I think there’s an expectancy in our people and a passion for nationwide revival, which has always been a hallmark of The Summit. The early days of our beginning were extraordinary spiritually, and the Lord has taken us through multiple moments where he stretched us to believe and take a big step.
This year, The Summit Church celebrated 25 years of ministry in Central Arkansas. Since its founding, the church has been dedicated to seeking the Lord through prayer and cooperating with him to reach the next generation. Recently, I spoke with Bill Elliff and BJ Stricklin, two of Summit’s pastors, to reflect on the past 25 years and how God has made his presence known there and has worked among its people for the good of the city.
First, tell me a little about yourself and your role at The Summit Church.
Bill: I’ve been a pastor for a long time. 57 or 58 years. I was the founding pastor of The Summit Church, along with five other guys and their wives. I had pastored churches in Texas and Oklahoma and here in Little Rock. We started The Summit on November 1, 1998, and it has been the greatest joy. It’s been a thrill to start with a group of people, the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and a blank whiteboard and see what the Lord would do. He’s been really gracious to us.
Three years ago, in 2020, I transitioned out of directional leadership, but they asked me to stay on staff. My title now is Founding and National Engage Pastor. I oversee our church planting residency and church plants. I travel a lot around the country. I write, speak, and promote the heart of The Summit and the things we believe in—revival, spiritual awakening, prayer, and the presence of God.
BJ: I’m originally from Birmingham, Alabama. I came to Summit right after my wife and I got married in January of 2007. I was thinking the other day that I am fast approaching spending more of my life in Arkansas than in Alabama. I came to Summit as the Associate Worship Pastor and had a couple of other roles along the way. Later, two of us from Summit were sent to plant a church in Tuscaloosa in 2009. After three years there, I came back, and the other guy stayed. In fact, he’s still the pastor there. So, I’ve been at Summit twice now and loved it enough to come back. Honestly, it’s a special place and a special group of people.
Bill Elliff (left) and BJ Stricklin (right)
What’s in the DNA of Summit? How would you describe the kind of church you are?
BJ: The Summit was birthed and is saturated in prayer, seeking the presence of God, and a desire to follow the Lord. Summit’s mission statement starts with the phrase “to cooperate with God.” That’s what drew us to Summit and what we loved from the very beginning. It’s a group of people whose sole desire is, “Let’s just go wherever the Lord leads and do whatever he tells us to do.” We’re not setting out to do what we want to do or create something. It’s more about where the Lord is moving, and being involved in that.
Bill: At Summit, we talk a lot about God initiation. A wise man once told me that the mark of a godly man is that everything he does is God-initiated, and that is true for a church. If you want God-initiated plans, you’ve got to get postured to hear from him. We have always felt that we have got to be a church where prayer is not just a side room but the foundation and saturates our church in every possible way. We believe that everything flows from the presence of the Lord. Therefore, you’ve got to pray, listen to the Lord through his Word, and follow his Spirit.
What’s the origin story of The Summit Church?
Bill: I was a pastor at another church. We came out of a tough situation there—a crisis situation—and we decided to plant a church that would reach the next generation, which is our passion. We started in two weeks. Initially, we met in Arkansas Baptist’s gym for about nine months. Over time we grew rapidly, and the only building we could find big enough was a bankrupt event center over by Wild River Country in Maumelle. So, we moved over there, and it turned out to be a great location because it was central to Little Rock, North Little Rock, Maumelle, and Conway.
As we grew, we had enough people coming from Conway that we decided to plant a church there. We did the same thing in Benton. Out of Conway, we planted in Vilonia. There is a plant in Bentonville. We now have five churches in our family of churches. We also have over 15 other churches that we’ve planted.
BJ: There have been 15 churches planted out of our church residency since 2016. If we add the others before that, it adds up to 18 churches.
Bill: We have several churches that are “immediate family.” The other churches are “kindred” or “extended family.” We help those churches financially to launch, train the planters, and stay with them, but they’re not directly related and don’t carry the Summit name.
What have been the milestone moments for the church and its people in the last 25 years?
Bill: I do think a very significant time was in 2011. We had really been fasting and praying and pursuing the Lord deeply for 40 days. We felt like we needed him. In April of that year, the Lord just broke out in a Sunday morning service. It went until 3:30 in the afternoon. We came back the next night, and the place was packed, and that service went about three or four hours. And then we said, “We can’t stop, so let’s meet tomorrow night,” and that went on for five weeks. Every night for three or four hours except Saturdays. Tons of people came to Christ. Tons of people were saved. Tens of thousands of dollars were given to meet needs. We literally came to a point one day when I said, “There’s no more need,” because of the giving of the people.
It was revival. I’ve been in many moments of God’s manifest presence, but it was it was an extraordinary movement of revival. And it touched other churches of the city. The great thing is we had relational connections with pastors through a citywide prayer group. Most of the pastors in that group came to the revival. Our buddy Todd West was a pastor across the highway. The first day of the revival, we baptized a number of people that morning in their street clothes, and he did, too. He had sixteen baptized at his church that day.
We’ve never been the same since that experience. I think there’s an expectancy in our people and a passion for nationwide revival, which has always been a hallmark of The Summit. The early days of our beginning were extraordinary spiritually, and the Lord has taken us through multiple moments where he stretched us to believe and take a big step.
BJ: Looking back, some of the biggest moments were moments of big faith. Some of those big moments were around sending, planting churches, and seeking to cooperate with the Lord to reach people. In 2010, we planted in Jacksonville. That church didn’t end up making it, but it was one of the greatest learning lessons we ever had because it was a moment for us to discover some of the uniquenesses of who we are and things that didn’t work for us as a church.
In 2014, we planted in Conway, and in 2016, we planted in Saline County. Those two churches were huge mile markers for us as a church. We sent a 122 to Conway. Within a year and a half, the Lord had replaced all those people and then some. So, we did the same thing in Saline County and planted again. That one was a little slower to build back because we realized that, when we did that, we were sending out our best leaders. So, two times in a row, we sent out our best small group leaders, servants, and people leading the way. When you do that, you’re sending out the core, committed folks. But, we saw the Lord teaching us his provision. We love to use the phrase, “You can’t outgive God.” I think the Lord showed us that’s true about people. That when we’re willing to send and let people go for the sake of the kingdom, he is always going to be for his people who do that. And he’s going to provide for us in whatever way we need.
Somewhere around 2016 or 2017, we started doing 21 days of prayer and fasting at the beginning of each year. That has been a major culture setter for our church. During those 21 days in January, you feel the temperature in the church rise.
Bill: We started out of a crisis and a deep passion to reach the next generation. We knew what we didn’t want to be and what we really wanted to be. So, we could build things into the DNA that were what we felt like the Lord wanted.
The Summit is not about The Summit. It’s just not. It’s not about a church on Crystal Hill Road. I told our elders that at the very beginning, and none of us knew what that meant, but through the years, we’ve seen we need to be a kingdom church and a sending church. We’ve had over 75 missionaries who have come out of The Summit. 75 of our people going to the nations. In 2018 or 2019, we agreed on a vision to plant 100 churches in North America and touch 100 nations through prayer, partnering, and planting. That drives us significantly.
Another thing about the culture is we have Christie Erwin, who is the head of Project Zero. She has a passion for fostering and adoption out of the DHS system. She told me one day, “Bill, I haven’t told you, but I’ve been praying that Summit would adopt 10% of these 600 waiting kids in the system.” To date, over 75 of those kids have been adopted by our people. That’s God using Christie and her team. And that has shaped the face of our church in having a heart for orphaned kids. It just does something to the soul of our church. I can’t say enough about what Christie and her team have meant to our church and the whole state.
How do you protect yourself, the church, and leaders from pride in light of the growth and ministry fruit in the church?
Bill: We have a rigorous strategic planning process, but it is very prayer-driven. It’s very Spirit-led. Our elders meet every week for two hours, and the first hour is prayer and the Word. Period. Non-negotiable. Our staff meets every week and spends an hour or an hour and a half in prayer. It’s not that we don’t work hard at strategy, but we really believe in Acts 6:4 that we must devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word, and everything flows out of that. The church in Acts, how did they build this incredible thing? They didn’t have all the slick stuff. What they had was the Word of God, prayer, and reliance on the Holy Spirit. That’s it.
The presence of God is our number one evaluating question of a small group or a worship service. “Was God there?” If he wasn’t there, what are we doing? What good is that? If he is there, we have everything we need. Because we have come out of roots of prayer and revival, there is a constant guarding against pride and a desire to walk humbly and give all glory to God. Pride will quench God’s presence quicker than anything in the world. We know that, and we hold each other accountable. I’ve had guys tell me, “You’re getting a little puffed up here.” There’s a lot of confession and repentance when we catch ourselves slipping into that.
BJ: One thing that is a foundation of Summit is that we highly value, practice, and live out of team leadership and a plurality of leadership. No one who has ever been in leadership at Summit has ever preached more than 70% of the time at the church. We share leadership across our family of churches because we believe that is the biblical model with a plurality of elders.
It’s also the belief that there is not a single one of us who has everything that the church needs. God has gifted each of us in different ways, and we need each other. I think that drives a lot of the humility. A lot of that comes from Bill. That’s who he is. He has always led from a team leadership model. He’s always elevated other people, and he took risks on younger leaders. He put us in positions to lead in things we probably had no business taking charge of. But he trusted us, and he gave us the opportunity. When you do that, it sets the church up to see that there’s no one superstar. It helps guard the church from pride because it’s a team-based ministry approach.
The Summit Church began 25 years ago, and so did the Arkansas Prayer Summit. What do you think is the value of the Prayer Summit for pastors?
Bill: For over 25 years, pastors in Central Arkansas have been retreating to pray together at the Arkansas Prayer Summit. The results have created a culture of prayer among us in large measure. But even more importantly, it has stripped our pastors of a competitive culture and replaced it with a complementing culture. We are better together. But we only experience the depths of that benefit as we pray together. The Prayer Summit has helped us get there in ways nothing else can.
What encouragement would you give to churches and leaders in our city?
Bill: We love our city, and we believe it takes every church in the city to reach the city. That’s why we’ve been involved with CityChurch Network and the Arkansas Prayer Summit from the very beginning. Little Rock has a unique culture with less competition and more collaboration. We’re more cheerleaders instead of competitors across the city. I love that about our city. And it’s come through prayer. It has its ebbs and flows in terms of corporate prayer throughout the city; there are times when it’s really high and times when it’s really low. But for 25 years, there’s been a consistent desire to pray together and to root for each other. I think God honors that incredibly in this city. I think we feel his favor in that way. I’m grateful for that and all the people who have led that over the years.
BJ: I think it’s amazing that churches can come together around the things that matter most, which is seeking the Lord through prayer and getting on the same page with him. That we can come together across our differences to worship, pray, encourage, and serve. That there is a tent big enough for all of us to fit into in this city.
We are thankful for the exceptional work of The Summit Church and all the churches in our city that are uniting in prayer to seek the presence of the Lord and cooperate with him. They’re helping the whole Church grow.
Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Chris Loux, Communications Director – CityChurch Network