Twenty years ago, Homestead Heights was a traditional, red-brick Baptist church located off of Duke Street in northern Durham. Founded in the early sixties, the congregation had swelled and then waned; by the late nineties, only about 350 people were left. Observers would’ve been forgiven for assuming it had fallen victim to the decline in church attendance besetting the country.
But today, it boasts ten thousand worshipers on Sundaysand a new name, Summit Church. With campuses throughout the region, Summit is one of the largest churches in the Triangle and one of the fastest-growing congregations in the country. Far from teetering on the edge of obsolescence, its pews are packed with enthusiastic young people.
Some of that change came from smart strategizing by longtime church staff. But most of Summit’s growth stems from the dynamism of its pastor, JD Greear.
Greear, now forty-five, has brought in new worshipers through a combination of characteristics that have proved particularly attractive to young professionals and millennials: theological orthodoxy paired with informality and openness, a commitment to service, and an unstinting focus on bringing the gospel to all corners of the earth.
He’s been a resounding success in the Triangle. Now Greear wants to take that formula national. This week, he’ll seek election as president of the Southern Baptist Convention at the group’s annual meeting in Dallas on June 12–13. Many Southern Baptists around the country say Greear represents the best of their denomination and is exactly what they needparticularly at a time that’s been characterized by public fighting and scandal. That includes the recent dismissal of longtime leader Paige Patterson for his controversial comments about women. Patterson came under fire after reports surfaced that he advised one woman to return to her abusive husband and encouraged another who’d been raped at the seminary where he was president not to report it to the police.
But a small yet vocal minority is pushing back against Greear’s candidacy, implying that he’s too progressive to be a “real” Southern Baptist. A few months ago, a second candidatemuch older, much more conventionalwas nominated to run against Greear, turning this into one of the most pivotal Southern Baptist elections in years.
It’s a question of methodology, not theology: There are fundamental differences in how the two candidates structure their churches, reach their congregations, connect with their communities, and engage with the wider world.
To some insiders, the future of the SBC is at stake.
“Baptist presidents in the last forty years have been cut from a very similar mold,” says Jonathan Howe, who runs the podcast SBC This Week. “JD would be the first pastor of a new era, a new type of Southern Baptist leader.”
Is salvation by faith alone? What about helping the poor and sufferingis that a contradiction?”
It’s Sunday morning at Summit’s main campus in Brier Creek, and Greear is working his way through Matthew 25. But he’s gone off on a tangent, hinting at the perennial argument over whether personal salvation or social justice is the key focus of Christianity.
Clad in jeans, talking a mile a minute, and injecting his sermon with jokes and personal anecdotes, Greear comes across as an easygoing, eminently relatable “regular guy”albeit one who knows the Bible and can easily dissect its finer points.
Both sides are correct, Greear says: “You demonstrate your faith by engaging in the works of God.”
In a way, that sums up Summit’s focusadhering closely to a traditional interpretation of the Bible’s teachings, while simultaneously exhorting worshipers to get involved in their communities and in missions abroad.
Summit has done that well. The church has establishedor “planted,” in Christian parlancemore than two hundred churches overseas and another forty in the United States. Of the forty-six thousand churches that are part of the Southern Baptist Convention, Summit has by far sent the most missionaries into the field.
Greear and his staff also constantly exhort congregants to engage in local service work; the church holds an annual volunteer week, ServeRDU, and regularly partners with local schools and municipal social service agencies.
But personal salvation and individuals’ dedication to God are primary at Summit. Attendees say they like that Greear speaks directly from the Bible without adding his own views. Greear himself acknowledges it.
“We have a lot of people who say they appreciate that the messages aren’t really my opinions on things,” he says. “I’m just trying to explain what the Bible says.”
The combination of passionate belief with passionate outreach was baked into Summit Church from the beginning. Back when it was Homestead Heights, the church had been floundering; with a largely middle-age congregation, it had lost its senior pastor and attendees were questioning its direction. Senior staff members determined that the church needed to better serve the local community, and in 2001, they turned to the twenty-eight-year-old preacher running their college ministry and asked him to become the senior pastor.
Greear, a native of Yadkinville, had just gotten his Ph.D. from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest. He immediately set about restructuring the church in order to attract more people. That included the name change, as well as tangible efforts to make the place more welcoming to newcomers.
He was quickly successful, and eventually, Summit outgrew its building. Church officials opened a second location in 2007 when they failed to find a new site large enough for the burgeoning church, and the trend has continued. Becoming a multicampus church wasn’t necessarily intentional, but it allowed Summit’s young congregants to worship in the communities where they live. The church’s growth coincided with that of the Triangle, which saw hordes of newcomers throughout the early 2000s who lacked family in the area and were looking to build connections.
Today, Summit has eight physical locations, including sites in Chapel Hill, Mebane, downtown Durham, Apex, and Raleigh. (The Brier Creek location also hosts a Spanish-language service, and Summit has men’s and women’s prison ministries.) The church is just starting construction on a North Raleigh facility that’s reported to cost $20 million; it should be complete by the end of 2019.
Summit’s money isn’t going to appearances. The Brier Creek location, for example, is functional, but it looks like the former warehouse that it is; the boxy, windowless sanctuary has a concrete floor, low ceiling, and simple chairs lined up in rows.
But to its followers, that doesn’t matter.
“It’s not about how pretty the church is; if I can hear a good message, that’s what’s important,” says Nicole Johnson, a Brier Creek resident who’s attended Summit for over a decade. “Pastor JD is charismatic and provides an understanding of the Bible through his sermons in a way that I have not seen at any other church.”
Johnson, a young mother, didn’t grow up Southern Baptist, but she says the denomination doesn’t matter to her (and it’s not something Summit advertises about itself). She’s in good company. Summit attracts thousands of college students, young professionals, and families, many of whom weren’t raised Southern Baptist, evangelical, or even Christian.
“I go to church to learn about God and to have a community who believes what I do,” says Sophia Noor Kiser, a former atheist who describes herself as “very liberal and a feminist.” “[Greear] wants to have the difficult conversations, and everyone I’ve met at Summit has been really open and eager to learn.”
That includes issues of racial diversity. Summit is largely white, but church staffers say they are working hard to bring other ethnicities into the church’s leadership and regularly talk about racial justice. And when Greear says, during a sermon, “When someone shows up in my community, regardless of how they get there, my responsibility is to love them,” in reference to refugees and immigrants, the sanctuary spontaneously bursts into applause.
But make no mistake: Summit isn’t liberal, and Greear isn’t a progressive. He studied under Paige Patterson at Southeastern, after all. He believes that the Bible is the unerring word of God and freely talks about evil. Summit hews very closely to the Baptist Faith and Message, the statement of conviction put out by the SBC. Women pastors are not allowed, homosexuality is considered a sin, and the leadership staunchly opposes abortion rights.
Many of Summit’s younger followers disagree with some of those beliefs. But still they return, because there’s something about Summit and Greear that transcends politics and speaks to them fundamentally. It’s not the Christian rock band that opens the service, nor the colored lights that enliven the sanctuary. Millennials are said to be casual and anti-institutional, seeking meaning, authenticity, and a sense of community. Greear’s approacheschewing appearances and formality, cutting through bureaucracy and unnecessary dogma to provide worshipers with a direct relationship to God, and allowing them to meaningfully connect with their community and the wider worldspeaks to young people in a way that traditional Southern Baptist pastors don’t, and can’t.
And that’s where the divide within the denomination comes from.
The first thing to know about the Southern Baptist Convention is that it’s huge.
There are about fifteen million Southern Baptists in the United States, and while the group is well known for its older, conservative Bible-thumpers, it includes a surprising number of younger people who live in cities and appreciate urban life, even as they strategize about Christian theology and how to best attract millennials. That is to say, there’s a wide range of practices and positions within the SBC. So when a preacher in Texas puts forth a resolution asking that the convention reject various forms of “social justice,” as one did recently, he isn’t speaking for the entire group.
The second thing to know is that the group’s history is deep and detailed. The denomination was formed in 1845 explicitly to support slavery as other Baptists around the country condemned it. Today, Southern Baptists conversationally mention things like “the Great Commission Resurgence debate”a 2010 discussion about how to best support mission workand “The Battle for the Bible,” a struggle by more conservative pastors to strengthen and redefine biblical authority.
The outcome of that battle was the Conservative Resurgence, a return to fundamentalist principles that began in the 1980s. Patterson was one of the main architects of that movement, as were many of the SBC’s other current leaders. That includes Ken Hemphill, the South Carolina pastor who’s been nominated to oppose Greear at the upcoming convention in Dallas. A traditional Southern Baptist preacher who wants to strengthen the SBC’s institutionsincluding seminaries, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and the Cooperative Program, which governs giving from churches to the SBCthe seventy-year-old Hemphill clearly represents the old guard.
And he was clearly put up to oppose Greear.
“He was nominated by a group of people who worked for a long time to come up with a candidate,” says Allan Blume, the editor of the Cary-based Biblical Recorder, a news journal for North Carolina Baptists. “Obviously there’s a campaign [against Greear]; that’s the way it’s playing out.”
That was a surprise to many observers. Greear had run for the SBC presidency in 2016, but after tying with the other candidate, Steve Gaines, Greear dropped out and Gaines became president. So it seemed Greear would be a shoo-in this time.
But Greear is viewed with suspicion by many from the SBC’s more traditional wing. Some leaders have questioned his theology, picked apart comments he’s made, and implied that he’s not “one of us.”
On the stalwartly anti-Greear website SBC Today, for example, he was blasted for saying that he thinks Muslims and Christians worship the same God. (Representatives from SBC Today declined to comment on this story.) Others, like the online Capstone Report, have questioned Greear’s theology after he recently said that women should have more leadership roles within the SBC.
The irony is that he’s not liberal at all; analysts across the board agree that Greear is completely aligned with fundamental Southern Baptist theology.
“He’s a dressed-down conservative,” says Curtis Freeman, a professor at Duke Divinity School.
But the characteristics that have led to Greear’s success with younger worshipers are exactly those that have attracted the suspicion of older pastors. The concept of having several church campuses is unusual, for example, and viewed with some distrust simply for that reason. Greear is also less institutional, encouraging Summit to do more on its own rather than working through the SBC.
“JD represents an entrepreneurial spirit; he’s a risk taker,” says Freeman. “I think [if he becomes SBC president], you’ll see a different kind of vision for how missions get donemore church-centered rather than denomination-centered.”
Greear is also rarely explicitly political; it’s unimaginable that he would engage in the divisiveness that’s characterized conservative Christian political activity over the past few decades.
“We try to teach that there ought to be a reservation and a hesitation if there is a group of people who, in the name of Jesus, are getting engaged in particular policies,” Greear says. He did, however, speak out forcefully against any kind of abuse of women in response to Patterson’s comments and recent ouster.
That’s all appealing to young Christians who have been disgusted by the hypocrisy that they see in the Religious Rightand by the seeming enthusiasm with which many of their fellow evangelicals have supported Donald Trump. But it makes many older pastors, who still see themselves as fighting for the soul of America, uncomfortable. Hemphill, for example, has been endorsed by Robert Jeffress, the Dallas preacher who has become a close associate of Trump’s.
Trevin Wax, a blogger for The Gospel Coalitionan organization of more modern evangelical churchesthinks that Greear represents some distinct divides among Southern Baptists. Most significantly, he says, “cosmopolitan” Southern Baptists like Greear are interested in diversity for its own sake, including diversity in age. Meanwhile, “conventionals”like Hemphillbelieve the truth is the truth, whether or not it attracts younger worshipers, and that the traditional Southern Baptist style of preaching and running a church should persist.
At heart, the question of who supports Greear (and why) is about how an aging denomination, one whose churches were once very similar, responds to change and modernization.
“JD Greear certainly represents a generationaland something of a culturalshift, and there are all sorts of underlying fears and anxieties about what that’ll mean for the SBC and the future of the SBC,” Wax says.
If Greear loses, younger Southern Baptists might take it as a sign that they aren’t really welcome in the SBC. Most observers think, however, that Greear will be victoriousaided, perhaps, by the Patterson scandal and a sense that it’s finally time for a passing of the baton.
“It would be a signal that the Southern Baptist Convention recognizes the need to be multigenerational and multi-ethnic,” says Daniel Akin, president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. “I don’t understand why anyone would be opposed. I would to God that more churches would be like Summit.”