MIAMI — Hundreds of congregants have left a pioneering megachurch in Florida to form their own congregation because they were unhappy with leadership at the church that’s seen as a bedrock of the religious right.
The action by the unhappy members at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church was the culmination of a feud between loyalists to an evangelical luminary, the Rev. D. James Kennedy, and his replacement as pastor, the Rev. Tullian Tchividjian, a grandson of the Rev. Billy Graham.
The new congregation met for its first service last Sunday, and organizers said more than 450 people attended. The people who formed the new congregation had lost a Sept. 20 vote to fire Tchividjian. Organizers of the still unnamed church said nearly all of their attendees had been among Coral Ridge’s roughly 2,000 members.
Coral Ridge said it’s not worried about maintaining its membership after the departures. About 200 people enrolled in a class for new members after Tchividjian took over in March.
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Still, the move is a dramatic split. Kennedy’s daughter, Jennifer Kennedy Cassidy, joined many longtime Coral Ridge members, including church elders, the organist, choir director and hundreds of choir members, in deserting the congregation they helped build.
Former Coral Ridge elder Jim Filosa joined the new church. He and his wife were disciplined by Coral Ridge for taking part in a campaign to remove Tchividjian.
“A year from today, if you call me, you’re going to say to me, ‘It was an interesting place at one time, but it’s now up for sale,”’ he said of his former church.
Bill Ashcraft, a Coral Ridge elder who is acting as a spokesman for Tchividjian, said the church was praying for those who left and that their the breakaway represents “a win-win situation.”
“Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church is going to grow,” Ashcraft said. “And the other church ... is going to grow also. And God will be glorified at both.”
Still, Aschraft said there had been hope the dissenters would return.
The feud at Coral Ridge appears mostly to be a matter of style, not substance.
Under the leadership of Kennedy, who died in 2007, the church was a forerunner to modern evangelical megachurches, a fiercely conservative voice on social issues including homosexuality and abortion, and a powerful political voice.
Tchividjian, 37, took over earlier this year. While he has shown no sign of theological differences with Kennedy, he has rejected politics as the most important force for change, and his sermons have not focused on divisive issues. Meantime, he cuts a far different image, forgoing the type of choir robe Kennedy wore during services, and sporting spiky hair, tan skin, and sometimes a scruffy beard.
The difference in approach prompted dissenters to circulate a petition urging Tchividjian’s removal. Their letter called him “a disaster” who has shown “a complete lack of respect” and made “grievous missteps.”
Tchividjian, the middle of seven children born to Stephan Tchividjian and Graham’s daughter, Gigi, has a long history with Coral Ridge. He attended Coral Ridge and its adjacent school as a young man, though he eventually dropped out.