Bobbie Houston on retirement, facing criticism and the word 'megachurch'

An in-depth, personal conversation with the Hillsong leader

“Megachurch?” Bobbie Houston bursts into laughter when asked how she feels about the word. It’s clearly not a term she uses.

“I think it’s a term that’s more used in the United States,” she answers. “In some ways it’s a little bit foreign to an Australian landscape, or to even an European landscape or other parts of the world.

“Our church is large and expansive these days … [but] it’s still a small church.” – Bobbie Houston

“I know that, for some, it carries a little bit of a stigma,” she says carefully. “But, in essence, it’s really describing a congregation and a community of followers of Christ who have grown.

“I don’t know. I certainly don’t describe our church as a megachurch, but I guess others might.”

Well then, how would one of Australia’s best known Christian leaders describe Hillsong, the suburban Sydney home church started in 1983 that has flourished to become a global movement?

“We still call our church a beautiful family. We call it a community, a community of believers. And whilst our church is large and expansive these days, and it’s spread far and wide, it’s still a small church.”

Bobbie and her husband Brian have ministered together since they were newlyweds. They had been married for less than a year when they decided to embrace the “adventure” of moving from their homeland of New Zealand to Sydney, Australia.

“So, we’re newlyweds. My family was in New Zealand,” Bobbie remembers, “And it’s like, ‘We’re gonna go to Australia. We’re gonna get jobs, and then we gonna get a caravan and go around Australia!’”

The appeal of caravan adventure makes more sense when you place the scene in the 1970s, with the backdrop of the “Jesus Revolution” in New Zealand.

“There was the Jesus Revolution happening in the United States – late ’60s, early ’70s – and a similar move was happening through New Zealand,” explains Bobbie of a Christian movement that flowed out of church doors and into culture and society. “It was amazing. I got saved in the midst of all of that, so I often joke with everyone I am a true ‘Jesus person’ or ‘Jesus Freak’ – if you want to say that – since 1972.

“I was 15 years of age … and I came to church and to an invitation to Christ through a friend at school. A beautiful friend called Lily, who has since passed and gone on to heaven.”

Bobbie’s father had died a year earlier, prompting a questioning about life and searching for more. She was ready “to encounter a living God” when she heard that first knock on the door of her soul.

When Brian and Bobbie arrived in Sydney, the young couple immediately jumped into helping build a new church planted by Brian’s parents, Frank and Hazel.

“We just sunk our teeth into that young, pioneering church that was raw and perfect and yet imperfect,” Bobbie remembers.

Six years later, in 1983, the couple planted the church which would become known as Hillsong Church in Baulkham Hills – a suburb of the Hills District, in the north-western outskirts of Sydney. In those days, the area was “just fields.”

“We felt compelled to come out here. We started in a school hall. It was called Christian Life Centre, back in the day. And it has just grown and emerged and become what it is today.”

Hillsong has become a denomination in Australia, and also has churches in 23 countries. As Hillsong progressed on the global scene, so too did Bobbie’s skills as a pastor and church leader. These days, she is officially Hillsong’s Co-Global Senior Pastor – a title she struggles to remember, but confidently embodies.

Every year, Bobbie coordinates and hosts Hillsong’s Colour Women’s Conference – a touring conference that now runs in New York, Los Angeles, Cape Town, London and Kiev, as well as Sydney.

Over its 23 years, Colour Conference has become not only Australia’s largest Christian women’s conference but also the nation’s largest women’s conference of any kind.

For its Australian leg this year, 14,700 delegates and 2600 staff and volunteers gathered from 49 countries and 19 denominations. The conference was repeated twice to accommodate delegates in Sydney’s International Convention Centre.

The aim of Colour Conference is to “place value upon womanhood” – a mission that flows directly from Hillsong. Unlike in some other denominations in Sydney (and elsewhere), women at Hillsong are empowered equally with men to become pastors, preach, teach, and serve as board members.

“If you look super objectively at the word of God, if you look at the life of Christ in the New Testament, he had women all around him,” Bobbie says, explaining why women in church leadership seems natural and organic to her.

“He included women and women in his ministry at the beginnings of the church – there no question about that.

“If you go to God’s intent towards men and women in the pages of Genesis, you see a God who has created man and woman in his image and empowered them both together to rule and to reign and to populate this earth. So, for us, it’s not a big deal,” she concludes simply about the sometimes contentious issue of female leadership in Christian churches.

Bobbie says she deeply admires her husband, Brian, who as Hillsong Global Senior Pastor, for the way he has empowered women to lead.

“I think he’s had quite a Christlike attitude towards that.”

“And in the early days, the gender thing, really … it just wasn’t an issue. He would look at someone who was willing, who put their hand up and said ‘I want to be part of this adventure. I want to serve. I want to minister to young people. I want to… do whatever.’ [Brian] didn’t question if you were a male or a female. He would actually go, ‘If you’ve got a willing heart, if you’ve got gift and measure on your life, if you’re prepared to grow in leadership, then you know what? You’ve got the job!’ And so, for us personally, it’s never been an issue.”

Bobbie’s experience of preaching – even to a multi-denominational crowd at Hillsong Conference – has been positive, she says, with no sense of listeners “leaning out” of hearing what she has to share.

“I do occasionally get people sort of telling me I can’t do this and I can’t do that. I’m, like, ‘Oh God bless you.’ Meanwhile, let’s get in the field, shall we? And, by the grace of God, reach people and show them the love of God.’”

Hillsong may be known for big crowds in big arenas, but Bobbie sounds like any Aussie pastor when she talks about building the church. She uses references like ‘hand-to-the-plough’ often.

“I think those who call Hillsong home… I think they love the place because it does feel like home, you know?”

She describes signage displayed in every Hillsong Church around the world that says, ‘Welcome home’.

“I think a lot of people walk in and they sense immediately, firstly, the presence of God – because the presence of God is felt. And then I think, by the grace of God, they experience that (hopefully) in the people and in the sense of community.”

“I actually think that’s something that grieves the heart of God …” – Bobbie Houston

It’s a very different environment to the hellfire and brimstone stereotype of church that springs to mind for many non-Christians.

“Brian’s always had this ­… philosophy, in his heart, that he wants to encourage people. He wants to speak to their real life, the everyday life. He wants to speak to not just their Sunday or their devotional life but to their vocational life – whatever it is that is in them that they are sensing, or their calling, their career, their passion.”

“He wants to bring the word of God in such a way that it’s going to actually encourage them and inspire them and equip them.”

One thing that grieves her heart, she says, is disunity between Christians: “I actually think that’s something that grieves the heart of God … we’re actually attacking his bride and that’s crazy.”

“It’s like ‘Hey guys, we’re on the same side. We’re all learning, none of us have got it perfect. We’re all in this together,’” she says.

The Houstons are no strangers to criticism – both from outside and inside Christianity. I ask her what she thinks people most misunderstand about Hillsong.

“I think sometimes people think that we’re just a big money machine,” she acknowledges, “but it’s absolutely ludicrous.”

“If you actually were to look at the breadth of our ministry – the things that we are doing, the facilities that are needed to accommodate community, and youth ministry, and children’s ministry, and all the different things that layer out – you realise that money doesn’t just fall out of the skies. We, as a church, we steward and there’s great governance in our church.

“And, you know, as Brian says, ‘We’re always gonna have more vision – which is to help people, to actually help people – we’re always gonna have more vision than we actually have resource.’”

All that said, Bobbie says she meets lovely people in the streets, shops, cafes and on planes. Sometimes, she says, when she gets to that awkward time in a conversation when someone realises who she is or what she does, she finds herself trying to pre-empt a negative response from them by saying something like “Oh, you know, sometimes we get a little bit of negative press out there.”

“And they’re like, ‘Oh, don’t worry about that’. They actually say that. ‘Don’t worry about that. That’s just the press … We know what you’re doing is good.’”

“Criticism causes you to examine your own heart to see if there’s any[thing] warranted.” – Bobbie Houston

I ask her how it feels to watch Brian face criticism. “Well, I don’t think anyone revels in criticism, you know. It’s real out there. I think when you live on a more public platform, you’re more vulnerable to it.”

“I think he has had his fair share of it that’s pretty undeserved. Because, if you actually know him, you know his true heart, you understand what he’s about and how he believes in people … it’s not warranted.

“That doesn’t mean that he hasn’t made mistakes because, you know, in life, we’re all growing. We’re all learning. We’re all maturing in the grace of God and in the fruit of the Spirit.”

Criticism is obviously hurtful, but she doesn’t indulge her pain for long. She isn’t going to let it deter her from what she feels God is asking her to do.

“You deal with it in the moment; you deal with it in the season. It pushes you to your knees. It causes you to examine your own heart to see if there’s any[thing] warranted.”

“That’s one thing that I’ve always seen in him [Brian]. He will always examine his own heart and say ‘Well, is this called for? Is there any margin in here that could be right?’ I mean if someone wrote him a criticising letter, he wouldn’t dismiss it unless they’re too gutless to put their name in it. But if they sign their name, he gives due diligence to that and we respond as best we can. I’ve watched him do that.”

“I’m not gonna retire from loving God and wanting to serve him as best I can.” – Bobbie Houston

It sounds exhausting, and I ask her whether they have any plans to retire soon. She laughs.

“I actually said that to Brian recently – maybe a year or so ago. I said, ‘Honey, when do you think I should retire?’ and he just laughed at me! He laughed – in a nice way – and was like ‘That’s hilarious!’”

She laughs at herself, “I mean, why? I’m not gonna retire from loving God and wanting to serve him as best I can.”

“But I am mindful of age,” she tells me. “I am mindful of seasons and that means we’re probably in that last quarter of our lives, depending on how long we live. So, we’re actually mindful of the future. We’re mindful of succession. We’re mindful of setting the future up. But there’s nothing within Brian and I at the moment that wants to retire.”

Of course, she acknowledges, sometimes she does feel like retiring “… because the weight of what we carry and what we do … it’s awesome but it’s ‘hand-to-the-plough’. It’s strenuous. It’s tiring, in the most wonderful way.”

That same resilience is evident when I ask her about legacy.

“I don’t want to have regrets. I don’t want to get to heaven and have regret that there could have been more. That I could have applied myself more, that I could have stewarded more that was entrusted [to me]. And I don’t think I say that out of vain ambition, I really don’t.”

“I do it because I really don’t want to face Jesus one day and feel like ‘Oh my gosh, somehow I diminished the incredible sacrifice that you made for me, Lord, by not turning up, by not being present, by not staying at my post.’”

She begins to tear up.

“Yeah, I don’t want that. So, I would love a legacy that said ‘She, by the grace of God, she led us in our love affair with God’.

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