The Early Years
In 1992, Greg Boyd and Paul Mitton started Woodland Hills as a Woodbury church plant with a core group of about 40 people. However, we couldn’t find a place to hold services so we had to settle for Battle Creek Middle School, five miles outside of Woodbury. When we opened our doors to the public on the first Sunday of October, 1992, over 300 people showed up!
The first couple years of Woodland Hills were insane and wonderful. They were insane because we were trying to pull off a large event each weekend with only a dozen or so volunteers. And there was a lot of conflict of vision, partly because we never resolved what kind of church we were going to be when we started.
But we were also blessed to have dedicated prayer warriors, and this is probably why, despite the perpetual chaos and sometimes intense conflict, God always seemed to show up. Though our worship music often left something to be desired, people often wept throughout the service because they felt God’s presence. For a period of time some people claimed to hear angels singing along with us.
Clarification of Vision
One source of conflict came about as a result of something Greg began to sense God doing in our body. Within six or seven months, he began to sense we weren’t supposed to go into Woodbury but instead, “face the city.” We were to somehow become a bridge between the suburbs and the city and take on racial reconciliation as a central issue.
This change of vision led Paul Mitton and others to pursue a church in Woodbury, and Woodland Hills eventually moved closer to the city.
We moved our services to Harding High in 1995, and had roughly 1100 weekend attendees. Things were still chaotic, but they were also still wonderful – God kept showing up. Norm Blagman (our former Worship Pastor) came on staff, which brought a whole new dimension to our worship. We also experienced our first undeniable miracle, as a man was healed of brain cancer. Within two years we’d outgrown Harding, so in 1997 with about 1900 attendees, we moved to Arlington High School.
Desperate for Structure
Up to this point almost all of our energy had been spent pulling off the weekend services. Woodland Hills had an incredible amount of passion and energy, but no constitution, no mission and vision statement, no statement of faith and no clear organizational structure!
So we established a Steering Team to begin thinking about how we should be structured to transition ourselves from a weekend event to a community of spiritually empowered people who impact our communities and the world. It was during this time that we asked Janice Rohling to come on board and serve as Executive Pastor. We also began to structure our Community, Care and Missions ministries.
Looking for a Home
And, we began seriously looking for a permanent location. We considered countless buildings, but either they didn’t fit or they didn’t work out. Then we began to consider an old, abandoned and dilapidated building that had been a Builder’s Square. Almost immediately we got a strong sense that this is where God wanted us to be, as the property is on the border between St. Paul and Maplewood. The location represented the identity we believe God has given us: a bridge.
We ran into several barriers to acquiring the building that seemed insurmountable at the time – most notably the cost of the property, and a critical city council vote to approve this building for church use (which meant it would no longer be a source of property taxes). But by God’s grace we eventually were able to purchase our current facility, clean it up and renovate it. It’s been an incredible blessing! Not only have we had enough room on the weekends (our first service was in February 2001), but we’ve been able to launch ministries that meet during the week (like counseling and support groups), and we have plenty of space for future expansion!
It’s all about Love
In 2002, Greg felt led to do a sermon series on the nature and centrality of love and how it is opposed to judgment, which he thought would last a few weeks. It ended up going eight months! As a result, the people of Woodland have consistently been challenged to grow into humble, non-judgmental , bridge building, loving servants of the world.
Growing in the Spirit
In 2003 we were growing rapidly and embarked on an ambitious plan called Growing in the Spirit. We hoped to raise $9M to renovate a North Wing in our building for our youth and other ministries, give financial gifts to partner ministries and pay off our mortgage. Looking back it’s clear we were a little optimistic with our goal. But God did some amazing things through Growing in the Spirit.
At the end of the three years, we had collected $3M – twice the amount we’d been able to raise to get into the building just a few years earlier. We gave money to 11 ministries, and have paid off $1.5M on our mortgage, which will save us $1.3M in interest through 2020. We also built out part of the North Wing of the building, which has been a huge blessing for our entire church body.
The Cross and the Sword, Layoffs
Then in 2004 leading up to the elections, Greg felt led to do a sermon series that contrasted the Kingdom of God with the Kingdom of the World. It was called The Cross and the Sword. The series significantly sharpened our focus on the beautiful Kingdom we’re called to build, but roughly 1000 people left the church.
This created a huge financial deficit, and so a number of wonderful staff people had to be let go. It was a painful season for us. But, God also used this series to help us turn a corner. We hadn’t realized that despite our vision to bridge the suburbs and the city, we had pretty much been thinking and acting like a white suburban church. The financial hardships – a first in Woodland Hills’ history – forced us to rethink how we spend money and make decisions. Since then we’ve needed to remain a very frugal organization to preserve the ministries we believe God has called us to!
The Cross and the Sword also gave us an international platform and a prophetic calling to the global Body of Christ. The New York Times ran a front page story on the sermon series, which set off a chain reaction of media opportunities for Greg to present the beautiful vision of Jesus’ Kingdom that transcends political and national interests. It also led to his book, Myth of a Christian Nation.
Becoming a Bridge
Since moving into our building, the needs of our community and neighborhood have increased dramatically. To help equip people to address these issues, a number of ministries were started or expanded to address brokenness in people’s lives and bridge them to their identity in Christ. Countless people have experienced healing as a result of these opportunities and have received food, shelter, and clothing.
We’ve also developed more intentional strategies to connect people with each other. We believe that to really impact the world, we need to be active in our neighborhoods through smaller groups of people. With that goal in mind, in 2006 we started planning “adventure” sermon series and coordinated short-term small groups to meet at the same time. Not only has this focus helped us engage in learning about important topics, we continue to help people find authentic community in their lives.
Our entire history has been full of excitement and growth, and we want to continue to be used by God. Recently we’re seeing people buy into the Jesus-looking Kingdom like we’ve never seen before. We’re seeing more small groups and others serving broken people in their lives. People are sacrificing, sometimes in radical ways. And we’re growing in our racial and socio-economic diversity in beautiful ways. We’re becoming the bridge God has called us to be!