Leadership Leverage

blog Mar 09, 2023


With Chris Hodges

The last three years have been a challenging time for the church in the United States—from social and political unrest, to a global pandemic and its impact on the economy, mental health and willingness of people to attend public gatherings. External pressures have uncovered underlying trends of waning trust in the church as a cultural institution.

In early 2022, the Barna Group released a report that revealed that only 57% of Americans at least “somewhat agree” that a pastor is a trustworthy source of wisdom. Nearly a quarter of Americans, 24%, say they’re “unsure” about the trustworthiness of pastors, with 1 in 5 Christians (21%) doubting the clergy. And only 21% of pastors say their neighbors “very much” see them in a trustworthy light.

Few Christians would debate the church’s responsibility to be an influence for cultural transformation, to bring renewal to society and spiritual direction to an increasingly aimless world. But with numbers like these, such an enterprise can seem like a losing battle.

Chris Hodges, pastor of Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama, is anything but discouraged. With 40 years of ministry under his belt, he’s seen the ebb and flow of spiritual interest, and he’s also seen more than his share of fads and gimmicks created to stem the tide of secularism and decline.

But Chris has also been a part of launching a church-planting network that has helped plant more than 1,000 congregations in the last 20 years (one of which is the church he leads), a college and an organization that hosts events and develops resources that help pastors grow their congregations to their full potential.


Chris started his journey as a youth pastor at Bethany World Prayer Center, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He then served at New Life Church in Colorado Springs before planting Church of Highlands in 2001.

Along the way, he was part of the team that launched ARC (Association of Related Churches), which has become known for its success rate in planting vibrant churches that not only survive past their first few years but thrive and multiply.

Chris notes that when ARC began 21 years ago, church plants had a 90% failure rate. Like small businesses, few were in existence five years after they had been started. The ARC team noticed that they were failing for the same reason small businesses often don’t survive.

“It wasn’t the product,” Chris contends. “It was how well resourced the product was on the front end.”

He describes the typical new church plant—a small group of 12 people gathered in a living room for a Bible study—as an ineffective model because it lacks the critical mass needed to move a church past the first few weeks of planting.

“If you started a restaurant in a living room, would it succeed?” Chris asks. “You’d be better to borrow a million dollars, open up a great place, have a hundred people the first night and cook some great food. And the same is true for churches.”

ARC flipped the statistic from 90% failure to 90% success for the churches they helped plant by creating a network that didn’t just recruit church planters but trained and resourced them so they could launch big, with momentum that could carry them to a place of self-sufficiency.

“You could get them 300 or 400 people on launch day, knowing there would be some natural attrition,” he says, “but it would give it enough critical mass to be successful. Everybody in the church world knows that it’s easier to preach to a thousand than it is to 10.”

ARC built its entire strategy around the launch, first asking, “What is the critical mass needed to create momentum for sustainability?” Once they had the number (400), they asked, “How do we get 400 people for the first day?”

This was not just a hypothetical experiment. Church of the Highlands and New Life Church in Conway, Arkansas, pastored by Rick Bezet, were the prototypes.

“I had 400, he had 500 on his first day and the rest is history,” Chris recalls. “ARC now has a 93% success rate from what was a 90% failure rate.”

ARC gives $9 million a year toward church plants and recently surpassed the milestone of 1,000 new churches planted since the network’s inception 21 years ago. Its funding largely comes from voluntary contributions from those churches that ARC helped plant. Even at the height of the pandemic, the network was able to plant 40 churches in 2020.

Of course, while the launch may be an important factor in a church plant’s success, it’s not the only one. Chris points out that another crucial ingredient is found in ARC’s name—“related.”

“We felt the best way to resource someone is to be in relationship with them,” he explains. “Resourcing doesn’t just mean we write them a check. It was that we would be this fraternity, there would be this closeness. That is our unique DNA: We have relationships and mission combined.”

Chris describes the comradery that continues long past a church’s launch, as pastors vacation together, guest preach at one another’s churches and are bound together as a tribe with a shared mission.

“There are a lot of tribes that network together,” he notes. “But I think tribes are better whenever they network together and do a project together.”

Beyond resources, relationships and a successful launch, a healthy church plant requires the right church planter, and Chris has leveraged the influence and resources of Church of the Highlands to create initiatives and programs dedicated to raising up and equipping leaders to fill the need that quickly scaling and multiplying congregations inevitably create.

“You’re really only as good as the leaders and the team that you build. We do have a leadership vacuum, and I think it’s the No. 1 question to answer and to solve. It speaks to Jesus’ words in Luke 10:2,” Chris notes, referencing Jesus’ statement, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

“We don’t have a harvest problem,” he contends. “We have a worker problem.”


The prospect of planting a church can be attractive, and there is no lack of conferences, books and methodologies that claim to offer the silver bullet of success. But Chris cautions against overlooking the spiritual maturity that such a venture requires. The current generation of church planters may be more technologically savvy and in touch with best practices in marketing and media than their predecessors, but many carry cultural baggage from the post-Christian environment in which they grew up.

“In the younger generation the biblical literacy is lower than my generation,” he notes. “When I was 21 and called to ministry, the biblical worldview was much more solid. I think there’s a delayed maturity.”

Founded in 2011, Highlands College is on a mission to fill the need for well-equipped leaders who have both the education and the real-world experience to make an impact. When the school began, it was essentially a church-based internship for young people who wanted to be in full-time ministry. As it grew, Chris noticed that the No. 1 barrier for prospective students was their parents’ concerns that their children miss getting a college degree.

To address this dilemma, Highlands partnered with Southeastern University (SEU) in Lakeland, Florida, to allow students to have the opportunity to pursue a four-year degree by transferring credit from their Highlands College degree into SEU’s online program to earn a Bachelor of Science in Christian Ministries. Currently accredited through the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE), Highlands is pursuing regional accreditation by the spring of 2023, paving the way for the school to offer its own bachelor’s degrees.

Additionally, the school is committed to helping students graduate debt-free—without taking any financial aid from the government.

“We’ll be one of only a handful of universities that don’t have some of their funding tied to federal funding,” Chris explains. “The reasons for that are obvious. We just don’t want them to ever have a say so into what we do and don’t do.”

With just over 1,000 students, Highlands’ format is modeled after military schools such as West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy.

“We asked ourselves, What is the best way to train someone?” Chris explains. “What educational institution sends 100% of their graduates into the degree field? Military academies are probably the best example of that.”

With that in mind, classroom learning is intentionally combined with practical application and mentoring, and each student graduates with 800 hours of real-world experience.

“Of course, I have ministry degrees and learned going to school, but 99% of what I learned, I learned on the job and by being mentored by people like John [Maxwell],” he says. “I think most people agree that that is the best way to learn.”


Chris is not satisfied with just seeing churches planted. He wants them to meet their potential. The key to this is not so much the model of the church as much as it is the development of the leader. A church will not outgrow its leader, Chris argues, and with that in mind he launched Grow Leader, an initiative to see 1,000 churches break the attendance barrier of 1,000.

“The thousand is not the real measuring stick,” Chris explains. “The real measuring stick is, Have you reached your growth potential, whatever that is, based on your city, your calling, your abilities? What Grow Leader is is basically a recipe that is both transferable and scalable.
So, anybody can do it anywhere. And it works at any size. The church of 30 can do it. The church of 3,000 can do it.”

Grow Leader offers consulting, coaching and mentoring for pastors, a podcast and events that equip church leaders to reach their potential. As the pastor of a megachurch, some may assume that Chris considers large churches as superior to smaller ones. Not so, he says. Instead, he points to Jesus’ parable of the talents as a guiding paradigm for understanding growth.

“The servants were all expected to make the most of what they were given,” he explains. “So the one who had two talents turned them into four, and the one who had five turned them into 10. In God’s eyes they both did the same thing by growing what He had given them 100%.”


For Chris, these three channels of leadership development—ARC, Highlands College and Grow Leader—are his best contribution to bringing broader cultural transformation.

“Leaders impact culture. Organizations don’t,” he argues. “This is the bread and butter—leaders and especially young leaders. I think if we influence the leaders, the rest will take care of itself.”

Instead of focusing on what many may see as declining spiritual vitality in Western culture, Chris emphasizes attention to leadership development. He believes the pattern of raising up leaders and planting churches is transferrable, whether someone is called to the buckle of the Bible Belt like Alabama or a stereotypically secular part of the country like Portland, Oregon.

He points to research from books such as futurist George Friedman’s The Storm Before the Calm, which describes to the cyclical nature of geopolitical and social trends.

“I really don’t think too much about the shifting culture,” he says. “Because I think everything's cyclical, and it all comes around anyway. Nothing that is not of God works. History has proved that it’ll just cycle through and fail. My thought is just to stay steady in the midst of it all.”

People are looking for a style of leadership that contrasts with the surrounding culture, Chris argues, describing people who are more interested in building the mission than they are their own platforms, personality or fame.

“The greatest compliment I ever got received in my life was from someone in an interview like this. It was a major publication, and the interviewer said, ‘You probably pastor the largest church where we know more about the church than we know its leader.’ And I said, ‘That was always by design. I’ll come and go, but this mission and this vision and God’s purpose on earth will never change.’”

Chris acknowledges that the church has lost respect and relevance in some places, but he notes that this trend does not apply across the board. The suspicion with which church leaders are viewed can quickly melt into trust when leaders demonstrate consistency and integrity—especially in areas such as finances.

“We’re completely debt free, and we run the whole organization on less than 70% of what people give so that we can give back,” he explains. “This year it’ll be over 16 million to causes where people are hurting.”

Chris points out that this expectation that the church will provide some type of social benefit has led to scrutiny of leaders’ personal lives on social media. Whether they are secretive or transparent, leaders are held up to examination. They must also be quick to speak out on every issue—before they even have a chance to understand the nuances. This reached a fever pitch during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people took sides on the safety of public gatherings and the social crises of recent years.

“The culture shifting, the pandemic and everything around that exposed if your leadership was actually solid,” Chris explains. “Crisis is a great revealer.”

If some church leaders are tempted to despair, Chris is anything but discouraged. If others feel compelled to change their tactics, he recommends staying the course.

“If anything, what people are looking for is just authentic, solid, consistent, not-changing leadership. That’s what’s required right now. Non-flashy, almost old school,” he argues. “A changing culture requires more of those fundamental values of authenticity, humility and clarity.”

A culture in crisis and confusion is not a reason to despair, but an opportunity to serve.

“God does his best work in crisis and, and leaders do their best work in vacuums,” he notes. “So when you see leaderless parts of a country, you can see that as a detriment or you can see that as an opportunity.”

The common thread among all these initiatives is Chris’s conviction that raising up, equipping and sustaining leaders is at the core of transforming culture. Leadership development is a form of leverage—by investing in individual leaders, one is able to influence thousands through those they will ultimately serve.

“It’s the problem to solve,” Chris contends. “When you get better leaders, and you equip and resource them, that’s how you achieve what God wants to accomplish on earth.”

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