CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – Greek mythology teaches that a phoenix is a bird that obtains new life by emerging from the ashes of its predecessor. God, however, is the phoenix maker. He takes what other people thought was hopeless and makes it hopeful. He takes what was dead and makes it thrive with a fresh breath of life.
That’s what He did at Church of the Highlands, formerly known as Highland Park Baptist Church.
Highland Park is located in downtown Chattanooga, Tenn., and once was among America’s most thriving churches. When Elmer Towns wrote “The Ten Largest Sunday Schools” in 1969, he listed it as the country’s second-largest church. Dr. Lee Roberson became the church’s pastor in the 1940s and led it from a few hundred to 10,000 people primarily through conversion growth with bus ministry and media. He established major ministries: a homeless shelter, Tennessee Temple University, a radio station and a 65-acre children’s camp in what was a rural area outside of town.
Over time, however, the shimmer wore off. Attendance declined. The four worship centers on the church campus, totaling 8,200 seats, were only filled by about 180 people by the time I became pastor 16 months ago. The community changed but the church’s methodology didn’t. There was no outreach strategy and $3 million of debt. Everyone talked about what happened during the church’s heyday decades ago, before I was born.
Then, all of a sudden, God decided to make a phoenix out of Highland Park Baptist Church. A few months into my pastorate, I felt the leading of the Lord to re-plant our church, one of the most historic congregations in Tennessee, to a northern suburb; to change our name to “Church of the Highlands”; to become a philosophically–progressive church; and to sell our downtown property to get out of debt and jump-start our new chapter. It was scary making that decision alongside the wisdom of our lay-leadership, but I had confidence it was what we were supposed to do.
The location of our new church is at the camp where, 67 years prior, Dr. Roberson led the church to buy the property for just $3,000. Now, that location (the Harrison Bay/Ooltewah region) of Chattanooga is the fastest-growing area in Chattanooga due to the explosion of jobs provided by Volkswagen’s plant near that site.
Our biggest concern when we decided to re-plant our church was how we were going to sell our downtown buildings. It’s hard enough to sell one mega-church sanctuary, but even harder to sell two, plus our other six buildings. We met with a church real estate specialist who told us the average church in the southeastern U.S. sells for 20 percent of its appraised value. It was no big deal to God. He sold seven of our eight buildings within just a few months, and we got more than 50 percent of the appraised value for each of the buildings. Our church is now debt-free with money in the bank, and we are spending $360,000 less per year on mortgage, utility and upkeep costs. Only God could have done this. Another church will thrive at our former location.
Our church has more than doubled in size since January, we remodeled the campus from a rugged camp into a cutting-edge church, and we are in the early stages of planning to build our new worship center. We even got to baptize 11 people on a recent Sunday.
You may be reading this with the thought in the back of your mind that your church also needs to be revitalized, but others are saying it is beyond repair. They said that to me.
Some of my friends thought I was crazy for coming to this church because it was “beyond the tipping point” and “dead as a doornail.”
Jesus Himself was dead and He came back to life. He has revitalized our church and He can revitalize yours. Unleash the church of which you are a part to move beyond the impossibilities of this world and watch our God, once again, prove that He is the phoenix maker!
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Jeremy Roberts has been the lead pastor at Church of the Highlands since April 2012.)