Yesterday, I reported the news released on Sunday evening from the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, regarding a congregational meeting to vote on retaining or removing the new pastor of the church, Tullian Tchividjian. Tchividjian only became senior pastor in March so his critics gave him no time to adjust or lead in his new role. It seems that they were ready to respond from day one.

This well known mega-church, founded and pastored by the late D. James Kennedy for 50 years, went several years without a pastor while a search process was formed and carried out with considerable care. The leaders knew, in calling a new pastor, that they would face serious problems and it seems they anticipated the likelihood of what happened on Sunday.

Tchividjian and Graham

Shortly after becoming the new pastor Tchividjian stopped the television ministry of Dr. Kennedy. He also merged Coral Ridge with his former congregation, a more youthful flock called New City Church in Margate. These decisions were not made without advance warning and the leaders of Coral Ridge supported them in their call of Tchividjian as pastor. So why did the leaders of the anti-Tchividjian group oppose him so strongly? Their answers reveal the sad state of things at Coral Ridge, which serves as a kind of paradigm for the changes now going on all across the American church scene.

One leading dissident said that he felt he had lost his influence among the community that he loved. Jim Fisola, speaking for the opposition, said, “God bless the young people that he’s brought over, but you’ve got to understand they’ve been meeting in a cafeteria or the high school. They are now in a multi-million dollar edifice, and they didn’t have to work for it . . . This man doesn’t have the experience or the maturity to lead.”

I do not know Jim Fisola personally but I know a lot of Christians who make statements just like this in and out of church meetings. I do not know Tullian Tchividjian either but I have a very good friend who served on his pastoral staff. My reflections are limited to what I read, and the things I do know through friends and my past experience of Coral Ridge.

1. It seems very apparent to me that the opposition to Tullian Tchividjian was rooted in raw power and control. The all-American view that you only get to share in what you’ve worked for, and thus paid for, comes through very clearly in Jim Fisola’s comment. I have heard this argument my entire life. You are an outsider because we paid for this and we own it. But I thought the building belonged to God, not to us. God will not be mocked by this kind of thinking. I do not know Jim Fisola, as I said above, but if this represents his real thinking he ought to take a careful look at what he is saying here.

2. When I read that the daughter of Dr. Kennedy was outside the church handing out fliers protesting the pastor's ministry (several weeks ago) I was not sure whether to be angry or to weep. The latter is more appropriate in the end. If Dr. Kennedy does indeed have a legacy this response clearly tarnished it, at least for me.

3. Dr. Kennedy built the early ministry of Coral Ridge on passionate evangelism. This emphasis was lost over time. I know, Dr. Kennedy still had all kinds of evangelistic programming going on but the heart and soul of the ministry was clearly traded for politics. I saw this first-hand when I spoke at Coral Ridge in the 1990s. I did a seminar on revival for a conference and an elder came to me in private to tell me how the church had lost its way and why I had spoken more plainly than I realized at the time. He was one of the first EE workers and trainers and expressed to me that he was heart-sick that the church had shifted its emphasis once it got into television and politics.

4. Dr. Kennedy made quite an impression on a very dear friend of mine when my friend was but a young boy. Dr. Kennedy could be a caring and loving man. But he was also a very private introvert if you ever spent time around him, which I did on a several occasions. I spoke for a graduation ceremony at Knox Seminary some years ago. I had all kinds of flight delays and finally arrived after the service was half over, just in time to preach. I sought to engage Dr. Kennedy afterward but to no avail. I had the same experience on another occasion when Dr. Kennedy ate at the same table with me and five or six other folks. I later found out this response was very common. This is not a character flaw but it is a pastoral liability when you are a shepherd. Sadly, the pastor of a large church is often caught in this very predicament since his primary role is leading and representing the institution, not caring for people as people in a warm and personal way.

5. Dr. Kennedy’s political perspective was one that I never found attractive. He replaced a deep fear of communism, seen in his early career, with a right-wing political perspective seen during the last twenty-five years of his career. All in all this choice was not one that helped prepare his congregation for Christ-centered mission. This can now be seen clearly in the conflicts that it generated in his absence.

As I said at the beginning, the larger, deeper issue here is judgment upon the church. I see these conflicts in almost every church I know. They can be about politics, legacy or music style. They can be about the pastor, the building or the program. They can be about theology (in a narrow and partisan sense) or methodology. It makes little or no difference. The church is in conflict and the conflict poisons the life of the Spirit. This is true in mainline churches, conservative churches and evangelical non-denominational churches. I wonder if anyone considered this at Coral Ridge. I hope that the church leadership will now turn away from this very public congregational meeting. The elders will tend to think that they won a sad battle, and rightly so it seems to me, but their real work is ahead of them. If these elders are shepherds of the flock, and not just managers of a big church, they have a painful process ahead of them. How do they go about healing this church and seeking God’s grace upon their witness to the world? I am praying for Tully Tchividian and will keep praying for him in the months ahead. I pray that intercessory prayer and spiritual renewal will become a major part of the future of this once great church. If the leaders humble themselves their future could still be better than the past. Let us all hope so.

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  1. Proverbs Four Twenty-Nine September 23, 2009 at 7:43 am

    You seem to have very little information about what was going on at Coral Ridge last sunday but you rush to judgement. I think that’s also what’s wrong with the church today. People gossipping on the internet apart from church courts. There is so much hear-say and speculation in your article. I am very disappointed.
    BTW: Politics is also an area where we have to apply the Bible (like everywhere else) and it is not communism that the Bible teaches.

  2. September 23, 2009 at 8:03 am

    Thought-provoking analysis. Thanks!

  3. Mike Anderson September 23, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    I’ve found this series interesting, because as a Baptist I thought this kind of voting-to-ouster the-pastor only happened in our ranks. (As one Baptist writer has said, “The church ‘split’ is not unique to movements with congregational polity, but it has been elevated to an artform by them.”) This makes me less prone to say to myself, ‘I’ve got to get out of this Baptist tribe, because our politics can be so divisive.’ This reminds me that no church tradition, whatever the polity, is immune from internal schism.
    In response to Proverbs Four Twenty-Nine’s comment(see first post in this forum), it is true that people gossipping on the internet is a problem. However, trying to report on and discuss an important church matter is not necessarily gossip. I would suggest that merely trying to write off John’s articles as containing “so much hear-say and speculation,” without specifically pointing out his errors and offering the truth, is itself problematic. You’re undermining his integrity with a forceful assertion but providing no evidence. If he’s wrong, I challenge you to point it out. I’ve seen others do this (see the articles from awhile back about controversy at the Southern Baptist’s annual meeting), and John has not been afraid to admit his error and stand corrected.
    I say all this because I think this is a very important series of articles. And if they’re based on error, we need to know that. But if they’re based on truth, it’s unfair and unhelpful to undermine them without offering clear reasons.

  4. Bob Myers September 23, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    This is good analysis, helpful and edifying, with principles that could apply to many churches.
    Pointing out the improper place of power, ownership by virtue of paying one’s dues, etc. and the wrong focus on politics does everyone a service.

  5. Chopin Etude September 24, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    My observations, for what they are worth, are as follows:
    Some good points in general, but shows me how very careful one has to be to get the facts straight on a blog.
    You misspelled Jim Filosa’s name (Fisola) and more significantly you said that Tullian stopped Dr. Kennedy’s television ministry, HE DID NOT!
    Anyway, I didn’t appreciate your lack of perceptiveness on the dangers we face (re: your comments about Dr. Kennedy and communism, and right-wing politics.)
    As with many, you may get it on evangelism, but miss it by a mile on the cultural mandate.

  6. Cindy Anderson September 25, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    As a 30+ year active member of CRPC involved in Christ Centered, Glorifying God ministry and still going strong by the grace of God, my only comment is in defense of the doctrinal teaching and opportunity to serve both in the church and outside that have always been apart of CRPC and will continue under our new young vibrant pastor, though they may change outwardly. There is a large core of believers on both sides of the division who know that God’s will cannot be deterred from accomplishing what He is about. All because DJK used his powerful efforts to try to stem the tide of amoral behaviors in this nation, the ministry of evangelism never waned, nor did the many other Christ-centered outreach ministries of CRPC. We are far from a perfect church because of us and DJK walked worthy of the calling to which he was called. May Tullian Tchividjian by God’s grace do the same. Cindy A.

  7. Don Bryant September 26, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    I am very uncomfortable with your analysis of Dr. Kennedy’s personal ministry profile. This is exactly what we do not need in the blogosphere – a personal critique without any chance of defending one’s self. Positions and points of view is fair. “he didn’t speak to me after dinner” is muckraking and irrelevant.

  8. edward lugar October 1, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    i think your comments are right on the money.
    when the first vote was being debated some of the future letter signers spoke against the merger and of tullian not being the best choice. they said there were more qualified people out there to choose from and when the vote came in to confirm him it seems they did not accept the result and have been working to oust him since.
    the quote from jim filosa shows that they still feel the same way.
    they did not want him and i think you can really see this when after he was voted to be retained in the second vote, they left to form their own church.
    it is really sad to see all this but as one member told my wife and i, some here feel God is cleaning house. as you said judgement begins in the house of God. not always how we figure, but we can rest in Him knowing He will get it right.

  9. Christine Godoy October 22, 2009 at 9:18 am

    The members of coral Ridge were replacing a pastor, not a congregation. Tullian brought over the congregants of his following which had been meeting in a high school cafeteria. He did away with our style of service and produced a rock and roll type service. The church’s pipe organ was lit up like a juke box with green and purple lighting. The guitar player and his 3 female back up singers stood on small oriental style rugs to lead the congregation in 35 minutes of singing on foot with their hands up in the air as they were mesmerized by the music and the atmosphere. The choir was eliminated, our classical musical program dumped. This has been a conservative church with a different style and format. I am saddened by the chaos and disrespectful format of these services of today. I and the majority of members at Coral Ridge are a more intellectually inclined group; we believe in respecting God and treating him with AWE. We go to fellowship with other believers, worship God in spirit and in truth and study the word. Going to church and leading the church all disheveled has not been the background and philosophy for Coral Ridge members. The order of the service, our worship music program, and our classes of study all built up with diligence and devotion; and the support and joy of all the congregants, was just thrown out with no consideration of the existing members. Tullian was brought in to continue in Dr. Kennedy’s and the congregations footsteps. Tullian is just what is going on in politics today in our government. The Coral Ridge original members have been ousted. I feel that the Coral Ridge was hijacked by Tullian. We shall see what the outcome will be. It is in God’s hands. One day follows the other and God will not be mocked.

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