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 Sundays—and 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 need—particularly 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 candidate—much older, much more conventional—was 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."