Eternity’s editor John Sandeman sits down with Brian Houston during Hillsong’s 2015 Conference, Australia’s largest Christian gathering.
I want to ask you about theme of this Hillsong Conference “Speak … we’re listening”. Can I ask you about a time in your life when you believe God spoke to you and said, “Brian, just keep on what you are doing, you are doing fantastically well” and maybe there’s a time when God said, “Brian, I really want you to change something you are doing.”
Look I could tell you many stories across my life of significant moments, when God has spoken to me directing a vision which today has framed many different aspects of our work.
I find it happens at the most unexpected times. It’s been on airplanes. I was on an airplane way back in the early years of our church. I really got just a dream in my heart. It was called ‘International Power Ministries’ which could actually fit in a box in a store cupboard. It was all about “arms”: a Bible college, television ministry, praise and worship and a teaching and preaching resource. It was nothing more than a dream.
I got off the plane with it drawn out, a little graph of what today is not Power Ministries International anymore, its 1500 students at Hillsong International College and we are on television in 160 countries around the world. The story of the music and worship is legendary. And so on and so on and so on. All of that came out of that encounter.
And I can tell you of many encounters like that. I can tell you of the time I was sitting outside a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in the USA. I did not know anyone in America. But ever since I was a kid I was fascinated by America.
I never wanted to live there but I have always felt that somehow, sometime, we would have an impact there. And so I sat on this stool, this park bench and looked out across the vastness of America.
Sunset Boulevard sits up on a ridge, on a hill. I looked across Los Angeles and I felt that God put in my heart that he would give me influence in that country. I could not see how it could happen but it was a specific encounter.
And today we have churches on both coasts which are dynamic and growing.
The praise and the worship have incredibly opened doors in America.
I am a great believer that God does speak and that we need to listen.
Many preachers I have met have had points of challenge in their lives – have you found it a challenge to be following God at various points in your life?
In my book Live, Love Lead (which Houston launched at Hillsong Conference this week) I talk a whole lot about living a big life on a difficult path through a narrow gate, to a glorious future, based on Matthew 7:13.
And so in the “difficult path” section I really open my heart up because the truth is that in our Hillsong world when outwardly we were exploding (with growth) inwardly I was imploding. So decline? I go into quite a bit of detail about that 12 year decline. I ended up with panic attacks and being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress.
Yeah – I have had plenty of the valleys and the reason for adding all that to the book is that I want to bless other people. It is amazing how you meet God in the valley.
I think somehow when we are desperate and we are hurting, that is when the Bible speaks to us. Magnified. Speaks to us ten times or a hundred times more than when we are just riding the waves of success.
I am a great believer that if we do listen to God, he will speak. He will reach us in the dark.
The whole Christian community is at a certain point in history where we see things like the Supreme Court decision about same sex marriage in the United States. Can you tell me how the church can bless the gay community?
For a start I think everyone deserves the right to be happy. And I wish people happiness. I don’t necessarily, personally, believe that gay marriage is God’s definition of marriage.
But I believe that as a church we can exist in that world. As long as things are not forced upon the church in terms of what we have to do or don’t have to do. I just believe that the way that we can help is by praying for people, helping them, wish them happiness. I want to see people happy. I don’t want to see people live their lives feeling broken or disenfranchised. It saddens me if you are hated by the church.
Some young people – they got rejected when they tried to confront a youth leader or even their own parents, when they ask things about what they are dealing with in their own life and end up loathing the church, hating God and sometimes suicidal because they feel like they are an absolute failure in a world that has rejected them.
I think as a church it is so easy for us to wipe lives off. Hillsong Church is not like that. Unapologetically that is not what we are.
Brian, a question I have always wanted to ask you: what is the heart of Hillsong?
The heart of Hillsong is … I have written a little paragraph that talks about our heart and our tone. It talks about being generous in Spirit, faith-filled and inclusive in nature. That is exactly how I see it.
I believe the church works the opposite way to the world. If you go to a club in New York City it is rated on how exclusive it is, and how hard it is to get in.
The kingdom of God and the gospel is exactly the opposite. It is arms wide open, whosoever will may come. That is what I believe is the heart of Hillsong Church.
I see us as family. My wife describes our church – the way it is now spread all over the world – as “one house with many rooms”. And so we want that to be the feel of our church. You walk into any foyer of any of our churches anywhere and the first sign you see says “Welcome home”. That is how we want it to be.
Our heart is to reach people and connect people with God. Love people, love life, love God.
Brian, do you wake up some days and can’t believe you are the chief pastor of such a huge family?
It overwhelms me, quite honestly. It overwhelms me. I always was a visionary, even when I was a boy, even when we started Hillsong, I could never have imagined the grace of God.
And I see it for what it is. All of us know that we have not done this ourselves. All of us know that.
No matter how slick our marketing, you can’t market some of the opportunity God has brought our way. I mean Hollywood knocking on our doors, a little suburban Sydney church, wanting to make a movie about us. It’s crazy favour.
You talk about the heart of our church, let me tell you one quick story that I love.
At Hillsong Los Angeles, recently a big celebrity turned up in his Rolls Royce. A Silver Shadow. And so we parked it in a secure, gated area just behind the theatre where we meet. And then a homeless guy came along with his shopping trolley and they asked him to come to church. And he wanted to come in but he was fearful because his whole life was in that trolley. He was scared someone might steal that shopping trolley. So they took his shopping trolley to the same yard and parked it right beside the Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. And took the homeless guy into church.
You talk about the heart of our church, if that reflects it, then I say we are doing what we want to see. We talk about it being from the famous to the faceless.
Or the faceless to the famous.
Unfortunately where our church is right now because there are celebrities here in Australia and globally who are becoming part of the church it can sort of hijack what the heart of our church is. Yes we want to reach those people, but we also want to reach people who are on the edges of society.
In the US especially there are people who once were Christian celebrities and singers, how do you keep Hillsong from selling out?
I think keeping rooted and grounded in local church is the answer to that.
All of our people, no matter how famous or successful they are, ultimately it all comes back to serving the local church. That is something we guard vigorously. Because they all know that it is the vision and the heart of the church that they are representing.
Hillsong United, they are riding the wave, those guys are either leading worship sometimes helping with sound, and they are just part of the family and in the community every weekend. That keeps them grounded.
Christian artists, they can get out there on the road, and it is amazing how easy it is for Christian artists to be living and singing in stadiums to multitudes, but slowly backsliding. Because they are cut off, I believe, from the foundation of every-day Christian living that comes out of serving God in the local church.