By Matt Conner
Joel Houston is already looking ahead.
Fresh off of a U.S. tour with sold out shows coast to coast, the leader of Hillsong United hesitates to reflect on the last year, let alone the scope of the entire ride so far.
“It’s just not the way I’m wired. It’s not the way any of us are wired,” he says. “At the moment, we just came off one of the most incredible months of our lives, and it has been an amazing time. We’re all kind of blown away by it all. But at the same time, you feel the weight of what is next. There’s still so much to be done, so much that we want to be able to do and be a part of.”
It’s hard to envision what’s left to achieve for a band with such a strong global presence. With 14 albums in 15 years, Hillsong United is arguably the most influential force in modern worship this generation. They have played in 42 countries, had their songs translated into 32 languages and toured on six continents.
And there are no signs of slowing down. The band’s latest album, Zion, not only became a No. 1 best-selling album in their native Australia, but also charted across Europe and hit the top 10 in the U.S., Norway and New Zealand.
Hillsong United is bigger than ever.
AN UNEXPECTED FORCE
While Houston had musical dreams since his childhood, he says he never planned on Hillsong United “becoming a thing.” Instead, the Aussie’s teenage years were spent playing in a rock band called Able with friends Michael Chislett (who has toured with Brooke Fraser and Butch Walker) and Marty Sampson. After recording an EP and playing the Sydney bar scene, Houston says the doors just suddenly closed for the band.
“We had pipe dreams,” he says. “We would play pubs and dream that you could make music out of Australia and people would connect with it. It was funny because all of that fell over, then God took that and amplified it to something much more beautiful with so much more purpose attached to it.”
Without much else going on, Houston agreed to get involved in Hillsong Church’s youth ministry, which was trying to unite various age groups in quarterly gatherings they were calling, appropriately, United. He and some friends began to write worship music for those nights. It wasn’t long until Able and company were founding members of what would become Hillsong United.
That was 15 years ago, and while the size of the stages has changed, Houston says the goal for Hillsong United has largely remained the same since those early days—an authentic, meaningful worship experience.
“Australia is quite a secular nation, and the idea of young people wanting to go to church on Friday night rather than go to the park and get drunk or whatever else was kind of foreign,” he says. “It’s the same anywhere, I guess, but at the same time we really believed God wanted to use us and God would use us. So the responsibility was there to make every Friday night great—to make it something that was true and that our friends at school would want to come and connect with God at.”
Houston laughs at the notion that United was bound to succeed due to the presence of Hillsong Church’s worship leaders in the marketplace. With familiar names like Darlene Zschech (“Shout To The Lord”) and Reuben Morgan (“I Give You My Heart”), it’s easy to assume the mantle was passed, but Houston doesn’t see it that way. “I can tell you honestly that back then it seemed like that was built around Darlene or built around a personality or a certain gift. I didn’t feel like any of us had that gift,” he says.
From those initial meetings of a few hundred students, Hillsong launched a yearly youth conference called Encounterfest. Those large-scale worship gatherings would eventually launch Hillsong United as a rising force in the worship scene, beginning with their first international show in Canada.
“I remember we traveled to Canada and were the house worship band for this conference with these other Christian music stars, although we had no idea who they were at the time,” Houston says. “We were cut off from Christian music. So we’re all watching TobyMac jump around and Delirious? playing, and we got up to play these worship songs we had written for our youth ministry. We were thinking no one’s going to know them, so let’s pull out ‘Our God is
an Awesome God’ or whatever we started with.
“It was so funny because we were there for four days and at first it was just dead,” he continues. “We thought we sucked and the whole thing sucked and no one worshipped God whatsoever. They just kind of blankly stared at us. Then I remember at the end of the four days seeing all these kids just going crazy for God, singing these songs. I remember at that point thinking, ‘This is incredible. There could be something in this. These songs have the ability to travel.’
“I’ve always loved that about music—the idea that somebody in some obscure place in the middle of nowhere, literally the end of the earth, could write a song and that song could travel around the world. I think it was at that point our eyes were opened to the idea that maybe God had bigger plans than just what was happening in Australia.”
But later, things took a turn.
READY TO QUIT
“Two years ago I was ready to throw the towel in completely,” Houston says. “Not on my faith, but basically on everything attached to ministry.”
On the heels of an Ethiopian trip with charity: water and before a tour in South America, Houston and company were in the midst of recording Live in Miami, the band’s 2012 release. It was at that point everything fell apart for Houston personally.
“I just felt dry,” he says. “I can’t describe it to you. I just felt empty. I remember being up there leading worship feeling like everyone was getting excited except for me, and I just felt like I was in the driest place of my life. I didn’t feel anything. I was completely numb to everything. And I remember feeling, ‘This is horrible. If this is what it’s going to be like, I don’t want to be a part of it. I don’t want to do this.’
“Looking back on that now, I can reflect on a whole lot of different things that were going on,” he explains, “but at the time, I was just exhausted, and I was emotionally unstable, to be honest. I felt completely alone. I had to take a break.”
Houston backed out of the South America trip after consulting with his father, Hillsong Church’s senior pastor Brian Houston. That began a sabbatical that extended from three to six months. Houston stepped away from his responsibilities as the global creative director of Hillsong Church and his role in United. After undergoing surgery to repair his voice and spending significant time away, Houston says he was unsure he would return to the band.
“I honestly thought I was never going to lead worship again,” he says. “I doubted if I would ever be on a platform again because I just didn’t feel like I could do it.”
Carl Lentz, who has co-pastored Hillsong NYC with Houston since 2010, says he didn’t see Houston’s break as him stepping away from ministry, but rather as him taking what matters most—the state of his soul and his passion for Jesus—as seriously as he could.
“I’ve always loved ...the idea that somebody in some obscure place could write a song and that song could travel around the world.”
“That is the essence of ‘ministry,’” Lentz says. “Joel never had the opportunity to ‘step away’ in his life. Most people get to walk through some fire in private and grow outside the spotlight of public ministry and influence. Joel was leading basically from day one. So I was excited for him. I felt like he needed it and had earned it 10 times over.”
Houston now sees that time as a significant turning point in his own relationship with God and Hillsong United. While the band’s music inspires millions in their own intimacy with God, Houston says that sabbatical provided a spiritual high point for him, centered in a necessary pruning of his own pride.
“In no way was I running from God,” he says. “In fact, I think my relationship with God was actually at its strongest during that season. But now I see that God was revealing more areas in me of pride that I needed to deal with. Not the obvious, arrogant, self-serving kind of pride that we guard ourselves against voraciously. It was more this layered, deep stuff.
“For some reason, I thought I had to do it on my own. I couldn’t let go of certain things. I needed to go through a season where I suddenly realized that everything didn’t rely on me, that if I wasn’t going to be involved, God was still going to do what He was going to do.”
One particularly helpful moment came when Houston received advice from one of the few people who could understand the pressures he faced: Louie Giglio. For the first time in several years, Houston was forced to sit, due to vocal rest, during a Hillsong conference, and Giglio was a featured speaker. Afterward, the two compared notes, and Houston said the moment brought clarity and perspective.
“Basically, he sat with me and told me he had been through a very similar season,” Houston says. “He told me a story of feeling like everything was on his shoulders and reminding himself again that the cornerstone is the cornerstone and that He takes the weight of all that. I was feeling the same way.
“I see Louie carrying so much,” he continues. “He has got the biggest movement certainly among young adults in the world, and I would look at someone like Louie and see him carrying more, doing more, making things happen. It would inspire and challenge me to go on even though I didn’t know if I could keep on going. So for him to be the guy who comes to me and says, ‘I just went through this season’ just humanized everything in a very beautiful way.”
UNITED’S BIGGEST NIGHT YET
Houston did return to United after his time away, and the band has continued playing concerts all over the world, even becoming the first Christian act to ever sell out the Staples Center in Los Angeles. This summer, they enjoyed one of their biggest moments to date at the legendary Hollywood Bowl.
“LA has always been one of those places that felt like home for us,” Houston says. “Back in the day, when we first started coming to the States, everybody would give us every reason why it wasn’t going to work here. It might work in Canada. It might work in South Africa. It might work in Australia, but the U.S. was supposed to be different. They said we would have to do 200 dates and just run through the Bible Belt over and over and over again and build it up. But that wasn’t us. It’s not what we were called to do.
“For whatever reason, early on, we would go to LA and people would just turn up,” he continues. “Like at Staples Center a couple years ago—when we played there, it was a huge risk and people were like, ‘That’s crazy.’ But we sold it out and it was awesome. So when it came around to this time, Staples was unavailable and we didn’t want to go backward. The Hollywood Bowl was just sitting there, and we wondered, ‘Is it possible for us to do that?’ We were told, ‘It’s pointless, don’t even try doing it.’
“It’s important to remember that going into this season with Zion, I didn’t even know where we were going to land. I didn’t know if people were still hungry for what we were doing, so I remember sitting there talking about whether we were going to do that date and we just decided to take the risk and do it.
“So when it came to that night, it was incredible. It was packed out. Just an amazing, amazing night. All our friends and family were there, and to me it was just a little bit of an answer to prayer. It was a little bit of God going, ‘I’m still in this with you guys.’”
“We’ve never really had a plan. It has just been to take what’s in our hands and to do the very best with it.”
Longtime United member Jonathon “JD” Douglass agrees that playing at the Hollywood Bowl was an incredible moment. “To be honest, I got slightly teary and emotional when we took the stage at the faithfulness and grace of God,” he says. “To think that a bunch of very ordinary but passionate young people from a church on the other side of the planet would get to lead worship in an incredibly influential city and such an iconic venue where all the big bands have played was such a humbling experience. I will never forget that night. I think what stood out the most is that everyone sang so loudly and worshiped so passionately. It’s exciting to see what God is doing in His Church and you can only think that the best days for His Church are yet to come.”
As if playing in front of 15,000 people wasn’t enough, Houston says the real highlight of the night came from two specific people who caught his attention early on.
“At the Hollywood Bowl, people pay in advance for the whole season to see all of the big shows that come through,” Houston explains. “So I remember when we started off, we came out and there was this huge crowd and the atmosphere was incredible. But there was this couple in their 50s, you know, this classic-looking LA couple, and they’re sitting there with their bottle of wine in the front row. They were right in front of me the entire night, and you could just see they had no idea what they were walking into.
“So you’ve got this huge crowd of people going crazy, and then you’ve got these two people, and I just couldn’t take my eyes off them the whole night,” he continues. “I watched them sit through the first hour and a half of the night, just trying to figure out what was going through their minds. And I remember when we gave people the opportunity to make the decision to follow Christ, they both put their hands up and made a decision for Jesus.
“What was also awesome was, after that point, seeing them on their feet with these huge smiles on their faces, and that was the last image of the entire tour for me: this couple in their 50s who had no idea what kind of event they were coming to. I don’t know if we’ll ever see them again, maybe we’ll see them in heaven, but that was honestly the highlight of the entire trip. It just brought huge value to what we do and why we do it.”
UNDERSTANDING THE CRITICS
But United’s reach and the grand scale of some of their concerts draws a fair share of criticism. From lights and cameras, to ticket prices and the size of the stage, Houston says he has heard it all.
“We’ve had every kind of criticism, I think,” he laughs. “I think people are often threatened by the bigness or magnitude of it all. One thing we’ve been very careful of is to make sure we’re together—to always make sure our purpose remains the same.”
While he takes the criticism in, Houston says he has grown to understand he can’t do much about the bulk of it.
“Sometimes I wish I could fully explain everything we do and why we do it to everybody, at all times, because I feel very strongly that what we are doing is great,” he says. “We’re doing it the best we know how, and it’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but the heart is pure and the motives are pure. The desire is to keep lifting the bar for ourselves, but also for others. To say, ‘Hey, this is what’s possible for us as the Church and as the Body of Christ, as musicians and as songwriters.’
“I feel like that’s what God has called us to do,” he continues. “Whatever criticism comes with that, I feel like it’s an opportunity to just embrace it and say, ‘This is where we’re going and why,’ and let the chips fall where they may. At the end of the day, let the fruit tell the story. That’s all we really can do.”
One point Houston is quick to agree with is perceived issues of depth, or lack thereof, in many modern worship choruses.
“To be honest, I think that’s a criticism that’s worthy,” he says. “It’s hard. I never want to be critical of worship because of what it is. It’s not our job to go, ‘I like this,’ or ‘This makes me feel good,’ or ‘I don’t get that,’ because the fact is that God uses all of that in His own way. That’s the mystery of God and how He uses people to reach other people for Him, so I want to be careful in saying that.
“At the same time, I think the responsibility is on us to be digging deep and to make sure there’s a painful element to songwriting.”
Hillsong’s global presence with several church plants and songwriting teams means Houston is a gatekeeper, of sorts, in his role as creative director.
“The biggest thing we’ve learned in the last five or 10 years is that there’s a lot more intent in what we’re saying and the responsibility that comes with that. I think our job as songwriters, especially when it comes to worship, is actually to be prophets to the generation and to what God is wanting to say and do here and now.
“I think there’s a huge responsibility, and if I see that cheapened in any way, shape or form, it actually disturbs me and I can see why that would disturb others,” Houston continues. “The hymns that have stood the test of time are the greatest songs in history, I believe. The depth that comes with those songs has stood the test of time for a reason. I think there’s a culture we live in, especially in the Church, where the humanistic nature of it all says, ‘Pop out another album. Pop out another song. Pop out another modern worship hit.’ Those songs fly and then die.”
Even with the care Hillsong United takes in crafting its songs, the band has still managed to maintain a yearly cycle of album releases, international tour dates, global conferences and countless ministry opportunities.
Yet, Houston has no idea what is ahead for himself or the band. With his role as co-pastor of Hillsong NYC, a 2-year-old church plant with several meeting locations in the Big Apple, he has a new platform and community to consider. But just as he did as “an insecure 17-year-old,” Houston says he has never had any real idea of what’s ahead. And he likes it that way.
“We’ve never really had a plan,” he says. “It has just been to take what’s in our hands and to do the very best with it. I love the mystery of God. I love that He works in ways that don’t make sense looking forward, and in hindsight, you know, you go back and look at it and say ‘He was with me through all of it.’ I know that we’re going to keep going. I’ve never felt so strongly in my Spirit that God is with us and He’s calling us to do more. But what that looks like? I have no idea. I really have no idea what’s next. I just know I’m ready for it.”