Thursday, October 1, 2009

Coral Ridge Presbyterian

It's difficult to watch what's happening at Dr. Kennedy's Coral Ridge Presbyterian, however it is very indicative of some of the issues bubbling under the surface within our denomination right now. So many of our churches, like our own FPC Macon, are finding it very difficult to come to grips with what it means to be relevant while also remaining faithful.

I'm only just now learning about the situation at Coral Ridge, but the news today that 2 elders have resigned from the session of this very influential church is disturbing and sad. After reading some of the back-story, it sounds like it's the typical situation that more and more conservative, traditional evangelical churches are starting to have to face these days: the culture has changed, and the younger generation of pastors wants to change the ways we are reaching it.

A while back, after the death of D. James Kennedy - a man I admired greatly - the church voted by a wide margin to offer the post of senior pastor of Coral Ridge to Billy Graham's grandson, Tullian Tchividjian. Tchividjian had been the pastor of New City Church - a smaller congregation of mostly younger people, which he merged with the existing congregation of Coral Ridge. It sounds like he also brought in his own leadership team, replacing many long-time staff. Evidently, Tchividjian also decided that wearing a robe while preaching was not necessary (I know it seems silly, but this has been quite the controversy in our denomination. We had the same little outburst within our congregation when our head pastor started wearing a suit several years ago), and also has stopped what he calls "preaching politics from the pulpit." Dr. Kennedy was a founding member of the Moral Majority, and one of the leading voices in the religious conservative movement. More on that later. Other changes included moving toward a more contemporary worship service (the good ole worship wars - also a big issue within the PCA right now), and modifications to evangelism and other popular programs.

Evidently, a group of 6 influential church members, including Dr. Kennedy's daughter, took advantage of the unrest these changes were causing and began organizing resistance to Tchividjian. After writing letters to the congregation and circulating a petition suggesting he be fired, Tchividjian had the members banned from the premises. It seems a bit harsh, and it certainly offended my innate Baptist congregational sensibilities - at least initially. But if this was done in accordance with the requirements for church discipline, as laid out in our Book of Church Order, then the case could certainly be made that they were causing disunity within the congregation and refusing to submit to the authority of the session. About a month later, after nearly 400 members had petitioned for a vote on Tchividjian's removal, the church held a congregational vote which overwhelmingly confirmed support for the new pastor.

Now, we obviously don't know all the details, but my guess is that Coral Ridge had a significant portion of long-term, probably older members, who bristled at the changes that their new pastor started making. I can't speak to the specifics of what happened, but it's possible that TT (I can't keep typing that name over and over again) may have tried to institute these changes a little too quickly. I know that a similar fallout would probably occur if some of these same changes were made all at once in our church. I can sympathize with some of the long term members who have supported the church for years, both financially and with their time, only to see these "young whippersnappers" come in and take over, a-changing everything they worked so hard to establish. However, if these changes were made with the approval of the session, as long as they were acting within the guidelines of our constitution and the Scriptures, then I see little room for argument.

Perhaps the new leadership didn't handle everything as well as they could have, but it's also true, at least according to TT, that many of the dissidents didn't follow the Biblical model of confronting fellow believers. In this Christianity Today interview, TT suggests that his critics should've come first to him personally with their grievances, as is outlined in Matthew 18. Instead, and this is still according to TT, they immediately began undermining him and the church leadership among the congregation. If this is in fact true, then I have to say that he was probably justified in breaking off communion with these members.

This just illustrates that even those churches who have a strict set of guidelines for the government of the church will still have to deal with the fact that pastors, elders and members are always going to be sinful, fallen people. These kinds of problems will always exist within the church, as long as different people hold different views about what the Bible teaches. Unfortunately, this particular conflict is being played out in front of the entire nation, and is not exactly helping win people to Christ. Many former members of Coral Ridge have already splintered to form a new church, and it looks like there is little hope for reconciliation.

I have to say that my initial reaction to what I've learned is that Coral Ridge's new pastor and session have acted correctly in what is a very unfortunate conflict. I'm sure there are things they wish they'd done differently, but my guess is that Tchividjian has the best interests of this congregation at heart, and is implementing what he thinks is the best plan for reaching people for the Gospel. Changes of this nature will always create schism within such a traditional, conservative denomination; but perhaps they are necessary for reaching the current culture.

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