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Experiencing God with Hillsong United

Worship leader Joel Houston opens up about the worship team's number one album, 'Zion,' and the Holy Spirit's work in the global church.

Being a worship leader wasn't always Joel Houston's plan, but when Hillsong United's most recent album, Zion, hit the number one spot on the iTunes album chart the day after its release, it was affirmation that the son of Hillsong Church planters Brian and Bobbie Houston had found his calling. TCW talked with Joel last week about the group's global tour, and the importance of women, worship, and community in the global church.

Talk about your recent release, Zion. What are the main themes you want to come across on the album?

Zion is a title that can beg a bunch of different questions. The reason we called it that is because we wanted to say that we have the opportunity to realize that as believers, as the church right here and right now, we're a part of what God is doing on the earth. I believe we're not supposed to just wait out our days as Christians, looking forward to the one day when we all get up to heaven. Instead, God actively wants to breathe his kingdom in and through us, right here and right now.

Wherever we find ourselves, whatever it is that we're doing, there's a real call to action and a sense of urgency. I believe this is an empowering revelation, and something that will hopefully breathe passion in people wherever they are on the spectrum of their journey of faith. Because of God's grace and what Jesus established on the cross, he wants to use us, and he has a plan and a purpose for us. That's the reason why we went about making the record in the first place. That's the key message behind it, then beyond that there's layers of different themes: of understanding God as Immanuel, that he's here with us; to recognizing the relentless nature of the love of God, that he pursues us, and that we serve a God who went to extreme lengths to reveal himself to us.

Hillsong produces songs that help people experience the presence of God. How do you encourage listeners to worship with "reckless abandon?"

People often come into corporate worship carrying a variety of burdens. We feel challenged by circumstances surrounding us, we feel insecure and compare ourselves to everyone and everything around us, we feel we aren't good enough, we're worried about this and that. And yet we have the idea of coming together in a corporate worship setting and for a moment letting go and understanding that we don't have control. As much as we like to think we have control all the time, the freest place we can find ourselves is to actually let go and say, Hey God, you're in control, and I'm going to trust you. When you find yourself in that place, worship becomes really easy.

Because we live in a world of distraction, the challenge for anybody is to make sure we're focused on the right thing. I think the challenges of life—work, family, not to mention just everything that comes with day to day living—is always trying to put the focus on us and off of God. And yet, if you look at the gospel and the Bible, the key message and challenge for us is to be looking outward always: to be looking to God, and to be looking to others. It's a liberating and joyful existence.

How has your theology of worship changed over the years as you've traveled the globe with Hillsong United?

The thing I love about our church is it's really built on the service and sacrifice of many. We live in a culture that loves to shine the spotlight on somebody and to lift up our leaders and all the rest of it, and part of that is just human nature. But I think the important thing always is everybody has a plan and a purpose, everybody's valuable, and everybody is a part of this thing called the church.

I spend my time on the platform leading people in worship, but my revelation of it is that worship is something that is outward. As we occupy our streets day after day, week after week, moment after moment, that's it, or bust. If it becomes about the platform, then the platform's basically going to fall over or become a distraction. The platform should really just serve to see every single one of us empowered to do what we do. Whether it be a mother at home raising a family, or someone working a job that might seem very distant from our traditional concept of ministry, we're all called to be ministers of the gospel.

When you understand that is the working of worship, that places value on whatever it is we're putting our hand to. Whether it be in living our wildest dreams or in the most monotonous place, we're all attached to the plan and purpose of God.

Who are some of your role models?

I love to watch people and watch their lives, and if I were to tell you my greatest heroes, no one would know who they are. They're the people who serve behind the scenes tirelessly. They have no Twitter or Instagram followers, and they're just doing it because they love it. To me that is the heartbeat of the church, and that is what the church is built on— those who are willing to do the unseen and do it with everything as if the whole world is watching. I love that.

Of course there are great leaders. My parents are great examples of that. Hillsong Church has a long litany of incredible people in music and in church life who I look up to and see as peers who challenge me daily, and that's awesome. But I'd like to focus on the unsung heroes of our church who inspire me to pick up the slack, keep going, give my all, and understand why we do what we do and do it with all we have.

Why is it important to be part of a church community?

I think one of the greatest powers to any church is community. A healthy community should be flourishing together because of a culture of discipleship, evangelism, active faith, and community outreach. I think if any of those things are missing, the challenge is that our church has become inward focused. It becomes about me, and am I growing, am I getting what I want out of this, am I having the worship experience I need. Anytime I ever hear that from anybody I say, "Well cool, I can't help you until you understand that everything we do in our faith has to be outward focused at all times." It's the only way we become stronger and are actually edified.

I also believe that accountability and discipleship are a personal choice. You're only as accountable as you want to be. You can have somebody come to you every day and ask how you're doing, but it doesn't mean you're going to be honest. We're so good at smiling and putting up the veneer and saying, "Fantastic, I've been good." We have to make sure that our relationships are honest and pure, and that our relationship with God is not something that's just a routine, but is something that is active. It really comes back to being humble, and not being afraid to bear our weaknesses in a way that allows God to be the strength in those circumstances.

That's the foundation of our faith: it's impossible to accept Jesus without humbling ourselves. So it starts there, then it's something that we have to choose to get back to every single day. If we live that way I think there's no limit to what we can achieve as a community.

What encouragement do you have for Today's Christian Woman?

I think women have such a vital and important role in the church. For a while that was something that was overlooked, and I think what we aim to do as a church really falls back on the truth that women have incredible power to do amazing things. My mother is extremely passionate about rallying women toward causes. She's part of a group called the Hillsong Sisterhood, and that's only one example of how I see the power of women rising up and taking their place, understanding the value of what they have in Christ. We also have the Colour Conference, our annual women's conference, coming up in Australia in March. About 20,000 women will be there, which is exciting.

Falling in love and being married this past year is an incredible support that has completely blown my mind. The importance of partnership and the care that comes from somebody is truly amazing. I love seeing my wife just be herself, walking her own journey. The greatest thing I can ask of her is to support me, to believe in me, to encourage me, and to trust me, and to me that's the beauty of relationship. It's all reflective of our relationship with God. It blows my mind that he loved us first, that he trusts us with his purpose and his plan—I think that's an example of how all of our relationships should be.

This is my take on it—I'm a rookie, but I've watched my parents for many years, and both my parents have allowed each other to flourish as themselves and not tried to control or to hold someone back for their own agenda, but to really just let people breathe and do what they do. That level of support is crucial to going as far as we can go in our journey and our calling.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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