The Art of Revolution
With an album that recently debuted at No. 1 on the Christian charts and seven albums already under its belt, Hillsong United is making a name for itself. Yet, many CCM readers may not know the unusual story behind this ground-breaking, worshipping bunch of Aussies. By Rachel Harrold
“Hillsong United is the best youth worship band on the planet right now,” Delirious’ Martin Smith tells CCM. “They generate enough energy on stage to power a small city, and their songs give an emerging church around the world the confidence to be a ”˜city on a hill.’” Affirms fellow recording artist Michael W. Smith, “What they do is so unique…so fresh. As a worship leader, I’m always looking for great songs. I can’t tell you how many Hillsong United songs we do at New River Fellowship [Church].”
You’d think a band this influential would be a household name among modern worship fans here in America. So why is there usually just a vague familiarity with Hillsong United? True, the band has never been about doing things the “traditional” way. For starters, the collective has never focused on being a band. In fact, the group has intentionally rotated members over the years in order to keep things “fresh” and allow more youth from their church to become involved with the music and songwriting. While on the surface, these things set them apart, there’s really much more to the heart and soul of this band.
Hillsong United was birthed out of the youth ministry at Hillsong Church in Sydney, Australia, which has become one of the largest and most influential churches in the world, with the success of worship leader Darlene Zschech — most famous for her world-wide church anthem, “Shout to the Lord.” The group, then named United Live and led by Reuben Morgan and Marty Sampson, recorded its first album in 1999 and went on to record six other live albums, each one packed with raw energy and solid songs geared toward corporate worship.
For United, the music is only part of the vision. “The way we see it is the songs and the music are an overflow of the heart of what’s going on in our church and our ministry,” United front man Joel Houston tells CCM. “Really our greatest desire is to see young people really take their gifts and use them for God. If it’s through music, that’s great. If it’s business, that’s great. Whatever they love and are passionate about, we want to see them use that to love God and to serve and love others.”
United’s new album, All of the Above (Hillsong/ Integrity), is the band’s first studio record, and simultaneously, its first No. 1 on SoundScan’s Christian Album sales chart — both clearly a different dynamic for this known-for-their-live-sound band. Recounting the recording process, Joel says, “It was a whole new experience for sure. We just thought that we would get in the studio and basically do what we always do. We just grabbed a song and played it front to back, back to front and just worshipped.”
In recent years Christians — and modern worship fans in particular — have heard countless artists and pastors remark that “worship is a lifestyle.” And the members of United? They believe a life of worship means action.
“We can sing the songs and have a lot of great corporate times of worship, but it’s really worship when it’s at work in our lives and when we put action to our songs,” explains Joel. “When we worship God it’s about loving God and loving people. We have to be about reaching our community and serving others and helping those in our world who need help.”
The youth at Hillsong Church have begun to live out their worship in the form of social justice projects and community outreaches. They have annual conferences with themes of worship and social justice going hand-in-hand, as the kids participate in hands-on projects together and end the time with a worship service. “It’s amazing what happens when you put those two things at work together. That’s worship in spirit and in truth. It’s being the hands and feet,” Joel says.
So a life of worship should emphasize social justice and community outreach? Granted such concepts may seem obvious given Jesus’ two greatest commandments: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40, NIV). Why, then, is the correlation foreign in so many churches, especially in the United States?
“I think that the potential of the church here in America is unfathomable,” Joel responds. “It’s a sleeping giant, you know?” After a recent trip to Europe, he recounted all of the magnificent churches there — that at one time were thriving — and now sit empty. “We can’t afford for that to happen in the States,” he says. “People live a self-centered life, and when our faith becomes about ourselves, then the church isn’t going to thrive. It doesn’t matter how disillusioned you are by the church — the fact is that the church is the bride of Christ, and it’s God’s plan for the salvation of the earth.”
Joel and his bandmates are encouraged that worldwide there seems to be a “revolution” of sorts, as young people are taking their faith seriously and beginning to step up and use their gifts for God’s kingdom.
United’s uniqueness can be found not only in their vision, but also in their organic grassroots approach to the music business. Over the span of their career, they’ve stayed largely on the fringe, gaining momentum through youth events and word-of-mouth. A few years ago, record execs told them that in order to be successful in America, they would have to do huge tours with festival and radio promotions. Instead, United charted their own course. In staying true to their ministry, the group has seen many incredible opportunities unfold for them. Joel says, “I think it’s a real testimony to anybody no matter what they do. You set out with great ideals. You have desires and dreams. It’s really easy to kind of be told what you need to be. I think it’s a great testimony of staying true to what’s in your heart and what God’s called you to do.”
Copyright © CCM Magazine, Used by Permission
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Rachel Harrold is a Pittsburgh native, living the dream in Nashville, Tenn.