D. James Kennedy was born in Augusta, Georgia but moved to Chicago, Illinois, in childhood. His father was a glass salesman and his parents were United Methodists. Kennedy joined the Boy Scouts and later moved with his family to Tampa, Florida, where he graduated from Henry B. Plant High School in 1948 and then began studying English at the University of Tampa. After two years, he dropped out of college and began working as a dance instructor at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Tampa, winning first prize in a nationwide dance contest. On August 25, 1956, he married Anne Lewis, whom he met while giving her dance lessons at Arthur Murray. They had one daughter, Jennifer, born in 1962.
In December 1955, Kennedy decided to quit his Arthur Murray job to enter the ministry. He resumed his studies at the University of Tampa (graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in 1958) and began preaching at the small Bethel Presbyterian Church in nearby Clearwater, Florida. The following year, Kennedy entered Columbia Theological Seminary, receiving a Master of Divinity degree. After his ordination in 1959, Kennedy became the pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, where he remained until his death. In the 1970s he earned a Master of Theology summa cum laude from the Chicago Graduate School of Theology, and in 1979 a doctorate in religious education from New York University. His doctoral dissertation was on the history of an evangelism program he founded. Kennedy said that he earned a Ph D. "to dispel the idea there is an inconsistency between evangelism and education...evangelical ministers [need] to be thoroughly educated and equipped to meet on equal terms anyone with whom they come in contact".
Kennedy founded the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida in 1960. Beginning with 45 attending a typical Sunday service, it became the fastest-growing Presbyterian church in the U.S. in the 1960s and had 1,366 members by 1968. By the 1980s, its membership had grown to almost 10,000. In February 1974, the church's present sanctuary with a 300-foot (91 m) tower and seating 2,500 was dedicated by Billy Graham. The large Fratelli Rufatti pipe organ has 117 ranks of pipes and is regularly featured on the television programs of virtuoso organist Diane Bish.
In 1974, the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church began its radio and television ministry, which now has a weekly audience of 3.5 million people. The Coral Ridge Hour airs on more than 400 stations and four cable networks, including the Trinity Broadcasting Network, The Inspiration Network (INSP) and the NRB Network, and is broadcast to more than 150 countries on the Armed Forces Network.
The church is located at 5555 N. Federal Highway (U.S. 1) in Ft. Lauderdale.