D. James Kennedy, the famous pastor of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, passed away earlier this week. Dr. Kennedy was well known to multitudes through his Evangelism Explosion ministry and his worldwide radio and television outreach. He was much better known to the culture-at-large for his efforts in founding the Moral Majority and the Christian right.

Much of Dr. Kennedy’s actual involvement with the Christian right was from behind the scenes (so to speak), leaving to Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell the major head line roles. John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life, noted this point by saying that Dr. Kennedy "was active at every stage of the Christian right." He was a founding board member of the Moral Majority and in 1996 created the Center for Reclaiming America for Christ. His goal was to mobilize conservative Christians against gay marriage, pornography and what he called "judicial tyranny." Kennedy also founded the Center for Christain Statesmanship, a ministry I know even more about first-hand, which organized Capitol Hill Bible Studies and other events to attract top government officials. He encouraged leaders to "embrace God’s providential purpose for this nation."

The basis for Kennedy’s public positions was quite well stated when he told the L. A. Times in a 1996 interview: "The Bible says,’Be fruitful and multiply and have dominion over the earth.’ God should be in every sphere of life: economics, business, education, government, art and science."

For me there is a great deal of irony in the public ministry of Dr. D. James Kennedy. I met him on four occasions, none of which were likely to be remembered by him. On one occasion we simply chatted, and on the second we shared a meal with about four other people in an informal group setting where we were all speakers. On a third occasion we were together at an event hosted by Coral Ridge. I gave a workshop on revival (Kennedy was not present for it) and argued that many secondary issues hindered the Church from seeking God for renewal. An elder had a long chat with me, after my talk, about how Coral Ridge was itself in danger of the very things that I warned about. The time that Dr. Kennedy might have been likely to remember me was when I flew to Florida to give the commencement address at his school, Knox Theological Seminary. He sat behind me on the platform. His comments, following my address, were very few and not that memorable to me personally. (For all I know the sermon could have been terrible given the travel problems I had getting there on time.)

I have several friends who knew Jim Kennedy well and served on his staff. They all speak warmly of his character and insist he was, fundamentally, a very shy man. Another former employee of mine knew him as his pastor when he was a child and speaks very kindly of his visits in his parents home.

So I have nothing much to say about the man as a person except to underscore positive things about him. He clearly made a great impact on many and I believe his greatest contribution will surely be the model of evangelism that he gave to multitudes of people. He led many people to the knowledge of Christ and taught thousands how to do the same. As Stan Guthrie said in his Christainity Today tribute Dr. Kennedy had "a passion for souls." Guthrie worked for Kennedy and adds, "All who knew him, however, talked most not about his views on abortion or school prayer but about his integrity and warm pastor’s heart." He adds, "You may not agree with all of Dr. Kennedy’s priorities. But it’s hard to argue with his passionate commitment to see people come to Christ. It was a commitment this pastor’s heart lived–and died–by."

But this is not the whole story of Kennedy’s life and legacy. This is why I referred to my sense of irony. I first heard of D. James Kennedy when Evangelism Explosion got really big in the 1970s. His two famous questions about eternal life became standard fare for me in talking to people, though I always felt they were a bit "canned" in a rather simplistic sense. Then I got some of his sermons and heard his strong "anti-Communism" message again and again. When his involvement in the Christian right began I started to pay attention to his worldview material. This is where the supreme irony now lies for me. I quite strongly reject his approach to government and politics though I do agree, at least in principle, with his statement about "God being in every sphere of life." This is nothing more, or less, than a basic Kuyperian view of culture and the dominion of God over all things. As a Reformed Christian I strongly agree with this statement. The problem is that I disagreed with how Kennedy used politics, often as a primary tool for change, and how he sought to change the culture from his pulpit. He sought to bring about cultural changes in very predictably conservative ways that I do not believe reflect the best of the Reformed tradition or the real politik of this fallen world. His agenda came across as that of a feisty fundamentalist who used Reformed arguments very simplistically.

I also disagreed with how he narrowly conceived of influencing the culture at so many points. His ideas were sometimes very good but he was, at heart, a preacher who built, as Larry Eskridge noted in Christianty Today, "an impressive empire." Of this I do not see how there can be serious doubt.

I think this business of "empire build

[ing]" is what troubled me the most about a lot of those who developed and led the Christian right during my lifetime. There is something here that shows a profound lack of serious reflection. There is also something here that looks and feels a lot like idolatry when people support it. (I am not calling Dr. Kennedy an idolater at all. Read all the positive things I have already noted, please.) The way evangelicals reject the idea of the papacy and then create their own role models who command our respect and make us their followers (disciples) is appalling to me. I have no idea how Dr. Kennedy personally felt about all of this but his numerous ministries all indicate that he did build a considerable empire and he understood well that he had a huge following. (He also authored more than 50 books, most of which will be unread in five years!)

Writing the above could sound like an attack on the personal life of Dr. Kennedy. It is nothing of the kind. If anything it is posed for readers as a serious question for the entire evangelical movement and for our various churches and how they have functioned. Face it, we are not self-critical at all. We love the prophets of the Bible but reject those who question the way we do things. The more conservative the person and the empire the more we will likely resent the questions a naysayer asks. (Consider the history of National Religious Broadcasters and how this has played out in the evangelical world of prime-time preachers.) This is what makes it harder and harder to do the evangelism Dr. Kennedy so much loved. The current generation, and I refer to those under 35 in age, despises our inability to deal with criticism well and they see us as entreprenuers, not guileless friends who care deeply about people, especially if we disagree with them and their cultural choices. We think more often in terms of taking prisoners and recovering culture as a direct attack on others and their beliefs. In the end we gain a little ground but lose a lot more in the big picture of things.

Should we try to change culture? Yes, for sure. The problem is what method(s) will we employ in doing it? Kennedy used the methods of his generation. They worked with that generation, to a limited extent. I do not think they work with the next generation and thus I believe he will be remembered for some good things (evangelism) and hopefully forgotten for others (the Christian right and cultural war ideology). Clearly he loved Christ. For that I regard him as a brother that I was glad I personally met along the way. I do not think, however, that we could have ever forged a meaningful friendship given the way we respond to people and issues. That, as I have said, is ironical. We had a theology that was fairly similar and even had the same view about abortion and gay marriage but we did not share the same view about how to handle these issues in the public square and I would like to see a host of other issues addressed with more serious Christian reflection.

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  1. GLW Johnson September 8, 2007 at 7:37 am

    How many of your books will be read five years from now?

  2. John H. Armstrong September 8, 2007 at 9:00 am

    I feel quite sure the answer will be none! At best my books might help a few people along the way but I consider them quite unimportant and useful only for a short time. I believe this is true for many modern authors but I am quite sure that it is true for me. Thanks for asking.

  3. Jason Powell September 8, 2007 at 10:32 am

    Hey John,
    So I’ve been thinking about the modality of evangelical evangelism I grew up with (S. Baptist/Calvary Chapel. I remember hearing so many times “we’re not asking you to join a church…just accept Jesus”. I wonder if this “faith minus the church community” is coming back to bite us in the collective arse. Now maybe the Catholic church goes to far with the idea of there being no salvation without the church (membership IS salvation), but it is becoming quite clear that for hyper-individualized,lonely, angry, consumer, under 40, American types– that what we need IS community. We need to ask people to be in our community first…with no strings attached…then we need to love them right where they are, and help them to get a feel for a big faith they no NOTHING about.
    I like to invite people (tongue in cheek of course) to hang out with us and “date” Jesus for a while. Maybe that’s too irreverent, but I simply want them to feel like they can be a part of the community, grow and be discipled at a pace that makes sense and helps to answer their questions, and them guide them towards an informed, intrinsically motivated decision for Jesus.
    As for the religious right stuff . . . they can all pretty much take a flying leap.

  4. P. Andrew Sandlin September 8, 2007 at 1:13 pm

    John, a fair-minded piece on DJK.
    Your books may not be remembered (maybe they will), but your tender friendship will be remembered by those who know and love you most.

  5. Ron Gleason September 10, 2007 at 9:20 am

    Was this piece supposed to be about Kennedy or you?

  6. John H. Armstrong September 10, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    Given the nature of blogging it was both. I am making my own comments about DJK, culture and the Christian right. This is the nature of the medium. So comments I make are about my views and that is all they are. The reason for discussion is that my views are just that, mine. Everyone is entitled to disagree and this forum allows for that to happen when the posts are civil and on message.
    Am I right in my comments? Who knows but God alone. I am sure Dr. Kennedy did far more good than all of us combined. I am also sure that he had reasons for things that I never heard or understood, thus I will keep working at trying to better understand him and others who impact the Church at large.
    If the post is read completely I believe it is a strong statement about Dr. Kennedy’s solid character as a man of God. Surely disagreeing with one aspect of his public ministry is fair for public consideration so we can all think and learn from each other. Again, this is how I understand blogging in general, and mine in particular.
    Readers use this medium to interact with me as a Christian writer and to pray for me and the ministry of ACT 3. I appreciate the kindness shown to me by all my readers, whether they agree or disagree.

  7. K. Darrell September 13, 2007 at 11:03 pm

    This is one thing I don’t get about some of the “emergent” thinkers in Christendom – they usually define themselves over against an ‘older’ generation or ‘another’ Christian group and then claim they are being relevant to their generation or culture, almost sans flaws. Why can’t we just view DJK, et. al., as the ’emergents’ of their generation? They were what ‘incarnational’ ministry looked like and that’s that. That generation wanted mass consumption church, 15 minute homilies, non-ornate decor, no candles, no incense, or Bono & U2charists in their worship services.
    The religious right, even if we disagree, was a great thing for the Church. It may have provided ‘stock answers’ and lack of depth, but how many lay people are tearing through Rushdoony, Milibank, Hauerwas (although a popularizer of sorts), Yoder, Wright, or a host of other would be thinkers near and far on the topics? It is the Sprouls and Kennedys that reach the overwhelming masses while many others think they have a better way, but reach very few.
    I can fundamentally agree with some of your criticism of Kennedy and I thanked God upon his passing for His life and ministry and for the changing of the guard. I don’t think it is coincidental that he and Falwell passed within months of each other. And, I believe, the media (CNN) gave Falwell a fine farewell. I think it showed a good side to the man.
    Anyway, this is long, but I rejoice that there is a changing of the guard. If the new guard encourages dating the One who Isaiah saw high and lifted up, lets pray that their shift is short.

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