Church Impressions: The Two Sides of Summit Church in Durham & Why I’m Not Going Back
As part of my continuing church tour in the Triangle area, I visited Summit Church in Durham several weeks ago. And had I not been so busy lately, I would have had a chance to write about my experience much sooner and you would be reading a much different blog than you’ll read today.
But I didn’t have that chance back then and now, I have some good news and bad news about this blog. The good news is that I think I have a more complete and well-rounded impression of Summit Church to share with you after making a number of subsequent visits after my first time. The bad news is that my uber positive impression of Summit Church from that first visit has gone downhill ever since, so this isn’t going to be as positive of a blog as the one I might have written before.
You see, I have experienced two sides of Summit Church in the last several weeks, which I’ll share with you now.
The Positive, Welcoming, Inspiring Summit Church
I could not have been more thrilled when I first attended Summit Church several weeks ago. The main pastor, JD Greers, was out at the time and so Pastor Chris Gaynor was subbing in.
When I arrived, I really liked that the people were welcoming but not pushy, that the church was in a warehouse and not too fussy and that they showed hospitality to newcomers by letting them park close to the church and giving them a free, high quality summit tumbler (It’s the little things, you know?). I also was impressed by how many seats were filled for such an early service.
Pastor Chris spoke with a palpable humility as he admitted during the 8:30 a.m. service that he’s a “recovering control freak,” noting that “I like to know what’s coming and I like to be in charge.”
But he talked about how many recent events in the world really illustrate just how much is out of his realm of control: Racial tensions in Ferguson and Baltimore, ISIS, earthquakes, etc.
“When disappointments rise – and they surely will – how should you and I respond when we feel overwhelmed,” he asked the congregation.
He referenced Mark 14:32-36, noting that Jesus had already set an example of how we should respond in these situations:
Jesus Prays in Gethsemane
32 And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. 34 And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” 35 And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible,the hour might pass from him. 36 And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Pastor Chris asked us to look at Jesus’s approach in this situation as well as his prayer. He pointed out these takeaways:
- Jesus shared his crisis with his closest companions. He invited his best friends to walk with him. Pastor Chris applied this to our modern lives by saying that this is the benefit of being in a small group as church, because a problem shared is a problem halved. And it also gives us an opportunity to provide that same support to others. Pastor Chris even shared in general terms about a very difficult situation that he and his wife are experiencing and how their small group has given them strength when they truly needed it. In fact, he even admitted that “I don’t know if we could have made it through the last year without the presence of this group.” I just really respected him for being so open about his struggles, especially since, as he noted, “We’re still waiting for God to act on our behalf.”
- Jesus cultivated his prayer life before the crisis hit. Pastor Chris noted that Jesus prayed the way he did during the crisis because he was already in the habit of doing that. Thus, prayer was not crisis management for Jesus, it was a way of life. Pastor Chris noted that approaching our own prayer life in the same way can be life-changing.
- Jesus’s prayer was simple and pure, but powerful. Pastor Chris said we don’t have to get bogged down in trying to sound overly educated or pious in prayers — what matters is that we pray honestly and openly.
- Jesus acknowledges that he is the son of God. At this point, Pastor Chris asked us if we knew WE are children of God. And as such, God loves us not because of what we do or who we are but simply because we are his sons and daughters. He compared God’s love for us to a parents’ love for their children. Pastor Chris said he was reflecting one day at the beach how much he loved his kids and how, if he had the power to do it, he would do whatever it took to give his kids the best. At that moment, he said, Matthew 7:11 popped in his head: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” Pastor Chris said he realized in that moment that if he had this depth of love for his children as an imperfect human, than he can only imagine the depth of love that God feels for us each and every day – not because of what we do or what we have, but because we are his children. And with that love backing us, what do we have to fear?
- Jesus asks God is there is any other way but also accepts that it is God’s will ultimately, and not his. Pastor Chris said that God is okay with you asking Him to change your circumstances and – in fact – even instructs you to do so in Matthew 7:7 and Philippians 4:6. But as much as Jesus wanted his situation changed, he had a greater longing for God to make a way for us to get to God. Thus, he acknowledged to God that if this was the only way – and if it was God’s will – that he take on this intense suffering, that he was willing to do it. Pastor Chris said that we can learn from Jesus’s example by learning to love God’s dreams for us more than we love our dreams for ourselves.
- There are four phrases in Jesus’s prayer and only one is a petition for changing his current circumstances. The other three are directed at who God is and what he does. Thus, 75 percent of Jesus’s prayer is embracing God’s glory and goodness. I just loved this message because so much of my prayer is asking God for things. And while God is okay with us asking for the desires of our heart (once again, see Matthew 7:7 and Philippians 4:6), he also wants us to praise and acknowledge Him. It reminded me of this prayer tip I once heard: You should pray by ACTS: Acknowledging God, Confessing any wrong doing, Thanking God and Supplication (Asking God for stuff). As you can see, asking for stuff is only 25 percent of that formula as well and it’s at the very end.
All in all, I really loved hearing Pastor Chris speak. He seemed so relatable and humble and – can I just say? – he happened to be sick with a head cold at the time he was delivering his sermon and that made him just seem all the more human and endearing to me.
Afterward Campus Pastor Chris Green came out to speak about some programs going on at the church, including 30 Days of Prayer, which is exactly what it sounds like. He too seemed very nice and relateable.
Another thing I really like about this church is that it puts so much emphasis on racial tensions because I think it’s a huge issue in our country right now and I really respect churches that put an emphasis on equality, love and tolerance. And they seem to practice what they preach by going in to various sections of the Triangle to help others and spread God’s word.
So yes, after this first service at Summit, I really felt like this could seriously be my church home. And that sentiment was further supported during a second visit. In fact, I even took steps to go to their Small Group Connect night and even researched ways I could volunteer through the church.
And then, the August 2nd service happened.
The Judgmental, Close-Minded, Holier-Than-Thou Summit Church
I attended Summit again on August 2nd to find that the lead pastor, JD Greear, had returned. I had felt mixed emotions about Pastor JD while researching Triangle churches several months earlier.
Frankly, and I apologize if this is crass, he seemed like a bit of a meat head on online videos. His voice was husky and country, he was jacked and there was something abrasive about the way he talked. Also, the sermon I watched online was entirely about homosexuality and about this one case where someone had been redeemed of his homosexual urges. It all just seemed a little bit extreme to me.
Then, when the Supreme Court basically legalized gay marriage this summer, Pastor JD wrote a blog about it and the message seemed to send a mixed message, which to me, came off a little disingenuous.
Thus, I was admittedly nervous about hearing his sermon on August 2nd. Yet I knew it was important to hear one of his sermons because he would be the one giving the majority of the sermons at the church.
And to be fair, before Pastor JD started on his sermon on Judges 17-21, he said that very few pastors had preached on those passages because of the controversial nature of the content. He even said that some in the audience might wish that he HADN’T preached on those verses by the time all was said and done.
Despite this acknowledgement of the controversial nature of the verses up front, I felt like Pastor JD ended up making three faux paus during his sermon, resulting in me leaving the service early, with no intention of coming back.
- He talked in a judgmental way about Bruce Jenner transitioning into being a woman and winning the Courage award at the ESPYs. To be honest, the whole concept of the transgender community still makes ME feel a little uncomfortable and I don’t completely get it. And I do tend to fall in the middle when it comes to LGBT issues because one the one hand, the Bible does specificy marriage as being between a man and a woman but on the other hand, homosexuality is no more of a sin or “not how it was originally intended” fact of life than any other sin. But when people focus so heavily on it, they’re sending a message that it IS, which I think is not right. All that being said, I think there’s a right and a wrong way to talk about this issue in a church that is both factually loyal to the Bible as well as respectful of all involved. And I don’t think Pastor JD successfully walked that line in talking about Bruce Jenner.
- He basically made fun of an older woman he met in an airport who carries a rosary with her every time she flies because it makes her feel safer. He also said he gave her a lecture on “My God holds me in the palm of his hands and not the other way around” when she offered him a spare rosary she had and he declined. A) That was rude B) Who are you to judge or even know what’s on someone’s heart when they carry a rosary? and C) I was raised Catholic so know your audience or risk alienating potential church members.
- And the final straw: He perpetuated a lie about what Planned Parenthood does with baby body parts and whether they are or aren’t in the for profit business of selling those body parts. And misleading an entire congregation is not something I can support with further attendance. Because the truth is, abortions are just a small part of what Planned Parenthood does and, without them and other organizations like them, lower income families wouldn’t have access to much needed reproductive healthcare. Also, Pastor JD described the whole controversy in very graphic terms, which tells me that he was definitely trying to influence people through the use of emotionally charged terms. And that just seems manipulative. The truly ironic thing was that right before he talked about this, he talked about how many orphans there are in the Triangle area. And what does he think would happen if more women were forced to follow through with unwanted pregnancies that they could not afford? Once again, I understand what the church says about abortion and life at conception and all that jazz, but there’s a right and a wrong way to talk about such hot button topics and Pastor JD completely missed the mark. And given that 1 in 3 women will have an abortion in their lifetime, I wouldn’t be surprised if his delivery insulted, offended, hurt or shamed a good number of women in that sanctuary.
So no, I do not plan to go back to Summit Church. I found their lead pastor to be arrogant, condescending and untrustworthy and that is certainly not what I’m looking for in a spiritual leader. But I will remember fondly the times before that, when other pastors were at the helm. And perhaps if someone else ever takes over at the church, I’ll consider visiting again.