America's most fashionable city fits Tullian Tchividjian like a glove. Tchividjian, 36, grew up in South Florida and exudes Miami's cosmopolitan, comfortable cool. He relishes the region's multicultural mix and loves to surf when he can find the time in his busy schedule as pastor of New City Church in Coconut Creek. When preaching in the summer heat, Tchividjian leaves the top of his shirt unbuttoned. This is not the kind of town that expects its pastors to suffer in dark suits.
By looks alone, Tchividjian is not the most likely candidate to write a book that calls on Christians to eschew cultural appeal. Yet that's precisely what Tchividjian has done with Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by Being Different (Multnomah, April 2009). His third book, Unfashionable reflects insight gained in part from his 1993 conversion experience, which fueled him with zeal only God can grant. Kicked out of his family's home as a teenager, Tchividjian indulged in almost everything Miami's sensual nightlife offered. But now he believes that Christians must forsake any hope of winning cultural acceptance if they want to affect the culture for the Lord's sake.
For decades, another Presbyterian church in South Florida pressed to win the culture for Christ. Coral Ridge, once led by D. James Kennedy, is 12 miles away from New City in Fort Lauderdale. Once visited by as many as 7,000 on Sunday mornings, Coral Ridge shrunk to 1,400–1,500 regular attendees as Kennedy's attention turned to national politics. Kennedy last preached on Christmas Eve 2006, and suffered cardiac arrest four days later. He died September 5, 2007, and the church's leaders searched far and wide for a new senior pastor.
No culture warrior himself, Tchividjian seemed like an unnatural replacement for Kennedy. Yet in January 2009, Coral Ridge and New City proposed a dramatic plan: If the two churches could agree to merge, Tchividjian would become the senior pastor. If not, he would happily remain the pastor of New City. As the churches completed their merger March 15, Tchividjian inherited a high-profile opportunity to work out his vision for an unfashionable church.
Though Tchividjian had never preached at Coral Ridge before March, he was no stranger to its congregation. He hosts a monthly radio program on its radio station, has spoken on numerous occasions at the Kennedy-founded Knox Theological Seminary, and attended Coral Ridge's private school, Westminster Academy, when his family moved to South Florida in the late 1970s. For a time they even worshiped at Coral Ridge. Once the fastest growing Presbyterian church in the country, Coral Ridge welcomed Billy Graham to dedicate its gorgeous campus in 1974.
The famous evangelist forges yet another link between Tchividjian and Coral Ridge: Tullian is the middle of seven children raised by Stephen Tchividjian and Gigi Graham, Billy and Ruth's eldest child. His full name is William Graham Tullian Tchividjian. Named for the early Christian apologist Tertullian, Tchividjian resembles Graham with his deep-set eyes, bronzed skin, and distinguished nose. He speaks with a cadence that recalls the younger Billy's famous drawl and emphasis on "the Bi-ble." But his theology hews much closer to Ruth's, his late Presbyterian grandmother. Tchividjian took to heart his grandfather's regret that he did not pursue further education. After studying at Columbia International University in South Carolina, Tchividjian earned his master of divinity at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) in Orlando. The combination of Reformed theology and evangelistic fervor match two passions stoked by Kennedy, who founded Evangelism Explosion in the 1960s. This history encouraged Tchividjian to listen when Coral Ridge's pulpit search committee called and called and called again.
"To think that world-changing vision could be cast again to a new generation for a new era gets them excited," Tchividjian said. "Even the old people get excited, because they remember what happened here 30 years ago."
But it's New City's church culture that Tchividjian plans to bring to Coral Ridge. Scott Spell, New City's pastor of administration and body life, took a course taught by Tchividjian at RTS Orlando. He sees remarkable consistency between Tchividjian's original vision for New City and the church today. Then as now, Tchividjian defends his vision with theological rationales unbowed by changing circumstances. And having lived outside South Florida for 10 years, he balances an outsider's critique of cultural idols with an insider's familiarity. He makes little effort to impress the region's beautiful people. Of course, the attempt to be cool is one sure sign that you are not. Skeptical young seekers, as Tchividjian was as a teenager, reject such posturing.
"Younger generations don't want trendy engagement from the church; in fact, they're suspicious of it," Tchividjian writes in Unfashionable. "Instead, they want truthful engagement with historical and theological solidity that enables meaningful interaction with transcendent reality. They want desperately to invest their life in something worth dying for, not some here-today-gone-tomorrow fad."
New City practices what theologian Ed Clowney called "doxological evangelism." Last Halloween, New City opted for an outreach event quite different from the bounce houses and fall festivals preferred by some churches. New City members invited neighbors and family to see the church in worship, complete with the old liturgy and a mix of hymns, contemporary songs, and even the Psalter.
"If you want your friends to know New City, come and watch her worship her Lord," Spell said. "You'll know much more about us when you see the God we worship and how we respond to him in worship than if you were to come and the kids get their faces painted."
When I asked Tchividjian what experiences shaped his views on cultural change, I expected to hear about his conversion, which is where Unfashionable begins. Instead, he mentioned two books he read while an undergraduate in 1994. The first, Os Guinness's Dining with the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity, takes church-growth strategies to task. Guinness's critique resonated with Tchividjian's experiences in churches that over-contextualize the gospel. Another book published in 1993, David Wells's No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? shaped his views on how to appropriately apply theology to the times. Reading Wells led Tchividjian to the writing of theologian-sociologist Peter Berger, whose phrase "against the world for the world" found its way into Tchividjian's vocabulary.
Like Manhattan pastor Tim Keller, Tchividjian believes biblical fidelity holds the Reformed and Anabaptist views on church and culture in creative tension. "Why haven't any Christ/culture models taken over the orthodox world the way other doctrines have? Why can't we come to consensus?" Keller asked when we discussed Tchividjian. "It's because none of them really captures everything, and all of them are really good critiques of each other."
In this spirit, Tchividjian credits Anabaptist theologian Stanley Hauerwas for showing him how the church should be the church and not worry about winning cultural approval. But he also praises Abraham Kuyper, a Reformed theologian and Dutch prime minister from 1901 to 1905, for emphasizing Christianity as a total world- and lifeview. Kuyper influenced later worldview advocates Francis Schaeffer and Charles Colson, who called Tchividjian "one of today's brightest young Christian leaders." On their own, Anabaptists tend to marginalize themselves, while Reformed transformationalists lose the unique gospel message amid their social agendas. Together, these contrasting approaches help Christians retain both biblical dimensions of the gospel.
"The gospel is both individual and communal," Tchividjian said, sounding more like John Stott than Billy Graham. "The gospel is not simply the story of Christ dying on the cross for sinners. It also involves Christ rising again as the first fruits that will eventually make all things new. There is a universal dimension to the gospel."
But unlike many others who emphasize this universal dimension, Tchividjian cares little for political life. Millions of dollars dumped into Florida during the past three presidential campaigns have numbed him to politics. Like other young evangelicals, he's reacting against the overemphasis of the Religious Right, which has precious little to show for extraordinary efforts. Yet Tchividjian does expect that his weekly scriptural expositions will help Christians understand their cultural, social, and political obligations, including how they will vote. And he does not shy away from speaking directly about social issues clearly addressed by Scripture, such as abortion, which he called the "Holocaust of our generation." Nevertheless, he believes politics reflects, and does not direct, cultural trends.
"For a long time now, I've been convinced that what happens in New York (finance), Hollywood (entertainment), Silicon Valley (technology), and Miami (fashion) has a far greater impact on how our culture thinks about reality than what happens in Washington, D.C. (politics)," he writes in Unfashionable. "It's super important for us to understand that politics are reflective, not directive. That is, the political arena is the place where policies are made which reflect the values of our culture—the habits of heart and mind—that are being shaped by these other, more strategic arenas."
Unlike the Religious Right's founders, Tchividjian preaches little about winning the culture wars. Like his grandfather, he believes that focusing on the gospel will reap the reward of faithful church practice, an appealing apologetic in a skeptical age. Now as senior minister of Coral Ridge, he takes this message into one of America's most prestigious pulpits.
Just don't expect him to don Kennedy's famous robe in the South Florida heat.
Collin Hansen is a Christianity Today editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Tullian Tchividjian participated on a Christianity Today panel on "What is the Gospel?" at the Christian Book Expo in March. His most recent book Unfashionable is available at ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Tchividjian contributes to Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church's blog.
Other stories about Tchividjian include:
Some Preachers, Long Gone, Keep Preaching from Beyond the Grave | Pastors' messages continue through TV, radio, and the Internet, even as some listeners probably don't even know they're gone. (Religion News Service)
Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church chooses pastor | Tchividjian will be only the second senior pastor the Fort Lauderdale church has ever had. Its founding pastor, the Rev. D. James Kennedy, died in September 2007 at the age of 76. (South Florida Sun-Sentinel)
Billy Graham's grandson to lead famed megachurch | A widely-known megachurch founded by an architect of the religious right and seen as a force in American politics selected a grandson of Billy Graham on Sunday as its new leader. (Associated Press)
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