ASHEVILLE, N.C. – A widely-known megachurch founded by an architect of the religious right and seen as a national political force selected a grandson of Billy Graham on Sunday as its new leader.
The overwhelming vote by congregants at Coral Ridge Presbyterian in Fort Lauderdale to appoint the Rev. Tullian Tchividjian could represent a softening of the message spread by the Rev. D. James Kennedy, who was pastor at the church until his death in September 2007.
Kennedy's preaching against homosexuality and abortion made him one of evangelical Christianity's most divisive figures, and he worked to inject his faith in all aspects of public life and the political process, like allies the Rev. Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
Tchividjian insists he holds the same theological positions of Kennedy, but he cuts a far different image.
His hair is spiky, his beard sometimes scruffy, his skin tan. He offers a classic prodigal son story of youthful forays into drugs and sex, then his return to the fold. He has said he wants people to know what Christians are for as much as what they are against, and has rejected the idea that politics is the most important way to change the country.
"I think that politics is one strategic area of cultural engagement," he said Sunday. "But I also think that the sphere of art and the sphere of education and the sphere of media and technology are also strategic."
Tchividjian, 36, is the middle of seven children born to Stephan Tchividjian and Graham's eldest daughter, Gigi. He attended Coral Ridge -- where Graham delivered the dedication ceremony -- and its adjacent school as a young man, but at 16 he dropped out, spending the next five years partying on South Beach, seeking the company of women and getting high.
He says he eventually bottomed out, recommitting to Christ and then joining the seminary and becoming a minister. He started a church of his own, New City Presbyterian, which will merge with Coral Ridge under his appointment. Tchividjian expects the two churches to formally come together on Easter Sunday.
Coral Ridge claims thousands of members and its founding in 1959 marked the creation of what would become one of the country's first megachurches. Based in a liberal, Democratic city, it is known as a fiercely conservative voice on divisive social issues.
Its radio and TV outreach arm, Coral Ridge Ministries, has beamed Kennedy's message around the world, though Tchividjian says he will not oversee that operation.
Tchividjian says he is honored to follow a "giant in the faith" at Coral Ridge, but acknowledges he might look different.
"I think that at first glance it would seem that he and I were very different people. But what I've discovered in this process is that we have more similarities than differences," he said. "He was a man of his time and I'm a man of mine."