Keith Ainge, national ministries director for what is now known as the Australian Christian Churches, suggests Brian Houston’s leadership and the influence of Hillsong has made a significant contribution to this growth. “When Brian became national AOG president in 1997, he brought a fresh vision and leadership to the movement,” Ainge says.
“His example and that of Hillsong raised people to a new level of commitment, which has impacted the worship, the way the church is run and the culture of Australian churches. Despite the decrease in the established church in the last decade, churches like Hillsong have increased.”
But for all its influence in Australia and across the world, Hillsong is, and always will be, a local church, Houston says. “I have always been passionate about ‘the church’—not just our church, but the global church and the potential of the church to help people—to make a difference and shout God’s fame,” says Houston, who grew up as a pastor’s son in Wellington, New Zealand.
He met Bobbie when he was 20 and she was 17. They married in 1978 and left New Zealand a year later to join the ministry team of Sydney Christian Life Centre, run by Brian’s father, Frank Houston. After planting two churches, they pioneered Hills Christian Life Centre in 1983.
Young and full of vision, the Houstons rented a public school hall in the sparsely populated suburbs of Northwest Sydney, known at the time for only two things—market gardens and the largest Holden car dealership in Australia. It was a good place to build a church, the Houstons thought.
So they did what they knew to do: They set up chairs and an antiquated sound system. “Even though we were small and had a piano with missing keys and a piano accordion, I remember the worship being so anointed and feeling like God was in that school hall,” recalls Donna Crouch, executive pastor for Hillsong CityCare.
“The music back then was quite raw,” Zschech adds. “It was rough, like any new church. We had this funny array of lovely people who sang—we could never get a choir together. The agenda was to worship. Come as you are and do your best. That hasn’t changed.”
Phil and Lucinda Dooley, pastors of Hillsong Cape Town, remember a great sense of fun and adventure. “As a young person, I thought our senior pastor was so cool,” Phil Dooley says. “He had a very hip mullet and a long handlebar moustache. In fact, I think Brian and Bobbie both had mullets.”
“The church was full of life and passion, vision and strong leadership,” Lucinda Dooley adds. “And you never knew what was going to happen next.”
The Song Heard Around the World
What did happen next was extraordinary. It was the late 1980s, and the church had been growing exponentially—moving from the school to a warehouse and eventually to an entertainment complex.
It was during this season of growth that the Hillsong Conference was established, and Brian Houston encouraged Geoff Bullock, the church’s worship leader at the time, to start writing songs. “I always believed God had given me a passion for a church that would influence people through music that reflected the heart of the church,” Houston says.
With the vision in place, Bullock and Houston began writing songs: “Geoff’s were great; mine were forgettable,” Houston says.
Soon after, in 1988, Hillsong released its first album, Spirit and Truth, followed closely by Show Your Glory in 1990. But it wasn’t until 1996 when the church released Shout to the Lord, that global recognition came. “It was a great, yet difficult time,” reflects Zschech, who wrote the album’s title song. “Just prior to recording the album, our worship pastor stepped down.
“I just remember sitting on my driveway on a very hot Sydney day eating lemonade ice blocks with Brian and [my husband] Mark saying, ‘What are we going to do?’ Brian just turned to me and said, ‘You’ll have to lead the album.’ I told him I couldn’t. His only reply was, ‘Yes, you can.’”
That week, Zschech apprehensively led the team in the studio and recorded the album, which was produced in partnership with Integrity Music. Soon after its release, the album hit the Christian music charts in the U.S. “I remember getting a call from [Willow Creek pastor] Bill Hybels at the time who said, ‘This song [“Shout to the Lord”] is stunning,’” Zschech recalls. “It just went crazy. Letters began pouring in from all over the world.”