By Sarah Kuper
The name almost says it all.
Pastor Chris Hodges hopes Church of the Highlands attendees will understand that God has a higher plan for their lives.
“We want to make a person’s spiritual journey both clear and fulfilling. God has more for us.”
Even if someone has never set foot in one of Church of the Highlands’ services, chances are they know somebody who has. Attendance to a Sunday service at Highlands can reach up to 42,000 people across more than a dozen campuses.
There are more than 4,000 small groups within the church and Hodges estimates 98 percent of congregants are involved in a group.
The church supports local, national and international ministries through health clinics, foreign language services and church leadership training. Plus, the church broadcasts services and provides spiritual ministry to 13 Alabama prisons.
This year is the church’s 15-year anniversary.
No one is more surprised by the size and impact of Church of the Highlands than Hodges.
“None of this was planned. That’s the shocking part. We grew out of need rather than vision – we needed seats. I mean, I was the guy saying no one is going to watch me on a video screen.”
Every Sunday, all 15 campuses hear the same message preached via video broadcast – whether it is Hodges or another campus pastor.
Hodges started Church of the Highlands in February 2001, when he was 38 years old.
Originally from Baton Rouge, he traveled to Birmingham frequently as LSU competed in SEC baseball tournaments.
Hodges said he developed a “supernatural” attachment to the city even though he didn’t know a single person here.
The church’s first home was the Fine Arts Center at Mountain Brook High School. Since then, the church has bought, built or been gifted space for the growing congregation.
Church of the Highlands has a casual atmosphere with contemporary music and worship elements.
Hodges said a compelling goal of the leadership is to make it clear that Christianity is about relationships.
“Growing up, I never missed a Sunday at church. But I didn’t know God. It was just a tradition. When I found out Christianity has more to do with having a relationship with God, that changed everything. We don’t have to just endure church, we can enjoy it.”
Hodges said he believes that message hits home with the Birmingham-area population.
“I don’t have to convince Southerners that there is a God. Almost everyone here went to church but they may not have had a vibrant and enjoyable relationship with God.”
Kathryn Peters has been attending Church of the Highlands since 2008.
A former Catholic, Peters said she has always felt welcomed and comfortable.
“I love that I am able to stay focused and entertained throughout the entire service,” she said. “I always get something out of the message.”
She and her family go to the main campus on Grants Mill Road because she likes watching the message in person.
Though the church is large she said she always feels connected to what is happening and she plans to join a small group at some point.
Grandview Campus Opening
Hodges said this time of year is particularly sweet for him as Easter approaches. This year he is excited for one Easter service in particular.
“This Easter will be the official launch day for our new Grandview campus,” he said.
The new campus will meet at the Cahaba Grand Conference Center.
Hodges said the opening of the Grandview campus was another example of having a need more than a vision.
“Six months ago we weren’t even talking about another campus there. But we have the Riverchase, Greystone and Grants Mill campuses that routinely fill and exceed overflow capacity. We saw the opportunity for a campus in the middle of all three and we hope that helps.”
Hodges said there have been conversations with church trustees about doing more with space at the conference center and potentially even taking ownership of the property.
But, he emphasizes that any decisions are up to the trustees and he doesn’t foresee anything happening soon.
“The owners of Cahaba Grand brought it up with us and the trustees will decide what to do with that. We entertain everything but who knows what will come of it,” he said.
Hodges mentioned that the space might suit for Highlands College – an academic and ministry leadership institution that has 800 students.
Hodges may make it sound like the church’s growth took no planning at all, but the reality is, the church’s emphasis on equipping leaders and financial planning has made expansion go smoothly.
The church is debt-free even while building two new facilities in Tuscaloosa and Montgomery and opening the Grandview campus in 2016.
Additionally, the church gave $7.5 million dollars to local, national and international mission opportunities last year.
One in three congregants is a staff or volunteer leader.
Despite the church’s growth, Hodges wants to reiterate the leadership’s desire to keep the church inclusive.
“You don’t have to believe to belong. We want people who don’t necessarily believe what we do to still feel included and welcome.”
Hodges underscores that Church of the Highlands relies on the support network of other Birmingham-area churches and he relishes the fellowship that keeps area churches making a difference in the state.