Upon the September 5 passing of veteran broadcaster and Christian statesman, Dr. D. James Kennedy (1930-2007), the Christian community lost another key leader as Dr. Kennedy labored tirelessly to transform individual lives and a nation through the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Dr. Kennedy’s ongoing legacy includes Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, “The Coral Ridge Hour” television program, the “Truths That Transform” radio program, Evangelism Explosion and the Center for Christian Statesmanship.
Paul Edwards, host of “The Paul Edwards Program” on WLQV in Detroit, interviewed longtime co-laborer with Dr. Kennedy and current President of the National Religious Broadcasters, Frank Wright.
Paul Edwards: This has to be a sad day for you?
Frank Wright: It is indeed. One of the great lions of our faith has left the scene of battle and yet left behind him a great heritage and reminder that it is for us to pick up that mantle that Dr. Kennedy and so many others like him have carried for so many years and continued to advance the gospel of Christ and the transforming power of that gospel message.
Edwards: In the eight months since Dr. Kennedy suffered that cardiac arrest, was there an expectation that he could recover? Was his death this morning at all a surprise to you and those who knew him?
Wright: It was a surprise, Paul, from one standpoint. Let me just say that I visited him in the hospital after his cardiac arrest: he recognized me, we conversed, we prayed together and I thought there were some real clear signs that he had a great recovery ahead of him. And he did make enormous progress since then, but he came to realize that his recovery would be far more protracted and likely more than he thought was fair to leave the church without leadership. So he felt it was right to step down and retire. He was actually doing well the last month or so from a personal health standpoint and so, yes, it was a surprise. But on the other hand, when someone has a significant cardiac arrest, passing away in your sleep like this is in many ways not a terrible surprise for a heart patient.
Edwards: Was he at all able to return to any of his duties at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and with the broadcast ministries during the last eight months?
Wright: No, he did not return to his office. He did return to his habit of reading the scriptures. He did all of his personal devotions in the original Greek and Hebrew, if you can imagine that. He had a special Bible someone gave him as a gift—the Old Testament was in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. So that was a very positive sign that his cognitive abilities were returning rapidly. But coupled with his generally poor health and the cardiac arrest—and when he had the cardiac arrest he was without oxygen for almost eight minutes, so he was essentially a brain injury patient with a big recovery ahead so he did not return to his normal duties. He did return to a normal way of life. He was at home with his family. He was receiving visitors, but the prospect of him coming back in the short run was not there. That’s why he retired. We were all saddened and surprised at the report today that he has passed away.
Edwards: I remember Dr. Kennedy from 25 years ago. His present reputation is fighting for religious freedom and the religious foundations—in particular the Christian foundations—of this nation. But 25 years ago Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and Dr. D. James Kennedy were on the frontlines of evangelism with his Evangelism Explosion program. This man had a heart for souls.
Wright: He really did, Paul. He was first and foremost a pastor who believed that the job of the pastor was to equip the saints to do the work of ministry. He created Evangelism Explosion to train average laypeople how to conversationally share their faith with another in a winsome and agreeable manner. That ministry has gone around the world to where Evangelism Explosion today traces five million people who have professed faith in Jesus Christ through that ministry. You’re exactly right when you say Dr. Kennedy always had a heart for souls.
Edwards: What is going to become of the broadcast ministries? Do you foresee as the president of National Religious Broadcasters that the “Truths That Transform” radio broadcast and “The Coral Ridge Hour” could continue to go forward without Dr. Kennedy?
Wright: I talked to Dr. Kennedy about a year before his illness about this very issue and he said he hoped those ministries would go on. There’s quite an archive of radio and television programs that would enable them to do that. He recognized that the structure and format of the program would probably change over time with his unavailability to be part of the daily or weekly production. But both of those programs—“Truths That Transform” and “The Coral Ridge Hour”—will go forward from here likely with some formatting changes that will just be an acknowledgment that they no longer have Dr. Kennedy on a regular basis.
Edwards: There are some seismic changes occurring in evangelicalism. Now with the death of Dr. Kennedy and, in May, the death of Jerry Falwell, we look at those who have shaped evangelicalism in its conservative political sense. They’re all getting up there: Pat Robertson, Dr. James Dobson—these guys aren’t going to live forever. As the president of the National Religious Broadcasters with the tremendous influence that the NRB has with a voice for conservative evangelicalism and conservative religious values in general, what do you see in the future? As leaders like Pat Robertson and James Dobson age, whose coming up to fill their shoes?
Wright: As you rightly said, Dr. Kennedy’s passing is, in many ways, emblematic of the passing of the torch that’s taking place not just in Christian broadcasting today, but in the church, where many of the great lions of our faith are in their middle 70s and, if God gives them the strength of Caleb, they’ve got five or perhaps ten more years of active ministry ahead of them. And yet in the past few years we’ve seen Dr. Bill Bright, Dr. Adrian Rogers, Marlin Maddox, Larry Burkett, now Dr. Kennedy, Dr. Jerry Falwell—I think this is the ordinary course of things in many respects, in that God is always preparing the next generation of leadership for His church. These passings of leadership mantles have come upon us many, many times before.
I think it’s different in our day in some very important senses, however. In the Christian broadcasting arena, we are in the midst of some enormous transitions besides the leadership transition. We are in the midst of a technological transformation, a cultural revolution in how people consume media, how they receive their Christian broadcasting. All these things working together make this a very interesting time to be involved in the ministry of Christian broadcasting. But I think we’ll see men and women step up to plate and assume those responsible roles of leadership, just in the same way that Dr. Kennedy and Dr. Falwell and many others stepped up 30 years ago to assume those responsible roles themselves.
Edwards: Dr. Wright, I so appreciate your willingness to join us, giving your perspective on these issues and particularly on this day when we mourn the loss, but celebrate the homegoing, of Dr. D. James Kennedy.
A Coral Ridge program done in tribute to Dr. Kennedy is available at the following link.