This article is from Issue 49

Hillsong United

How a local phenomenon became a global movement... without losing its roots

There is a cultural condition very particular to Australia and New Zealand known as “tall poppy syndrome.” This is the social peer pressure to cut people down to size, to never let people brag, boast or succeed in a way that seems too supercilious. Great achievements can be celebrated, but not too much.

It seems strange, then, in this setting to find a local church that has become internationally famous, pumping out books, conferences, albums and curricula. Since its beginnings in a public school hall in Northwestern Sydney in 1983, Hillsong Church has grown to more than 20,000 attendees each week. It has also exported its brand across the globe, with Hillsong churches throughout Europe and North America, services broadcast to 160 countries and Hillsong conferences drawing as many as 28,000 people.

In the midst of all this is music. Hillsong’s worship has produced more than 50 gold and platinum records worldwide. Hillsong United, the church’s rock-style band, has debuted albums at number-one on the Australian charts. United’s stage shows have drawn thousands and spawned multiple DVDs. Their last album, Across the Earth: Tear Down the Walls, claimed high spots on charts all over the world, and their new album, Aftermath (out Feb. 15), is expected to do the same.

All of this stands in contrast to Australia’s tendency to put in their place anyone who is getting a bit too haughty. And it’s this exact social tendency that United creative director Joel Houston—the son of Hillsong founders Brian and Bobbie Houston—credits with keeping the ministry in check.

“One of the greatest strengths is we live in Australia,” Houston says. “The culture here has been a blessing when it comes to keeping us grounded.”

“There are definitely no divas and prima donnas,” says Luke Webb, the band’s tour manager. “We cut down any tall poppies before they get too big. We don’t have the best musicians. The way we grow is because we are all mates, we all know each other’s faults and we all know where we have come from.”

The environment has also helped Houston retain his identity in the midst of what some would consider Christian celebrity. “I have to step into this thing and realize it’s God’s grace that does it. I don’t have to walk in anyone else’s shoes,” Houston says. “I don’t have to sing like Chris Tomlin, I don’t have to grow a goatee like Dave Crowder or anyone else.”

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