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Billy Graham’s kin shares a prodigal son story

The pastor’s hair is spiky, his beard is scruffy, his skin is tan. He talks of his youthful forays into drugs and sex. Meet the grandson of evangelist Billy Graham.
Tullian Tchividjian
Tullian Tchividjian, senior pastor of the New City Presbyterian Church, gestures as he preaches during a service Aug. 12 in Coconut Creek, Fla. Wilfredo Lee / ASSOCIATED PRESS
/ Source: The Associated Press

The pastor’s hair is spiky, his beard is scruffy, his skin is tan. He talks of his youthful forays into drugs and sex.

Meet the grandson of evangelist Billy Graham.

Tullian Tchividjian cuts a far different profile than the man he grew up calling Daddy Bill. At 34, back in the fold, with a book just out and a congregation to lead, he says the spiritual path he’s forging is all his own.

“I’m not sure that carrying my grandfather’s torch is what I or any other young evangelical would want said about us,” he said in an interview at his office. “There’s a distinction of what God has called me to do and what God has called him to do.”

That struggle — between who he is and what his family represents — has been playing out throughout Tchividjian’s life.

The middle of seven children born to Stephan Tchividjian and Graham’s eldest daughter, Gigi, the young minister said he couldn’t figure out where he fit in growing up. So he turned to familiar distractions.

“I rebelled against everything my family stood for,” said Tchividjian (his name rhymes with religion).

‘A unique gift of communicating the Gospel’
At 16, unable to obey his parents’ basic rules (like not bringing drugs in the house), he was escorted by police from his home. He dropped out of school and spent the next five years partying on South Beach, trying to pick up girls and getting high.

“I was a wild man. I lived a no-holds-barred lifestyle,” Tchividjian said. “If I believed it would bring me maximum pleasure in the moment, I did it, no matter what it was.”

Eventually, he said, he bottomed out. He arrived home late one night, coming down from a high, and literally fell to the floor.

“God, I have tried my best to ignore you and to do things my way,” he remembers praying. “I’m broken. I’m broken and in need of fixing.”

A classic prodigal son story followed. Tchividjian recommitted himself to Christ, entered the seminary, became a minister. He married and had three children. He started the New City Presbyterian Church, a 450-member church in Coconut Creek. He wrote a book, “Do I Know God?” It was released last month and asks readers to ponder the title’s question.

New City’s music director Brandon Wells, a college friend of Tchividjian, said he sees similarities between grandfather and grandson. Wells said Tchividjian is a traditionalist who stays close to the podium when delivering a sermon, uses notes and takes his message very seriously. New City is a congregation of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a theologically traditionalist denomination.

“Their gifts are different but they both possess a unique gift of communicating the Gospel simply,” Wells said of Graham and his grandson. “Tullian has a more scholarly approach to his preaching ministry than I think his granddad did, but he takes his learning and he’s able to sort of distill it into language that I think everyone can understand.”

Friends from Tchividjian’s youth often stop by Sunday services at New City and are amazed at his turnaround. Sometimes he is too.

‘It’s not a card that I pull’
Now he contemplates his own voice among evangelicals, one he hopes is known among his congregants for voicing what he is for as much as what he is against. He sees it as a positive message — and an apolitical one.

“Evangelicals, by and large, began to believe that the way to change the world we live in was through the political process,” he said. “While we need to remain culturally engaged, the political process is not the only way.”

As for his grandfather, Tchividjian calls him one of his closest friends and one of his most reliable counselors. As a kid, he spent about six weeks at Graham’s North Carolina home each summer, and a couple more when his grandfather visited Florida around Thanksgiving. He didn’t always recognize how important Daddy Bill was.

He knows full well now what Graham’s effect on Christianity has been. Photographs of the man known as America’s pastor are piled on the young preacher’s desk. A recommendation letter Graham wrote on his grandson’s behalf is beside his computer.

Graham also wrote the forward to Tchividjian’s book and his name is at the top of its cover. The rest of the book seldom mentions the famous preacher.

“It’s a heritage that I’m very proud of,” he said. “But it’s not a card that I pull to get places or to meet people or to do things.”

In the new book, Graham writes about his grandson’s return to faith and the message he promulgates. Graham calls it an answer to his prayer.