Read the Bible, then write a song
Hillsong’s Global Creative Pastor Cassandra Langton on biblical inspiration
Cassandra Langton oversees thousands of staff and volunteers as the Global Worship and Creative Pastor for Hillsong Church, but she talks more about Scripture and people than she does about task, strategy or albums.
She describes her role simply: “Wherever you find creativity at Hillsong Church somehow we’re involved,” but she’s not just talking about the worship bands for Sunday services and the occasional Christmas, Mother’s or Father’s Day item.
“We’re Christian first and the pursuit of God matters more than anything.” – Cassandra Langton
In fact, Langton manages 170 worship, creative and television staff, who in turn oversee 10,509 volunteers. That’s in Australia. She’s also responsible for around 25,000 staff and volunteers in 21 other countries with Hillsong churches and is the oversight for weekly creative “team nights” in each country, a creative arts academy and the creative elements in each of the church’s 13 global conferences.
Yet Langton’s top priority when it comes to her team is good, old-fashioned discipleship because “we’re Christian first and the pursuit of God matters more than anything.”
That is reassuring news for the 50 million-odd Christians in churches around the world who sing Hillsong songs in any given week, but it doesn’t mean Langton plans to legislate what the church’s songwriters pen any time soon.
“I think they’re meant to write in ways that help the church articulate who God is, not necessarily what he’s saying to us. I think the role of worship is to glorify God and lift him up.”
Langton says she personally finds it “a little bit hurtful” when Christians critique Hillsong’s music as unbiblical.
Instead of telling Hillsong’s songwriters what to write, she’d rather ask what they’re discovering about God and reading in the Bible, and encourage them to find the songs the church should be singing.
Langton is aware of the critics, though, and says she was recently challenged by someone “with a social justice bent” who said, “I don’t understand why your writers aren’t writing more sending songs … songs that send people out to the mission field.”
The creative team wrestled with the critique, and Langton returned to Scripture, finding clarity by reflecting on Isaiah 6 – the passage when God’s robe fills the temple and the seraphim sing “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.”
Instead of telling Hillsong’s songwriters what to write, she’d rather ask what they’re discovering about God and reading in the Bible.
“In that moment, while they’re lifting up who God is and they’re talking about God’s attributes and character, God does the sending,” she explains. “God says ‘Who am I going to send?’ and he finds Isaiah and he sends him.
“If we continue to talk about God and his nature and his character and his attributes, if we talk about Jesus and his atoning sacrifice, if we talk about the Trinity, then we give people the courtesy of actually finding God and allowing him to speak to them directly and uniquely.”
Langton says she personally finds it “a little bit hurtful” when Christians critique Hillsong’s music as unbiblical or based on their experience decades ago.
“We come out of a Baptist and Anglican background, my husband and I, so one of our main quests has been a return to Scripture and to make sure what we do is biblical. As a church, I think we’ve always had a high value on Scripture. I think how that’s outworked itself has probably looked different over the journey.”
“I think as all of our writers have grown up and matured, their depth of understanding about God has matured, but then, so did Paul’s in his writings in Scripture.” – Cassandra Langton
Langton says she gets why a 40-year-old might say that a song written by an 18-year-old songwriter “isn’t about the vastness of God” or doesn’t specifically contain the theology they’re looking for. Yet she insists young writers write out of an “18-year-old understanding the love of God” and “from a really vulnerable, real place of discovery” that is also valuable.
“I think as all of our writers have grown up and matured, their depth of understanding about God has matured, but then, so did Paul’s in his writings in Scripture.”
Langton hopes people who have looked at Hillsong’s music in the past will look again and find themselves surprised. If they’re not, though, that’s OK with Langton because “there’s plenty of incredible worship expressions and you have to find what works for you and for your church.”
For many pastors, the mere thought of wrangling Christian creatives for a living would be enough to send them on sabbatical. Yet Langton remains not only undaunted by the task but fiercely protective of her team.
“People are unique and individuals, so you find the gold in them and you begin to mine for it.” – Cassandra Langton
“The number of people when I started my job who go, ‘Oh, you’ve got those weird creatives! They’re difficult, they’re melancholy, they’re …’ I actually don’t think they are. And I don’t think we should define people like that. I don’t think that’s the right way to talk about people.
“I think when you say people are dysfunctional, it’s the wrong way to address people. People are unique and individuals, so you find the gold in them and you begin to mine for it. I think that’s beautiful. That’s what Jesus does with us.”
“The mantel fell and God asked me to put it on. And I put it on and he will lead us.” – Cassandra Langton
Langton’s current confidence is the result of a sense of a deep sense of calling. When Senior Pastor Brian Houston originally asked her to take on the task of overseeing the church’s worship and creative department in 2011, it was the first time someone who wasn’t part of the onstage worship team had been handed the reins. Previous oversights had included well-known worship leaders Darlene Zschech, Reuben Morgan and Joel Houston.
“I can remember going to my room and feeling like I was the wrong person for the job. I spent time talking to the Lord and I was reading Kings where Elisha says to Elijah ‘Give me your mantel’ and Elijah goes ‘It’s not mine to give, but if it drops from heaven, pick it up and put it on,’” Langton recalls.
She was reading a Walter Brueggemann commentary alongside her Bible and it described how the school of the prophets went searching for Elijah for three days after Elisha had put the mantel on, leaving Elisha feeling as if the school of the prophets were searching for Elijah just in case he’d killed him.
“I felt an affinity with him [Elisha] at that point in time because I felt like in taking over the creative department at Hillsong Church, I wasn’t Darlene, I wasn’t Joel, I wasn’t Reuben, and maybe our teams felt like, [with] the change in leadership, I’d done away with those people.”
The story goes on that Elisha takes off the mantel, he puts it down on the Jordan – which parts and he walks across it, causing the whole school of the prophets to realise that God, who was with Elijah, is also with Elisha.
“I realised this season and what I do is marked by God and given by God… The call I feel like he has called me to is to lead people. To lead them toward him and to lead them in their creative pursuit. I might not be Darlene, I might not be Joel, I might not be Reuben, but the mantel fell and God asked me to put it on. And I put it on and he will lead us.”
“Part of pastoring people is helping them to identify their weak spots and where the Devil pries on you.” – Cassandra Langton
Yet Langton’s relative anonymity then equipped her to lead the team into the current era when the dangers of Christian celebrity threaten any Christian with a degree of acclaim.
“I think part of my job is actually to make – and this going to sound stupid – the church a faceless army. Not superstars who are esteemed and who do great things for God but a body of people who work together and who collaborate around creativity to share the gospel.”
When asked if celebrity culture is a big challenge, Langton replies immediately “One hundred percent”, but goes on to say that the Australian culture is helpful because it normalises people.
“I don’t think I realised the United guys were superstars until I went on the road with them at one point in time,” she explains, “I went, people think you’re a really big deal, and I think ‘you’re JD who grew up in the youth ministry and Joel who probably needs a shower… you’re Reuben Morgan who has sat at my family dinner table since we were ten.’”
Yet Langton has also pursued “real conversations” with lots of the Hillsong Worship and Creative team about “getting tripped up by things that don’t matter”:
“The trappings that stop us from pursuit are dangerous and we all fall into things. Part of pastoring people is helping them to identify their weak spots and where the Devil pries on you and where your flesh actually craves esteem or money or glory or fame or whatever it is, and then begin to actually look at yourself honestly and submit that to the Holy Spirit.”
For Langton, the current season at Hillsong is about championing and building generationally, exploring creativity and finding new ways to talk about God, and building disciples, and she’s taking a pretty simple approach.
“I think belief in people is the most amazing gift you can give. Any creatives and people in leadership, any people who have any degree of talent… to nurture it and to believe in it and to champion those people is actually a beautiful thing.”