Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3)
With a list of accomplishments that include a concert in New York City’s Central Park with 10,000-plus in attendance, a Top 5 Billboard 200 album debut, major network television performances and a trophy for Top Christian Artist at the 2015 Billboard Music Awards, Hillsong United’s recent resume sounds more like a boilerplate for the latest American pop music sensation than a worship band bio.
But while it may seem complex to decipher the exact purpose of a band promoting personal worship while receiving massive mainstream recognition, United—a successful spinoff from Hillsong Church’s mega-popular music roster in Australia—says the worship band’s aim is actually quite simple: serve God, serve others.
In this CCM Magazine exclusive, longtime bandleader Joel Houston and members JD Douglass and Taya Smith explain the sincere heartbeat behind the trending heat wave that is Hillsong United.
CCM: After so much success with the release of Zion, how did you guys begin the creative process for this follow up?
JD Douglass:: I feel like we have been the underdog, a little worship band from Australia, even though we have had success in different ways over the years. Zion really blew us away. The whole experience took us by surprise. To come off the back of that with a new project is not something you can formulate in one creative meeting. You have to sit on it and wait to hear from God.
I love the words of Jesus in Matthew 5. Before we played a note, we sat down in the studio and read through the Beatitudes. They represent the way of God’s kingdom, what Jesus exemplified and has called us to be as the church. It’s a way that rages in stark contrast to the natural way the world operates. It’s a way that chooses surrender over self-promotion. It’s about peacemaking rather than attempting to make things right.
JD Douglass: Jesus talks about the poor in spirit. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The merciful will be shown mercy. The Beatitudes is this thought that Jesus came to serve and not be great. Everyone wants to build empires, but Jesus came to serve.
JH: We decided that the kingdom of God we’re here to help build, the kingdom we pray our music helps facilitate or speaks into, will be firmly founded in what Jesus was about. Choosing to not look at everything from the “share the best and hide the rest” perspective, but choosing to firmly put your root in the desire to remain as low as possible. Not in a self-deprecating, weird, false humility kind of way, but in a real way—a way where we know exactly where we stand and we know exactly who God is. And we’re willing to start from that point and step in confidence to where God has us. It takes all the pressure off.
To me, this process has brought everything to life. Empires has come alive inside of us.
CCM: Have you seen the Beatitudes theme affirmed outside of the studio?
Taya Smith: It’s funny how it all lined up. At the start of each year, Hillsong has a church service called “Vision Sunday,” where Pastor Brian [Houston] sets out a vision. When he started preaching, he talked about “A Dangerous Declaration” and he started reading the Beatitudes, his whole vision for the church this year. Joel said he hadn’t actually asked his dad about what he was preaching about that Sunday.
He was sitting in church just thinking, Praise God. We must be hearing from God. We must be on the right track.
CCM: How did the process of creating Empires impact your personal lives?
JDD: The song “Heart Like Heaven” comes out of Psalm 51. It talks about how God is not looking for a flawless performance or for us to be perfect, but when our pride is shattered, when our hearts are broken, that heart God will not despise.
There is so much freedom in saying, “I don’t have it all together, but God’s not looking for perfection.” He’s looking for a heart that is honest and pure and after the things that He’s called us to be about. That is a massive relief for us. It’s the whole “come as you are” message. God didn’t come to make us all jump through hoops. His grace is sufficient and his strength is made perfect in our weakness. That is the heart of God for us.
JH: Everyone is striving to be on top. Everyone is searching to achieve something. Even in church we can so quickly feed our souls with the lie that we have to earn our way to God. Yet at the end of the day we do not feel like super Christians. We feel like ordinary, broken people who need a savior and God’s mercy every single day, who need to desperately cling to God’s grace in every moment. When you have stood on a platform and there is all this crazy stuff going on, you become more acutely aware of that need in your life.
CCM: Speaking of the platform, you guys are frequently on stage and in the limelight. As a worship-driven band, that seems a bit paradoxical. How do you balance an obvious desire for excellence in performance and the bigger picture of facilitating corporate worship?
JH: Excellence begins in the heart. It’s a determination of the spirit to give the best we can, to not settle on giving Him our second best or a half-hearted effort. It would be an indictment on what it is if we were not pursuing excellence in our worship. You know? The lighting and music being on point is the fruit of excellence.
The most powerful worship experience I have ever seen was in a tiny village church in the Philippines. We roll in and there are a bunch of kids playing on an out-of-tune piano and a guitar with three strings.
There are a lot of other kids singing their lungs out. The kids are throwing everything they have into it. So excellence can be a small church in the Philippines. We take the resources and opportunities we have and approach it from the same attitude, the same mindset, the same desire to give God our best.
It should be excellent. The church makes excuses for excellence because we claim it’s about the show or the performance. Unfortunately, I’ve participated in it. There are times I’ve been more consumed that something looks good than it being appropriate for where we are or what we are trying to do. It doesn’t work. People see right through it. You can switch on the TV, go to a conference or see Hillsong in different services and sometimes it’s not right. Something is off.
“Jesus talks about the poor in spirit. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Everyone wants to build empires, but Jesus came to serve.” – JD Douglass
Then you can step into something that on the outside sounds like the worst music you’ve ever heard, but there is something powerful about it. That’s what we chase after with worship.
In The Message, Psalm 51 reads, “Going through the motions doesn’t please you, a flawless performance is nothing to you. I learned God-worship when my pride was shattered. Heartshattered lives ready for love don’t for a moment escape God’s notice” (Psalm 51:16-17 MSG). To me, that’s what excellence is, understanding our position of brokenness but still choosing to come with the sacrificial heart towards God that is a part of us doing the best with what is in our hands. I pray that’s what people see when they see Hillsong United. Or when they see something that is in their opinion, flashy. I pray they catch the spirit of it. I guess time will tell. It’s out of our control.
TS: In the secular world, you have people that are incredible with in-ear monitors, incredible lighting technicians, incredible singers and incredible musicians. They’re out there giving their best. Why can’t we do that in the house of God? We don’t do it for our own glory, we do it so that through those meetings there wouldn’t be anything distracting so people would see Jesus.
JDD: Most people see the tiniest snapshot of what we do, which can seem so incredibly glamorous. But the majority of our time is spent serving the church and building God’s kingdom. That helps keep us focused. Just knowing in ourselves that we’re not doing this because anyone is the most talented or amazing. God just literally put His hand on what we’re doing. We don’t really know why. But we’re grateful and we’ll keep running hard as long as His hand is in and on this.
CCM: So what is the goal? What is the purpose of the songs, the recordings, the world tours? For what purpose does Hillsong United thrive and exist?
JH: There’s so much in the understanding of how God works, that He chooses to use us and work through us to achieve His plan. He desperately wants us to participate in what He is building so that we can trust Him more, grow more, and learn more.
The beautiful thing about the whole story, and our prayer with these songs going forward, is for people to understand the concept of an upside down kingdom. The world is not going to take notice of the church, of us, as followers of Christ, because of our good works or how good our songs are. What the world is going to take notice of is a heart and life that is truly humble and living a selfless way. Not from a place of passivism or trying to remove our selves from the world. But from a place of doing it with more boldness, more courage, more faith, and more desire to create the best things we can—to do the best things we can, to take the music and the message, and this story of Jesus to places it has never been before. If we can connect those two dots, there is no end to what we can achieve for the kingdom in our lifetime. That’s what I want to be a part of.