‘HIGH NOON’ at Coral Ridge: Dissidents challenge the leadership of a new pastor
The high costs, but eventual victory, of replanting an old line congregation.
By Ronald E. Keener
Tullian Tchividijian is the grandson of evangelist Billy Graham. There, that’s out of the way. But maybe even more important in his bio is the fact that he took over the congregation of D. James Kennedy after his 2008 death. But it was a transition that did not go easily when a number of members, including Kennedy’s daughter, tried to oust Tchividijian.
The matter became a messy public dispute, and the dissidents eventually left to form their own church after a vote did not go their way. Tchividijian, 38 this month, merged his New City Church with that of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church.
His newest book, released in June, is Surprised by Grace (Crossway), and his next book, tentatively titled Jesus Plus Nothing Equals Everything, is based on Colossians. “It’ll be used to tell the story of what happened with me in 2009 [the dissidents challenge], and how God helped me rediscover the Gospel.
“Colossians showed me that when we are united to Christ, we don’t need to spend our lives trying to earn the approval and acceptance of those around us, because Jesus has already earned God’s approval and acceptance for us.”
The congregation now has 2,400 members and 1,800 to 1,900 people in worship in two services on Sunday morning. Since the merger one year ago, the church has grown by about 600-700 people — and that’s with about 500 leaving to start another church. Says Tchividijian: “So Christ is clearly rebuilding his church at Coral Ridge, and we are all amazed and humbled at what he’s done in just one year. It really is one new church!”
Church Executive asked him some pointed questions about the church’s quarrel. He notes too that Coral Ridge Ministries, the media arm of Dr. Kennedy’s content that also has a strong political emphasis, is entirely separate from Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church.
Did you or the elders have any inkling about the coming dissension when you interviewed for the position?
Interestingly, I never inter-viewed for the position. Coral Ridge came to me three times over the course of eight months inquiring whether I would consider becoming the pastor. Twice I said, “I’m honored and humbled that you would ask, but I’m not interested.” When they came back a third time, we began discussing the possibility of merging New City Church — the church I had planted five years earlier — with Coral Ridge.
After examining that possibility for nearly three months, both sides concluded that this was what God wanted. We knew it was going to be difficult — and we turned out to be right. We knew that Coral Ridge — which had been in decline for nearly 10 years — needed to be replanted. We knew that while the majority understood this and wanted it, there was a small, politically charged minority that didn’t.
Were any of the elders on the side of the dissidents?
Yes. While we didn’t know who they were at the time of the merger, we knew that there would be some who opposed me and my team from the get go. When the two elder boards were combined, we ended up with about 30 elders. Of those 30, eight resigned over the course of the first 10 months. So there were many more with us than there were against us.
What was your first tip-off that there was trouble brewing?
Trouble started brewing before the merger was complete. Those who wanted everything to stay the same, who wanted nothing to change, circulated letters and developed anonymous blogs calling my leadership, theology and character into question. Those who wanted Coral Ridge to maintain its focus on politics were the loudest.
Coral Ridge had become widely known for what it was against much more than what it was for. And I vowed to change that. I wanted the city of Ft. Lauderdale (my hometown) to know that we were going to become a church in the city, for the city. I made it very clear from the outset that we were going to be a church that rolled up our sleeves and got our hands dirty in service to our city. I said that if our ministry was not attracting the same kinds of people that Jesus attracted, then we were not preaching the same message that Jesus preached. Most people loved that! Some hated it—and they made it known.
You have said that you hope and pray that the church “will respond to this conflict in a way that demonstrates for the watching world the reconciling power of the Gospel.” Any evidences of that reconciling power?
Yes. Handfuls of people who originally left have come back. Now that the dust has settled, people are seeing more clearly. The Gospel is winning. People are being changed and transformed. The church is growing. People have apologized and repented. I’ve never seen the transforming work of the Gospel happen so quickly and tangibly as I have over the last four months or so. Personally, I’ve been changed and transformed by the Gospel. For instance, I never knew just how dependent I’d become on human approval and acceptance until God took it away. Through this painful trial, God helped me rediscover the freedom that Jesus plus nothing equals everything!
You’ve noted that Frances Schaeffer “once said that division inside the church gives the world the justification they’re looking for not to believe.” Isn’t this just as true when preachers talk about the Satanic effect in Haiti and other outrageous statements that poke Christianity in the eye?
Yes. The Bible makes it clear that we have permission to offend people with one thing: the Gospel. We don’t have permission to offend them in any other way. They will know we are Christ’s disciples by our love.
You’ve said that the dissidents did not take their grievances to the church, but took them to the streets, and did not invoke Matthew 18. In your ministry have you seen Matthew 18 invoked and used well? Is our society too contentious to use — and submit to — the results of Matthew 18?
I haven’t seen Matthew 18 used nearly as often as it should be. I think what saddened me most was that those who stirred up the most trouble had never even attempted to come and see me, they never once asked to meet with me face-to-face, which indicated to all of us that the issues they were raising weren’t the real issues: wearing a robe, preaching politics, the exclusive use of Evangelism Explosion, traditional music, etc.
The real underlying issue was a perceived loss of power. When new members join the church, they promise “to promote the unity, purity, and peace of the Church.” One of the quickest ways to break this vow is to gossip — to “chatter idly about others behind their back.” This seemingly innocent activity can cause a world of hurt. The corrective is found in Matthew 18.
I’m convinced that most divisions in the church would never happen if we took God at his word and scrupulously observed Matthew 18. When we sin against our brother or sister in Christ we sin against ourselves. A sin — such as slander — against any one of us is a sin against all of us. It’s like shooting ourselves in the foot, only much worse.
In the months following that final vote, what has the church and its leadership done to move ahead in healing and reconciling the church?
We spent the first two months after the second vote meeting with people, sending letters to the members, and doing everything we could to answer people’s questions, address their concerns, and clarify their confusion. But since then, we’ve focused our energy and attention on the future, not the past. And that has proven to be the thing that has healed our wounds quickest. We have a super excited, brand new church that is ready to press on.
What goals, strategic decisions, and plans does the congregation have for 2010 and beyond?
Once the dust has completely settled, we want to multiply the work God is doing at Coral Ridge by expanding our media ministry, planting churches, developing satellite campuses, and in other ways extending God’s great redemptive work that he’s accomplishing here at Coral Ridge. As I mentioned earlier, we wholeheartedly believe that God is doing something special here, and we have both the responsibility and privilege to steward what he’s given us in bold and courageous ways. We want to see God’s kingdom come “on earth as it is in heaven” — we want to spread the fame of Christ — and we are willing to do whatever God tells us to do in order for that to happen. We are dreaming and operating as if ceilings don’t exist!
How will your goals and hopes for Coral Ridge differ in coming years from Dr. Kennedy’s?
I’m not sure because I didn’t know what Dr. Kennedy’s goals and hopes for Coral Ridge were. I know that, like Dr. Kennedy, I want to reach the lost and change the world for Christ. We are super serious about replanting, recasting and renewing this church with the Gospel — by the Gospel. We really need to massage the Gospel deep into the fabric of this one new church so that she can get healthy.
The new mission statement is: “Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church exists to spread a global passion for the renewing power of the Gospel.” We want to see the Gospel work concentrically: it changes individuals, which changes the church, which changes the culture. So, we believe in the individual dynamic of the Gospel, the communal dynamic of the Gospel, and the cultural dynamic of the Gospel.
What would Jonah do?
Surprised by Grace: God’s Relentless Pursuit of Rebels started out as a series of sermons I preached right in the middle of the dissent. It proved to be a functional lifeline for me, not because of things I learned about Jonah (everything we learn about Jonah we learn by way of negative example). But because of things I learned about God’s amazing, sustaining, pursuing grace.
I learned that God’s capacity to clean things up is infinitely greater than our human capacity to mess things up. I learned about the “stubbornness” of God to accomplish his will, regardless of how hard we may try and thwart it. In fact, as I reflect on that painful season of my life now, I can honestly say that I am genuinely thankful for all the ache I experienced. For, it was during this trying time that God helped me recognize the practical relevance of the Gospel — that everything I need and long for, in Christ, I already possesses.
The theme of Surprised by Grace is that most Christians assume that the Gospel is something non-Christians must believe in order to be saved, but after we believe it, we advance to deeper theological waters. The truth is, however, that once God rescues sinners, his plan isn’t to steer them beyond the Gospel, but to move them more deeply into it. After all, the only antidote to sin is the Gospel — and since Christians remain sinners even after they’re converted, the Gospel must be the medicine a Christian takes every day.
For me, it was through probing the story of Jonah that I came face-to-face with the fact that the Gospel is not just for non-Christians but also for Christians. Jonah is a storied presentation of the Gospel, a story of sin and grace, of desperation and deliverance. It reveals the fact that while you and I are great sinners, God is a great Savior, and that while our sin reaches far, his grace reaches farther. This story shows that God is in the business of relentlessly pursuing rebels — a label that ultimately applies to us all — and that he comes after us not to angrily strip away our freedom but to affectionately strip away our slavery so we might become truly free. I wrote Surprised by Grace because we all need to be. — TT
In working your way through the conflict in the church, did your grandfather give you any counsel on the matter? Did you have an opportunity to spend time with Billy on the porch of the Montreat home and discuss the conflict and how to work through the issues?
Yes, my granddad (we call him Daddy Bill) gave me great counsel on numerous occasions. When the subject of the two churches possibly merging first came up, he was against it. He knew that, while Coral Ridge had been used by God in some very mighty ways, it was now struggling.
And so he was concerned that it would consume me and get me off track. In other words, he was concerned that I’d become so busy trying to keep the church from dying that I would not have time to focus on my primary calling which is to preach. But as he saw walls coming down and God moving the two churches together, he recognized the invisible hand of God’s providence at work and began praying very hard for my protection and the church’s success.
When all of the opposition began to emerge, he couldn’t sleep! He was so sweetly concerned about me that he wanted to come down himself and “set things straight” on my behalf. Of course, because of his health, he couldn’t. But he kept praying and telling me that God was in this and doing something uniquely strategic. He comforted me by telling me story after story about things people had said about him over the years and how badly he wanted to defend his name, but instead kept silent.
He encouraged me by telling me to trust in the sufficiency of Jesus and refuse to let these attacks get me off track. He reminded me, in fact, that Jesus plus nothing equals everything and that everything minus Jesus equals nothing. He exhorted me to allow even my harshest critics to teach me about sin, grace and the Gospel. He reminded me of all the times in history that God used unjustified, slanderous criticism of men to develop character, focus, and a deepened sense of call and mission.
Being with him over those months was one lifeline God threw me to keep me attached. I thank God for Daddy Bill! —TT