Church of the Highlands
The Church of the Highlands is a nondenominational megachurch and founding church of the Association of Related Churches (ARC). It was founded in 2001 by Chris Hodges with 34 charter members. It has since grown to serve between 55,000 and 60,000 attendees on any given week at more than 20 locations. Hodges serves as senior pastor along with associate pastor Layne Schranz.
Hodges launched the church with a mass mailing and drew 300 visitors to its first service on February 4 of that year at the Mountain Brook High School auditorium, though only about 200 showed up for the next week's service. Attendance remained steady from there until the first Sunday following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C. when the auditorium was filled to its 1,000-seat capacity. A second morning service was added beginning on Easter Sunday in 2002.
As the congregation grew, additional morning services were added to the schedule and branch locations were opened in Riverchase, Greystone, Tuscaloosa, Auburn and Montgomery, equipped with video projectors to simulcast Hodges' Sunday sermons. Hodges says that the growth of the church comes from word of mouth, and results from making the services an "experience".
In 2005 the church purchased a 125-acre site at Grants Mill Road and Overton Road for $7 million and began planning a new $15 million main campus with a 2,400 seat high-tech sanctuary. The new building, designed by Garrison Barrett Group, opened on June 24, 2007 and includes a 1,000-seat youth auditorium, offices, child care facilities, 1,700 parking spaces, and a coffee shop. Instead of holding Sunday school on campus, the church organizes small groups that meet in homes, parks and restaurants. Cameras in the main sanctuary provide a video feed which is transmitted to the adjoining youth auditorium, and by satellite to the other campuses.
In 2008 the church finalized plans to purchase and renovate the Eastern Health Center and the historic Birmingham Fire Station No. 12 from the Jefferson County Health Department in order to create "the Dream Center", a clinic and mission outreach facility in Woodlawn. The church also provides prison ministries in numerous correctional facilities in the state. In 2017 the church began partnering with the Housing Authority of the Birmingham District to operate the Campus of Hope at Marks Village, a prototype resource center for public housing communities.
In December 2008, Outreach magazine named Church of the Highlands the fastest growing church in the nation. In a one-year period ending in spring 2008, attendance had jumped 72% to 8,168. At the time the article was published Pastor Hodges stated that attendance at the 4 locations had grown by another 2,500 members since the magazine completed its research.
In 2019 the church announced that its "Highlands College" ministerial educational program would share the Grandview campus. In early 2020 Church of the Highlands bought the adjoining Grandview Plaza office building, parking deck and warehouse/distribution center from Daniel Corporation for future expansion of the college campus. In June of that year, the Birmingham Board of Education voted to terminate its agreements with the church to use the auditoriums at Woodlawn High School and Parker High School because Hodges engaged positively with social media posts by white supremacist Charlie Kirk. Both of those branches moved together to the BJCC Theatre, with the Woodlawn congregation later moving into a new worship center at the site of the former Gibson Elementary School in 2022.
By 2008, the church was active in the Woodlawn neighborhood, with a branch congregation meeting at Woodlawn High School and its Dream Center and Christ Health ministries across the street. In 2020 Highlands purchased the former Gibson Elementary School for a new Woodlawn campus, which held its first services on September 11, 2022.
In 2013 a new campus was launched in Fultondale. They initially met at the Fultondale Elementary School, but soon moved to Tarrant High School. By December 2013, as it was preparing to open its first Huntsville campus, the church claimed weekly attendance of around 18,600 at nine locations.
In February 2016 Church of the Highlands opened a 13th campus in Gadsden. In May of that year, it purchased the former Cahaba Grand Conference Center as its Grandview campus. That campus was expanded by 12 acres in 2021 with SCP Stonegate's donation of undeveloped land behind the offices from Site One Landscaping.
In February 2018 Church of the Highlands opened a 17th campus in Oxford. By the end of that year, it had opened an 18th campus at Parker High School in Smithfield (led by Mayo Sowell), and a 19th in Mobile. Construction on a permanent building for the Fultondale campus began in late 2018. In April 2019 Highlands opened their 20th campus in Sylacauga.
In July 2019 the Huntsville campus opened their new building in a permanent location. In August 2019 Highlands opened their 21st campus in Columbus, Georgia. In December 2019 a permanent building for the Fultondale campus was opened in time for Christmas services that year.
In September 2020 Church of the Highlands purchased 17 acres in two parcels at 8425 and 8495 Montevallo Road (Alabama State Highway 119) in Alabaster. That same month, the church opened an "Uptown" campus which meets at the BJCC Theater.
Church of the Highlands has participated in supervising the "restoration" process of pastors who left other Association of Related Churches congregations due to inappropriate sexual relationships. Dino Rizzo left the Healing Place Church he founded in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 2012 and was hired as an associate pastor and as executive director of the ARC the following year while attending counseling with his wife.
Chris Hodges' own son, Michael Hodges, left his role as pastor of Church of the Highlands' Greystone campus in fall 2017 due to an unspecified "moral failing" and was succeeded by Charles Kelly. Chris Hodges enlisted the help of Baton Rouge pastor Larry Stockstill to take charge of a "process of bringing discipline and long-term restoration to Michael." Hodges returned to the pulpit in February 2019 and was later hired as special projects director at Highlands College.
Micahn Carter left the Together Church in Yakima, Washington in 2019 and was brought onto the staff of Church of the Highlands soon later. After Carter was more specifically accused of having raped an employee, he was dismissed.
In 2021 Hodges stated at a church leadership event that he and Rizzo were "in the middle of about 20 pastoral, moral failures or restorations right now."
Hodges told the crowd at a church leadership event in 2021 that he and Highlands Associate Pastor Dino Rizzo were “in the middle of about 20 pastoral, moral failures or restorations right now.”
In 2023 Church of the Highlands opened "The Lodge at Grants Mill," a 6,500 square-foot residential facility for the restoration programs, and as "a place where [pastors] can be hosted, refreshed and trained." The lodge has also hosted events for GrowLeader, a for-profit founded by Hodges and managed by Lee Domingue.
- Garrison, Greg (June 24, 2007) "5,000-member church moves to new campus." The Birmingham News
- Garrison, Greg (December 7, 2008) "Birmingham's Church of the Highlands named fastest-growing church in U.S." The Birmingham News
- Garrison, Greg (February 5, 2011) "Birmingham-area Church of the Highlands grows to megachurch status with high-energy worship, low-pressure finances." The Birmingham News
- Anderson, Jon (December 7, 2012) "Church of the Highlands to open new Greystone campus this Sunday" The Birmingham News
- Garrison, Greg (August 9, 2013) "After 'inappropriate' relationship, megachurch pastor Dino Rizzo joins Church of the Highlands staff." The Birmingham News
- Campbell, Kay (December 20, 2013) "Birmingham's Church of the Highlands to launch Huntsville campus." The Birmingham News
- Garrison, Greg (May 2, 2016) "Alabama's largest church buys conference center on U.S. 280." The Birmingham News
- Burch, Edward (June 15, 2016) "Church of the Highlands continues to see growth." ABC3340.com
- Garrison, Greg (October 6, 2017) "Church of the Highlands founder's son out as Greystone pastor." The Birmingham News
- Garrison, Greg (February 2, 2018) "Church of the Highlands set to open Oxford branch" The Birmingham News
- Garrison, Greg (October 8, 2018) "Ex-Auburn player preaches at Church of Highlands downtown branch." The Birmingham News
- Garrison, Greg (February 5, 2019) "Church of the Highlands’ 500-student college plans to move, expand." The Birmingham News
- Van der Bijl, Hanno (January 10, 2020) "Church of the Highlands buys U.S. 280 properties for college campus in $34.9M deals." Birmingham Business Journal
- Garrison, Greg (June 9, 2020) “Birmingham schools, housing authority cut ties with Church of the Highlands” The Birmingham News
- Van der Bijl, Hanno (September 25, 2020) "Church of the Highlands buys Alabaster properties for $2.25M." Birmingham Business Journal
- Garrison, Greg (February 4, 2021) "Pastor Chris Hodges talks 20 years of amazing growth at the Church of the Highlands." The Birmingham News
- Garrison, Greg (July 31, 2021) "Church of the Highlands cuts ties with minister accused of sex abuse." The Birmingham News
- Coker, Angel (October 15, 2021) "SCP Stonegate LLC donates portion of SiteOne Landscaping property to Church of the Highlands Greystone." Birmingham Business Journal
- Garrison, Greg (September 10, 2022) "Church of the Highlands opens Woodlawn branch campus" The Birmingham News
- Vollers, Anna Claire (July 10, 2023) "Church of the Highlands opens $4.5 million ‘pastoral recovery’ center. What is it?" AL.com
- Church of the Highlands website