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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