D. James Kennedy - The Man and His Message
By David R. Barnhart
Volume 29 Fall 2014 Issue 5
When Dr. D. James Kennedy went home to be with the Lord in 2007, his passing left a huge leadership gap within the evangelical community that has yet to be filled. More- over, the leaders of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which Kennedy established in 1959, essentially removed the congregation from further involvement in their founder’s vision to “reclaim America.” This decision was made after the congregation called its present pastor, Tullian Tchividjian (pronounced chi-ve-jin), Billy Graham’s grandson.
Tchividjian made it very clear upon his arrival at Coral Ridge that he did not want to focus on “political” matters. However, Dr. Kennedy’s sermons were always Christ-centered and never political. At the same time, Dr. Kennedy did not shy away from making direct assaults against the evils that are threatening to destroy our nation. In times like these, efforts like his to restore America are greatly needed.
FROM THE DANCE FLOOR TO THE PULPIT...
Dennis James Kennedy was born November 3, 1930 in Augusta, Georgia. His early childhood was spent with his parents in Chicago, until they moved to Tampa, Florida where he graduated from high school.
Jim Kennedy quit college after two years to become a dance instructor with the Arthur Murray Studios. By 1954 he was earning $750 a week, a very substantial salary for that time. He met his future wife, Anne Lewis, when she enrolled to take dancing lessons at the studio where he was working. The young dance instructor thought he was really on top of the world with a great job and a beautiful girlfriend when the Lord began knocking at the door of his heart. It was only a matter of time before his entire world would be turned upside down, or as he liked to put it, “turned right side up,” as the Holy Spirit began working in the young dance instructor’s life.
A QUESTION THAT CHANGED KENNEDY’S LIFE
In 1953 after being out late one Saturday night, Jim Kennedy was awakened Sunday afternoon by his clock-radio. For some reason the radio came on to the voice of Donald Grey Barnhouse, pastor of the 10th Avenue Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.
Jim said that he got up “to change the station and put on some good music.” However, at that very moment Dr. Barnhouse raised a question that set his mind reeling— “Suppose you were to die today and stand before God and He were to ask you—‘What right do you have to enter into My heaven?’ — what would you say?” Kennedy continued listening to Dr. Barnhouse as he presented the message of salvation.
During the weeks that followed, he could not get that question out of his mind. In his search for an answer, Kennedy bought a book entitled The Greatest Story Ever Told. He read several chapters each night, until finally the Holy Spirit prompted him to get on his knees and receive the free gift of eternal life. “I shall be forever grateful for the radio broadcast of Donald Barnhouse and for the book by Fulton Ousler, both of which God used to bring me to a saving knowledge of His Son, Jesus Christ.”
Over the next couple of years as Jim continued working for Arthur Murray Studios, he tried to satisfy his insatiable appetite to learn more about spiritual matters by reading the Scriptures and other Christian books. On December 3, 1955 Jim’s spiritual struggle ended when he was prompted by the Holy Spirit to quit his job and enter the ministry. Then, as if God were testing him, Arthur Murray Studios offered him a big promotion as head of his own dance studio, a business partnership and a huge increase in salary.
After making the decision to enter the ministry, Jim Kennedy drove from Tampa to Lakeland to see Anne. He told her, “I’ve quit my job, which means I’m flat broke. I am going into the ministry, and I know you said you wouldn’t want to be a preacher’s wife. Will you marry me?” Jim’s proposal was met with a quick and resounding “yes” by Anne, because the Holy Spirit had already helped her to resolve those matters. The three-year courtship of Jim Kennedy and Anne Lewis ended at the altar of First Presbyterian Church of Lakeland, Florida where the couple was married on August 25, 1956.
Jim Kennedy completed college while attending Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. The seminary was operated by the Presbyterian Church in the United States. In 1958 he received his B.A. degree, and the following year he grad- uated from the seminary cum laude in spite of his heavy academic load.
Other prominent Presbyterian clergy who had trained for the ministry at this school included Peter Marshall, Leighton Ford and Ben Haden, founder of the television ministry Changed Lives.
A TIME TO PLANT
In May 1959 as Kennedy was about to complete his seminary training, he applied to the Presbyterian World Missions Committee as a missionary candidate to the Congo. But that was not to be. Instead, the Home Missions Committee persuaded the young seminarian to accept a call to Fort Lauderdale, Florida to develop a mission church in the northern part of the city. As it turned out, the new congregation actually began holding services in a school in nearby Pompano Beach.
As Jim tells the story, his first several months of ministry in Fort Lauderdale were discouraging. “In the first ten months,” he said, “my congregation experienced a ‘Scottish revival,’ where we went from 45 members to 17 members. I had only another two and a half months of ministry left until I was going to be preaching to my wife, who was threatening to go to the Baptist church down the street.”
In the midst of his failure and discouragement, Jim received a letter from Kennedy Smartt, a Presbyterian pastor in Atlanta, asking him to conduct ten days of evan- gelistic meetings in his church. Jim accepted the invitation.
A TIME TO LEARN
Upon arrival in Atlanta, Pastor Smartt told Jim that in addition to preaching in the evenings, the two of them would go out each day to visit people who came to the evangelistic services. “You’re going to have an opportunity to witness to these folks eyeball to eyeball,” he told Jim.
During those daily home visitations, it became clear to Pastor Smartt that Jim was not an evangelist. Thus during most visits, Smartt took the reins from Jim and led the people being visited into a living relationship with Christ. “He took me out, and I learned from watching him,” said Kennedy.
“During those 10 days,” Jim later recounted, “fifty-four people came forward at those meetings. On any given evening, I could have told you who would be coming forward because I had seen that pastor lead them to Christ during the week.”
Kennedy went back to his church in Fort Lauderdale with renewed enthusiasm. He began to apply the visitation principles that he had learned from Pastor Smartt while in Atlanta. People responded to Jim’s witness of the gospel and invited Jesus Christ into their hearts. His little mission church began to grow with genuine converts, and on May 22, 1960 Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church was chartered.
A TIME TO GROW
It took Jim a year to realize, however, that he could only reach a limited number of people on his own, so he began training members of the congregation to go out with him to make evangelism calls. The membership and attendance at his church exploded. By 1962 membership at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church exceeded 200, and by 1972 the communicant membership was over 2,500. At the time of Kennedy’s death, Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church had grown to over 10,000 members.
A TIME TO BUILD
In the years Coral Ridge was experiencing such growth, church leaders understood that eventually a new and rather large building program would have to be undertaken. Property was obtained on Federal Highway (US 1) in the northern part of Fort Lauderdale for $676,000. On Easter Sunday 1971 the congregation conducted a special groundbreaking ceremony for a 2,500-seat sanctuary at a cost of $4.5 million. The congregation occupied the new facility on December 23, 1973, and the dedication service was held the following February with Billy Graham preaching the dedicatory sermon.
While the entire complex was certainly beautiful, it was practical in every way and meant God and the numerous ministries by the growing congregation, including Evangelism Explosion, the ministry of training pastors and laity how to share their faith with others.
After receiving numerous inquiries from pastors regarding the reasons for his success in building up the membership of his congregation, Kennedy decided to begin holding clinics to share his ideas for evangelism.
The first Evangelism Explosion clinic was held in early 1967. The clinics were a week in length and involved instruction and on- the-job visits with lay witness teams from Coral Ridge. On the last evening of the clinic, the participants were asked to present the gospel during the visitation.
In his excellent biography of Dr. D. James Kennedy, Herbert Williams tells of a pastor who attended one of the early Evan- gelism Explosion clinics at Coral Ridge. On the morning of the final day, his hostess knocked on the visiting pastor’s bedroom door to announce that breakfast was ready. There was no answer. After several more unsuccessful attempts to rouse him, she entered his room, only to find that he had packed his belongings and crept out of the house in the middle of the night. “For all we know,” said Kennedy, “he’s still running.” Such fear can consume even pastors when they are asked to present the gospel. Thousands of pastors and lay members have come from all over the nation and numerous countries to be trained at Evangelism Explosion International clinics since its founding in 1967.
One of Dr. Kennedy’s best arguments for training church members to evangelize stemmed from a question that he frequently asked pastors—How many members of your congregation are truly saved?
Kennedy wrote: “I lived to be almost twenty-four years old in America without being a Christian, and never, ever, had anyone spoken to me about Christ.... Instead of being a missionary force, the church became a mission field and became filled with people who never evangelized because they had never been evangelized. This continues down to this day.
“The vast majority of people who are members of churches in America today are not Christians. I base it on the empirical evidence of twenty-four years of examining tens of thousands of those people on what they are basing their hopes of eternal life, and it’s not Jesus Christ! It is merely their own morality, their own piety and their own goodness. They are not trusting in Christ for salvation; yet that faith in Christ is the essence of Christianity.”
Evangelism Explosion is still one of the finest, biblically based, theologically correct programs available to train Christians how to share their faith. Evangelism Explosion clinics are attended by pastors of numerous denominations who understand the importance of this type of outreach.
WORSHIP AT CORAL RIDGE PRESBYTERIAN
It was my joy in 1981 to attend an Evangelism Explosion clinic in Fort Lauderdale with Bruce Peterson, a member of my congregation in Minne- apolis. What a thrill to meet and spend a little personal time with Dr. Kennedy. However, for me the most memorable part of the entire week was the Sunday morning worship service in the beautiful sanctuary of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church.
The church’s organist, Diane Bish, played Coral Ridge’s magnificent pipe organ. Much of the congregation lingered in their seats at the end of the service to hear her postlude. Diane Susek, a highly gifted Christian recording artist, was the guest soloist that morning. Her rendition of the classical piece O Divine Redeemer was both beautiful and inspiring. From the prelude to the postlude, the entire service blessed worshippers’ hearts beyond measure. The stirring hymns, the choir’s anthem and Dr. Kennedy’s message lingered in the heart long after the service was over.
It seemed to me at the time that pastors would do well to attend one of Kennedy’s worship services, just to learn some valuable lessons about how to plan and conduct inspiring worship services in their own congregations.
KENNEDY’S EFFORTS TO RECLAIM THE CHURCH AND THE NATION
In 1978 Kennedy and his congregation left the Presby- terian Church in the United States because of a wide range of moral and doctrinal positions the denomination had taken. He and the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church joined the conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
While Dr. D. James Kennedy had a burden to reach lost souls with the gospel of Christ, he also had a burden to see our nation restored to its founding principles. To that end he established Coral Ridge Ministries, Knox Theological Seminary and the Center for Reclaiming America.
Other outreach ministries he founded included “The Coral Ridge Hour,” which was seen on nearly 400 television stations, and a radio broadcast, “Truths that Transform,” heard on nearly 700 stations. In addition, Dr. Kennedy authored fourteen books on a wide range of subjects.
While Kennedy believed in the separation of church and state, he also believed that “the Church must be a prophetic voice to the state and remind it of its responsibility to God in administering justice.”
Kennedy further believed that Christians operate under a “Cultural Mandate” from God that requires us to be salt and light by using our influence to keep the nation on the path of righteousness and truth. Christians, he said, should seek to influence both society and government in upholding moral principles and biblical values that have made and kept this nation strong. According to Kennedy, Christians should enter politics and become engaged in the government by serving in public office. “Above all,” he said, “it means they should vote their Christian principles.”
Jim Kennedy had a very low view of the American Civil Liberties Union. He said, “I prefer to call them the ‘Anti-Christian Liberties Union.’ The ACLU has been behind every major attack on religious liberties in the past fifty years.”
ONE OF HIS LAST APPEALS TO THE CHURCH
In his last book, Character and Destiny, Dr. Kennedy appealed to all Christians to become involved in efforts to save our land and call the nation back to the high principles that were honored by our Founding Fathers.
He wrote: “Are you engaged in the struggle for the soul of America? Are you a part of the solution to the ‘crisis of character’ that has racked this nation for the past forty years? Or are you just one of those poor listless Christians sitting on the sidelines, watching the destruction of your hopes and dreams?
“My prayer is that God will grant each one of us today a new beginning. With all my heart, I pray that every single one of us will join the mighty army of the Lord, outfitted with spiritual armor, fully prepared to engage in the battle for the soul of America, and to overcome the world for Christ.”
Dr. D. James Kennedy died of a heart attack September 5, 2007. His funeral was held at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church with several thousand people attending. One of the main speakers at the two-hour funeral service was Kennedy Smartt, the man who taught Jim Kennedy how to evangelize. Smartt said, “Jim Kennedy was a great man, the kind that comes along very rarely. He has left a void that will take many men to fill and even then it will never be the same.”
A statement from President George W. Bush was read during the funeral service: “Dr. D. James Kennedy was a man of great vision, of great faith, and of great integrity. He was also a student of history and a successful author who encouraged millions of Americans of faith to exercise their democratic freedoms and put their values into practice.”
D. James Kennedy is home with his Lord. His earthly body is buried at Lauderdale Memorial Park Cemetery in Fort Lauderdale. He is survived by his wife Anne and one daughter, Jennifer Kennedy Cassidy.
Blessed be his memory.