What kind of ‘evangelist’ is Kennedy?

kennedyI am tempted to think that the word “evangelical” and several words connected to it have become too vague to be of any use to mainstream reporters. I know that’s impossible. There are simply too many people who use “evangelical” as a noun or an adjective these days.

I also have to admit that some of these words have multiple meanings. What’s a reporter to do?

Take the word “evangelist.” For years, people have been applying that word to everyone from Jerry Falwell (a pastor/religious broadcaster/educator) to Pat Robertson (a religious broadcaster/political leader/educator) and a host of other folks. The term “televangelist” was created since there was a real sense in which people were using cameras and cable television the same way that evangelists, for generations, have used pulpits and rally tents.

Then again, the classic, centuries-old definition of “evangelism” and “evangelist” was linked to the work of people who shared their faith and converted other people through face-to-face contact. Saying that someone was “a great evangelist” did not mean they preached evangelistic messages before hundreds or thousands of people.

So what does “evangelist” mean to the average person who hears or reads it? I would think that the average person thinks of Billy Graham. But what about the college student sitting in a coffee shop with a friend, sharing her faith during a discussion of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis? Is that person an “evangelist” who is practicing “evangelism”?

With all that in mind, take a look at The Miami Herald‘s coverage of the health-related retirement of the Rev. D. James Kennedy. The early draft was such a mess — technical issues, mainly — that you can no longer get to it. What do I mean? A sample:

Ronald Siegenthaler, December 28 had cardiac arrest, called the executive quite a few ministers. The announcement Jennifer Kennedy Cassidy, daughter. It came from the family, really disabled has no been able to attend chuch services and speak in public. Process of finding athe officers will be in ht analyziang the need s aof the searcha qualifications, skills and gifts, Selecta pulpit search committe from a cross section of memebership.

You get the idea. It’s hard to blame that on reporter Robbyn Mitchell. However, there was some copy above the train wreck that one could read. Note the use of the word “evangelist” in this, starting with the headline: “Evangelist Kennedy retires from Coral Ridge.”

The Rev. D. James Kennedy, an international evangelist who has been absent from the pulpit at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church since December, when he suffered a heart attack, has officially retired.

His daughter, Jennifer Kennedy Cassidy, made the announcement to the congregation Sunday on behalf of her father, said Ronald Sigenthaler, the church’s executive minister. Kennedy led the 10,000-member church in Fort Lauderdale for 48 years, although only 1,700 parishioners were there Sunday to hear his daughter’s announcement.

With Kennedy stepping down, Sigenthaler estimates it may take two years to find a replacement pastor. … Kennedy founded both Coral Ridge Ministries and Evangelism Explosion International.

So he was an evangelist who, as a pastor, led a large church while also starting a parachurch group called Evangelism Explosion (which, by the way, specialized in a face-to-face and small-groups approach to church-based evangelism and growth, not large rallies). Can you see the source of the confusion?

Anyway, the Herald bounced back with a more complete story that avoided the “evangelist” confusion. This story turned Kennedy, for the most part, into a politico selling an “America is a Christian nation” message.

Yes, that was part of his work, too. However, I have always thought that the key to his work was his educated, 1950s, old-Mainline approach to doing church. Thus, we read:

The Rev. D. James Kennedy, who presided over a multimillion-dollar, international evangelical empire but was sidelined from his pulpit at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church when he suffered a heart attack in December, is retiring at age 76, church leaders announced Sunday.

Parishioners said it was hard to imagine the Fort Lauderdale megachurch without its towering leader and founder, whose slate-gray hair, dark robe and commanding voice made a deep impression on churchgoers.

”He had a great voice, a great big deep voice,” said Barbara Collier, one of the original church members, who taught Sunday school and vacation Bible school. “He was such a gracious man, and in his robe he stood so straight and talked so clearly, right to you. And we all loved him.”

But as one of the most influential leaders in the Christian right, Kennedy was also a divisive figure who condemned homosexuality and abortion.

Of course, traditional forms of Christianity have also condemned abortion and sex outside of marriage for 2,000 years, but it certainly is accurate to say that these beliefs are now controversial and divisive.

arielHowever, what is missing from the Herald coverage is any sense of what made this man different from the other members of the Religious Right and why he thrived in a unique environment like South Florida.

We are talking about The Miami Herald, after all. This is home turf.

There really isn’t a hint of why his church grew so much. There is no mention of the intellect — whether you liked him or not, it was there — symbolized by those Presbyterian robes. Also, there is no mention of Evangelism Explosion.

Ironically, you can head over to an anti-Kennedy page at Americans United and learn much more about him, including the fact that he has a doctorate from New York University, which is not your normal fundamentalist hangout spot.

Of course, a reader who knows that region would also know to head over to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for a story by veteran religion writer James D. Davis. He throws his net very wide in the fact paragraphs and tells us all kinds of things:

Months of rumors ended with a Sunday morning revelation at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church: The ailing Rev. D. James Kennedy is not returning to the helm of the congregation he founded 48 years ago.

The pastor, religious broadcaster, conservative activist and evangelical leader has been in and out of hospitals since Dec. 28, when he suffered a brief cardiac arrest. On Sunday, his family and church leaders made it official. …

The announcement, at a joint gathering of all three morning services, ends Kennedy’s multilayered efforts to further his vision of Christianity and social values: education, prayer in schools, opposition to gay rights, and other conservative causes. His influence was felt far beyond church walls, to the halls of power in Washington, D.C., and numerous nations where ordinary people heard his broadcast messages and applied his evangelistic methods. …

Besides the church, Kennedy founded: Knox Seminary; Westminster Academy; Coral Ridge Ministries, a broadcast organization heard in about 200 nations; a chaplaincy to federal workers on Capitol Hill; and Evangelism Explosion, a program to train lay people to spread the gospel. He launched a series of rallies, called Reclaiming America for Christ, that helped train volunteers across the nation to work for conservative aims in their hometowns. He also has written more than 65 books.

That is a lot of material to put into one story. But it is a big story, if you know religion in South Florida. I hope there are follow-up reports about what happens next at this very old-fashioned mainline-esque church.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Joe

    I’m curious: How legit are all those degrees that D. James Kennedy appeared to have (he had a string of DD’s and other letters after his name on the Coral Ridge Hour broadcasts)? Wikipedia states:

    According to his official biography he earned a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Tampa, a Master of Divinity from Columbia Theological Seminary, a Master of Theology from Chicago Graduate School of Theology (an unaccredited institution), and a Ph.D. from New York University. His Ph.D. was in religious education, with a dissertation on the history of an evangelism program he founded.

    Maybe it’s because he wrote for “the masses,” but I found that his books didn’t evidence deep scholarship. And … how doctorate-worthy could a “dissertation on the history of [Evangelism Explosion]” be? The “Two Question Test” and the prescribed answers were not exactly the best apologetics material, IIRC.

  • F.Scottie

    Though some would disagree with his views on American politics, in terms of dialoging with the culture at large, I think Dr. Kennedy is more sophisticated than the likes of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I never meant to imply that he was some kind of writer-scholar.

    What I was trying to point out was (a) that he was a kind of throwback to the old Mainline Protestantism of the 1950s and (b) there was something about that man in the robe with all the book quotes that resonated in SOUTH FLORIDA, of all places. Try to picture Pat Robertson collecting 10,000 people in greater Miami. Falwell? James Dobson?

    There is a story there for the Herald. Do they want it?

  • http://pos51.org Elmo

    Is that first jumbled paragraph from the Herald article the writer’s research notes? It sure looks like it.

  • Irenaeus

    I’m troubled by the word ‘divisive’. It gets thrown at conservatives for holding certain positions. But why are not liberal positions on things ‘divisive’? I remember in my seminary homiletics (ie, preaching) class our preceptor asking us what topics we might want to preach on for our social issue sermon. Some people suggested AIDS, others poverty, others global warming, and so forth. To be snarky, I suggested abortion. And what does the preceptor say in reply? “Oh, let’s not do anything divisive.” As if AIDS, poverty, and climate positions and policies were not potentially divisive!

    So too in this article: anti-homosexuality and anti-abortion stances are ‘divisive.’ But I think one could say that pro-homosexuality and pro-abortion stances are just as divisive (and even more so, since they are progressive, and by their nature try to change the traditional fabric of society; they necessarily divide). It’s all a matter of where one stands on the issues? Disagree with me? You’re divisive. Interested in ‘bringing the country together’? Well, if everyone agrees with me, we’ll be unified, won’t we?

    All that is to say, while all words are to a greater or lesser degree value-laden, ‘divisive’ is a value-word that masquerades as a descriptive word.

  • z-man

    This story turned Kennedy, for the most part, into a politico selling an “America is a Christian nation” message.

    OK you journalism experts out there, help me out. The copy from the Herald story tmatt posted that he said appeared above the train wreck seemed very straightforward and factual, other than the evangelist/paster confusion. The final story completely politicized the introduction (and was sprinkled throughout). “Multi-million dollar”, “evangelical empire”, “towering figure”… gee, makes me want to read the book and go see the movie what with all the intrigue & scheming.

    Why does the opening paragraph have to be so over the top? To catch the reader’s attention, to grab me and make me want to read it? Not me. I read the first paragraph & thought here we go again, either some rabid conservative activist or some reporter trying to score points rather than write a straightforward story.

    I honestly don’t know much at all about Kennedy although I’ve heard of him. The way the story’s written certainly doesn’t make him appeal much to me, but it sounds like this guy is different, as tmatt & others point out, so tell me how, why or why not. It just strikes me as yet another story about a religious figure written from a political angle. Maybe I’m naive, but don’t patronize me with all the buzzwords and phrases to make your story sexy, just tell me about the guy & his influence without lighting all the sparks.

  • http://www.washingtontimes.com Julia Duin

    What happened to the Herald’s religion writer? The one I met a few years ago covering an event at Coral Ridge was not among the 3 people listed as authors of the Herald’s Monday piece. By far the best reporting was done by Jim Davis, who’s covered South Florida religion for decades. When a crisis or a big story comes up, it helps to have an experienced person on hand (who was actually at the Sunday service) instead of the frequently changing roster on the Herald’s religion beat.

  • http://jedimeditations.blogspot.com/ JeepThang

    Pretty church.

  • http://www.TruthsThatTransform.org ChasB

    IMHO, evangelists simply shared the ‘evangel’ or the ‘good news’, which is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    Christianity Today placed Kennedy’s ‘Evangelism Explosion’ at #10 of the top 50 books that have shaped American evangelism the past 50 years.

    They said that

    “this, more than any other book…gave evangelicals a systematic way to share their faith.”

    More here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/october/23.51.html

    This is a man who not only shared the Good News but equipped more people to do so themselves than just about any other man in recent history.

  • James Davis

    Terry and Julia: Thanks for the kind words about my Aug. 27 story, and for the obit. Julia: The former religion writer for the Miami Herald is Alexandra Alter, who is now at the Wall Street Journal. She’s doing interesting long-form stories, like one on moral and ethical pitfalls of online relationships.


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