Lessons From the Coral Ridge Controversy

John ArmstrongAmerican Evangelicalism

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.