[October 02, 2006]

Preaching still paramount, pastor says: The new Christian Coalition leader's Longwood church supports his mission

(Orlando Sentinel, The (FL) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Oct. 2--LONGWOOD -- The Christian Coalition's newly announced president assured his Central Florida congregation Sunday that the church where he has been pastor for more than 20 years will remain his priority and won't become politicized because of his new position.


"God called me to be a pastor," the Rev. Joel Hunter told the congregation at Northland, A Church Distributed, during his Sunday-morning sermon. "He didn't call me to go out and get my face in the media . . . You're not going to hear me talk, sermon after sermon, about political issues."

Hunter sent an e-mail to Northland members Saturday announcing he had accepted the presidency of the Christian Coalition. He will become fully active in the unsalaried position by Jan. 1.

Members at Northland's main campus in Longwood said they think Hunter's new role will bring good things both to the Christian Coalition and the national political scene. While pointing the Christian Coalition in a more mainstream direction, members said they think Hunter also can help bridge the divide between right-wing and left-wing factions.

"It's a different direction, but I think it's much needed," said Tom Starnes, 46, of Lake Mary, who has attended the church for four years. "Joel's just what politics needs. . . . There's the extreme left and the extreme right. There's a lot of people in America who are looking for something much more in the center."

Speaking at the church's Mount Dora location and beamed by video into Northland's other Central Florida sites, Hunter said he hopes to make the Christian Coalition "more of a grass-roots organization so that we can mobilize every Christian in America to have a political involvement as a part of their normal spiritual growth."

Hunter, who was not available for comment Sunday, also reminded churchgoers to register to vote.

Voter-registration forms were available in Northland's Longwood lobby, next to information on the Florida Coalition to Protect Marriage.

"He's hip on people voting," said Michael Armstrong, working at the front desk at the lobby in Longwood. However, Armstrong said, Hunter doesn't dictate how members should cast their ballot.

Against abortion and gay marriage, Hunter also opposes the death penalty and has said he thinks the Christian Coalition can work with mainstream and progressive organizations on issues such as immigration, raising the minimum wage and providing prescription drugs to poor and elderly people.

This year, Hunter appeared in front of the Casselberry City Commission urging restrictions on where new adult-entertainment businesses can locate. A few months before, he was featured in a television ad about the need to combat global warming -- part of an initiative promoted by more than 80 evangelical leaders throughout the country.

Hunter will have a challenge ahead of him in his new position. Four state chapters -- Georgia, Alabama, Iowa and Ohio -- have left the national Christian Coalition in recent months, saying it has become too liberal and has lost its focus. The group's budget has dwindled from $26 million to $1 million.

Already some have questioned Hunter's planned strategy to broaden the coalition's agenda. Hunter acknowledged Sunday that sometimes his stands may be controversial. "People are going to say some mean things about your preacher," he said. "Pray for me. This is not light duty."

Hunter plans to move the organization's headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Central Florida. He will travel, he said -- "I'll probably be in every state periodically" -- but said he will preach just as much, if not more, than he does already.

Hunter wants the Christian Coalition to improve pastors' leadership skills. "We're going to train pastors on how to train their people. I need to say to them, 'I'm a pastor, just like you are. I preach just like you every weekend.' "

When she first read Hunter's e-mail about his new position, Northland member Denise Haire said she felt uneasy.

Haire, 44, of Orlando said she doesn't like "all the negativity" of the Christian Coalition. "I never understood what they're for, except to say 'family values.' What does that mean?"

But after doing more research, Haire said she became more comfortable with Hunter's decision to lead the group. "It sounds like he's taking them in a different, more positive direction," she said.

Starnes, a Republican, said he hopes Hunter -- also a member of the GOP -- can help the party to focus more on social issues.

And at a time when there is so much partisan bickering on television -- "Ann Coulter fighting someone else," as he put it -- Starnes said Hunter will bring a positive change to the nation's political debate.

"Joel just comes across as a very warmhearted, caring individual," Starnes said. "I think a person like that will be refreshing in politics."

Sandra Pedicini can be reached at spedicini@orlandosentinel.com or 407-322-7669.

Copyright (c) 2006, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.
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