MMC 2010: J.D. Greear’s Passion for the Church
NORMAN—Modern American evangelicalism is a conference culture. The history of the Southern Baptist Convention is filled with the presence of annual conferences which can easily propel a gifted pastor toward celebrity status. A large church in an influential city joined with youthful vigor and preaching skills which evidence a depth of theological acumen is just the recipe for stardom in the modern world of the SBC. Less stable men can crack under the pressure or expand their newfound stardom to the point that they become the entire focus of their ministry. It is an acceptable form of narcissism that is almost required by some pastors.
Normally, this has been the progression across evangelical life unless something happens which deflects their vision off themselves. For J.D. Greear, lead pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, N.C., that happened to him in a most unsuspecting manner. The 36-year-old pastor of one of America’s fastest growing churches seems to possess a genuine self-effacing manner about himself even as he can be found on the speaking circuit of some of the most prestigious preaching opportunities in America.
Yet, few who observe him today could guess that this church was once numbered among the many declining churches in the SBC. Summit (as it is commonly known) was once the dying Homestead Heights Church in Durham. When Greear originally went there as a staff pastor, he did not envision that soon he would be asked to assume the office of senior pastor. Since that time in 2002, the church has sold its property, relocated to a public school, purchased additional property and is now a multi-site church ministering to more than 3,000 people every Sunday.
At the 2010 Missional Ministry Conference sponsored by the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, however, Greear established the theological foundations by which the church of Jesus Christ can convey truth and engage a modern culture of moral relativism.
Seldom does Greear wear a suit, and his sermonic style is somewhat a blend of verse-by-verse exposition and a conversation he might have with someone over coffee. Sociologists might label him a religious social entrepreneur because he has led Summit to participate in city-wide events and international outreaches to countries around the world. He speaks quickly, and his presence commands attention.
Author of the new book, Breaking the Islam Code, Greear said, “God’s evangelism strategy for any community is planting a church in that community. The church is the missionary.”
As a result, Greear added, the church’s small groups become “catalysts for evangelism,” pointing out that in Acts 2:42-47, “the believers devoted themselves to one another and the Lord added daily to their number.”
“So, why does the Holy Spirit first plant a church?” Greear asked. “Because the church is God’s demonstration community. The church manifests God’s wisdom, love, character and generosity.”
“It does that in three ways. First by doing signs of the Gospel in the community. The Acts 2 church demonstrated the beauty of the Gospel by supernatural healing, helping the poor, etc. Second, the unity of the church body was, itself, a sign of the Gospel, and third, the Gospel was displayed by their extravagant generosity.”
The early church’s example results in three implications for modern believers, said Greear, who pointed out that of 40 miracles described in the book of Acts, 39 were performed outside the church.
“Love on display is the ultimate apologetic,” he said. “We must be committed to giving signs of the Gospel in our communities today. When we get in the game and run the play, God’s power shows up in the community.
“Our small groups should themselves be a display of the Gospel. We must love each other and take care of each other. We disinfect new Christians, but we don’t disciple them!”
After graduation from Campbell University he served as a missionary in Indonesia and later returned to Southeastern Seminary to receive his Ph.D. in theology. He finally landed at Homestead Heights, where change began almost immediately. Following the initial turmoil of setting the stage for a comeback with this church, Greear was experiencing the benefits of this surge in attendance and prominence. He later found himself on the platform of the Southern Baptist Pastor’s Conference in 2007, where he shared Summit’s story.
When he returned to the United States and began ministry in Durham, he soon realized that he was building a subculture where he was taking people out of the city and cloistering them in the church. He no longer thought and lived as a missionary. Rather, he actually removed the critical resources needed to restore a gospel witness to the very people he had come to serve. In this comprehensive expansion of the church’s vision, Greear sought to reverse that trend.
He quickly began to pray differently about a new evolution in the vision of his church. In what is almost an unprecedented occurrence for a pastor of his caliber, he shifted attention, power and focus from himself toward a new church-wide vision where he was but one part of the entire vision of reaching the city of Durham.
“I didn’t want to have bigger and bigger buildings with pictures of me on buses all around the city,” Greear once told a group of church planters in North Carolina. Instead, he worked to mobilize efforts to reach people and actually change Durham with the Gospel. To better explain his hope to his congregation he once asked them, “What if we as a church no longer existed in this city? Would anyone miss us? Would anything change if we disappeared tomorrow?” The answer proved to be a turning point for the entire congregation.
Today, Summit brims with life through its worship services, Summit Life Groups and intentional outreach to Durham. Talk to most anyone in the Raleigh/Durham area and they have heard about the Summit Church. For Greear, however, this has not become a source of pride.
As he closes the MMC 2010, he openly states the ambitious goal for his congregation: “Finally, we must be committed to planting new churches. Local churches are the hope of the world. Our church has a goal of planting 1,000 new churches in the next 40 years.”
Douglas E. Baker is executive editor and Bob Nigh is managing editor of the Baptist Messenger.