In 1959, God began to stir in the hearts of a few men and women the desire to advance the Gospel in South Florida by planting a new church. The Everglades Presbytery would call it the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale, and was officially chartered in 1960. A few local ministers from Bethany Presbyterian Church became the sponsoring committee and filled the pulpit until a pastor was found.


On May 3, 1959, the first church service was held in the McNab Elementary School cafetorium, with 38 in attendance. Despite hard bench seats and the lack of air-conditioning, God began to gather a group of people who were to form the core of this new church. The Presbytery appointed Coral Ridge’s first pastor in June of 1959, D. James Kennedy, a 28-year-old from Tampa.

After three months, the church had dwindled to only 17 attendees. To many, it seemed as if failure was eminent. But those faithful few remained committed to the advancement of the Gospel in the city. Kennedy knew God had more in store for Coral Ridge and charged the nearly 20 congregants in 1960 saying, “I believe we can change the world!” – a belief that would shape the church’s future.

Kennedy emphasized the importance of sharing the Gospel with the surrounding community, and with an intentional presence in the city, membership began to increase at a phenomenal rate. God blessed these small beginnings and on May 22, 1960, Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church was officially chartered. There were 66 charter members. The church met faithfully at the McNab School for two years, while families provided their homes for Wednesday evening prayer meetings.


By early 1961, Coral Ridge began looking for its first church site. A plot of land was scouted on Commercial Boulevard, 1.5 miles from the beach. The area was mostly undeveloped at the time, with few homes close to the property. The Commercial Boulevard drawbridge over the Intracoastal had not yet been built, which would limit access to beach residents. The thought of developing this land was soon considered foolish by the Presbytery. But in the summer of 1961, a gentleman by the name of Dr. Larson convinced the Presbytery to purchase and donate the land to Coral Ridge. The purchase became highly criticized and the new property became known by church members and the surrounding community as “Larson’s Folly.” As an overpriced sand hill full of weeds, there seemed to be little possibility that any significant church could be developed there.


Larson’s Folly, however, was no match for God’s wisdom, and on March 18, 1962, the first service was held in the new Sanctuary on Commercial Boulevard. The new building was dedicated on May 13, 1962.


Coral Ridge soon became the fastest-growing Presbyterian congregation in the country and would hold that title for the next 15 years. The spirit that prevailed in the church and among the members was infectious and their commitment to sharing the Gospel with the community had never been stronger. Worshipers often had to wait in lines as long as half an hour to gain admittance to a service. In mid-season, as many as five services became necessary to accommodate attendees. Others were turned away or gave up coming rather than cope with the crowds. In 1965, the city firehouse was purchased for administration, Sunday School, and a youth facility. In 1966, an annex was added to the Sanctuary, increasing the capacity from 500-800 persons. A Fellowship Hall was also added for an additional 300 worshippers, with closed circuit television for overflow crowds.



The Gospel continued taking root in the lives of South Florida residents throughout the ’60s and many became eager to get involved with all Coral Ridge had to offer. Pastors from around the country would write to the church to ask about the secret of its growth. From engaging classes and an interactive youth ministry to a world-class choir, it seemed as if Coral Ridge had something to offer for everyone.


The church’s local evangelism outreach is credited for much of the growth, recording over 800 decisions to follow Christ in 1967. With such high success, churches from around the country became quick to adapt Coral Ridge’s programs to meet their own needs. On February 20, 1967, the first evangelism training clinic was held at the church with 36 pastors in attendance. These clinics would become an annual part of the life of Coral Ridge.


In November of 1969, Coral Ridge’s Sunday School was chosen by Christian Life Magazine as the most outstanding Sunday School in America. In 1970, Decision Magazine named Coral Ridge one of the five great churches in America.


In 1970, Gospel Films produced a one-hour, color motion picture on the life and ministry of Coral Ridge and its pastor, D. James Kennedy. The film was entitled Like a Mighty Army. In the few years after the film’s release, it had been shown in more churches throughout the world than any film in history. Approximately 50 percent of churches showing the film reported starting evangelism programs as a result. In 1971, fifteen hundred pastors and church leaders asked to attend Coral Ridge’s annual evangelism training clinic, credited to the film’s release.2.


Despite the enlargements to the church facility on Commercial Boulevard, there was an ever increasing need to handle the expanding crowds and ministries of the church. The original plan was to expand the church’s property down Commercial Boulevard, but it became unfeasible to do so. It was clear that the congregation would have to build an entirely new structure. Kennedy had his eyes set on purchasing 10 acres of land on Federal Highway, north of Commercial Boulevard. A shopping plaza was intended to occupy the land and the owner would not sell. Kennedy would not take no for an answer, and for seven days, Kennedy and friend Bill Bright (Founder, Campus Crusade for Christ) prayed over the land. They prayed that God would allow Coral Ridge to purchase the property and that God would use the land to change the world. God answered their prayer and on Easter Sunday of 1971, a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the construction of the new church tower. The architect selected was Harold E. Wagoner of Philadelphia, considered at the time to be the most outstanding church architect in America.


With a continued emphasis placed on Gospel-centered education, in 1971 Coral Ridge established Westminster Academy, a K-12 school. The spirit of the Protestant Reformers and their quest to educate their covenant children for the glory of God would continue on through Westminster Academy. The school’s first days were held at the Pompano Race Track, but soon an additional five acres of land were purchased next to the new church property for a school facility.



The large crowds, many programs, and magnificent building that characterized Coral Ridge were only a reflection of the work God was continuing to do through his people. With continued growth throughout the ’70s, an all-time peak Sunday attendance was recorded on Easter of 1974, with over 10,000 worshipers.


As the annual evangelism clinics continued to grow, it became more than the church staff could manage. So in 1972, Coral Ridge incorporated Evangelism Explosion International (EE) as a separate ministry to take on the work of training churches in how to share the Gospel and to expand the ministry globally. In 1972, EE started holding clinics across the United States. By 1975, EE had launched across Europe, Africa, and Australia. EE entered Asia in 1978.


By late 1971, construction of the new building was well underway. At 303 feet tall, the new steeple would be seen for miles in any direction, lifting the cross of Jesus high over Fort Lauderdale. This cross in the sky would point men’s 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 that would spot its red warning lights in the night. Fitted with a radio antenna, station WAFG would begin its first broadcast from the tower on July 4, 1974. Operated by Westminster Academy, the radio ministry would be carried on more than 30 stations around the country. God would effectively use WAFG to reach the South Florida community with the Gospel throughout the week and to broadcast the Sunday services. Eighteen thousand pieces of faceted glass would make up the windows for the Sanctuary and tower, made by Willet Studios of Philadelphia. Inside the Sanctuary, a 6,600-pipe organ would be installed, made by Fratelli Ruffatti of Italy. At the time of its construction, it is believed that Coral Ridge had the highest faceted glass windows in the world. The Ruffatti organ was the largest pipe organ in the Southern United States and the largest European-built pipe organ in America. Today, Coral Ridge is the fifth tallest church in America (second tallest Protestant Church).


By November of 1973, the new Sanctuary was almost complete. Although the pews and flooring had not yet arrived, church members eagerly prepared to welcome their new guests. The concrete floor of the Sanctuary was filled with folding chairs, and with a large projector and synchronized show, hundreds of members gathered on November 30 for a church kickoff and new-service training. The pews and flooring arrived on December 20 and church members spent three days installing pews, laying flooring, and hanging Christmas garland. Over 8,000 people attended Opening Day on December 23, believed to be a record for any church in South Florida. The building was dedicated on February 3, 1974 and Billy Graham was the guest speaker. Large screens were set on the outside lawn with benches made of cinder block and wood planks. Large storm clouds hovered over Fort Lauderdale on February 3, a sure sign that the thousands seated on the lawn would be sent home. During the service, rain could be seen in all directions around the church, but the lawn remained dry throughout the evening. Over 11,000 people attended the Day of Dedication. Five hundred ninety-seven decisions to follow Christ were recorded that day. The Ruffatti pipe organ was en route from Italy at the time of the Building Dedication. Installation of the organ began in March of 1974, and the Dedication Service was held on January 5, 1975.



The late ’70s and ’80s were a time of much excitement as Coral Ridge pressed on in its commitment to impact as many people as possible with the message of the Gospel.


With Coral Ridge’s growing worldwide exposure, the church’s pastor, D. James Kennedy, and several members had a burden for the worship services to be shared with far more than those who filled the Sanctuary on Sunday mornings. Coral Ridge soon launched a new venture, airing the first nationwide television broadcast on September 17, 1978. This one-hour telecast, entitled The Coral Ridge Hour, would eventually expand the Sunday morning audience to over three million viewers per week in 165 countries on 675 stations.


With a vision to become the center for art and culture in the city, Coral Ridge launched its Concert Series in 1971. The Concert Series attracted the finest of music and performance as they sought to educate, enlighten, and spiritually enrich church members and the community.


In the early 1980s, Coral Ridge, in many ways, helped define the term “mega-church.” The church not only provided a place of worship but also had a day care, K-12 school, radio station, television program, concert series, global ministries, social programs, and dozens of activities for attendees. Other large churches had, in fact, existed for centuries, but there was no unique term to describe these large congregations. The Miami Herald coined the term “mega-church” in an article about Coral Ridge on Easter of 1983. The article, entitled “Like a Mighty Army, Moves the Church of God,” discussed the thousands who would appear at the Coral Ridge “mega-church” that Easter Sunday.


By 1985, there were more Evangelism Explosion trainings held overseas than were held in the United States as EE spread rapidly across Asia and South America. In 1988, with EE in 66 nations, Kennedy set a goal to expand into every country. By early 1996, EE was planted in all nation of the world with materials translated into more than 70 languages. A celebration would be held at Coral Ridge in 1996 with every nation represented.


The original building plans included a church facility that was more than double the size of the 1974 structure but it was never completed. With the demands of increased activities and growth, it became apparent that the church would need to finish the building. A groundbreaking ceremony for the expanded facility took place on Easter of 1988. The additions would be comprised of two flanking sides to the main tower and would include a Chapel, Fellowship Hall, children’s and youth facilities, a television studio, and more office space. Construction of the expanded facility was completed in late 1989 and dedicated on April 1, 1990.


With a desire to take the truth of Jesus Christ to the world and a need for higher Christian education, Coral Ridge established Knox Seminary to train pastors and laypersons in a graduate school of theology. Knox Seminary opened its doors in September of 1990.