Dr. Chip Henderson, senior minister of Pinelake Church, sits at his kitchen table on a sunny afternoon in July. Wearing his usual attire—jeans—he looks younger than his 48 years. He is just one of those fortunate few who are going to look like he is a college kid even when he is old enough to collect social security! He is plain “Chip” to most everyone, and if you did not know him and had never heard him preach, you might think he should try acting or modeling.
His bride of 25 years, Christy, is five years younger. A talented artist, she doesn’t look her age either. It is hard to believe that their oldest daughter is headed to college this fall.
But then they start to share their story, their values, and their heart for Christ and His church. Suddenly, they seem wise beyond their years.
The bad news is somewhere between 4,000 and 7,000 churches in America close their doors every year. Between 2010 and 2012, more than half the U.S. churches failed to attract even one new member. The term “religiously unaffiliated” is attached to three million former church members every year. So reported an article in Huffington Post this past April.
The good news, although the U.S. numbers sound rather dismal, is that Mississippi’s Pinelake has experienced a phenomenal explosion in growth over the past 15 years with an average of 8000+ attending on any given Sunday. In 2011, Pinelake was ranked the 54th fastest-growing church in America and the 55th largest church in America by Outreach magazine. With campuses in Clinton, Madison, Brandon, Starkville, and “coming soon” to Oxford, it is unusual that the vision has never been about being “big.” Pinelake’s original mission was to be a little community church on Spillway Road in Rankin County. God had other plans.
In a moment in time when the culture around us, in large part, sees the church as irrelevant—70% of Mississippians stay home on Sunday morning—Chip seems to have an in-depth understanding of both the reasons many avoid the church, as well as how we meet them where they are and trust God to move. He is that “earthen vessel” in the hands of the Potter. And that explains a lot about the growth of Pinelake. He cares that he is doing what God called him to do, and he genuinely cares about people who are searching for meaning and purpose.
“I believe the church is relevant. I believe that it is on us to beg people, to beg people to come and to say, ‘come find hope in this place.’ The Bible, I believe, is God’s truth for us. All of the ‘I’ words you want to use—infallible, inerrant, all of those things—it’s all that. And we teach it just like that. We don’t back away and I think that’s how the church stays relevant. We have to be distinctive in the truth.”
You won’t find the “prosperity gospel” preached here. He is obviously not trying to build his televangelist image. He is into Truth—even when you wish the Bible said something else. He candidly admits there have been times when he, too, wishes the Bible said something other than what it says on any given topic!
And judging by the attendance even on the MSU campus in Starkville (1,500 every Sunday), people of all ages are searching for something true and something stable, albeit tough, in the middle of a very unstable world.
The Vision That Wasn’t
When Chip was still in the interview process with the Search Committee back in 1998, one of their questions for him was about his “vision.” To some extent, that question made him feel “less than” because he did not have a pat answer. Southern Baptists tend to like buses and buildings and detailed numbers. Chip just did not think in those terms. He had served two pastorates at that point, the first one being Tangipahoa, Louisiana, with a congregation numbering about 22 where he was often paid in squash and tomatoes. He said his vision was simply Isaiah 6, “that if we would see God high and lifted up, everything else would take care of itself, but that is the only vision I’ve got.”
“And so everything from that point on has just been about trying to keep God in the center. That’s affected who leads; it affects what we do, and why we do it. We just planned to be a healthy place and God has made it a big place.”
The first satellite campus was in Madison County. It was not really on the drawing board until Chip was in a planning meeting one day as the leadership was working on connecting people through the small group ministry. Small groups strengthen large churches by building relationships among members who live in close proximity to each other. The leadership team knew the church had grown significantly because even though they were in their large new worship center at the Reservoir campus, they were overflowing in three Sunday morning services. This was 2003, and Chip says they really did not understand the influx at first.
When he called his assistant and said, “Would you just look up in our database and see how many people come to church here that live in Madison County?” he was thinking one or two small groups should be in Madison County. He was astounded at the reply. That was when Chip realized this was something bigger than the leadership’s “vision,” if they had one at all. This was a God-thing.
So began what he calls “Expanding our Jerusalem,” the multi-site initiative that symbolically represents moving the “walls” outside the local bricks and mortar to take the church to more people.
A Heart for College Students
On January 9, 2011, Pinelake’s second satellite location was launched in Starkville, Mississippi. By this time, the “Expanding our Jerusalem” idea had become strategic.
Chip had been an MSU student when he traded his ambition to be an orthodontist for his dad’s vocation as a preacher. No wonder he has always had a tender heart toward the struggles of college students at a crossroads in life. They have to make so many critical decisions in those years.
As senior minister of a large church with a broad age demographic, Chip has had to stay in tune with trends and issues for every age—birth to senior citizen. Because Pinelake has been a magnet for young families, he has followed many cradle attendees right up through their high school graduations. He has watched the way the culture impacts their habits, and he gets it. He really gets it. His own children have gone from cradle roll to college age during his tenure, and he cares deeply about what happens to kids when they leave the confines of home and live four years on a college campus, where they will be exposed to everything that contradicts the foundation laid for them in their previous 18 years.
Much prayer and a lot of thought went into this Starkville launch, not the least of which were: (1) People tend to drop out of church when they go to college. (2) College students are strategic to changing the world because they are the future leaders for the state of Mississippi, as well as the world. (3) If we invest in them while they’re in college, hopefully, we send them out to their communities with a grounding to go and be a part of a life-giving church where they plug in to actively be “salt and light” wherever they go. (4) College students have little money, but lots of time. “Let’s engage them in something that does not require money but will reap benefits for the rest of their lives,” Chip says.
Are college students so different in 2014 than in the 1980’s when Chip went to college? Yes and no.
Technology has revolutionized the world. As Chip says, “They may have lots of ‘virtual’ friends, but college kids today have the same questions we did. They need to know, ‘Am I loved? Am I important? Is there life outside myself?’ I think in those ways, kids are exactly the same. We looked for significance wearing our Wayfarers and our cutoff blue jeans. They’re looking for it with Facebook and Instagram and selfies and whatever. But it is still a cry from the heart to be loved and important.”
Christy says that despite the common criticisms of this generation—that they are ‘self-absorbed’ and ‘immature’ in so many ways—they are incredibly eager to be connected to a cause that is greater than they are. “They are taking opportunities to help other people who are less fortunate and many are going on mission trips that show them a side of life that we did not get to see. And they care and want to make a difference.”
Who Are Chip and Christy?
Chip and Christy began their life together at an incredibly young age. They have story after story of God’s faithfulness to them in the early years of their relationship.
Their first meeting was just after Chip had just finished his sophomore year at Mississippi State. He had made the decision the previous semester to enter the ministry. His job that summer was in Winona, Mississippi, working with their youth at the North Winona Baptist Church. Among the teens that were part of Chip’s little flock that summer was Vince Saia who had a twin sister, Christy.
Although the Saia family were members at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Christy and Vince spent a lot of time with their friends in the Baptist youth group. Chip found himself often at Vince’s house where there was always outstanding food, a free place to do his laundry, and a Super Mario Brothers Nintendo game running nonstop.
Before the summer ended, however, Chip decided he really enjoyed hanging out with Christy even more than with her brother. When he returned to Starkville at the end of the summer, he was smitten. She was 15. He was 20, but he knew she was the one for him.
On their first date, he wanted to impress her by taking her to see the ducks at The Peabody Hotel in Memphis. When they arrived the ducks had already been taken to the roof for the night, and they were told there was a private party under way, so it was not going to be possible for them to see the ducks.
Chip, the college student, demonstrated his tenacity and creativity. He and Christy hopped on the elevator; he whispered to her to just do whatever he did when the doors opened, but he promised her the ducks and by golly, they were going to see the ducks.
The doors opened to reveal a table filled with nametags and partygoers enjoying themselves. Chip picked up two nametags, stuck one on himself and one on his date. They milled around, located the ducks, returned the nametags to the table, went down the elevator, stopped off for cheesecake and came home. It was crazy, silly, and made a memory that still makes for a good story all these years later.
But The Peabody Hotel figured into a later significant moment as well, and it is an even better story than the first.
Christy had barely begun her college career at Ole Miss by the time Chip graduated from MSU and headed off to seminary in New Orleans. They had been dating for three years. He wanted her with him—had no idea how they would manage, but he plotted his proposal. It had to happen at The Peabody.
When they arrived one afternoon under the guise of seeing the ducks again and eating cheesecake in the little café, there was more déjà vu involved than Chip had expected. The ducks were not swimming in the lobby fountain. Chip knew the ducks were kept on the roof.
There was no way to go to the roof on the elevator that day. Chip pushed through an unlocked door leading to the fire escape, took Christy to the roof, got down on bended knee and proposed. Little did the couple know they had set off alarms inside the hotel. All of a sudden a security officer came running toward them, ready to arrest the trespassers. Chip’s powers of persuasion shone as he explained why they were there. The angry officer was now amused as he asked, “Well, what did she say?” He ushered them downstairs saying, “I guess I can’t arrest you.”
Christy was barely 18 when she, a lifelong Catholic, found herself married to a Baptist seminary student living on love in New Orleans, Louisiana. From Winona, Mississippi, (population about 4,000) to a city of more than 400,000, there was a new challenge for the couple to face every single day.
In retrospect, they see it all as a huge blessing—the fact that they were dirt poor, away from their families, and totally dependent on God and each other to make it week to week. Today, it is clear they are partners, best friends, and still very much in love.
Almost 25 years, three children, and three pastorates later, Christy speaks of Chip’s “consistency.” She says that the Chip the congregation sees on Sunday mornings is the same Chip she sees all week. “He is diligent in God’s word. His desire to follow God—that’s what I admire most about him. He is still moldable in God’s hands. Some people get stuck in their ways—not Chip. He is constantly looking for God to change him.”
If consistency is in Chip’s DNA, it’s flip side is definitely not what you would expect. The “not- getting-stuck-in-his-ways” trait probably helps explain the vitality, the energy, and the enthusiasm that characterizes the ministry and outreach of Pinelake.
The stained glass, the pipe organ, and the choir have been replaced by the praise band and a set of blue jean-wearing worship leaders. Sometimes the old hymns are sung, but not the way some of us remember them! When Chip stands up to deliver the message, there is no mistaking that the foundation at Pinelake is as firm as Jesus’s church has ever been. It’s the scripture that is preached—uncompromising and unchangeable and unapologetic—even when it is uncomfortable or strangely incompatible with today’s culture.
And judging by those who come to hear, the Word being offered is as relevant, lifegiving, and soul sustaining as it was 2000 years ago.
Chip Henderson’s passion is to build Believers who are not just doing “church” for an hour or two every week, but who are really believing God, trusting God, and seeing Him move in the every day challenges that wear and tear on our hearts and the lives of those around us. He yearns to introduce those who come on Sunday mornings to God, who has power to change lives, inspire faith, belief, and give purpose to every very big, as well as very mundane, moment.
As Chip says, “It’s not about church. It’s life.”
** In the article on Chip and Christy Henderson in our September issue, we failed to mention that Pinelake’s multiple campuses include a site in Clinton. It was actually the third location and was launched in 2009. Many of the servant leaders there helped train and prepare those who launched the fourth location in Starkville in 2011. MS Christian Living apologizes for our error!