OXFORD — After one visit to the Church of the Highlands’ Auburn branch, Pam Stack was hooked.
“Our hearts were connected with this church,” Stack said of herself and her family. “It’s very open and makes you feel valued as well.”
For two years the Ranburne woman would return to the church while visiting her daughter, but prayed for a closer branch in Oxford that she and her son, who lives in the city, could attend.
On Sunday her prayers were answered.
Stack was one of around 2,000 people who attended the first services of the church’s new branch at the Oxford Civic Center on Sunday. The Oxford branch makes 17 locations for the Birmingham-based nondenominational church, considered one of the largest in the state.
People flooded the halls of the civic center Sunday morning for the first of two services that day. The service was one part rock concert — complete with colored stage lighting and a live band that led the congregation in song — and one part traditional sermon. The faithful, however, watched the sermon, given by senior pastor Chris Hodges, on a giant screen as it was broadcast from the main Highlands campus.
The Oxford branch also had separate Sunday school classes for children and a pool in the civic center for impromptu baptisms.
The Church of the Highlands was founded in February 2001 at Mountain Brook High School. The church opened its $15 million, 2,400-seat main campus in 2007 on Grants Mill Road.
The Oxford City Council approved a $4,000-a-week lease agreement with the church in October for use of the civic center every Sunday.
Brian Bagwell, the on-site pastor for the Oxford branch, said the church’s successful growth stems from focusing on helping people create a real relationship with Jesus.
“God’s role is to touch people’s lives and people feel at home and safe here,” Bagwell said.
Bagwell said his role is to create an open, loving atmosphere at the Oxford branch.
“Our goal is for there to be as many people here as want to come,” Bagwell said. “We want to take people on a spiritual journey.”
Brenda Cooley and her husband Victor came from Heflin to attend the Oxford service. The couple was familiar with Highlands, having attended services in Birmingham while visiting their daughter.
“We like the atmosphere and the teachings and the worship service,” Brenda Cooley said as she waited for the morning service to start. “It’s got the whole package.”
Megan Smith, 17, of Lincoln came to the Oxford service with her grandmother. Smith said she and her family had attended Highlands’ services in Birmingham the last 10 years. Smith said she had been praying for a closer campus in Oxford.
“We love the atmosphere and the people, we feel the presence of God here,” Smith said of why her family prefers Highlands. “It’s an awesome experience.