Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Church of the Highlands Review

I visited Church of the Highlands in the greater Birmingham, Alabama area on Sunday, August 3, and decided to write a review from a first-timer, outside observer's perspective. (VERY long!)

A few disclaimers: I went to Church of the Highlands because my son and daughter-in-law attend there, and, as a dad, I wanted to check it out to make sure it was a good, safe place for them. I went in as a dad, and as a denominational leader interested in the talent drain away from smaller, more traditional denominational churches flowing into the non-traditional, non-denominational mega-churches. I also observed as on who is working on a Masters in Leadership at Fuller Seminary, so I was interested in the structure, organization and logistics side of the church. So, having given those disclaimers up front, I'll review my Highlands experience in narrative, with ratings inserted.

The church is located on a huge campus on the Eastern outskirts of Birmingham, with satellite campuses elsewhere. Approaching the main campus location on the interstate, there were no signs, markers or indications of where to exit for the church. This may be a function of restrictions of the Interstate HIghway system, but it was a good thing I was with Highlands regulars, as I am not sure I would have known the church was there otherwise. You have to be looking for it to find it. Once you exit, however, there are police officers assisting with traffic control to help you make a safe turn and approach the church campus.

The turnoff is well-marked with a very large church logo, and the traffic control was excellent; lanes coned off, plenty of well-trained parking attendants with safety vests directing people to open lots, and making the traffic flow in and out efficiently.

The 40-acres or so of the campus being used is immaculate, well-landscaped and well-maintained. Great curb-appeal and a positive first-impression. The one-year-old building is large, modern, and not too "churchy" looking in the traditional sense. As we walked from the parking lot and approached the entrance, there was a volunteer greeter outside welcoming people. Again, good first-impression of sincere welcome. We were attending the second of three morning services, so there were crowds both coming and going at the same time. At the entrance doors, there were more volunteers making it obvious which doors we were to use for entrance, leaving other doors for those leaving the earlier service.

Once inside the large lobby area, I observed that, for such a large church, the lobby seemed smaller than I expected. That may have been by design, however, as a slightly crowded feel could build excitement and anticipation. Still, I found it a bit hectic feeling and crowded. The lobby was attractive. Carpeted like a nice hotel lobby, with numerous places to sit, and 5 strategically placed coffee stations spaced around the lobby. As a first-timer, it was not clear to me at first that the coffee was free, or where to get it. Signage would have helped, or perhaps some concierge volunteers wandering, looking for confused first-timers. At each of the five coffee stations there as a volunteer who would hand you an empty 6 or 8-ounce Starbucks cup so you could fill your own with regular or decaf Starbucks coffee for free. I was behind a man who was taking a long time fiddling with the creamer and sugar, and the volunteer nicely suggested that he might step to the right and allow the line to keep moving. As soon as I filled my cup, the lady handed me a plastic snap-on lid. Efficient system!

There was also a full café area in one corner, where I am told one could purchase specialty coffee drinks and snack foods. It was quite crowded, so I didn't get close enough to check it out, but it looked like a typical Starbucks-ish coffee bar.

We had time to walk over and take a look at the Children's area, or what we could see of it. There's a 2-story glassed in room with a massive plastic tree, complete with slides and climbing tubes -- very much like a McDonald's playland. That was just a pre-service play area. Across the wide corridor there was a check-in area for parents to sign their kids into the children's program; they had about six computer stations at a counter and regulars have a bar-coded card that gets scanned. An I.D. label is output from that card, with a sticker for the child's back + a mated sticker for the parent to reclaim their child. A uniformed police officer manned the entrance to the remainder of the kid's area.

COTH uses 5-minute video countdowns before services start (as we do), displayed on large flat panel video screens in the lobby.

The worship was very good -- a well-rehearsed, talented band, doing both familiar and original worship songs. Kudos to them for excellence without the typical show-biz atmosphere of mega-churches. No hazers or strobe lights here; just good music, flowing with the Spirit. The sound system was wonderful and very professionally mixed for clarity and volume. I noted that no matter how big and well-equipped the church, the person driving the computer-projected lyrics still miscues the slides at times and fails to follow the worship leader's changes. Note to Highlands tech people: your fonts for both lyrics and scriptures are too small for the size of the building. Even with good lenses and a new prescription I strained to read the verses.

The message was good, but not something I would download to hear a second time; pretty standard Purpose Driven Church 25-minute, fill-in-the-blanks message. The Senior Pastor, Chris Hodges, seems very nice, approachable, likable and effective, and he is a good speaker. He uses self-deprecating humor well, and has a conversational, real style. Solid, scriptural teaching and sensitivity to the Spirit.

This was not the normal service format, as it was the introduction to a new series and there was a scheduled baby dedication. They had Communion stations around the large auditorium and during the final song there was an open call for prayer by the elders, communion or worship, as one felt led. Nicely done.

The benediction ended exactly 76 minutes from the first note of worship, and we started clearing the room for the next service to enter.

Random impressions: Good, free coffee; great, clean restrooms stocked with Bath & Bodyworks liquid soaps and quality products. There was a baby changing station in the Men's room, and, I assume, in the Ladies' room. Parking attendants did a great job of clearing the lots to make room for the next service. It was a pretty upscale, yuppie crowd, but there was a lot of diversity, too, and everyone seemed pretty open and accepting of all comers. One sociological negative -- not one person without a Volunteer tag spoke to us, welcomed us, or made conversation except those we came with and those they introduced us to. One small technical negative: the house lights were at full brightness throughout the service except for being dimmed during a video promo; I would have enjoyed the ambiance more if the house had been dimmed about 1/3 to 1/2 to better put the focus on the stage, and the camera operators didn't leave enough headroom in framing shots. Just minor detail preferences of mine.

I liked the church very much, and left feeling that my son and his wife were in good hands there.

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