Noted by many as a visionary, innovator, and faithful servant of the Lord, Dr. D. James Kennedy was one of few pastors in his time to boldly preach Jesus both into the world and into the culture.
But years before impacting Christian communities across the globe, Kennedy was a college drop-out making thousands of dollars each month as a top dance instructor for dancing great Arthur Murray.
It wasn't until he heard Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse preach about heaven as a free gift during a Sunday morning radio broadcast that he made an about face toward becoming one of the nation's leading conservatives and fiercest voices in American politics.
"Dr. Kennedy was a true servant and warrior for the faith. He was a consummate statesman who firmly believed in God's providential hand upon our country," said Alliance Defense Fund President and CEO Alan Sears in a statement released after Kennedy's death Wednesday morning. "He never wavered from his convictions. He never compromised his core beliefs for the sake of worldly approval. Instead, he believed in boldly preaching the Word of God."
The influential Christian broadcaster and pastor of 10,000-member Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church died in his sleep at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., at the age of 76. Kennedy suffered cardiac arrest Dec. 28 and multiple complications thereafter.
As preparations are underway for Kennedy's memorial service next week, tributes and remarks about the lasting legacy Kennedy left behind have flooded in from Christian leaders across the nation.
"Dr. Kennedy was one of the nation's most respected Christian leaders," said Concerned Women for America president Wendy Wright. "His teachings on the positive influence of Christianity on Western Civilization and America have motivated modern-day Christians to influence our culture and country."
An early innovator of multi-media ministry, Kennedy began broadcasting messages that defended traditional family values, condemned abortion and rejected evolution through radio and television airwaves, shortly after starting the Fort Lauderdale church. Coral Ridge Ministries today claims to reach 3.5 million people.
Despite his wide audience and influence, Kennedy was the lesser known of more prominent religious right leaders such as the Revs. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.
"He was never in the front ranks of evangelical leaders that were also political leaders, but he was active at every stage of the Christian right," said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum for Religion & Public Life who specializes in religion and politics, according to The Associated Press.
Kennedy was a founding board member of the Moral Majority, formed by Falwell as a new Christian right movement to fight secularization and promote the restoration of traditional moral values in American society. He later created the Center for Reclaiming America for Christ – Coral Ridge's political arm – to mobilize Christians in realigning government policies and laws with evangelical Christianity.
"Dr. Kennedy's strong stand on social and moral issues, including the issue of homosexuality, elevated and compelled public debate," said Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, the largest Christian organization dealing with homosexuality issues.
"He was an unwavering defender of the faith, a passionate advocate for truth, a visionary committed to advancing the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a good friend," Chambers also stated.
Beyond politics, what has impacted more churches and Christian leaders was Kennedy's commitment to sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
"He practiced what he preached," said the Rev. John Sorensen, executive vice president of Evangelism Explosion International – an organization Kennedy founded and which propelled his impact powerfully across churches worldwide. "He loved sharing Christ with people."
Evangelism Explosion trained Christians to be active in sharing their faith with others. That vision and passion of witnessing helped grow Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church from a small group of 17 people to 10,000 members today. Moreover, Evangelism Explosion claims to have become the first Christian organization in history to establish its ministry in all 211 nations of the world.
"No one in our time has probably understood with greater depth, conveyed with greater passion, or equipped the church with greater skill to fulfill its twofold mission – the Cultural Mandate (belief that Christians are to bring God's truth to bear upon every area of human society) and the Great Commission – than Dr. Kennedy," commented the Rev. Mark H. Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina.
And according to Frank Wright, president and CEO of National Religious Broadcasters, there were not very many pastors who were preaching both, or what Wright called "the full counsel of God."
Before his death on Wednesday, Kennedy commented on what life would be like after the end of his life.
"I will be more alive than I have ever been in my life," he said, according to Kennedy's tribute website (www.djameskennedy.org), "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."
Kennedy will lie in repose in the Grand Narthex in Fort Lauderdale on Sept. 12, which will be followed by a public funeral service at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church on Sept. 13.
A private, family-only interment will take place Sept. 14.
"Dr. Kennedy's work will live on long past his earthly body," said CWA's Wendy Wright. "We honor his legacy of faithfulness to Christ and commitment to fulfilling the Great Commission."
Kennedy is survived by his wife Anne and daughter Jennifer Kennedy Cassidy.