrial Relations for a clothing/textile company called VF Corporation which based its production facilities in the south. Dad died in 1994 but continues to be a wonderful, godly influence in my journey, as does my amazing and sweet mom who still lives in Monroeville.
I met Arlene at Wheaton College in Illinois and we have been privileged to raise three sons and, last year, were blessed with the addition of a remarkable daughter-in-law. Our oldest, Andrew, is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and is currently a USAF Captain, stationed in Salt Lake City as a contracting officer. Joel, married to Mary Rachel, is a graduate of Colorado State University and director of operations for a tech start-up in Fort Collins, Colorado and Mary Rachel works for Marriott Hotels. Stephen, our youngest, just graduated in May from Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington with a double major in Business Management and Theology, and a minor in Leadership Studies. He is working at a guest ranch in Colorado this summer and plans to head to Bolivia in September to volunteer in a preschool orphanage for his first year out of college.
What’s some of the best parenting advice you ever received?
Someone told us early on to let our boys be themselves. Since we’ve served in vocational ministry in large churches, it would have been easy for us to ask them to behave in such a way that would benefit our reputation as church leaders, but we tried to intentionally avoid that as a motivational method. Instead, we encouraged them to simply be who God made them to be and make decisions that were birthed out of their walk with Jesus and a desire to honor Him. We gave them plenty of permission to just be boys growing up. (Arlene will tell you that she had four boys to deal with, the fourth being me!)
Parenting is a stewardship journey. Our kids have been entrusted to us by God, so Arlene and I sought to draw out what God had already fashioned in them. We tried to let our kids be who they are—learning the balance between pushing and pulling—you can pull a rope, but not push it, and if you try to push it gets crinkled. Parenting is partnering with God to cultivate a human being for His glory. And both grace as well as truth are necessary in that process. Our boys haven’t been perfect over the years, and neither have we as their parents, so we are all deeply grateful for grace—the grace of God toward us and the privilege of giving that grace to one another while we follow His Way, guided by His Truth, to experience His Life together as a family.
When you’re not preaching, leading, teaching or writing, we know you like to golf…there was that sermon where you used a nine iron and a bucket of golf balls as props! What other hobbies do you have?
I appreciate great friends and meals, books and art, music and movies. I’m a sports fan—Auburn football, the Denver Broncos, and the Chicago Cubs are all teams I support. I love the outdoors. In addition to golf, I enjoy scuba diving, fly-fishing, backpacking and snow skiing. I also ride horses and a Harley.
What about your calling and your ministry journey?
First of all, I think every follower of Christ is in full-time ministry, whatever their vocation. Now, regarding my own calling into vocational ministry, that was not my original intent when I headed to college. I initially was studying toward a pre-law degree—my goal was to practice corporate law. After two years at Samford University, I spent a couple of years studying at Bible institutes in Europe and also at a place called L’Abri with Francis Schaeffer, and that’s when I sensed a shift in my vocational calling. I transferred to Wheaton College in Illinois and then began my pastoral journey, which has included planting a church in downtown Chicago and pastoring a couple of other large churches. I then wrote a book which is at the core of my passion for the Gospel, called “Life with a Capital L: Embracing Your God-Given Humanity.” Out of that I started a speaking, coaching, and consulting ministry called THRIVE which is dedicated to engaging and equipping men and women to be fully alive to the glory of God in every arena of their life, journey and culture.
You’ve mentioned your passion for the “Life of the Gospel.” What do you mean by that?
John tells us that he wrote his Gospel for two reasons: (A) “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God,” (B) “and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). Many of us within the church seem to be a bit inarticulate when it comes to “Part B.”
We’ve rightly focused on Part A—urging people to believe in Jesus as the Christ. Tragically, we’ve too often stopped there and disregarded Part B. We’ve focused on redemption from our sins but neglected the reason for our redemption: the restoration of our humanity—and impact—in all of Life to the glory of God. It’s not a matter of choosing one over the other, but experiencing and proclaiming both.
If we fall short of embracing the whole Gospel, it inevitably involves a failure to credibly declare and demonstrate it in the surrounding culture. If we don’t know what it looks like to experience “Life in His name,” a heartbreaking result is our message and impact falls short of being Life-giving. If the world doesn’t see us living out Part B, it dismisses our proclamations of Part A.
Jesus said He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; however, many of us tend to focus on Way and Truth but not Life. Jesus didn’t suggest that we pick two out of three! Yes, we’re to relate with Him as “Way” (obedience) and “Truth” (doctrine), but both of those should lead to Life. Discipleship is to be more than the passing along of informative truth statements and corrective codes of conduct. It must be restorative, resulting in reclaimed humans who are thriving and flourishing in all arenas of their human experience to the glory of God and as Life-giving light and salt in their communities and culture.
Now, back to the opportunity of this season you see at Northland. You’ve shared with us as a congregation that we are in a vision-casting process. Could you tell us more about that?
Whenever a church, ministry or organization goes through a transition like the one in which we find ourselves, it is extremely important to clarify the direction for the future. At this time, it’s vital to uncover God’s vision for us for this next season. What is our direction for the days ahead?
During a re-visioning process, especially in a church, there needs to be a unique weaving of “what has been” with “what can be.” Instead of “starting over,” it’s important to knit together what comes next with the amazing legacy of the past. When we make sure we’re stewarding the strengths that have made Northland impactful and compelling over the years, we’ll have a stronger foundation for moving forward.
We started this process back in February and we are nearing its completion. Essentially, we have been asking, “Who is Northland?” and “What has made us effective over the years?” We want to celebrate our past and all that God has done in us and through us, and it’s been awesome to listen to people describe the most compelling truths about Northland’s legacy of Kingdom impact.
So far, we have interviewed about 350 people in both small group and individual contexts. These conversations have included members of the congregation, volunteers, staff, pastors, and elders.
We’ve also had over 1,000 people respond to an online questionnaire and is not too late to participate. People can visit the link on our website and answer eight questions that help us understand their perception of our strengths and needs. This is a unique opportunity for everyone’s voice to speak into this exciting journey. 8 Questions for Northland's Future
So where is all of this leading?
Well first, all of the results of the interviews and responses to the online questions will continue to be tabulated—that process is already underway, and it has been affirming, sobering and enlightening to hear the ideas and contributions to date.
Then, in mid-June, about 50 participants selected from across all ministries at Northland will spend two days together listening to the results and dreaming about the future. These individuals include members of the congregation, staff, volunteers and elders. We will talk about the findings of what our journey has been, the major points of impact we’ve experienced as a congregation, as well as what people are most excited and concerned about related to Northland’s future.
The rest of the time will be a discovery process and answering the question, “Where do we go from here?” Out of that will come a vision statement that can be a guide for us as we move forward: a clear, compelling vision that can become the arbiter of decision-making when it comes to prioritization of ministries, resources, budgeting, staffing, strategic plans, etc.
Of course, it will take some time to reorient the fabric of Northland around our new vision. All of that will contribute to what you could call the “relaunch” of Northland Church. Not often do any of us get to be involved with something this significant. Northland’s Kingdom fingerprints are found throughout Central Florida and the world. God has entrusted to all of us a calling to see that influence stewarded and spread even further and deeper.
Can you share with us some of what you’ve already learned from our vision process?
I would love to. As I mentioned, the first part of the vision development process is a time of intense and engaged listening to get a firm grasp on what people are sharing that they know to be true about Northland. Across the board, people are expressing a deep appreciation for our highly talented and gifted staff. We’ve also discovered an intense loyalty and commitment from many long-time congregants. There have been rave reviews of our dynamic children’s ministry as well as a deep sense of pride for the relationships Northland has cultivated in the community and around the world.
We’ve also heard a longing for a renewed focus on small groups, a call for additional biblical, Gospel-centered teaching, and a desire to use our state-of-the-art facility as a catalytic tool for ministry. Many have shared they hope to see more occasions to gather around ministries that support the needs of our congregation as well as continuing to positively impact our local community. Indeed, we have a great chance to do something special in teaching and living the whole message of the Gospel—bringing Life to people.
A great deal of what I shared in the worship service the weekend I was commissioned as Lead Pastor was fed by some of we are hearing through the vision development process. I’d encourage anyone who missed it to check it out. You can watch that sermon here or read Matt’s May 15 update here.
In that worship service, you talked about having some goals for Northland in this season, including some specific areas where we can be praying and involved. Can you summarize those?
We have such a tremendous opportunity to partner alongside one another in prayer during this season of revisioning. Sometimes it is helpful to have some focused areas even before the full vision has been cast. While these certainly aren’t the only goals, they can be characterized as sort of a “Top Ten” list of goals for Northland right now.
1. Strategic Kingdom Movement Forward We need to move forward with faith, generosity and fruitfulness.
2. Healthy Leadership Pray for unity, synergy, clarity of roles and structure, and a renewed sense of Life, calling and vigor for all of us.
3. Northland’s Impact Continuing It’s in our DNA that we are called to impactful influence both locally and around the world, and we want this to continue and increase.
4. Next Generation The future of Northland is to be stewarded now…that includes children, students and those in their 20s and 30s.
5. Small Groups The necessity for people in a large church to connect in smaller communities cannot be overstated.
6. Storytelling In this time of transition and beyond, we need use all forms of communication in our grasp to—in a powerful, compelling way—share the stories of God’s faithfulness taking place in our midst.
7. Worship Powerful, Christ-centered worship has been and must continue to be hallmark of Northland.
8. Empowering One Another Each of us is uniquely called, wired and gifted and we need to equip and empower one another to be involved in what God is doing in and through us.
9. Preaching Team We endeavor to develop a multi-voice, multi-generational preaching team to address the minds, hearts and wills of people for an all-of-Life embrace of the Gospel.
10. Vision We have a rich legacy to steward. We are asking with open hearts, minds and spirits attuned to the whispers of our Creator: What is God’s most compelling future for Northland?
And, there is actually an “11th” goal that intersects with all of the above goals, and that is our financial health and our generosity as a congregation. As is usually the case in transitions, we have experienced some inconsistency and a decline in our giving. During these days as we come out of the transition and become confident about the direction to which God is calling Northland, it will be absolutely vital for us all to prayerfully assess and re-engage with our financial stewardship and support if we are to be enabled to move into that “open water” I mentioned earlier.
Other than praying for this process and these goals, and engaging through our financial support and generosity, how would you encourage our congregation related to this forthcoming vision?
With great hope and excitement, we can anticipate what can be accomplished once we, together, embrace a new vision. We can lean into this season and the reality that our past is prologue for what lies ahead, asking, “What can I offer of my time, my abilities and my finances in order for us to launch into our next chapter together? What would best enable Northland—and me, personally—to thrive?”
When a person opts in to a church and its vision, it requires approaching their engagement through a lens of calling, not just convenience. It also involves an understanding of the symbiotic relationship between our corporate, or group, and individual health. In other words, what enables an individual to thrive is directly related to what enables the church community to thrive. Interdependently, what enables the church community to thrive will impact the individual’s ability to thrive.
God is our Creator and Author; He created each and every one of us for a purpose. We are all part of His larger Story, which includes the person reading these words—you—as well as the person saying them—me. That Story is for His ultimate glory…it’s also our destiny. Amazingly, that Story includes Northland Church—not just who Northland has been but who it will be. I cannot overemphasize the beauty and power of the privilege we have—if we will seize and steward it—to be involved in such an amazing opportunity! That is why Arlene and I are on board with you. It is, truly, “for such a time as this” that you and I are here in this church together, now. Not to be consumers of a Northland religious experience or keepers of a tradition, but as co-laborers and co-creators of a new community of men and women who yearn for God’s renewal. Along with each of you, I’m deeply looking forward to being God’s ink as He writes the next chapter of Northland Church. My invitation and exhortation is that we would, together, agree to pray, hope, and labor toward that end. Soli Deo Gloria.