Who in the World are Evangelicals?


The mellow brick of Durham’s American Tobacco Historic District soaked in the sunlight on one recent beautifully lit Sunday morning. A science lab, Duke’s finance office, and a quaint café lay neatly tucked together as the sun beamed off a snowy-colored water tower. Beneath it, a cluster of masked people exploded in laughter. Not here to conduct an experiment or get a tuition refund, these people were here to worship. 

I stumbled across these worshippers hoping to put a face behind the “evangelicals” we constantly hear about on the news. With headlines like “Evangelicals are divided over the movement’s support for Donald Trump” and “Why QAnon Has Attracted So Many White Evangelicals,” it is critical to understand who is being referred to. I asked some non-Christian students from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to tell me the first word that comes to mind when they hear the word “evangelical.” Their responses ranged from “conservative” to “Trump.” I asked Christian students the same question, and their responses were all similar to a “person who spreads the good news,” referring to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Most of the non-Christian responses overlooked evangelicals beliefs whereas the Christians addressed beliefs first. How can we bridge this divide? 

I searched for evangelicals in the Triangle Area to help remedy this lack of understanding. I decided to find the faces behind the theological and political ideas that can make political conversations tense today. And I landed on a multi-racial, multi-generational group of worshippers from the Summit Church. 

Summit, a megachurch, has been both criticized for its lack of a sense of community and praised for its ability to bring so many people to Christ. However, Summit has adopted a method that maintains the praise of its supporters while dodging the criticism of its opponents: the multi-site church. Through their nine locations, they can establish localized centers of community all under the umbrella of the Summit Church.

Quintessentially evangelical, the Summit Church is a mirror for the state of evangelicalism nationwide. Examining the megachurch model, I found the Summit to be the perfect place to clearly answer, “Who in the world are evangelicals?” 

Defining Evangelical 

Before answering who, I needed to know what evangelical means. Jonathan Merritt, Religion News Service Contributing Editor, writes in The Atlantic, “The most widely accepted definition of evangelical is probably the one put forward by historian David Bebbington in 1989. It’s called the ‘Bebbington quadrilateral’ because it identifies evangelicals as Christians who share four main qualities:

  • Biblicism: the Bible is inerrant and without error 
  • Crucicentrism: the only way to know God is through Jesus 
  • Conversionism: the decision to follow Jesus must be an intentional, individual one
  • Activism: faith influences all parts of one’s life including politics. 

Jonathan wrote this back in 2015, so I decided to follow up with him to see if the definition has evolved in the six years since. He told me it’s still “the best possible framework for the word.” Neverthless, “it does get a little grey” when it comes to approaching hot-button issues such as abortion. Still, this characterization seems to be the best fit. The National Association of evangelicals agrees. They use the same four qualities on their website. Some well-known evangelical groups include the Assemblies of God, the Presbyterian Church in America, and the Southern Baptist Convention (of which the Summit Church is a part).

(Some) more liberal Mainline Protestants stand in contrast to the qualities outlined in the Bebbington quadrilateral. They believe:

  • The Bible can be read as a historical document and should be interpreted based on the era
  • There may be other ways to know God outside of Jesus  
  • The decision to follow Jesus is not emphasized but rather the spiritual journey is
  • Faith does influence one’s life including politics but with an emphasis on social justice 

Some of the well-known Mainline Protestant groups are the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It is important to note that the lines between mainline and evangelical get blurry depending on the specific church in a specific community. For example, some Methodists may concur with evangelicals on Jesus as the only way to know God. Nevertheless, Mainline Protestants are the Christian group that most often contrasts with evangelicals. 

Some pollsters differentiate evangelicals from Black churches even though both groups share the same beliefs. Some people reject the term because of its colloquial adjacency to political conservatism. Religious labels are confusing, and evangelicalism is no exception. Whether you’re a journalist or a pollster or a political pundit, evangelical means something different. But, in this piece, I am relying on the purest, most fundamental definition of the term: Protestants who are biblicist, crucicentrist, conversionist, and activist. 

So, who in the world are they? 

The Summit Church 

Strapped with my matte black facemask, I joined the cluster of people waiting beneath the water tower. After scanning my pre-registration barcode with a nice volunteer, I walked inside this beautiful Southern-style hall. The drooped high-hanging lights tempered the rustic, industrial interior. The century-old brick and wood perfectly contrasted the simple black foldable chairs all placed six feet apart.

I forgot that I was at a church. 

The massive projector with the backdrop of oldened brick reminded where I was. “EASTER AT THE SUMMIT” was up on the screen. The big day was 3 weeks away. 

I scanned the room, losing my thought in the panoramic windows, trying to gauge just how big this church really is. It seemed massive online. I counted around 50 people. I was expecting around 100 people due to COVID-19 restrictions (they normally have around 400 people). 

I shuffled to an empty seat in the back, hoping to simply observe and reclusively watch people. 

But within five minutes a young guy came up to me and asked if he could sit with me during the service. I had not expected that either.

The Mega-Church Model

Summit is by definition a megachurch: a “Christian congregation with a sustained average weekly attendance of 2,000 persons or more.” Just before the pandemic, Summit had an average of 12,177 people  attending. That’s child’s play compared to the 24,367 average of congregants who watched virtually throughout the year. 

The location I was at is just Summit’s Downtown Durham Site. Summit has eight other locations scattered throughout the Triangle area. Their main location in Raleigh holds around 680 people (with coronavirus restrictions). 

The sheer magnitude and reach of the church is undeniable. “It’s well-managed,” said Yonat Shimron, a Religion News Service Reporter who’s covered religion in Durham for more than 17 years.  “Good production value,” and “very well-oiled machine,” are the elements Shimron used to explain Summit’s unbelievable size—descriptions typically used for factories, not churches.

A Summit congregant of four years alerted me to the tendency for “consumeristic Christianity” in the wider Church. It’s the idea of “everything should just appeal to me,” and the practical steps of living as a Christian are ignored. She said that even though Summit discourages it, “It’s definitely not rare.” (She requested to remain anonymous because of the nature of her comment.) 

Appealing to church attendees like they’re consumers is a major criticism of the megachurch and evangelicals overall. 

Hernandez told me, however, that they’ve “fought that megachurch model for years.” “The vision has always been people are the mission, not buildings,” he said.  

When Pastor J.D. Greear started leading the Summit in 2001, the church was struggling and complacent, according to Hernandez  They were not plugging into the community, attendendance was inconsistent, and the membership was heavily elderly. 

Greear set an initiative to spark and encourage current members out of complacency and send them into the community. Not only did he set a goal of 1,000 people, but he also sold the building and started meeting at a school. “He was trying to set an incentive,” Hernandez said.

“It’s not that 300 is not enough. One person is enough. Jesus leaves the 99 for one,” he continued. Now, Summit has nine campuses across the Triangle area. These campuses are equipped with Lead Pastors, Associate Pastors, Production teams, and an intentionality to deeply connect within the community. 

“We’re able to be fully involved here in Downtown Durham,” said Associate Campus Pastor Richard Bowman of Summit’s Downtown Durham site. Bowman described how some of their homeless neighbors  helped set-up and tear-down their equipment. Sometimes they would come in and worship or get some food. 

“We need to be invested in that community,” is why Summit church has nine campuses, Hernandez told me. It’s difficult to see this nuance externally. I approached Summit with a bias of a totalitarian, numbers-focused megachurch, but I was wrong. 

A Heart for All People

Kinshiro was his name—the young guy who asked if he could sit with me during the service. I wasn’t expecting anyone to notice me because it’s a megachurch—there are too many people to keep track of. But within five minutes Kinshiro found me, sat with me, and talked with me after the service. After I finished talking to him, another man came up to me and introduced himself as Cary Cain. 

The next day, Cary and I hopped on a Zoom and talked about his journey to Summit. While he was working as a First Sergeant in the North Carolina Highway Patrol, a Durham Police friend of his invited him to Summit. Cary brushed it aside. 

Cary hadn’t stepped foot in a church in 20 years. 

He “was doubting the realness” of Christianity before he went to college and once he graduated, he completely turned away from any thought of following Jesus. 

But after the death of his father, he began to have some thoughts and experiences that were pushing him to consider faith again. However, he still didn’t want to consider church. 

On Martin Luther King Day in 2011, Cary  and another cop buddy went to a ceremony being held for city-county employees. J.D. Greear of the Summit Church was the keynote speaker. As a Black man, Cary was confused why a white pastor was the keynote on MLK Day.  Cary said Greear addressed it plainly in his opening, “He was surprised by the ask.” But, the mayor said, “Wherever we go in Durham… we find a member of the Summit Church there.” Just like Cary had found his Durham Police friend who attended Summit. 

When Pastor Greear delved into his message, Cary recounts, “It was as if his message was speaking right at me.” It wasn’t JD’s charisma that affected him so strongly but rather the meat of the message. “J.D. never speaks without delivering the gospel,” Cary told me. 

That day sparked a series of moments that led Cary to try out Summit. He said “everyone was overwhelmingly friendly… It was another level than I have experienced.” Cary ended up coming back to faith and has since joined the production team at Summit part-time. 

“I’ve found [a] great community,” he told me. 

Cary’s  story amplified what I heard Pastor Peter Park from Downtown Durham Campus say that morning I attended: “We will do whatever it takes to reach all people.”

Whether it’s sitting next to me so I’m not alone during a service or engaging the community through an MLK speech or the intentionality to connect within local communities, it quickly became apparent that the “bigoted Evangelical” headlines were not painting the full story.  Who in the world are Evangelicals, then? 

These evangelicals, at least —representative of many across the Triangle and the nation—are Christians  with a heart for all people. 

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