By KATIE EUBANKS
Word of Life Highland Colony celebrates 1 year
In June 2019, Word of Life Senior Pastor Joel Sims was watering his grass when, in his words, “the Lord dealt with me in a real big way that we would do a work in Madison County.”
Joel always knew Word of Life would branch out beyond its flagship campus in Flowood, “but I didn’t know where,” he says.
“We looked at Ridgeland High School, because (a couple of churches) had met there. We really looked at any other option we could find. They all began to fall through the cracks.”
Then he and Word of Life Executive Pastor Ryan Lamberson pulled into the parking lot of what was then Christ Life Church of the Highlands, located off Highland Colony Parkway in Ridgeland and visible from I-55.
“We said, ‘This would be perfect, but they’d never sell it to us,’” Joel recalls.
Word of Life leadership prayed continually about the expansion, especially at their Tuesday staff meetings. God told Joel that He was “working in a church that would be part of us,” Joel says. He wrote that down and started praying in that direction.
Then, in January 2020, Christ Life Senior Pastor David Hale had just turned 70 years old and realized it might be time to pass the torch to someone younger.
“It’s not impossible to relate to the demographics of this congregation (at my age), but it’s not normal,” David says.
“God dropped it in my heart that I needed to contact a mutual friend of ours, a businessman (named Clint Herring), who’s been part of both (Christ Life and Word of Life).”
David also spoke with his wife, Nita. “My wife isn’t quick to say, ‘I feel God in this,’ and she did immediately,” he recalls.
Clint called Joel and set up a meeting but didn’t tell him what it was about.
At that meeting on February 11, 2020, David said, “I feel like the Lord wants us to give Word of Life our church.”
“Honestly, I was speechless,” he says, “one of few times for me as a pastor.”
When David and Nita moved from Alexandria, Louisiana, to metro Jackson to plant Christ Life in 2003, “I came here thinking there’d be multiple campuses,” David says. “Of course, I thought I’d be the one organizing them.”
In fact, Christ Life River in Vidalia, Louisiana, was birthed out of Christ Life Church of the Highlands.
Beyond that, though, “The vision that Joel has (for Word of Life) made a lot of sense. I wouldn’t be able to accomplish all that at this age,” David says.
“I felt (merging with Word of Life) was an ongoing piece of the vision we had for this area. We had similar DNA.”
“We were both multicultural, we both had contemporary worship. … we saw they had a heart to be multicampus (like us). Our statement of beliefs was similar.”
Even some of the terminology at both churches was identical:
“Our children’s church was called KidsLife, their children’s church was called KidsLife,” Joel says.
But how would the Christ Life members respond to becoming a satellite campus of a Flowood church with a different senior pastor? Word of Life had to plan for the worst and hope for the best.
“(We figured out that) if we took in no money from (former Christ Life members after the merge), we had enough to cover the staff,” Joel says.
When the merge was first in the works, “we didn’t know COVID was going to hit like it did,” David says. But without thinking about a possible pandemic, he still told the team, “I just feel we need to move fast.”
So they did, and in March 2020 they announced the coming transition.
We all know what happened next.
God’s answer to limitations
Before COVID, Word of Life had what they thought was a “wonderful plan, well crafted,” to introduce the two congregations to each other, says Ryan, now campus pastor at Highland Colony.
“We had these things called Life Nights planned. You know, Christ Life and Word of Life.” Everybody would get together, mix and mingle, and have fun.
“(That plan) got put on the shelf,” Ryan says.
On the plus side, quarantine gave Word of Life more time to renovate what would become their new campus.
“Before COVID hit, we thought we needed to get this building renovated in 60 days or less,” Ryan says. Instead, they were able to take their time on the project, which totaled more than $600,000.
Meanwhile, Christ Life was still Christ Life for the time being, and “we did what everyone else did,” David says: “I sat at (a) little table on Sunday and did my thing (in front of a camera).”
The week before Joel took over preaching in June 2020, David told his congregation via livestream, “This is my last one,” he recalls. “And I know they were watching (when Joel preached the following week).”
Somebody was, anyway: Between Facebook, YouTube, the Word of Life website, and the church’s former CBS broadcast, a total of approximately 100,000 people watched Word of Life’s three services that Sunday.
“All the limitations (brought on by COVID), God already had an answer for,” David says. “(Word of Life has) been very successful online worldwide.”
“I do think our online campus helped people make that transition,” Joel says.
Instead of holding big in-person events for the two congregations to get to know each other, “we worked the phones calling all the members,” Joel says.
“I think it made it more personal. There are a lot of people I never would’ve gotten as personal with, had COVID not happened.”
Even now, not everybody has come back to campus. Many have gotten used to worshipping online.
“It’s hard to tell with COVID, but I would say at least 80 to 90 percent of the people (from Christ Life are still worshipping with Word of Life online or in person),” Joel says.
“Amazingly, really,” David adds. Such a big transition asks a lot of a church member.
“With COVID, you have so much change in your personal life, to have this spiritual change as well…” Joel says.
But a lot of Word of Life members were happy about the additional campus, he adds.
“How many of our members were on this side of town? We didn’t realize how many people (from Madison County) were making the drive (to Flowood every week for worship).”
His goal was to have 700 to 750 people at the Highland Colony campus by the end of 2021. A couple weeks before this interview, they hit 800.
‘I’ve been blown away’
The most miraculous part of the whole process was how gracious the Christ Life team was, Joel says. “So often pride comes in,” but that was not the case here.
First of all, “When I say (the church was) given, I don’t think people understand. We didn’t pay anything for it. It could have easily been rezoned and sold.”
The board of directors for Christ Life “was all excited about this,” David says. Those board members still attend the Highland Colony campus, Joel says. “Staff (from Christ Life) still works here. … It wasn’t just us coming in and throwing weight around. Their children’s pastor is still the children’s pastor.”
“I don’t even know anyone on the worship team who isn’t still involved,” David says.
David still attends worship at the Highland Colony campus when he isn’t guest preaching or meeting with other pastors elsewhere.
“You’ve got to have a lot of infrastructure (to keep a church going strong after COVID),” David says. “I’ve really been kind of blown away (by how well Word of Life has done).”
Also, “Pastor Joel’s ministry and the content of his messages — they’re not sermons, they’re messages — it’ll be stuff I’ve been thinking about that week. He’s in tune with where we are in the times, what’s happening in the culture … To be able to put all the pieces together for a church to be relevant in our day (is amazing).”
Over the past year, Word of Life has been able to make a dent at Highland Colony financially — reducing the building’s $1.97 million mortgage debt to $400,000 — and reach out to the community in specific ways.
“We’ve been able to partner with Highland Elementary School, so that’s an ongoing partnership,” Ryan says. “We did Teacher Appreciation Week at Old Town Middle School. It’s been great to do that and make a difference.”
Even the smallest practical details seem to be falling into place: A few months after Joel began preaching to Word of Life Highland Colony, the Lake Harbour Drive extension opened, running east from Highland Colony Parkway all the way into Rankin County, where the thoroughfare becomes Spillway Road.
Why is that so convenient? Because Joel preaches live at Highland Colony at 8:30, and then commutes back to Flowood for the 10 a.m. service. With the Lake Harbour extension, the whole trip involves maybe three turns.
In the end, the man at the pulpit on Sundays might look different, and there might be a lot of new faces in the crowd, but the services in that church building on Highland Colony haven’t changed a whole lot.
Maybe that’s because they didn’t need to.
“I love a multicultural, contemporary worship, Spirit-filled church in Madison County,” Joel says.