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Knowing what to say

Religion | Pastor D. James Kennedy dies at the age of 76

Issue: "Safe haven," Sept. 15, 2007

If ever there were someone who had rehearsed-again, and again, and again-the very words he might use to greet the Lord of Heaven when he died and stepped through the pearly gates, that person had to be D. James Kennedy. On that core issue, Kennedy wanted no false assurance and no confusion. Your theology didn't have to be fancy-but it had to be sound. Don't count on your own good works; lean on the goodness of Jesus.

Kennedy's death on Sept. 5, following a devastating cardiac arrest late last December from which he had little recovery, ended a career that had launched a dozen significant ministries. None of the others, though, carried a Kennedy trademark as indelible as the work of Evangelism Explosion International, which for years has taught Christians to share their faith by asking two disarmingly simple questions: Are you sure you're going to heaven when you die? What do you base your certainty on?

Kennedy had been an Arthur Murray dance studio instructor in the early '50s when he first heard those questions on the radio one Sunday morning. The speaker, Donald Grey Barnhouse, chased him to embrace the Christian faith, then to seminary, and finally to the pastorate.

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His ministry's early years were tough for Kennedy. He had to learn door-to-door evangelism from his good friend, Kennedy Smartt. Ultimately, a consistent application of the two-question formula helped grow Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale-the only church Kennedy ever pastored-to an unwieldy 10,000 members, the largest congregation in his denomination. Kennedy never quit his habit of weeknight door-to-door visitation.

The high visibility over the last two decades of Kennedy's weekly TV and daily radio outreach (and their attendant high costs) produced regular tension within Coral Ridge Church. Some worried that Kennedy's main emphasis in later years had shifted to conservative political activism. Kennedy thrived on the debate, grinned, and called it healthy. He pointed to the church's full pews, to Westminster Academy, Coral Ridge's K-12 spin-off, and Knox Theological Seminary, the church's graduate school, as evidence that his ministry was balanced and thoughtful. He noted his long-time interest in apologetics, and that his 2004 award from National Religious Broadcasters was for producing the "Best Radio Teaching Program of the Year."

For all his public presence, Kennedy struck some as shy and stiff. He was indeed no glad-hander, but a serious back injury in his 20s had made it painful for him to shake hands or even to turn his head easily. He could have retired long ago. But in fact, Kennedy's retirement was announced at Coral Ridge just a week before his death, which came only two months before his 77th birthday.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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