February 3, 2017
by J.D. Greear
Read more from our 15-year celebration magazine at summitrdu.com/15years.
This January marks 15 years since we relaunched Homestead Heights Baptist Church as The Summit Church. I’ve been here for all 15 of those wonderful, exciting, and often hair-raising years, and I have never ceased to be amazed at what God has chosen to do here. Reading over the stories in this magazine has reminded me, yet again, how grateful I am to be at a place where the Spirit of God is the primary mover. And when I reflect on the fact that his past graces to us are evidence of his intention to pour out future graces through us, I can barely contain my enthusiasm. The stunning history of our church leads us to pray big and bold prayers for our future.
All throughout Scripture, God’s people are told to remember: to relive and celebrate God’s miraculous actions in the past to fuel our ambitions for what he will do today. So as we look ahead to what God has in store for the Summit in the next 15 years, let’s take some time to look back on some of the defining moments God has used to get us here.
1. From the Heights to the Summit
In late November of 2001, 300 members of Homestead Heights gathered together and covenanted together to a) do whatever it took to reach people and b) follow the Holy Spirit wherever he leaded. None of us had any idea where this was headed, but those 300 knew that they were stepping out in faith, taking a great risk on God.
The selflessness displayed by those 300 still astounds me. God gave to Gideon 300 faithful warriors who feared nothing but God; these were mine.
I remember the day we baptized the first black man at our church. His name was Antwain, and he had a rough past, to put it mildly—gang activity, violence, and crime. By God’s grace and through our friendship, the light of grace finally broke through. As Antwain stood before our church the morning of his baptism, he looked at our congregation—nearly all white at the time—and said, “Some of my friends ask me why I go over to ‘that white church.’ But I tell them, ‘It’s not a white church. This church is where I met Jesus, and he’s the Savior of whatever color.’” Then I baptized him.
After the service, an older gentleman, one of our future elders, came up to me and said, “Son, you know I don’t like a lot of these changes you’re making here in our church …” Then he got choked up and said, “But if that right there is what we’re getting, you can count me in for every single one.” The mission meant more than personal comfort.
Shortly thereafter, our surrender to the leadership of the Holy Spirit led us to change our name to The Summit Church, to sell our property, and to move 1,000 Summit members to Riverside High School in an attempt to make more room for people coming to Jesus.
Obscure piece of trivia: Sometimes people ask me, “Why ‘Summit’ Church?” After all, Durham is not known for its towering mountains. “Summit” is an adaptation of “Homestead Heights,” the original name for the church, which was named for the community in which it was located. (“Homestead Heights,” in turn, got its name from being one of the highest points in Durham County. So the Summit is at the top of the non-existing mountains in the Triangle.) Even though “Summit” is not a great reflection of our geographical location, it does convey our belief that God wants to give us great vision for the future, taking us to new heights in ministry with him.
2. The Mormonization Strategy
College students “discovered” the Summit in 2003. If I’m remembering rightly, it went something like this: One week about five college students visited. They liked the service, and because college students travel in herds, the next week they brought back 250 of their friends. They came in three cars.
In a period of less than a month, our attendance doubled. And during that same time, our weekly average giving increased by $13.48. College students bring a lot of great things to our church, but money is not one of them.
One of my favorite memories as a pastor is a Sunday morning when an usher came up to me after the first service with a bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit from Bojangles. One of the college students had placed it in the offering plate with a little note on it that read (charitably misquoting Acts 3:6), “Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have, give I unto you.”
This growing number of college students meant that even though we wouldn’t be the wealthiest church, we would always have a large pool of potential missionaries. We began to challenge our graduating seniors to let ministry be the most shaping factor in determining where they would pursue their careers. As we tell them now, “Do what you do well for the glory of God. And do it somewhere strategic for the mission of God.” Hundreds upon hundreds of these students have answered that call.
As we have made room for them, God has provided for us. One week, after we sent out a bunch of college students, a guest from the West Coast visiting our church was so moved by the number of students he saw that he committed to give us $186,000. I stood up the next week and told our students, “Okay, guys, for the foreseeable future, financially, you are covered.”
Having college students at our church isn’t just about reaching a young, exciting audience. It’s about seeing God fulfill his promise to us in Psalm 2:8 to raise up a generation that will carry the gospel to the nations: “Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance” (NIV).
3. A Church for the City
Early in my ministry, I remember preaching through the book of Acts, and in Acts 8 we came to the story of Philip’s revival in Samaria. As a result of Philip’s ministry, Luke says, there was “great joy” in the city (Acts 8:8). Sadly, our ministry did not seem to be having the effect on our communities that the early Christians had on theirs.
I had just gotten back from a short-term mission trip to Southeast Asia, where I had spent time in the small city in the Islamic country I lived in for two years as a church planter. The city has a big gate marking entry into it, and as I passed through it, all of these old emotions I had felt about that city during my time there flooded into my heart. That had been my city—I was the only church planter within a hundred miles, and I had felt like God had made me responsible for it. During the time that I lived there, I had prayer-walked that city repeatedly; I felt that its schools were my schools; its problems, my problems; its lostness, my lostness. As I felt all those old emotions, a question popped into my head:
Why don’t you feel that way about your current city?
That piercing question marked the beginning of a new period of community engagement. I told the church that I needed to repent. No longer would our focus simply be on growing the church, I said. Instead, we would seek to reach and bless the city.
So we began to ask ourselves: “Where can we bring ‘great joy’ to our city as a demonstration of the gospel?” I met with the mayor and asked him to list out the five most underserved parts of our city so we could get involved there. The recurring answer: schools. And just like that, ServeRDU was born.
The beginnings were modest. Through one teacher, we found out about a family in need of temporary housing. One of our church members, who was about to get married, asked his guests to redirect any wedding presents to this family to stock their house. That led to another teacher inviting us to come pray for the students during their “end of grade” (EOG) exams. When their test scores were the highest on record, we were allowed in to paint classrooms, scrub floors, and bring teachers breakfast.
By God’s grace, ServeRDU has just kept expanding. Years after that first visit, I was invited to speak at our city’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. rally. Durham is 40 percent African-American, so this event is a big deal. I agreed, but not being the typical candidate to keynote an MLK rally, I was a nervous wreck. The county manager, sensing my anxiety, said, “J.D., do you know why you were asked to speak today?”
“No sir,” I said.
“It’s because of how your church has blessed our city.” Another city official shared with me later that afternoon, “It seems that everywhere in our city we find a need, we also find people from The Summit Church meeting that need. And we couldn’t think of anyone to better embody the spirit of brotherly love we want to honor on this day than you all at the Summit.”
God has continued to renew our call to our city, raising up new leaders in our midst to carry out new and innovative ministries. We exist to serve the city, to bring joy to it. God has given us five specific areas to work in: with the homeless, orphans, prisoners, unwed mothers, and disconnected youth. In recent years we’ve helped launch ReCity, an organization that helps disconnected youth find community and the resources they need. And we’ve seen a steady stream of prisoners attending our church every weekend, many of whom have accepted Christ. In fact, my favorite “giving” story of all time comes from a prisoner who sent $5 to us, with this note: “I know this isn’t much, but it’s 10 percent of what I have. I already feel like a member of your church .… I have been saved for the last 18 months now, and I can see God changing my life. Your preaching is like Tupac’s rapping—the raw, uncut truth, only in the pulpit.”
4. Church at the Ballpark
By the year 2011, the Summit had expanded to become multi-site—a decision that we stumbled into as a way of bringing the church closer to the communities in which people live. It had been years since the entire church had gathered in one location—until we hosted Church at the Ballpark.
In 2011 and then again in 2013, we met as one church in one location in the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, in the heart of Durham. During that second Church at the Ballpark, we had 11,500 people in the stadium for an incredible service. On that Sunday, 554 people got baptized. College students came forward with their suitemates. Families were baptized together. Husbands baptized wives. A college-aged Satanist renounced her Satanism and embraced Christ as Savior. As one of our older staff members said, “I’ve been working in churches for a long time, and I’ve never been a part of anything like this before.”
Church at the Ballpark renewed in me the profound sense that the Summit is not a movement started by man but a movement started by God for the salvation of the Triangle. We aren’t committed to gathering a crowd of 11,000 or baptizing 500. We’re committed to making disciples and transforming our community. The spiritual “high” of Church at the Ballpark has led us to redouble our efforts to see real life change in our people. Big events wear off; seeing lives change in response to the gospel never gets old.
When I first became pastor in 2002, the religion editor of the Durham Herald-Sun asked me how many people I thought The Summit Church might reach. “How big do you think it will become?” I said, “I don’t know. Maybe 2,000?” She chuckled and said, “I’ve lived here for 60 years. No church in Durham ever gets above 1,000.” Two years ago, three of the top 30 fastest growing churches in America were in Durham. God is doing a new and awesome thing in our area.
5. Return of the James
The Summit Church was planted in 1962 by a man named Sam James. God called Sam and his wife Rachel to be missionaries to Vietnam, but their departure was slowed by a medical problem with their oldest son. Sam was frustrated by the delay, but he used the time to help get a new church started in northern Durham. After working with them for eight months, they officially launched “The Homestead Heights Baptist Mission” on March 4, 1962.
The sermon Sam preached to launch the church was from William Carey’s famous missionary text, Isaiah 54:2-3:
Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes. For you will spread out to the right and to the left; your descendants will dispossess nations and settle in their desolate cities.
Carey used that text more than 300 years ago to remind churches in England that with the blessing of the gospel came the responsibility to take it to others. Sam told that new congregation the same thing, and then he and Rachel left that very afternoon for Vietnam.
When I met Sam in 2009, he told me, “William Carey’s dream for the English-speaking world has always been my dream for Homestead Heights. They started well, but after a few years the church seems to have lost its way, getting mired in maintenance of the status quo. Yet I knew God had given this church a special commission to reach the nations.”
In 2012, Sam graciously joined us for the ten-year anniversary of our “re-launch” as The Summit Church. He stood on our stage with tears in his eyes, and with a tremble in his voice, he said, “Honestly, I thought the vision God had given me of starting a church that sent missionaries to the nations had failed. But seeing you here today and hearing about how God is now using you among the nations is enough to make an old man’s dream come true.”
God founded this church with sending in mind. It’s in our DNA. As I’ve said before, God didn’t come up with a mission for his church; he created the church for the sake of his mission. Here at the Summit, you’ve taken that challenge seriously. The first two years I pastored here, the International Mission Board (IMB) told us that we had given more money per capita than any other church. And today we have more missionaries on the field than any other church, seven times as many as the next church.
The Best Is Yet to Come
I hope you won’t hear it as merely rhetoric when I say that I truly believe that the best days for the Summit are ahead of us. When we think about it through the lens of the promises of Scripture, they have to be! There are still more than 6,000 unreached people groups in the world, and history cannot end until they have been given a gospel witness. There are still dark and hopeless areas of the Triangle, and the Summit will not rest until everyone knows the richness of the love of Christ. God raises up churches for the purpose of the Great Commission. As long as we stay unified behind the priority of the gospel, surrendered to the leading of the Holy Spirit, I believe he’ll continue to use us in ways beyond all that we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:18-20).
The Summit Church is not a mighty church. We don’t necessarily have the best preachers, richest members, or greatest musicians. But we are mighty in our confidence that God will do what he said he will do, that he is not willing that any should perish, and that his arm is not shortened that it cannot save nor his ear heavy that it cannot hear. We lean all our hope for the future on his intentions for the church, not on our ability to make it happen.
As I said at the beginning, “past graces” in our lives are evidences that God wants to bestow future graces. God has been incredibly gracious to the Summit. Why would the Holy Spirit have done that if it were not to give us an unprecedented effectiveness among our neighbors, in our nation, and around the world? God does what he does not to preserve institutions but for the sake of the Great Commission. It’s all about the mission of seeking and saving the lost. I look forward to how the Holy Spirit leads us to love God, love others, and love our world in the days to come. I know that if we cling to Christ, we can look forward to the future with hope, knowing that the best is yet to come.