On a Sunday morning in February of 1961, a young man named Sam James preached his first—and only—sermon as the founding pastor of Grace Baptist Mission in Durham, North Carolina. Sam’s text that morning was Isaiah 54:2–3:
“Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities.”
This was a promise that Sam had claimed for his own life, and it was his prayer for this fledgling church—that it would become an outward-looking church, seeking to minister to our city, to our nation, and to the world. It was a plea to follow Jesus in making disciples, not converts.
Sam wouldn’t stay long enough to see his vision realized. After planting Grace Baptist Mission (later Homestead Heights), he hopped on a plane to Vietnam, where he served as a missionary for the next four decades. Homestead Heights would go through some dark years before it returned to Sam’s founding passion. But in 2002, a core group of 300 sought to recover some of this church’s lost legacy. They believed that God wasn’t done in Durham, so they re-launched the church with a renewed passion for reaching their city and their world. The Summit Church was born.
We at the Summit never want to forget the profound example of our founding pastor. Sam James was—and is—a man of great faith, who typifies one of our plumblines: Jesus commanded us to make disciples, not converts. This is precisely why we created an equipping ministry at the Summit, and named it…can you guess? The Sam James Institute.
The Sam James Institute (SJI) may be the best kept secret of The Summit Church. I often compare it to the difference between air war and ground war. What I do on the weekends is like air war: I’m dropping theological bombs from 30,000 feet. It’s a great start, but military strategists will tell you that wars simply can’t be won with air support alone. You also need ground troops to move in, eradicating the enemy from every last bunker and foxhole.
SJI is part of the ground war for the Summit, our effort to equip people to be disciples of Christ, not merely converts to Christ. The classes that SJI offers provide an opportunity for everyone in our church (not just the seminarians) to become theologically literate, biblically savvy—in short, to know what they believe and to know why they believe it. And in an educationally rich area like ours—the most educated region in the nation—we desperately need that. You may be content to just believe what you heard on the weekend, but if you want to have a conversation with your Ph.D. neighbor (and they are legion), you’ve got to get out of the shallow end of the pool.
We’ve already seen how these classes have equipped some of our members to have those conversations. As one class member said, “I believe that as a Christian, I am called to love God with not only my heart, but also my mind. SJI is bolstering my faith, giving me new insights into deep truths about God’s love, faithfulness, and plan for my life.” Another pointed out that the information from SJI had recently helped him in evangelism:“I helped to lead someone to Christ a few weeks ago. He had a few intellectual hang-ups, and the little bit of theology and apologetics I knew helped him overcome his objections.”
SJI isn’t just a series of fancy Bible classes. It’s about mission. Remember:Jesus commanded us to make disciples, not converts. So SJI doesn’t exist to create little theologians that simply pack their heads with knowledge; it exists to equip people to be faithful disciples that follow Christ. Of course, biblical knowledge and faithfulness to the mission aren’t at odds: the more you learn about Christ, the more you are propelled by him into his mission. God is like a spiritual cyclone: he never draws you in without then sending you back out.
Fifty-four years ago, a young man named Sam gave a small church a huge challenge: Will you believe God and strengthen your stakes? Or will you hold back? Our church may have grown since then, but the challenge is the same: Will we believe God enough to devote ourselves to his mission? Are we about producing disciples, not merely converts? And the Sam James Institute is a key step in that direction.