(This article was originally published in Worship Leader’s July/Aug 2015 issue. Subscribe today for more great articles like this one.)
It’s the veneer of celebrity. It’s the assumption we make every day about the people glorified in popular culture, as well as those we respect in the Church. It’s the feeling of intimacy we have with our favorite musicians, our favorite authors, actors, and authority figures. It’s the gaps of their lives that exist separate from the screen, the radio, the pulpit—the gaps we fill with our own expectations, worldviews, and understandings. And none of this is the full story.
The live Hillsong United worship experience stays with you. The immediate drum drive becomes palpable as it fills the arena coursing with music and pulsing against every chest. The visuals stun with their beat-driven movements and the emotional sonic ambiance fuels the power of the lyrics that have been the prayers of the worshiping people in their everyday lives and in their most difficult times. And this is good. United’s version of excellence in worship is an articulately crafted emotional and spiritual experience. But as you certainly know, this is not the whole story. The whole story includes more than what we see on the stage or what we hear in chart-topping radio singles. It’s a story filled with individual lives, committed to the mission of the Church. People, sometimes broken sometimes victorious, but always … simply human. And that story is a lot like all of ours.
The development and production of a major motion picture focused on a church worship band from Sydney, Australia, is, in many ways, culture altering. Let Hope Rise, scheduled to release on September 16, has the possibility of rocketing the already hugely influential worship team into the cultural stratosphere.
But this is not the hope.
Joel Houston, who currently triples his time as the creative director for Hillsong church, as the front for Hillsong United, and as the co-pastor of Hillsong Church in New York City, took some time to chat about the unseen United narrative and his understanding of what makes the upcoming movie worthwhile.
“There were a bunch of pros and a bunch of cons to doing the movie, but the pro that topped it off was the opportunity to break down stereotypes,” says Houston. “It’s something we want to be able to do. In the Church, in Christian culture, in the world—break down the stereotypes around who Jesus is, what church is, and what it means to be a Christian. So if the movie can do that in any way, shape, or form—if it helps people see Jesus in a different way—then that’s what it’s all about.”
However, for people to see beyond the “rock stars” on a screen and find Jesus, some other stereotypes surrounding the bigger-than-life worship band might need reorganizing. “The reason the movie was appealing to me,” says Houston, “even though I was terrified about it for so many reasons, is that I have always struggled with people looking at us and thinking that we are extraordinary. Or maybe they think, these guys must be super-Christians, super-anointed, or have some special thing happening to them. But even looking at the early heroes of the faith the people that God used in history and decided to tell us about—these people are very ordinary people. Even Paul. I see him, and I see a really broken guy who had an incredible experience that changed his life. And the way he walked out his story even in pioneering the Church was so human.”
“Look even at the role of the worship leader,” continues Houston. “It’s a paradox: here we are on a platform, in front of all these people, our job is to draw attention to ourselves in order to draw attention away from ourselves. It’s weird, and too often either the worship leader can’t deal with the pressure because they have to start putting up a front based on what people expect them to be, or they live in a false humility, continually saying, ‘It’s not about me; it’s all about God.’”
Of course, it is human tendency to admire people in the spotlight, and this is as true in the context of local church leadership as it is on the global scale. Houston says, “That’s fine. We should live according to the responsibility that comes with that. But the danger is when people find out that we are just ordinary people, trying to do what we can with what we have. The moment we mess up or become a disappointment, it can lead to condemnation and bitterness. And in the worst case, people leaving the Church and giving up on God because a man of God, in their opinion, was more man and less God. It’s a dangerous place for us to live.
“In the midst of that, we have to make sure we are doing what we can within our cultural platform, being transparent in the midst of telling God’s story. If people see the full story of our humanity, it helps point to how amazing God’s grace is. And hopefully empowers others to see that God can use them too.”
For local worship and pastoral leaders, the need for this message is palpable. The cry for authenticity is stronger than ever, both in and outside the Church. People aren’t looking for perfection; they seek reality. Houston explains, “Hillsong’s greatest story is probably the least told: the desire of people to be part of something bigger than themselves. And I think that’s an encouragement for a worship leader on any platform. Some may say, ‘Our church isn’t going to grow if we can’t afford an LED screen and get some moving canned lighting or get that beautiful amplifier or great guitar.’ But that’s not what builds the Church. To me, excellence isn’t whether I play all the notes right or whether or not the lighting was awesome or the graphics were great or that everything was brilliant. Excellence is saying, ‘I want to do the best with what I have—because God is in it, and he uses me in spite of my brokenness.’
“I still haven’t seen the film,” admits Houston [at the time of the interview]. “I don’t know why, but I have a hard time sitting in a theater watching us. I’ve met with the director, and he’s not a Christian. He is an amazing guy. And one of the reasons I was okay with us doing this was actually the fact that it wasn’t going to be a Christian director. I knew it wasn’t going to end up being a puff piece. I wanted an honest look. I mean he’s open and searching, but definitely not a believer. He’s giving his take on what we are about and what we are doing. I felt like that would be a better way to present what we do. It speaks to Christian culture and also it speaks to people who have written church off or written God off because of their past experience. But the good thing is that it definitely doesn’t shy away from Jesus. The story is grace working in our group.”
Faithful in the Small
The story of Hillsong United is, in some ways, one of unwitting heroes. It’s an account of a bunch of friends making music, and God using that in unforeseen ways. Before the release of Zion and the worldwide success of the single “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail),” United was happy making music and being peripheral to the main Hillsong side of the Church music. More attention was not their intention. “We didn’t ask for it or chase a movie,” says Houston. “In fact we said, ‘no’ to it for six months. We had no desire to do a movie about ourselves. I think maybe that’s one of the reasons why it’s happening. In the same way, we never had a desire to tour the world and take our church music into arenas—that was never the plan. The plan was to write songs to help our friends connect with Jesus in a way that was real for them. Then God does this. I do think that film is an aspect of culture that we have to begin to step into as the Christian church. But I think it’s just as important that people understand, we didn’t go out and pitch a film about ourselves. It’s quite the opposite.”
Pitched movie or not, it has become apparent: Hillsong United is a quality benchmark for church creative teams around the world. Worship leaders play their songs, they replicate their sounds, they emulate their songwriting, and with Let Hope Rise, they will certainly look for ways to incorporate aspects of the movie into their services of worship.
“I find that quite burdensome,” says Houston. “People might want to emulate this, and on one hand, I’m all for it. But the danger in it is people seeing the veneer of it all and thinking, that’s what it’s about. I, honestly with all my heart, believe if there is anything great about what we do as Hillsong United or anything great about our production or anything great about the music, it’s that it comes from a pure, desperately broken heart. A heart that desires to fully rely on God’s grace. It’s from that place that we give our absolute best in everything we do. The reason we strive for excellence is not so that we can be fancy or impressive. It comes from excellence of the heart.
“The key message of the movie is probably just grace. It doesn’t always make sense, and it’s not perfect. And we don’t have to pretend to be perfect, but at the end of the day we are passionate about the truth and believe in it wholeheartedly. To the skeptics or cynics or people who don’t understand church or have given up on it, this will hopefully help them see the Church—not for the giant institution but as the living body of people who are just trying to help other people and be true to their faith and calling in an honest and transparent way.”
Above All Else
When we asked Houston, ultimately, what Hillsong: Let Hope Rise is about, after a slight hesitation, he said, “It’s a small story about a bunch of kids who grew up in church and wanted to make church music together.”
Then in a telling conclusion, Houston said, “I’ve sat in hundreds of worship services, and the most incredible experience I’ve ever had, even more than our own conferences, was in the Philippines. We walked up to a little tiny church in a small village when we were visiting Compassion International. We walked in, and there were two guitars. One was completely out of tune; the other one only had four strings. There was an out-of-tune piano; there was a drum kit that probably sounded worse than if someone was hitting a trash can with sticks. There were 10 kids dancing—amazing—and these guys were singing these worship songs, and we sat in the front row, and they were putting everything they had into it. And I broke inside. It was absolutely beautiful. … That’s what it’s all about.”