EDITOR’S JOURNAL: Between edifice and repentance
When it was announced on March 15, that Tullian Tchividjian would serve as the new senior minister of the historic Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., many wondered what such a decision would mean for the future of the congregation.
D. James Kennedy had founded the church and served with distinction for more than 50 years. After Kennedy’s death, the pulpit committee of the church sought out Tchividjian and called him as pastor by an affirmative vote of 91 percent. Tchividjian is the grandson of eminent evangelist Billy Graham and has distinguished himself as a preacher and author of national renown. New City Church, the church which he served prior to going to Kennedy’s pulpit, was a fast growing congregation in the upscale Florida suburb of Coconut Creek just 12 miles from Fort Lauderdale, where Coral Ridge is located. Many wondered what this would mean for New City and how the merger between the two congregations would be accomplished.
Evidently, not well. On Sept. 20, a congregational meeting was convened where a vote was taken on whether or not to retain Tchividjian as senior minister. Opposition was strong and was led in part by Kennedy’s daughter, Jennifer Kennedy Cassidy. Prior to the vote, those who wanted him out went so far as to hand out flyers on Sunday morning as people entered the church for worship. After only six months on the job, what was the issue(s) that would cause such a large number of members to seek his removal as pastor?
Many complained that he did not preach about political issues or that he was more apt to focus on a specific Bible passages rather than on current news. He prefers drum sets to an organ and a podcast over a traditional television broadcast. Jim Fisola, a Coral Ridge member for 19 years, was among those who led the charge to remove Tchividjian. When asked why he opposed the new pastor’s leadership, he said, “God bless the young people that he’s brought over, but you’ve got to understand they’ve been meeting in a cafeteria or the high school. They are now in a multimillion-dollar edifice, and they didn’t have to work for it.”
Fisola’s statement landed in the news media like a bombshell, as many saw it as a candid admission of the real reason behind the dustup—power and control. It was obvious that the edifice complex was at work in the lives of some longtime members. Before a watching world was the very reason many unbelievers disrespect and distrust the church—a very public disagreement over what could be considered some very non-essential issues. Such fomentation can lead (and by all indications has led) to an absolute rupture of trust, kindness and Christian charity. When this happens in any congregation, the Gospel is maligned and discredited by the very people who call Jesus both Lord and Christ.
Some have remarked how very similar the entire event sounds to a Baptist (as opposed to a Presbyterian) church. Stories abound in the Baptist tradition where congregations rise up in opposition to their pastors over what amounts to differences in style and non-doctrinal issues. The fallout often results in years of instability and discontent—both for the pastor and the church. Wounded pastors often wound others and emerge jaded and cynical about the Christian ministry. In the end, many churches are sidelined in their communities because they gain a reputation more for contention than evangelism.
To be sure, some problems merit confrontation, and public sin must be rooted out of the church in obedience to the commands of Holy Scripture (I Cor. 5:1-13). Yet, when God’s providence brings about a change in leadership, the residual effects of disappointment in the direction of the current leadership or an unwillingness to follow church leaders in ways not previously encountered can all lead to a manifestation of Satan’s most successful weapon to take a local congregation out of play—pride.
Is it any wonder that the Apostle Paul charged the church at Ephesus to be completely humble, gentle and patient with one another (Eph. 4:2)? They were instructed to work hard at keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (4:3). This was to be the constant pursuit of each member of the congregation because small offenses can often lead to large disagreements where brothers and sisters who once shared fellowship in the Spirit of Jesus Christ can quickly oppose one another in quite volatile ways.
What will happen to Coral Ridge as a result of this rift? Only time will tell. The challenge for them and for all churches in conflict is to quickly repent and return to Christ and the Gospel. Otherwise, an ever-present danger can quickly overtake them as Jesus removes the lampstand from its place.
“Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first . . . Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent.” Rev. 2:4-5 (HCSB).