As an adolescent Tullian Tchividjian had plenty of reasons to enjoy a relatively calm path into early adulthood.
He was the fourth of seven children born into an active and supportive environment. He was the grandson of Billy Graham and nurtured in faith from a young age. He was provided multiple opportunities to change the direction of his young life when it started going astray.
At the time, none of that mattered.
“I was born and raised in a remarkable Christian home,” Tchividjian recalled in an interview with Everyday Christian. “God gave me two great parents, a remarkable heritage and a happy hospitable home life. The flavor of Christianity I experienced was very pleasant, not fatalistic or rigid whatsoever.”
Tchividjian’s reaction was to rebel to a degree which would be any parent’s nightmare. Routinely kicked out of multiple schools and falling into substance abuse, he was ultimately told to leave the home of Stephen and Gigi (Graham) Tchividjian at 16 years old.
Was the pressure of being part of a famous family a reason why?
“It’s a natural question to ask, but as far as I can tell looking back at it, that had nothing do with it,” Tchividjian said. “My family was so healthy and grounded. I never felt any pressure from my parents and grandparents in any visible way.
“I was a sinful 16 year old guy living in South Florida and what the world was offering was much more attractive than what the Lord was offering. … From my standpoint it is a testimony about the reality of sin and a common story that happens in all sorts of families. Just being from the family of Billy Graham doesn’t exclude you from the same sort of temptations and appetites that anybody else would have as a sinner.”
Tchividjian said his “hedonistic mission to do whatever I wanted” led to his early and forced independence. He credits a “magnificent defeat” from God turning him around at 21 to an about-face which led to him to marriage, college, seminary and ultimately ministry.
Now 37, Tchividjian has established himself as the lead pastor at one of Florida’s most tradition-steeped houses of worship, Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. The ascension to prominence, however, has been anything but smooth.
In 2003 Tchividjian started New City Presbyterian in nearby Fort Lauderdale. Attendance swelled. When the pastor at Coral Ridge, longtime evangelical icon Dr. D. James Kennedy, died, Tchividjian accepted the senior pastor post and went about merging the two churches.
And then the acrimony began.
“I had never done anything like this before and it was absolute misery,” Tchividjian said. “I’ve told people all over the country that there is no way an organization can go through that kind of transition without fallout. When you take any group where there has been one leader for 47 years and then bring in another leader to try and take it to the next level and into the next millennium things are going to get complicated and difficult.”
Members of Kennedy’s family and other longtime church members who took exception to Tchividjian’s leadership set up a classic power struggle. Ultimately the detractors left and started a new congregation – hardly an unusual dynamic – while Coral Ridge’s attendance has continued to rise.
“God has blessed us wildly to essentially replant this church and enjoy the kind of success we’re seeing,” Tchividjian said. “The theological foundation is still the same. We are still a conservative Presbyterian church and thoroughly evangelical in outlook. I’m an old-fashioned theologian. Through a style and structural change we have rebranded and replanted.
“I’d call it an extreme church makeover.”
The twists and turns of Tchividjian’s life are reflected in Surprised By Grace, his latest book just released by Crossway. Tchividjian focuses on the Book of Jonah and offers a different perspective on the Old Testament’s well-known fish story. Tchividjian realizes that most people see the focus of the story as the sinful city of Nineveh which Jonah has been sent to prophecy to. As the story goes, ultimately the Ninevites recognize their sins and follow God’s commands. Tchividjian contends the story is more about Jonah.
“It’s a remarkable story of God’s grace,” Tchividjian said. “We think the primary targets of the story are the lewd licentious sailors or the lewd licentious Ninevites when the target really is Jonah. Here is a man who was sent by God as a prophet and did everything he could not to go to Nineveh and follow God’s commands. … It’s a fascinating story of how we are always pursued by God and are always sinners, even when we think we have it all together and have all the answers.”
As much as Tchividjian hopes his book will stir people’s self-examination of their faith and their choices, he is acutely aware his uncle Franklin Graham has done much of the same recently. Franklin Graham was disinvited from speaking at the Pentagon last week as part of National Day of Prayer ceremonies because of comments he’s made criticizing Islam’s legitimacy and its treatment of women.
“I haven’t talked to him, but I’ve followed the story and talked to other family members,” Tchividjian said. “What he experienced is precisely what Jesus told us to expect. The message of Jesus crucified and the message of exclusivity of Christ being the way, the truth and life is foolishness to so many in the world. It’s not a politically correct message at all.
“I think his position is not as a politician, but as a preacher and an ambassador of the kingdom of God compels him to say. … Jesus tells us the world is not going to be kind. I’m not saying we need to be obnoxious about expressing our beliefs, but the type of things (Franklin Graham) was saying are going to shine a light in dark places, and when that happens people are going to run for cover. What he experiences is a small non-physical form of, I would say, expected persecution.”