Empire Builder D. James Kennedy Dies at 76
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.