“I remember the night my seventh grade Sunday school teacher taught from Matthew 7, where Jesus says, ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven.’ I was convinced that was going to be me.”

J.D. Greear, author and pastor at The Summit Church of Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, grew up in a family with an active church life. He remembers attending Awana and memorizing Scripture as a child. But in his early teens, he constantly worried about whether he was really saved. He wondered whether he was emotional enough about his sin. “By the time I was 15, I was scouring the Bible for answers. When I read John 3:36, everything clicked into place: ‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.’ You can be in only one of two positions in relationship with Jesus—you’re trusting him and surrendering to him or you’re rebelling against him. God did more for my understanding of him and of salvation in those 10 minutes than in all the previous 15 years. But it happened because I had so much of the Word of God sown into me at such a young age.”

“You’ve got to get God’s Word into your heart. As a kid I memorized for the wrong reasons: I did it because I was told to and because it was a competition that I wanted to win—to be the number one guy in youth group. But memorizing Scripture is like storing dynamite in your heart. The Holy Spirit can come along and light the fuse. That’s what happened to me.”

A Debtor to the Nations

By the time he was in college, Greear was studying law and teaching a weekly campus Bible study group. Around his junior year, he began reading through the book of Romans repeatedly. “I was trying to see how many times I could get through it in one semester. By about the 12th time through, I landed on Romans 2, where Paul talks about those who are not under the law still being held responsible for the law because God has given the law to them on their hearts. Suddenly my heart understood that there were a couple billion people out there who had never heard the name of Jesus but were still responsible under the law.” This realization pushed Greear toward seminary and eventually to a missions group working in a predominantly Muslim Southeast Asian country.

After two years on the mission field, Greear returned to the United States with a new plan: to serve global missions by pastoring a church that trained and sent out missionaries. The book of Romans continued to influence his path as he finished his PhD in theology and began looking for ministry opportunities. “In Romans 1:14–17, Paul talks about being a debtor to the nations. A debtor is under obligation. If you owe somebody a large amount of money, and you get a $10,000 bonus at the end of the year, you’re not just free to do whatever you want with that. It belongs to somebody else. Paul saw his salvation as making him a debtor to people who had never heard the gospel. And that’s how I want to see my life also.”

Seating Capacity

In 2002, when Greear took a job pastoring The Summit Church (then called Homestead Heights Baptist Church) of Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, church attendance hadn’t grown in years. Over the next 10 years, the church relocated and changed names, and by 2015 it was home to 9,000 weekly attenders. It’s the kind of success story many churches would love to duplicate.

But while The Summit’s attendance rate may signal success to others, Greear puts little stock in that number. “My parents came back to the faith the year I was born. I’m grateful that their church didn’t simply count them, baptize them, and then move on to the next hundred. If my parents’ church had done that to them, I might not have grown up in a home of people who really knew what it meant to follow Jesus.”

Greear didn’t always feel that way. When The Summit Church began growing rapidly in 2002, attracting members from all over Raleigh-Durham—and often from other established churches in the community—Greear admits to having mixed motives for growth. “For the first few years of my ministry, I was saying, ‘Thy kingdom come,’ but what I really meant was, ‘My kingdom come.’ God confronted me on this when I started praying for revival in Raleigh-Durham. I was praying that God would move like nothing he’d ever done here. And I felt the Holy Spirit prompting me, asking, “What if I answer that prayer and send revival here, but I choose to work through someone else’s church? What if I bring spiritual awakening to your community, but your church doesn’t grow as a result? And I knew I wasn’t nearly as excited about that kind of revival.”

That conviction led to The Summit’s transformation into a church that plants other churches. Greear began asking how The Summit could transform from a “country club for Christians” to a church aimed at blessing and serving their community. “In that first year, God readjusted our focus. We all had to put aside our personal preferences for music, church size, and other things. That became secondary to seeing God reach people.”

Sending Capacity

Greear doesn’t focus on the weekly attendance number, but that isn’t to say he disregards numbers altogether. He closely tracks the number of people being sent out from The Summit to the international mission field and those sent to start other churches and ministries in the U.S. “Churches really fit in the categories of three kinds of ships. Some churches are like cruise ships—luxury for people who are already Christians. Some churches are battleships. They recognize the mission, which is good, but they try to accomplish it as a unit. The best churches are like aircraft carriers—they are not near the battle, but they equip and send planes to carry the battle where the enemy is. Our success isn’t in our seating capacity, but our sending capacity.”

Greear’s sending goals are big and long-term: He anticipates it will take 30 years to send out 5,000 ministers to plant 1,000 churches. He and his congregation are committed to the work, even when it takes sacrifice. “Every year we stand 120 people across our platform who are members leaving our church to go to another city or nation to plant a church. Most of them are actively serving as volunteers here, so when they leave, there’s a big gap. But we rejoice in that, because training and sending is how the church should function.”

Since they established their sending goals in 2010, The Summit Church has sent 202 church members overseas and has planted 113 churches across the United States. “Our long-term goal is to plant 1,000 churches in one generation. We’re also working to start 100 community-blessing organizations—ministries for the homeless, orphans, single parents: the various segments of our community who are in need. And we encourage our congregation to work with established local ministry organizations if there’s someone already doing good work in our community in one of these areas.”

Raising Leaders

For Greear, this difference between seating and sending capacity is crucial because of how evangelism is modeled in the New Testament church. “Thirty-nine out of 40 miracles in the book of Acts happen outside of the church. The majority of evangelistic ministry is not supposed to happen by ordained pastors from the pulpit. It is supposed to happen outside.”

It’s important for churches to be planting churches because “Jesus, in the Great Commission, told us to go. He makes a promise of his presence: ‘Behold, I am with you all the days until the end of the age.’ So he’s with us, but as we are going. Hebrews 13:13 sends a similar message, telling believers that as Jesus was brought outside the city gates to suffer as a sacrifice, so we must go out to him. If you want his presence, you’ve got to be where he is. Another reason we send out churches is that the Western world lives in a post-Christian society—people don’t just wander into church. Hiring an entertaining preacher and having good music isn’t enough. We’ve got to equip people to go outside the walls of the church to reach people.” 

The Gospel and the Holy Spirit

Greear has written two books that explore the spread of the gospel and compare the work of the Holy Spirit in the early church with today’s church. “There are generally two ways people relate to the Holy Spirit: Some attribute every coincidence to him, and others relate to him about the same way I relate to my pituitary gland—that is to say, not at all. I know it’s probably essential for something, so if the subject comes up I suppose I’m glad I have it, but I don’t interact with it or relate to it at all.”

“Part of the reason we don’t like to talk about the Holy Spirit is because we are uncomfortable with mystery. As an example, in 36 of the 59 times the Holy Spirit makes an appearance in the New Testament, he is described as speaking, but we don’t know what that looks like. The Bible doesn’t say how he spoke, just that he did. We don’t understand how the Holy Spirit works, so instead we say, ‘Give me something I can hold in my hands instead, like the Bible.’ But Jesus said in John 16:7 that having the Holy Spirit to guide us is an advantage even over having Jesus himself present with us. So my 2014 book was titled Jesus, Continued... Why the Spirit Inside You Is Better than Jesus Beside You, and it deals with the issues we have with the idea of the Holy Spirit. The proper relationship we ought to have is to be led by the Holy Spirit and taught by the Word of God.”

Greear’s 2015 follow-up, Gaining by Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches that Send, connects a healthy understanding of the Holy Spirit with seeing the church as a missional, sending body: “The idea is that in the kingdom of God, the way he multiplies ministry is by asking you to let go. When we stand our members up on the platform and commission them, those are 120 members we are going to lose, but it’s going to make the kingdom of God gain. And what we lose as an individual organization, we gain as members of God’s kingdom.”

Sowing Scripture

To maintain the number of people The Summit sends out every year, Greear and his team have become intentional about encouraging discipleship and training new leaders to take the places left vacant by those
who have already been commissioned and sent out. “We have a discipleship pipeline we start people on, but growth most often boils down to two things: First is getting newcomers to read the Bible. We have a yearlong reading plan and other resources available on our website, and we have a Twitter account that shares links to daily readings. It’s so important to be in the Word of God each day. Second is getting people involved in a small group. Discipleship happens in relationships. Some of the best discipleship is not a program—it’s just groups of people in a circle with Bibles open on their laps.”

The Summit distributes One Year Bible materials to encourage their congregation to read the Bible regularly. “It really helps answer the question of where to start. Having that kind of structure can really help someone new to the Bible get past how overwhelming the Bible is at first. Start with three sets of 10: 10 minutes reading the Word, 10 minutes in prayer, and 10 minutes in some kind of devotional book. Spending that 30 minutes is a great way to get started. Real, long-term effect comes from people being deep into Scripture.”

Sharing in Sermons

Greear believes his enthusiasm for Scripture will in turn encourage his congregation to read the Word of God themselves. What he learns in his personal devotional time usually makes its way into Sunday’s sermon.
“God never does something in my heart that I don’t immediately want to share. I never read something and think, ‘Oh, that’s not for my church; that’s just for me.’ Also, when I’m studying the Word for a sermon, should I not be applying that to my own life? I could never say, ‘That Scripture is for these people, but not for me.’ When I’m getting ready to preach, I ask myself if I’m living out what I tell my congregation to live out.”

Greear wants to see the church at large make a widespread effort to promote this level of familiarization with Scripture. “It doesn’t always feel glorious. It’s not a series of emotional moments. It’s taking the time and the patience to sow the Word of God into people’s hearts. We do it one on one, in small groups, and in sermons. You’re layering Scripture into people. Faith can only grow where the Word of God has been carefully sown.” 

He believes this type of approach will lead to change. “The Bible is the story of what God did to rescue us. It radically changes how you see the world. Spiritual growth doesn’t come from learning things in addition to the gospel, but from going deeper into the wonder of the gospel.”  

Jessi Strong is senior writer for Bible Study Magazine. She blogs at JessiStrong.com.

Jessi Strong is senior writer for Bible Study Magazine. She blogs at JessiStrong.com.

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