By Avery Flint and Rebekah Marsh
As a megachurch known throughout all of the Southeast, the Church of the Highlands has planted and established twenty-three campuses and has had great influence in the neighborhoods in which it ministers for the past 22 years. Its newest campus building is in Birmingham’s Woodlawn neighborhood, very near the exit off Interstate 20/59 for Birmingham Shuttlesworth International Airport. The building opened on September 11, 2022, and is the first new church building erected in Woodlawn (for reasons other than fire or storm damage) in many decades. To understand the significance of Highlands’s presence in Woodlawn it is important to understand the history of this multi-site megachurch.
Origin and Character
God gave Chris Hodges a vision to begin Church of the Highlands in January 2000 while he was praying and fasting. After receiving this vision, Hodges committed to prayerfully starting the church. It officially began in February 2001. Since its beginning, Hodges has remained Highlands’s senior pastor. Since 2001, Church of the Highlands has greatly expanded, becoming the largest megachurch in Alabama and the second largest megachurch in America, with campuses across Alabama and Georgia and tens of thousands of people attending Sunday services each week (“About”).
Every Sunday morning each location of Church of the Highlands begins their services with a contemporary-style worship set before tuning in to the live stream of the sermon from their main campus, Grants Mill. All twenty-three of the campuses have their unique style as they provide their own worship, have their own senior pastors, and have their own unique church congregation, but they all have the same vision and are united under their faith and purpose (“About”).
The Church of the Highlands states on their website that they exist to “help people know God, find freedom, discover their purpose, and make a difference.” They want to keep their focus “simple” to “have the biggest impact possible.” They have a statement of faith listed on their website that clearly states what they believe. That statement shows that this evangelical church is among those influenced by the charismatic movement. Like many other evangelicals, they believe in the Bible as the “final authority” for truth, the Trinity, the existence of Jesus Christ, his virgin birth, redemption, regeneration, salvation, repentance, sanctification, Jesus’ blood on the cross being wholly sufficient to cover our sins, and Jesus dwelling in all believers. They teach Christ’s physical resurrection and second coming and the existence of Heaven and Hell. They also teach that the church is the Body of Christ and recognize the sacraments of water baptism, the Lord’s supper and marriage. Additionally, they teach baptism in the Holy Spirit, that the gifts of the Holy Spirit that build and sanctify the church, the healing of the sick, and that it is God’s will to provide spiritually, mentally and emotionally, physically, and financially for believers. (“About”).
The Woodlawn campus of Church of the Highlands sits near Interstate 59 and 20 at 4930 Messer Airport Highway, just a few miles away from the Birmingham International Airport (Garrison 2022). They host Sunday worship services at 9:45 am, 11:30 am, 4:30 pm, First Wednesday services on the first Wednesday of every month at 6:30 pm, and Saturday Morning Prayer is held every week at 9 am. The building is spacious and open, and there is ample parking available for church-goers. Everyone is greeted warmly by the parking team and the greeters at both the entrance to the building and the doors to the worship auditorium. The auditorium is usually filled with ethnically and racially diverse church attendees, all worshiping God with vibrance and enthusiasm. Jamil Gilleylen is the campus pastor.
Church of the Highlands is very gifted at marketing their various church events, both in person at their church services and online via social media. Church attendees at the Woodlawn campus experience no difference from other campuses. They warmly invite guests to events like “At the Movies,” where they show clips of various movies and use them to better understand the gospel, or First Wednesday, which is a worship night and outreach event. Through their skillful communication and kind invitations, the Woodlawn campus has successfully added to their members and welcomed more people into their community each week.
Highland’s Woodlawn community or “campus” existed for ten years before it opened its own physical building in September 2022 (Garrison 2022). Before meeting in its new building, the Woodlawn campus met in the auditorium of Woodlawn High School, which the Birmingham Board of Education rented to them for $288,000 a year. This worship community had grown out of The Dream Center, a service ministry center that Highlands opened in Woodlawn’s historic renovated Fire Station No. 12 in 2009.
In 2020, however, Chris Hodges was found to have liked several social media posts from a conservative personality, Charlie Kirk, president of Turning Point USA. Kirk has made many controversial statements, including “white privilege is a myth.” A teacher at Carver High School in Birmingham, Jasmine Faith Clisby, noted that Hodges had liked several of Kirk’s posts, although she said, “I’m not saying he’s a racist. I am saying he likes someone who posts things that do not seem culturally sensitive to me.” (Garrison 2020a). Due to Hodge’s interaction on some of these controversial posts, the Birmingham Board of Education voted and ruled to end their leasing agreement with the Church of the Highlands, consequently no longer allowing the church to meet in the high school (Garrison 2020b). Two weeks after this surfaced, Hodges apologized for his social media behavior, stating, “I am not the same Chris Hodges I was two weeks ago. Do I have a long way to go? Yes, sir. But I can look you in the eye and say I have been tested, stripped, disciplined, broken.” (Garrison 2020c).
Three months after the school board voted to terminate Highlands’s lease, Church of the Highlands purchased the abandoned Gibson Elementary school for $637,500 and replaced the school building with their new Woodlawn campus (Garrison 2022). The Woodlawn campus held its first in-person service in two and a half years on September 11, 2022. Chris Hodges shared that they chose to use some bricks from the former elementary school to frame the entrance of the new church building, saying that they desired to “preserve a part of the history of the school and to honor this great community.” (Garrison 2022).
Church of the Highlands, and specifically their Woodlawn campus, make their desire to make others feel loved and to share the love of Christ very clear, and they do a great job accomplishing this. As a visitor, you feel loved and welcomed by many greeters when you step foot on the Woodlawn campus. The worship order is carefully thought out and organized, and the intentionality to connect with members of the church body and the community is seen in the worship, prayer, announcements, and sermon. This is very evident when viewing the leadership’s history. Though Chris Hodges’ story is not without controversy, he has made every effort to learn, grow, apologize, and make up for his mistakes. He leads the church well and seems to use his influence for good. It is apparent that the Church of the Highlands closely follows the mission statement on their website, that they are here to “know God, find freedom, discover…purpose, and make a difference” (“About”).
Church of the Highlands, Woodlawn Campus
Address: 4930 Messer-Airport Highway
Community Organized in Woodlawn: 2012
Current Site Opened: 2022
Affiliation: Church of the Highlands, Association of Related Churches
“About.” 2022. Church of the Highlands, https://www.churchofthehighlands.com/about/. Accessed 1 November 2022.
“Birmingham schools, housing authority cut ties with Church of the Highlands.” 2020. AL.com, June 9, 2020, https://www.al.com/news/2020/06/birmingham-schools-may-ban-church-of-the-highlands-pastor-clinic-respond-as-housing-authority-turns-away-free-covid-testing.html. Accessed 1 November 2022.
Garrison, Greg. 2020a. “Cancel Pastor Chris Hodges? Church of the Highlands faces social media firestorm.” AL.com, June 14, 2020, https://www.al.com/news/2020/06/cancel-pastor-chris-hodges-church-of-the-highlands-faces-social-media-firestorm.html. Accessed 1 November 2022.
Garrison, Greg. 2020b. “Pastor Chris Hodges responds to social media controversy.” AL.com, May 31, 2020, https://www.al.com/news/2020/05/pastor-chris-hodges-responds-to-social-media-controversy.html. Accessed 1 November 2022.
Garrison, Greg. 2020c. “Pastor: ‘Not the same Chris Hodges I was two weeks ago.’” AL.com, June 14, 2020, https://www.al.com/news/2020/06/church-of-the-highlands-pastor-not-the-same-chris-hodges-i-was-two-weeks-ago.html. Accessed 1 November 2022.
Garrison, Greg. 2022. “Church of the Highlands opens Woodlawn branch campus.” AL.com, September 10, 2022, https://www.al.com/life/2022/09/church-of-the-highlands-opens-woodlawn-branch-campus.html. Accessed 1 November 2022.
Avery Flynt ‘24 and Rebekah Marsh ’23 were students in Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in America in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in fall 2022.
Posted March 31, 2023