Live from the Adventist Forum Conference in Florida.
On the first night of the Adventist Forum Conference, the chairs were almost full with people who came to hear Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland church in Florida who has achieved national prominence.
The conference is taking place at the Mission Inn Resort and Conference Center in rural Howey-in-the-Hills, outside Orlando, Florida.
Far from the ruckus of Disney World and downtown, the conference center complex is surrounded by orange groves and horse farms.
Conference attendees walked into the conference room this evening welcomed by the sweet, close harmonies of Soul Reason, a three-man Christian acoustic music group. (See www.Myspace.com/soulreasonmusic to listen to their work.)
Hunter sat in the front row, nodding to the beat.
Brent Stanyer, chair of the conference planning committee, officially opened the conference, telling us all that we are not only guests – we are participants.
He introduced the theme of the conference, “Christians in the Public Square”, and reminded us that this weekend is a time for conversation, both formal and informal.
As Hunter said later, it is somewhat ironic that a lecture on Christianity in the public square is being held on the night of the first presidential debate.
But with the presidential election just over a month away, it is a very appropriate time to talk about going beyond our church walls and getting involved.
Some may have worried that tonight’s conflict might impact attendance, but over 100 people came, from older church members from the central Florida area, to Florida Hospital College and Southern University students, to engaged Adventists from across the country.
Ernie Bursey, theology professor at Florida Hospital College of Health Sciences, offered the opening prayer and introduced Joel Hunter, thanking him for a poster that adorns his office: “God’s original plan was to hang out in a garden with some naked vegetarians.”
And for: “Showing us how a church can keep its soul and reach out to people of different faiths.”
Hunter’s talk was entertaining and inspiring.
He talked about why it is integral to the development of our faith that we have a broader witness than within our own churches. He said: “We think we know what’s going on in the world, but really we just hear the voices around us that sound a lot like our own.”
He challenged us to get out of our own natural isolation.
He didn’t orate; he didn’t shout; he talked. He didn’t use notes. He quoted scripture and he told great stories. He was completely engaging. He sounded both very intelligent and articulate and very down-to-earth at the same time – that balance is what preachers all over the country are going for. You can see why he has made it to where he is – a YouTube celebrity, no less.
Hunter gave us a little background of the history of witness in the public square. How did a little group of persecuted people become the biggest religion in the world’s greatest empire? There were different reasons, but one was that early Christians lived in a time of serial epidemics. When an epidemic struck, all who could ran for the hills. If they could afford it, they got out of town. But the Christians stuck around, taking care of the sick. They risked their lives for people who were not of their faith. People started to wonder: Why are they doing this?
These Christians did not separate their church life from their regular life.
Jesus’ job description – and our job description – is to work on major social issues of the day.
Hunter took us through the framework for public witness. He said it is important to understand the theology behind it, so we don’t just become another lobby group.
He explained that we were built to need to associate with people not like us. We grow from being with people who are not like us. We grow from challenges. We need to be close enough to be intimate, but different enough to be necessary. That started with Adam, who needed a mate. Plants use cross pollination to make themselves stronger. There are principles you need to know but won’t find out from other Christians.
As Christians, we should witness personally in the public square, and as a church body.
But Hunter doesn’t believe that candidates should be endorsed from the pulpit, or specific political parties or issues.
“You can’t put all the eggs of the gospel in any one political party basket,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about gospel values in the issues of the day.”
“Anytime you are lifting one candidate, one party, one cause as the answer, I am distracting people from real answer. Only God can show us where we need to go. I try to stay on values, and not get too close to candidates and parties.”
But Hunter believes that we have to speak to social policy if we are going to love people completely.
And to love people completely, we have to respect other beliefs.
Hunter said the world will not have a lasting peace until people from different religions treat each other with respect. Religious leaders have to recommend respect for people of different faiths.
To illustrate this he talked about being invited to the Democratic National Convention. “I am a conservative, evangelical, pro-life, registered Republican, and . . . I closed the Democratic National Convention with prayer.”
He said he got a lot of flak from some quarters, but that when he got the invitation, he called up Billy Graham, and Billy Graham said it was a great opportunity, and counseled him to go.
At the convention, Hunter said each person should end the prayer according to his or own faith tradition. That way he could follow Jesus’ admonition to pray in His name, but also show respect.
Afterward, people expressed appreciation for that respect.
Hunter mentioned that Paul used the political system to witness for Christ – he said he was a Roman, got into the system, and wouldn’t get out. That’s what we have to do: use the system.
Hunter took questions from the audience at the end, and told a few more stories, including ones about his children, and ended long before audience-members were tired of listening.
It was a thought-provoking and entertaining start to the weekend.
Link to pictures here.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1003