BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Birmingham's Church of the Highlands has been named the fastest-growing church in America by Outreach magazine, a publication for religious leaders that does an annual analysis of church growth.
In the yearlong survey of church attendance ending in spring 2008, Highlands grew by 3,418 from the previous year — a jump of 72 percent — to 8,168.
And in the months since, attendance has increased by more than 2,500 at its main campus and three satellite branches, said Chris Hodges, the 45-year-old pastor who founded the church just seven years ago.
Weekly attendance exceeds 10,000, and was 11,670 on Easter.
"It's about worship, music, child care, creating a breath of fresh air," Hodges said. "A life-giving experience is what draws people."
A big factor in becoming the fastest-growing church in the country was the opening last year of a $15 million campus with a 2,400-seat sanctuary next to Interstate 459. The church is planning a 1,000-seat youth auditorium that can serve as an overflow area.
The church offers conferences for 30 to 40 church leaders who want to learn church growth methods or how to start a church.
Some lessons, however, cannot be taught, said Layne Schranz, associate pastor.
"We always make it very clear there is no explanation for the intangible: God has put his hand on this," Schranz said.
On Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings at the church, people line up at a coffee shop for free coffee or $2 espressos before and after the service. "It's all part of creating an environment where people want to be at church," Hodges said.
Highlands stresses mission work, sending youth groups around the world, and has planted 75 churches around the country, with plans to start 50 more next year.
Hodges stresses that local mission work is as important as anywhere else. The church plans a health clinic and mission outreach to help the poor.
In addition to its big worship services, the church has dozens of small groups meeting in homes, parks and schools to focus on prayer and Bible study. Life application lessons are at the center of the studies and services.
Hodges, who grew up in Baton Rouge and was raised Southern Baptist, leans toward Pentecostal theology, but Highlands is independent. He spent 11 years on staff at the 8,000-member Bethany World Prayer Center in Baton Rouge, La., and seven years at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo. Church of the Highlands is modeled on those.
In addition to the fastest-growing churches, Outreach magazine listed the 100 largest.
Church of the Highlands ranked No. 71 on that list. At the top was Lakewood Church in Houston, led by Joel Osteen, which reported weekly attendance of 43,500.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Garrison writes for The Birmingham News.)