Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church marks 60 years of ministry in 2020 with a rich history of evangelism and global outreach under its founding pastor for 48 years, the late Rev. Dr. D. James Kennedy and now forging ahead under the leadership of Pastor Rob Pacienza, who grew up in the church and met his wife, Jen, at Westminster Academy. “Endeavoring to be a church that eagerly ministers in the present and expectantly looks toward the future,” Pacienza said, “we like to say we’re old-fashioned in a brand new way.”
Kennedy was well-known in both the church and political realms, becoming the most listened to Presbyterian minister in the world through weekly television and radio programs, and was recognized as one of the leading Christian statesmen of his day. In an early letter, Dr. Kennedy wrote, “May it be that future generations will find here a citadel of faith and the church built solidly upon the Rock which is Christ Jesus.”
The early years
In its beginning, Coral Ridge became the fastest growing Presbyterian congregation in the country and held that title for 15 years. Although they originally met in the McNab School cafetorium, the first church structure was built on Commercial Boulevard with a maximum capacity of 800 and was quickly outgrown. This led to construction of the current sanctuary, located at 5555 N. Federal Hwy. At 303 feet tall, the church steeple can be seen for miles in any direction, lifting the cross of Jesus high over Fort Lauderdale and pointing thoughts and eyes heavenward. “It would draw thousands to hear God’s life-giving gospel each week and serve as a beacon to ships and aircraft.” The iconic steeple was fitted with a radio antenna and broadcast the gospel and Sunday services through station WAFG radio for many years. Eighteen thousand pieces of faceted glass make up the windows for the sanctuary and tower, and a 6,600-pipe organ, made by Fratelli Ruffatti of Italy, is installed inside. Today, Coral Ridge is the 5th tallest church in America and seats about 2,500. The building was dedicated on February 3, 1974 when the late Evangelist Billy Graham addressed an overflow crowd of 11,000 people.
Not long after, Coral Ridge began airing it’s nationwide television broadcast on Sunday mornings entitled The Coral Ridge Hour. The show would eventually expand to over three million viewers per week in 165 countries on 675 stations. By the 1980s, Coral Ridge not only provided a place for worship, but also had a day-care, a K-12 school, radio station, television program, concert series, global ministries, social programs and dozens of activities. In a 1983 article about Coral Ridge entitled “Like A Mighty Army Moves the Church of God,” The Miami Herald, discussing the thousands who would appear at the “mega-church” that Easter Sunday, helped define the term “mega-church.” Pacienza explained, “The Miami Herald was the local influence and then when Time Magazine did a story on Dr. Kennedy and Coral Ridge, they picked up ‘mega-church’ from The Miami Herald and that’s when it became kind of a popular way to identify a large church.”
Holding that Christians should not only be involved in spiritual matters, but also active and knowledgeable as citizens, Dr. Kennedy was an outspoken leader in conservative politics. Asked about his view on civic involvement, Pacienza said, “I always tell our congregation here at Coral Ridge, yes, your faith is deeply personal, but it’s never private. Your deeply personal faith is supposed to be manifested in a public manner. It’s supposed to manifest itself in your workplace, in your community, and that includes government and politics.”
This is evident in their efforts to encourage congregants to register and vote as well as in developing a Biblical worldview that filters all of life through the lens of Scripture.
“Coral Ridge is partnering with a non-partisan nonprofit called Vote Your Faith (votefaith.org) that is encouraging, mobilizing and empowering people of faith to get registered and vote… We love our neighbor by sharing the love of Jesus with them and sacrificially serving them, but we vote in order to protect our freedoms to be able to do that,” Pacienza said. The church is also currently hosting a Wednesday night series online entitled “Renewing Your Mind” with guest speakers from around the country to help people think with a Christian worldview.
Speaking of Dr. Kennedy’s civic involvement, Pacienza said, “We have the same ultimate purpose. We want culture-shaping Christians. That’s our goal, but I think there are things that resonate with this generation and generations to follow that are going to look different and sound different, so we have to be flexible enough to change methodology and messaging.”
Passing the baton
Pacienza came to faith at the age of 14 after being invited on a youth missions trip with Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. “Little did I know it would be that trip where the gospel I had been listening to under Dr. Kennedy would crystalize, and I gave my life to Jesus. Later that year I shared the gospel with my mom and my stepfather and had the privilege of seeing them come to Jesus as well. We joined the church the following year in 1995 and the rest is history.”
As a youth, Pacienza attended Westminster Academy where he played football and ran track as well as singing in the church choir. However, it was an interaction with Dr. Kennedy during his junior year of high school that resulted in him taking an interest in understanding the Bible, theology and ministry. “As a student I gave a report and shared the impact of Westminster on my life and my family ‘s life. In the context of my testimony, I talked about the importance of having a Christian school that raised up the next generation of leaders. Afterwards Dr. Kennedy thanked me for speaking and said, ‘We thank God that you are one of those Christian leaders God is raising up for the next generation, and maybe you’ll have an opportunity to lead here in this very pulpit.’ He later thanked me privately and asked if I’d ever considered the ministry. Up until that time I had not,” said Pacienza, adding “that began a relationship in which Dr. Kennedy really took me under his wings and served as an important spiritual father in my life.”
Rob’s first job was at Coral Ridge pulling cable for the cameras on Sunday mornings. He earned a degree in religion at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. After graduation, he and his wife Jen, who he met at Westminster Academy, returned to South Florida where Pacienza was brought on staff at Rio Vista Community Church, serving as Youth Pastor and then Executive Pastor. However, he returned to Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in 2009 to serve as Executive Pastor during its most tumultuous time.
“I think when there was so much turmoil here in 2009 and the church splitting – in many ways we were a ministry couple that were grounded in the ministry here in the past and young enough that we would relate to the new people that were coming,” Pacienza said.
Tullian Tchividjian, the late Evangelist Billy Graham’s grandson, had succeeded Dr. Kennedy as senior pastor of Coral Ridge and brought Pacienza on board. Tullian’s church plant, New City, had merged with Coral Ridge and his contemporary style did not mesh with a group of Coral Ridge church members who circulated a petition asking for his removal. While the church voted to retain Tullian as pastor, some congregants left, forming a new church.
Tullian later resigned from the pulpit in June of 2015 after admitting he had an extramarital affair. After a comprehensive search, Pacienza was confirmed as the Lead Pastor on March 13, 2016, with Search Committee Chairman Rod Hayes stating, “We found the best candidate right under our noses.”
Asked how this experience impacted his thinking, Pacienza said, “I think I learned a lot about how to care for and shepherd people through that time… What I learned about myself is I’m not called to ministry for me to be the hero or the messiah. I’m here to be the servant of God. So my goal is not for everybody to like me and agree with me. My calling is to be faithful… I also learned the importance of accountability. On the personal side, ministry is lonely. Pastors are lonely. And I thank God for guys like Stephan Tchividjian and Eddie Copeland who started Church United. Because Church United was really birthed out of the tragedies of Calvary Chapel and the tragedies of Coral Ridge. And just recognizing, how do we prevent this?… It’s making sure I have men in my life that are speaking truth that can challenge me on the hard things and really inviting that into my life.”
However, it was a family tragedy on October 22, 2017, when their three-year-old daughter Lilianne “Lily” Pacienza died suddenly in her sleep, that had the greatest impact on his ministry. “That was early on in my calling here as lead pastor, and I think I would say that, more than anything, radically transformed our home, our family, and also my call to ministry. I’m not just coming to you as pastor, but as a broken father, and I think that changed my preaching. It changed my counseling. It changed just my ability to empathize.”
Calling it the hardest thing they’ve ever been through, Pacienza added, “It really inspired my wife and I with this whole idea of raising up kingdom citizens starting at a very early age, because you just saw the brevity of life. Don’t take life for granted. So how do we start with this idea of raising up and equipping Christians… as infants. How are we already helping to shape their world view? It gave us a burden for the next generation maybe more than if we had not gone through this tragedy.”
Looking to the future
Where does Pacienza see Coral Ridge going from here?
“It will be the same message we’ve had for 60 years – a commitment to the Great Commission and the Cultural Mandate. We want culture-shaping Christians, so we really desire to raise up the next generation of faithful witnesses who will take the baton from those dear members that have faithfully poured their heart and soul into this church and with humility, understanding the great responsibility of stewarding this legacy, steward this vision for the next 60 years.”
While a grand 60th anniversary reunion celebration had been planned for mid-November, Pacienza said the COVID-19 pandemic has caused them to postpone that to some time in 2021. “We want to do it right, without social distancing and when people can travel across the nation and even internationally to attend… And once we’re beyond this pandemic, we’ll be launching a capital campaign called Generation to Generation designed to take a 45-year-old building and bring it into the 21st century.”
Instead, they have switched gears and are producing a television documentary that will air in December or January featuring the local, national and global impact of Coral Ridge. The program may air locally on WSVN7 and nationally on Lifetime network and direct TV stations like TBN, Church Channel and NRB. “That will be a big part of our 60th anniversary as well – getting that message out there of what God has done and what we hope he continues to do for the next 60 years.”