It would be understandable if Brian Houston got a bit frustrated. Few evangelicals outside his 20,000-member congregation may remember what he preached on last Sunday. But millions, from Uganda to Uruguay, have sung "Shout to the Lord," the praise anthem penned by his church's worship leader, Darlene Zschech.
Founded in 1983 by Houston and his wife, Bobbie, Hillsong Church, in Sydney, Australia, began with 45 members in a school assembly hall. It is now Australia's largest church, with satellite congregations in London, Kiev and Paris. Additionally, Houston serves as president of the Assemblies of God in Australia, representing more than 1,060 churches in that denomination.
Hillsong's prolific worship teams have produced more than 30 Gold and Platinum rated records since 1992. However, the notoriety of Houston's church's music ministry does not distract him from the priority of pastoral leadership that provides the groundwork for the other ministries in the church.
"I felt 15 or 20 years ago that the music was like an arrowhead for a bigger message," he explains. "A great church will produce a great worship album, but a great worship album won't necessarily produce a great church. The songs we write are an expression of the house. Therefore, the worship is not the growth formula in itself. The growth formula is simply building a healthy church."
Ministry Today recently had a chance to sit down with Houston and asked him a few questions about ministry balance, public criticism and what revival really looks like in the local church.
Ministry Today: How is Hillsong different from traditional churches? Many have pointed out that traditional churches are decreasing in number in Australia, while Hillsong is growing. What would you attribute that to?
Brian Houston: I think "relatability" has got a lot to do with it. We're not just speaking to people on Sunday, but we're speaking to their Monday. We're asking, how can we build people's families? How can we build their work? I honestly think that when people feel like their lives are being built—that their kids are being ministered to, that their teenagers have got healthy peer relationships at church—then they'll be drawn to it.
Ministry Today: Hillsong has connections in civic affairs, media and entertainment. How did you go about gaining access into the corridors of power?
Houston: It's all about encouraging people to be successful in every sphere of life, and that's attractive. They come to you. We don't go out searching for influence.
Ministry Today: Speaking of success, could you define what success in life means to you?
Houston: Well it's not material, if that's what you mean. It's about effectively living out God's purposes. I don't think you can measure success in any one way.
Ministry Today: Hillsong's success has attracted some accusations of materialism. What has been your response?
Houston: That criticism mostly comes from secular sources. I think the agendas are often impure, let's put it that way.
To some, the church can represent the wider growth of fundamentalism, whatever that means. So, some groups assume we're anti-this and anti-that. So if you're outside the church and you're pro-certain agendas, you're going to see the church as a threat to your agenda. I must admit, though, being misunderstood is frustrating. The best thing we can do is to stay true to ourselves, to keep doing what God has called us to do.
Ministry Today: Could you talk to us about revival, and what that looks like to you?
Houston: I think people's mind-sets about what "revival" means can often be very introspective, and if revival is just about us, then I am not a real big fan of it anyway. I really believe that what the church needs to be doing is to be focused outwardly, rather than inwardly.
My dad was a Pentecostal pastor, and I grew up in a Pentecostal home, so I was very orientated toward feelings and the dynamic of the Holy Spirit. And that's all fantastic—it was a fantastic heritage. But in the outworking of that, I would probably have a different perspective now.
For their generation, revival was a lot to do with being at the front of a church, and to me it has much more to do with what we're called to do. "The Spirit of the Lord has come upon me because"—to preach the gospel to the poor, to reach hurting people, to open blind eyes and so on. So, as far as I'm concerned, I'm not a great fan of some people's paradigms of revival.
Ministry Today: One of the things which Hillsong champions is relevance. But some churchgoers from traditional backgrounds see a "trendy" church as a sign of compromise or an attempt to manufacture revival. What's your take on that?
Houston: I'll just make one comment. The message is timeless. The methods have to change. If people want to make the methods holy, they are going to find themselves irrelevant.
Ministry Today: How about the outworking of the spiritual gifts in church life? How does that fit with the Hillsong model of church in the 21st century? Houston: I am a great believer in the gifts of the Spirit. I believe absolutely in speaking in tongues and prophecy and so on. It's part of the spiritual life of a believer.
But for practical reasons, we would tend to allow the outworking of the gifts to be expressed more in our smaller groups or in day-to-day church life. Our Sunday services are more of a gathering. There's a right time and place for everything.
Ministry Today: How do you go about making decisions and releasing people into their callings in a church of thousands, where there are so many people to pastor?
Houston: To an extent, we are still learning as we go—learning by our mistakes, building teams. Teams are a great pastoral care tool. Teams are like families, with purpose.
Ministry Today: As a pastor, how do you make sure your own life is growing?
Houston: Well, it's a challenge. I've been pastoring the same people for 23 years. I've got to get up each Sunday and say something fresh. And you can't do that if you're not fresh yourself. I value devotional time for contemplation. And I take Friday and Saturday every single week to meditate and to study and to think.
Ministry Today: What was the last profound thing God said to you, personally?
Houston: The importance of keeping myself fresh. To those whom much is given, much is required. So it's a real challenge that I do keep on the increase. I think you must use every obvious means—spend time with God, spend time with people and spend it in places that are going to stretch you.
Ministry Today: Some senior ministers of megachurches are so busy. They have a seemingly intergalactic schedule—flying off here, there and everywhere. What do you do, in your own time, to just be Brian, and to just relax?
Houston: Drinking coffee, hanging out with friends, spending time anywhere near water. Also riding my Harley. It's my little vice in life.
Ministry Today: So what does it mean for a local church to be a part of the Hillsong network?
Houston: The network is not a spiritual covering. It's really intended just to resource and encourage other church pastors. You see, I have really resisted starting Hillsong churches everywhere. We've got only three congregations in the world—Sydney, London and Kiev, plus Paris—which is an extension of the London church.
There are cities where we would sure love to do something. But the reason we haven't gone that route is because we're saying to pastors, "We want to help build your church." For us then to go and start a church right next door to them—well, it would make a lie out of what we are saying.
Ministry Today: Finally, what would you like to say to the American church?
Houston: Well, I just love America. I've been to the States many times—dozens and dozens of times—and certain pastors and leaders have really helped me over there. I think I'd only say, just like I would to leaders anywhere else in the world, that when you're the biggest at something, you've got to stay open. Open to change, open to new generations.
From my experience in America, that has been happening more over the recent years. When I started going to America, the church used to be very introspective. Some Americans didn't even know where other parts of the world were.
Because of that dynamic, if you were an outsider, you felt very much like you were an outsider. But that's changed dramatically. I think the Americans' openness to people from the outside is phenomenal. And that can only be a good, positive thing for the nation.
Phill Dolby is a British journalist and photographer whose work has been published in variety of international newspapers and magazines.
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