Megachurch pastor and Evangelism Explosion founder D. James Kennedy died Wednesday in his Florida home from complications following a December heart attack. He retired last week as senior pastor of the church he founded, Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was 76.
Kennedy created an impressive "empire," says Larry Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE). Kennedy built many ministries around his 10,000-member Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, including Knox Theological Seminary, a K-12 school, television and radio programs, and the politically conservative Center for Reclaiming America for Christ. He is also the author of more than 50 books.
But Eskridge and other evangelicals think his most lasting impact will be Evangelism Explosion, a curriculum that shows laymen how to evangelize in everyday settings. The ministry says 12,000 churches use the program.
"It was not as formulaic as the strategies in the past. There wasn't a pick-up line like some of the other strategies," Eskridge told CT. "It shifted the focus to the laypeople as a congregational strategy, and not just go bring them into the tent and let the preacher talk to them."
On Kennedy's first evangelistic house call, a burly man opened the door and asked, "Whadya want?" with a cigar in his mouth and a beer in his hand. After they made small talk, Kennedy tried to say something spiritual, but he felt paralyzed and left feeling unsuccessful. It was then that he realized he lacked courage and had no idea how to evangelize. He later watched a successful evangelist and developed Evangelism Explosion in order to equip laypeople.
The program allowed Christians to evangelize conversationally and comfortably, says James Carlson, who wrote his dissertation on the program while studying at Bethel Seminary in 1998.
"There had been other methods of evangelism, but he took this to a new level, giving quite a bit more substance to the explanation of the gospel," said Carlson, now pastor of a church in Michigan that uses the program. "He allowed laypeople to memorize a logical approach that they could use in sharing their faith without having a little booklet or notecards."
Many who use the program lead with the question, "If God were to ask you, 'Why should I let you into my heaven?' what would you say?" Kennedy was intimately familiar with the power of that question. On a Sunday morning in 1953, he heard it asked by a preacher on the radio. Kennedy said the question immediately led to his conversion.
Kennedy later developed Coral Ridge Ministries, a radio and television outlet that reports a weekly audience of about three million people. The National Religious Broadcasters association (NRB) inducted him into its hall of fame last year.
"In the broadcasting world, he was without question one of the visionaries in the late 1970s," said NRB president Frank Wright. "His goal was to equip the average layperson in the church to do the work of the ministry."
In 1996, Kennedy created the Center for Reclaiming America for Christ to encourage Christians to become involved in politics. The center focused on issues such as abortion, pornography, homosexuality, evolution, and religious liberty.
"The church was solely focused on the proclamation of the gospel," Wright said. "He thought Christians needed to run on two tracks, the first track being the Great Commission, the second being the cultural mandate."
But Coral Ridge shut the center down earlier this year to focus on its media ministries.
"Whenever a religious leader gets involved in political affairs, they get a lot of flack," said former Los Angeles Times reporter Russell Chandler, who wrote a 1972 biography, The Kennedy Explosion. "He was entrepreneurial, he was innovative, and he was brave."
Some have compared him to other televangelists, such as Pat Robertson or the late Jerry Falwell, who were criticized for making controversial remarks about homosexuality.
"Kennedy was usually behind the scenes and not a huge point person like Falwell or Robertson," Eskridge of the ISAE said. "He kept his nose cleaner."
Kennedy was a founding board member of the Moral Majority, which Falwell formed in 1979. Some have called Falwell's recent death the end of the Religious Right, but Eskridge doesn't think Christians will stop caring about issues such as abortion and homosexuality.
"It's a symbol of the passing of the guard," Eskridge said. "It's the passing of generational founders, but the issues persist and it will survive."
Kennedy dropped out of college to become an Arthur Murray dance instructor; in his off hours, he chased girls and played Ping-Pong, according to Chandler's book.
He met a woman one night and told the other teachers, "I just met the young lady that I'm going to marry." He and the woman, Anne, recently celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary.
He later went on to receive several degrees, including a doctorate from New York University.
"There is a need for evangelical ministers to be thoroughly educated and equipped to meet on equal terms anyone with whom they come in contact," Kennedy says in the book. "It is increasingly important to dispel the idea there is an inconsistency between evangelism and education."
Kennedy is survived by his wife and his daughter, Jennifer Cassidy. A public funeral service will be held at Coral Ridge on September 13.
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Stan Guthrie's tribute to Kennedy was also posted today.
Kennedy wrote for Christianity Today about his early ministry.
A Celebration of the Life and Ministry of D. James Kennedy (Official tribute site)
Megachurch leader D. James Kennedy dies (Associated Press)
Powerful pastor D. James Kennedy dead at 76 | Led Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church to national prominence (South Florida Sun-Sentinel)
Rev. D. James Kennedy, Broadcaster, Dies at 76 | Mr. Kennedy was a Christian broadcaster and the pastor of a Florida megachurch, who played a critical role in the rise of conservative Christianity. (The New York Times)
Politically Powerful TV Evangelist D. James Kennedy (The Washington Post
Televangelist made his church a political power | The Rev. D. James Kennedy left behind a worldwide evangelical ministry and a controversial legacy. (The Miami Herald, older version)
Pastor founded mega-church, expanded message to airwaves (Palm Beach Post)
D. James Kennedy, megachurch pioneer, dies at 76 (USA Today)
Religious Right Leader D. James Kennedy Dies at 76 (Religion News Service)
Dr. D. James Kennedy, 76, Leaves Legacy of Faithfulness | Dr. Dobson calls him 'a giant in the battle to restore traditional values.' (CitizenLink, Focus on the Family)
D. James Kennedy dead at 76 (Baptist Press)
'Excellence in All Things and All Things to God's Glory' | The legacy of Dr. D. James Kennedy (Albert Mohler)