By Marvin Olasky, World Magazine
Tullian Tchividjian, senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida, is the author of Surprised by Grace: God’s Relentless Pursuit of Rebels. Tchividjian grew up with benefits and burdens greater than that of being a PK, a preacher’s kid: He was a PG, the grandson of the most famous preacher of the past century, Billy Graham.
Were your teenage years PG, PG-13, or R? I ended up dropping out of high school at 16 and getting kicked out of my home. My parents told me, sadly, that because I was so disruptive to the rest of the household, that I could no longer live under their roof.
Kicked out with a police escort? Yes, I did not go quietly the day they told me to leave, so unbeknownst to my father, my mother, or me, my younger brother called the police. We were outside, fighting and arguing, and a police car pulls up. The police officer put me in the back of the car. I was looking out the back window. My mother was crying.
Were you sad? I felt no remorse whatsoever. I was happy because as a 16-year-old guy, living in south Florida, I could do whatever I wanted to do. No parents breathing down my neck or teachers looking over my shoulder. I felt if I wanted to enjoy the fullness of life that I longed for, I needed to distance myself from my family and ultimately from God. So I lived wildly for about five or six years.
How did you spend your days? I worked at my brother’s surf shop during the day and played pool at night. An old man taught me how to play pool and hustle people.
Why did you stop hustling and go to work in a restaurant when you were 18? You hustle a couple of big guys enough, and get into enough fights, and you decide this isn’t the best way to make a living!
Did you become more responsible? On the one hand I was holding a job and living in a place. (I’d been evicted out of a number of apartments.) On the other hand, I was deeply invested in the rave culture and all of the drugs that accompany that culture. Just giving myself over to a life of debauchery.
Between the ages of 16 and 21, what did you think about God? I never had an intellectual struggle with the Bible, with the gospel, with the claims of Christ. If you had asked me to write a theological statement at that time, I could have written one that would have passed the test of orthodoxy with flying colors. For me, it was, “I want to do what I want to do.” I was afraid that if I surrendered my life over to God, God would tell me not to do those things that I desperately wanted to do.
What happened in 1993, when you were 21? No particular circumstance or event, just a culminating sense of, “There’s gotta be more to life than what I’m experiencing.” God also saved my friend Kim at that time. Six months later we were married.
Did Kim encourage you? She was probably further along at that point, even though she didn’t grow up in a Christian home. When my parents invited her to go to church with them, she said, “I’d like to.” I wasn’t happy about that initially. I was not a Christian at the time, and I thought, “Listen, I’m bad, and I want you to stay bad. I don’t want you to become good, and me to be bad!”
But then you changed also? About the time God was doing something in her, God was bringing me to the end of myself. I saw He doesn’t take away your excitement, He changes what you get excited about. The things I used to hate I started to love, and the things I used to love I started to hate.
Did you go to college? I was a 22-year-old freshman, admitted on probation. When God saved me He gave me a thirst to learn and to read and to study. I thrived in college. I got a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and then went to Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando.
You eventually planted a church a few miles north of D. James Kennedy’s Coral Ridge. After his death the two churches merged with you as senior pastor. How did that work out? The two churches were similar theologically but very different culturally, philosophically, and stylistically, even. We celebrated for two weeks. Then all of the fireworks we anticipated started to go off.
What were the differences? A different philosophy of preaching. A different philosophy of local church ministry. I think a radically different theological understanding of the gospel—that the gospel doesn’t just save you, the gospel grows you once you’re saved. I started preaching the gospel through the book of Jonah, which has parallels to the parable of the prodigal son.
What’s the key teaching in that parable? The younger brother is trying to save himself by breaking the rules. The older brother is trying to save himself by keeping the rules. The same is true in the story of Jonah. The pagan sailors and the pagan Ninevites are a law unto themselves. They’re doing what they want, when they want.
And Jonah? He’s a good guy, trying to save himself by keeping the rules. . . . I’m preaching this when I first get to Coral Ridge, basically saying, “If you’ve been in church for 20 or 30 years, you need the gospel in a different way, but you need the gospel just as much as all the abortionists and homosexuals who are outside the church. They need God’s justifying grace via the gospel, you need God’s sanctifying grace via the gospel.”
You understood the younger brother very well, having lived that way, but you found yourself in a church that you saw as more like the elder brother? Very much so. They had been, for so long, hearing that what was really wrong with the world was out there. Liberal Democrats. Abortionists. Homosexuals. Idolatry outside the church: Clearly identified. Idolatry inside the church: Overlooked.
We have to confront our own idolatry? If we don’t, we have a declining, unhealthy church. Calvin said—this is a paraphrase—The human heart is an idol-making factory, making the good things of God into the ultimate, defining things that we worship. I knew that message had to go forth. We could not be for our city what we needed to be if we did not first grasp the gospel deep in our own bones.
How do we do that? You can’t get it down deep into your bones if you’re not in a local church with a pastor who gets that. He’s got to get that. There’s a lot of moralistic, do-more, try-harder preaching in churches today. The preaching of the gospel is not, “You must do.” The preaching of the gospel is, “Jesus has already done.” There’s a big difference between them.