My only personal encounter with D. James Kennedy did not go particularly well. I was still a somewhat wide-eyed marketing and radio writer at Coral Ridge Ministries in Fort Lauderdale in 1987 and 1988. About a year and a half into my job of producing copy for his radio and TV broadcasts, study guides based on his sermons, program notes, product catalogs and the like, I had decided I would go to the very conservative Columbia Biblical Seminary in South Carolina to study world missions.
As Providence would have it, one day I met Dr. Kennedy, who was striding briskly to an appointment with several members of his retinue. Screwing up my courage, I said hello and told him I would be going to Columbia for grad school.
Dr. Kennedy physically recoiled and thundered in his trademark baritone preacher’s voice, “Columbia? I wouldn’t send my worst enemy to Columbia!”
It felt as if I had been slapped in the face. But recovering quickly, I figured out he was talking about that bastion of liberalism, Columbia Theological Seminary—not Columbia Biblical Seminary. With that matter cleared up, he wished me well, and we went our separate ways.
Dr. Kennedy always was one to dream big, act decisively, and let the chips fall where they may. His melding of conservative politics with his role as pastor rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. He could sound and look a little imperious—though part of his stiffness was probably from the brace this former Arthur Murray dance instructor wore to control chronic back pain.
All who knew him, however, talked most not about his views on abortion or school prayer but about his integrity and warm pastor’s heart. To me, that heart is most exemplified not in the imposing Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church (with a 30-story steeple it was known as “the rocket-ship-to-God church”), nor in the school and seminary he founded, nor in his media empire, nor in his now-defunct Center for Reclaiming America for Christ. Rather, his heart is exemplified in two simple questions:
Do you know for sure that you are going to be with God in Heaven?
If God were to ask you, “Why should I let you into my heaven?” what would you say?
I’m speaking, of course, about the two famous diagnostic questions of Evangelism Explosion, which Dr. Kennedy founded in 1962. While other Christian leaders, such as Billy Graham, are rightly lauded for their outreach efforts, Dr. Kennedy—known primarily by the outside world as a member of the much-feared Religious Right—put together perhaps the best known and most widely used evangelistic training curriculum in church history. EE officials say millions have come to Christ using this program, which has spread to every nation on earth.
I believe Dr. Kennedy, for all his passion for “reclaiming America,” would agree that claiming souls for the Savior is his best and most lasting work. You may not agree with all of Dr. Kennedy’s priorities. But it’s hard to argue with his passionate commitment to see people come to Christ. It was a commitment this pastor lived—and died—by.
“Now, I know that someday I am going to come to what some people will say is the end of this life,” he once said. “They will probably put me in a box and roll me right down here in front of the church, and some people will gather around, and a few people will cry. But I have told them not to do that because I don’t want them to cry. I want them to begin the service with the Doxology and end with the Hallelujah chorus, because I am not going to be there, and I am not going to be dead. I will be more alive than I have ever been in my life, and I will be looking down upon you poor people who are still in the land of dying and have not yet joined me in the land of the living. And I will be alive forevermore, in greater health and vitality and joy than ever, ever, I or anyone has known before.”