What began as a cry from Zschech’s heart, written on the keys of her mother’s old piano and presented to the worship team apologetically, has now been sung by more than 35 million people worldwide and translated into 80 languages.
Nominated for Song of the Year at the 1998 Dove Awards, the worship anthem has been performed at the White House, the Vatican and in 2008 by finalists in the popular reality show American Idol. In 2009, the compilation album by the same name was certified gold, selling 500,000 units.
Although Shout to the Lord was clearly a turning point for the church, there were other highlights—the growth of their two conferences; the launch of Hillsong Sisterhood, a global women’s movement; a partnership with Compassion International and Watoto Child Care Ministries in Uganda; the opening of a 21-acre facility in northwest Sydney by the prime minister of Australia; and the planting of Hillsong churches worldwide.
And while some have viewed this growth as the result of a well-crafted marketing strategy, Brian Houston simply says, “It’s been the grace of God.”
“Honestly,” Houston adds, “we have never gone out there and tried to produce clever music or build crowds. We have just done what’s come naturally. In fact, even in our wildest dreams, I would never have thought for a second that this would happen.”
Nor could he have predicted what was to follow. In the late 1990s, a new generation of songwriters from the youth ministry began emerging—a generational transition that Houston says has been critical to the church’s longevity. Today, Hillsong United is one of the most influential worship bands in the world.
“One of Hillsong’s greatest strengths is the way they train and raise up each generation for leadership and give them opportunity,” Coleman says. “Churches are now looking to Hillsong as a model and wanting to see that kind of thing happen in their own church.”
Coleman is also quick to point out that churches need to have their own distinctive. “When the worship leaders and songwriters encounter the truth of God and His presence in a church environment, the songs are born out of that—out of the house,” Coleman says. “I think [Hillsong’s music] is testament to what’s going on inside spiritually and under Brian and Bobbie’s leadership.”
Bible teacher Joyce Meyer says the Houstons are humble, authentic leaders. “They are not only who they say they are, they are the real deal,” she says. “Without question, they have changed the music landscape in churches throughout the U.S. and around the world as both their sound and songs have become synonymous with praise and worship. Their anointed ministry helps to bring people into the presence of God in a powerful way.”
But not everybody is celebrating Hillsong’s success. For years, the church has been a magnet for criticism from mainstream Australian media and some church leaders. News reports and academic dissertations have taken aim at teaching that critics say is too focused on health and wealth. The AOG’s Ainge believes the nation’s secularism fuels the condemnation. “Australia has never seen a megachurch like Hillsong before,” he points out. “And what they don’t understand, they criticize.”
Unmoved by the detractors, Houston remains committed to seeing people empowered. “We are always full of hope for the future,” he says. “We never dreamed that Christians the world over would sing songs penned by our worship teams, or that our conferences would have multiplied thousands, or that Bobbie would lead a global sisterhood of women that are radically making a difference across the earth.”
Has the vision changed? “It’s the same as it’s always been,” Houston says. “It’s about a healthy house and what that represents.”
“Brian and Bobbie love God’s house, God’s people and a broken world—it’s as simple as that,” says Christine Caine, who became a member of Hillsong 21 years ago and has since founded Equip and Empower ministries. “I am secure in the fact that even though God has elevated the profile of Hillsong, they have remained true to their core of loving God and loving people,” she says.
And on the day Elva Hoene visited from Germany, it wasn’t the success of Hillsong United’s music, the church’s global recognition or the thousands who follow Brian Houston on Twitter that impressed her. It was the love of the volunteers that made her feel at home.
“I felt so honored and so appreciated as a person,” she said, as her eyes welled with tears. “It was fantastic. Although it’s such a huge congregation, the church has made such an impact. They noticed me. That’s the church I’ve been looking for.”
Nicole Partridge is a freelance journalist based in Australia who writes for magazines, newspapers and relief organizations. Her November cover story for Charisma featured Australian missionary Irene Gleeson. She lives in Sydney with her husband and two children.
See our slide show of popular worship bands making strides on the humanitarian front at makingadifference.charismamag.com.
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