Church of The Highlands Exposed: Inside the Pastor Chris Hodges Scandal That Rocked Alabama

In the heart of the Bible Belt, an explosive controversy erupted surrounding Pastor Chris Hodges and his wildly popular megachurch, Church of The Highlands

This was one of the biggest church scandals to hit the Southern evangelical scene in recent memory. 

In this comprehensive post, we’ll dive deep into the scandal, examining what really happened, why it was so contentious, and the lasting repercussions for Hodges and his rapidly growing congregation across Alabama.

The Rapid Rise of Church of The Highlands

The Rapid Rise of Church of The Highlands

To fully grasp the magnitude of this scandal, we need to understand how Church of The Highlands rose from humble beginnings to become a religious phenomenon and one of the largest and fastest growing churches in the state.

The church was planted in 2001, starting with a small congregation meeting in a rented auditorium at Mountain Brook High School

But from those modest roots, it didn’t take long for Hodges’ captivating preaching style and the church’s contemporary, concert-like worship services to attract a surging number of congregants.

Featuring diverse, energetic praise bands and Hodges’ down-to-earth yet charismatic sermons focused on practical life advice, Church of The Highlands proved immensely popular with millennials and young families

Skilled at blending humor, storytelling, and a message of positivity tailored to modern sensibilities, the church offered a refreshing alternative to traditional Southern Baptist churches.

Despite theological critics questioning whether the upbeat, lifestyle-oriented services were theologically substantive, Church of The Highlands continued overcoming obstacles and expanding its reach at a staggering rate. 

After starting in a rented school auditorium, the church opened a $16 million Irondale campus in 2009. It began rapidly launching new branches, renting out auditoriums for weekly services across Alabama while live-streaming Hodges’ sermons statewide.

By the beginning of 2020, the numbers spoke for themselves – Church of The Highlands had exploded to over 22 locations and a combined weekly attendance topping 50,000 members

Its rapid expansion was unmatched by any other church in the region. Pastors from other congregations regularly visited to study the “Highlands model” and learn from its success. The church even launched Highlands College, training up a new generation of millennial ministers.

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The Catalyst: George Floyd’s Murder and Hodges’ Support of Trump

The Catalyst: George Floyd's Murder and Hodges' Support of Trump

Amidst this tremendous growth, the winds of change began swirling in the summer of 2020 in the heated aftermath of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police. Heightened racial tensions swept across the nation, magnified by a summer of anguished protests and civil unrest.

It was in this highly charged climate that Pastor Hodges found himself suddenly facing intense backlash over his perceived support of former President Donald Trump and controversial pro-Trump activist Charlie Kirk

Kirk’s campus conservative organization, Turning Point USA, had gone so far as to publicly claim “white privilege is a myth,” inflaming divisions further.

Hodges was called out by congregants, local teachers, and community members for culturally insensitive social media “likes” and posts that appeared to align with Trump’s divisive rhetoric on racial issues. 

An English teacher at a Birmingham City Schools high school was among the first to point out the pastor’s questionable activity, sparking a firestorm of outraged reactions across social platforms.

The pastor tearfully apologized multiple times on video and in sermons, expressing regret over “liking” some of Kirk’s inflammatory posts. He claimed Kirk’s extreme views did not actually reflect his own personal stances. But for many of Hodges’ critics, the damage was already done.

Severed Local Partnerships

The backlash led several prominent local organizations and government bodies to abruptly sever long-standing partnerships with Church of The Highlands:

  • The Birmingham Housing Authority ended its relationship with Christ Health Center, a nonprofit that had provided crucial healthcare services to thousands of public housing residents through free clinics and services.
  • The Birmingham Board of Education voted to terminate the church’s rental agreements to hold weekly Sunday services at Parker High School and Woodlawn High School auditoriums, facilities it had used for services since 2014.
  • The Birmingham Dream Center, a community outreach ministry that Church of The Highlands operated out of an old fire station, was pressured to suspend volunteer operations like neighborhood cleanups and home repairs.

These major organizations cutting ties with Church of The Highlands so abruptly was a stark example of how a pastor’s perceived words and affiliations, however unintended, could lead to significant organizational consequences in the communities it served.

The Divisive Debate Over Hodges’ Positions

The Divisive Debate Over Hodges' Positions

The scandal sparked a heated and divisive local debate between those who saw the actions against Hodges as an unconstitutional attack on religious freedom, and those who felt his apparent support of Trump’s divisive rhetoric emboldened systemic racism.

On one side, supporters like former U.S. Attorney General and Alabama Senate candidate Jeff Sessions came to Hodges’ defense, arguing the government overstepped its bounds:

I stand with the Church of the Highlands — the government of Birmingham MUST immediately reverse its anti-religious and discriminatory actions taken this week against @HighlandsAL and Pastor Chris Hodges!

But detractors argued Hodges’ alignment with Trump’s rhetoric and associates like Kirk revealed deeper racial insensitivity that could no longer be overlooked. 

Rev. Gwen Webb, a local pastor who marched in the pivotal 1963 civil rights protests in Birmingham as a youth, warned against allowing Highlands to continue using facilities near predominantly Black high schools:

“Some people think it’s deep in his heart,” Rev. Webb said. “Allowing them to meet near Parker and Woodlawn may generate a lot of hate. We should avoid any additional negative feedback in the city at this time. Repercussions are what we get when we do bad things.”

So was Hodges’ support of Trump, like that of many other white evangelical pastors, strictly political and tied to conservative social views? Or were there more concerning racial overtones and implicit biases reflected in his online activity and alliances? The heated debate raged on across social media and within congregations.

Impact Within vs. Outside the Church

While analysts suggested the scandal could seriously damage Hodges’ reputation and public standing in the broader Birmingham area, within his core base of Southern evangelical congregants, the calculus was quite different.

“I’m not shocked that he’s for Trump,” said Samford University history professor Jonathan Bass. “A predominantly white evangelical megachurch pastor in the United States is 90% likely to support Donald Trump. I don’t get the big deal.”

Indeed, multiple local commentators argued the controversy was unlikely to negatively impact Church of The Highlands’ explosive growth trajectory and support within Alabama’s large white evangelical community. 

Older white congregants were far less likely to view Hodges’ perceived transgressions as disqualifying. And within the church’s burgeoning network of millennial members, the scandal may have had minimal effect on enthusiasm and engagement.

As one former longtime Highlands member who ultimately left put it: “I’m deeply disappointed by all this, but for most people in the church, I don’t think it’ll change much. They identify with the fun, energetic vibe more than the pastor’s specific views.”

So while Hodges faced significant backlash in progressive and racially diverse spheres of the Birmingham community, the church’s base of loyal and growing members appeared more sheltered from the outrage over the pastor’s actions.

Conclusion

The dust may have settled from the initial uproar, but the underlying debate over Pastor Chris Hodges’ true positions and their implications continues to simmer in Birmingham and beyond. Was this brief saga a temporary stumble that Highlands will easily rebound from, or did it represent a lasting shift in how the public—especially younger generations—perceive the charismatic preacher and his swiftly expanding church? Only time will tell.

Even as Highlands keeps planting new branches and continuing its relentless expansion across Alabama, keeping a critical eye on its leadership and socio-political alliances remains paramount in a society still reckoning with complex issues of racial justice. The viral spread of viral division shows no signs of slowing in the social media age.

What’s your take on this complex and contentious scandal? We encourage readers to share their own perspectives in the comments section as this story continues unfolding.

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