Australia’s Hillsong Church may be on the other side of the world, but its music and ministry style have affected every continent. We talked to Pastor Brian Houston about the global impact of Aussie faith.
It was 11 on a Sunday morning when Elva Hoene visited Sydney’s Hillsong Church for the first time. Clutching her daughter’s hand in anticipation, the visitor from Germany stepped into the sunlit foyer.
The place was abuzz with activity—children squealing, coffee brewing and music drifting through the sanctuary doors. She couldn’t believe it. After years of singing the renowned worship songs back home, she was finally here. She knew the morning would have a profound impact on her.
But on this day, it wasn’t the worship or preaching that stirred her the most, it was the welcome from the volunteers and a beautiful detail at the entrance to the church—a long, red carpet and a glass sign that simply said, “Welcome Home.” The tears welled. For the longest time, Hoene hadn’t felt the warmth she was experiencing that day. I finally feel like I am home, she thought.
Hoene, like millions of others, had heard about Hillsong from her small church. She had sung the popular worship songs “Shout to the Lord” and “Mighty to Save,” watched the YouTube preaching clips and attended with thousands of others a Hillsong United worship event in Amsterdam. But it wasn’t until she took the 9,940-mile trip to Sydney that she experienced the heartbeat of the ministry—to invite people into God’s presence.
For two decades, Hillsong has captured the attention and imagination of Christians worldwide with their inspiring praise and worship. From the slums of Rio de Janeiro to the bustling streets of Stockholm, millions—more than 11 million in fact—have bought, downloaded and listened to Hillsong music.
Since its first release in 1988, Hillsong has recorded more than 60 albums, including live worship, and kids and youth CDs. They have been distributed in 80 countries and collected more than 30 gold and platinum awards in Australia and the U.S.
According to John Coleman, vice president of Integrity Music, the demand for Hillsong music has exploded. “The congregational anthem ‘Mighty to Save,’ with a recent Dove Award for Worship Song of the Year, is the second most popular song in American churches today,” he says. “Across the Earth, the latest release from [the church’s youth ministry] Hillsong United, debuted at No. 1 on the American Billboard gospel charts.”
For senior pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston, the praise and worship flowing from Hillsong is an expression of the church’s heart—to “connect people with the living God,” as its mission states. In Sydney alone, Hillsong ministers to some 21,000 people in three main campuses and 14 extension services. Last year, a fourth campus opened in Brisbane. Internationally, Hillsong has churches in London; Kiev, Ukraine; Moscow; Paris; Stockholm; and Cape Town, South Africa.
And while church planting all over the world is not on the agenda for this megachurch, its pastors have become multimedia missionaries, beaming their TV program to 180 countries. The Sydney-based International Leadership College trains more than 900 international students each year. Meanwhile, thousands flock to the church’s annual Colour Your World women’s events and Hillsong Conference, which drew 20,000 attendees last July.
A Local Church at Heart
Yet leaders say the scope of the ministry is a sign of what God wants to do through His church, not just one congregation. “The church across the earth is incredibly valuable,” says Darlene Zschech, a Hillsong worship leader whose music helped bring the church international attention. “And God is using it to be His felt presence to the broken and suffering ... to be His hands and feet. My prayer is that people everywhere will fall in love with the potential of their local church.”
It’s this love for the local church that continues to drive senior pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston, who have woven community action and social justice into the fabric of the ministry. Recently the church launched One for Another, an umbrella organization for its compassion ministries.
In her book Heaven Is in This House, Bobbie Houston writes that God wants to turn His church into a tangible expression of heaven on earth. “His church is not a building,” she writes. “It is not a program or an event, not a gospel television program for that matter. It is not even a Sunday or weekend service that gathers believers. His house is the tangible framework that embraces and cherishes His people and causes them to flourish in life.”
Although initially struck by the church’s worship ministry, author John Bevere says the Houstons’ passion to reach a hurting world has made the strongest impact on him. “Each time I come away from Brian, Bobbie, their team and the church with a greater desire to reach hurting humanity and represent Jesus with excellence,” says Bevere, who has spoken at several Hillsong conferences.
U.S. congregations have grown “in amazing ways” as a result of Hillsong’s worship and “the excellence [the Houstons] exude in representing Jesus and reaching the lost,” Bevere adds. “I don’t believe the American church would be where it is today had it not been for the influence of Hillsong.”
In Australia, that influence can be felt across all denominations—most notably in the Assemblies of God (AOG), a denomination independent of the U.S. church that has grown from 10,000 people to 215,000 in the last 30 years.
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