The Hillsong Church, which was founded in Sydney in 1983, has experienced huge growth in Australia and in London, but also has set up churches in the Ukraine and France. The Church is well-known for its passionate and heart-felt praising, but more than this, it has led thousands of young people from all different cultures and backgrounds back to the Bible and to God.
Christian Today was able to speak exclusively to the Hillsong founder and the man behind the vision of Hillsong, Brian Houston:
How did you get the idea of establishing Hillsong Church? Were there any revelations or specific meanings behind the name “Hillsong”?
My father planted a church in Sydney in 1977, and my wife and I came over from New Zealand not long after that. We really were only supposed to be there for a while to work in Sydney, but I quickly became part of the team, and became an assistant pastor. From there I went out and planted churches from that city church, which is now our city congregation. I planted the church in a suburb called Liverpool in New South Wales, and today they are both very strong churches.
The third one that I started is in the ‘Hills’ area in 1983. That’s when I went out, and we actually started out in a school hall. We were full of visions and dreams; we really did have a big plan for our lives. But we never set out and said specifically that we wanted to start a church called ‘Hillsong Church’ and it would have the music that would reach out to the world. A lot of it has emerged as time has gone on.
We started it as ‘Hills Christian Life Centre’, and we started with just two conferences. There were three of us in the swimming pool on a Sunday afternoon. There was Jeff Bullock, Mark Zschech and myself. We were thinking of a name for the conference, and somewhere between the three of us we came up with that name. Hills is the name of the area!
Then we started the praise and worship, and rather than just having “Hills Christian Life Centre Live”, I thought it would be good to produce the music under the name ‘Hillsong’ so that people wouldn’t box it as just another churches’ music. Then we were travelling, and people didn’t even know the name of the church. They kept getting the name wrong.
In 1999, after my father resigned, we took over the city congregation, the Hillsong city has merged under one church, and that time is when we thought if we can’t beat them join them. So everyone knew us as Hillsong Church, so that’s when we started officially calling ourselves ‘Hillsong Church’ – just at the end of 1999.
Is there any reason why in Australia, you have only built the Hillsong Church in Sydney and have not expanded to other major cities in the country?
We have a lot of relationships with other churches in Australia and around the world. Possibly one of the reasons why we don’t do that is because of those relationships. I don’t want to just build a Hillsong Church; I want to be a builder of “The Church”. So I definitely want a Church that is impacting, and we will certainly from time to time spread our wings and start a new initiative. But I see our mandate as not just starting millions of Hillsong churches everywhere; it’s really about championing the cause and the local churches. In other words, I would like to think we can be an example to help smaller churches grow.
Why did you choose London to set up the Hillsong Church?
We started the church in London 10 years ago, and it has only been in the last 5 years, the church has really begun to progress and go forward. Our aim is to impact this city, one of the world’s leading cities, culturally and in every other way. This will allow us to impact Europe and really give ourselves a base in Europe to make a difference; we are only at that point now. From London, we have just started in Paris, and so from now on, we are hoping to do that. But why London, well it’s because London is a hub, and I would like to see it become a spiritual hub.
Have you noticed any big differences in spiritual atmosphere between doing mission here in the UK and back in Australia?
I am very positive about the potential of the church here in England, I really feel there is an openness and hunger here. It is a little difficult for me to comment because I rarely go out in London. I have in days gone by, but often now I just come here to our church. I do two weekends here a year, so this is not necessarily what’s happening everywhere, because what’s happened in this church in London is phenomenal - it really is just growing so fast. I am positive that there are great days ahead for the Church in England, and my experience is that where people are open and hungry, God will move no matter where it is in the world.
Hillsong London and Hillsong Sydney are very much like kindred spirits, and to me it is an interesting thing because the model is working in both countries. And so where some people said, it worked in Australia but it won’t ever work in London; it’s proving that not to be true.
Hillsong Church started in 1983, and nowadays we see so many churches across the world suffering a decline in congregation attendances, but Hillsong keeps on growing and growing. So what do you think are the main elements for the success of Hillsong Church?
I believe that people have spiritual needs, and I believe that people don’t just come to church for nothing. Their spirits have been scratched, and so the approach to take in ministering is to be positive, empowering, inspiring people to grow and to change, to move forward, it’s telling you that you can do it, that God has got a future for you. I think people respond to that, so whether it is in praising or in worship, whether it is in youth ministry, whether it is in leadership, it comes back to empowering people, and making people feel like they are being helped in the environment, and that God believes in them. This enables them to grow. I think this is what people respond to.
To me it’s not music style; I think it’s the other way around. A lot of people think Hillsong must be what it is because of the music. Thank God for the praise and worship, but to me it is exactly the opposite. The music is the sound of a healthy church, and that is what people respond to. That’s why I believe it has been so well received around the world. Obviously we’ve been blessed with gifted people and gifted song writers, but I see that there are gifted people and gifted song writers all over the place, so there is more to it, and I think it is the sense of people feeling that they are being helped.
Hillsong attracts such a multi-cultural audience, why do you think Hillsong can attract such a diverse range of people?
I think it’s that our approach is not too singular, and because of that, there is room for breadth. I also think that we have been, through Christ, confident enough to be ourselves. So we have never tried to cater to any one specific group of people; either age-wise or race-wise or in any other way, but just accept people as the Lord has called us to be, and that this is who we are. If it is open and embracing then there will be a breadth for a wide range of people to come in.
We have also set up our churches in very big, cosmopolitan cities. So we have just about every kind of person that you can imagine on our doorsteps, and to a degree I think that the diversity reflects the kinds of cities that we are operating in.
So many Christians think they are too small to change the secular culture of the world. How do you think Christians can lead this world with the leadership to have a global influence?
A lot of it is perception. We think of the church as small and being the tail rather than being the head. But if we think like that then that’s what we will be, and that’s what we’ll think as Christians. If we have the mind-set that we are just here waiting to go to Heaven, then we will not have any impact. People get the revelation that God has got a plan for their lives here on earth; that they have been saved for His purpose, saved to make a difference. And out of their revelation, they can make a difference, and they can open their lives up, empowering themselves in growing and stretching.
I think that the church, rather than look at how sin-powered the world is, we should try to really encourage young people to get involved in all of the different areas of society, the secular society, politics, media journalism, education - every area! We tend to in the church, just sit there and point the finger, but while we have been doing that, other groups have been smarter and have got in there. Christians have to learn and really desire to make a difference. If every Christian started to do this, then what a massive force that church would be.
Do you have any future plans of expanding the Hillsong Church? What kinds of ministries or people do you plan to focus on?
We don’t want to reach out to a specific group of people, as much as having a far-reaching church that can reach as many people as possible.
As for plans for the future, we are not going to suddenly start a new shift of direction. I feel that when people say ‘what is God saying to you today’ – it is really the same as what He said when we started doing it all those years ago. To build a church that is going to help people and make a difference; we just want to keep doing what we were doing - only better. To me, I never really focus so much on growing the Church, but more to help the Church, and to help things grow. So I see my role as looking at the health of the Church and keeping things healthy. I believe that growth will result from that.
Interview with HILLSONG Founder Brian Houston
Published 11 August 2004