Cross-cultural worship is the name of the game for pioneering ISRAEL HOUGHTON. Tony Cummings reports.

Israel Houghton

Slowly but surely the ludicrous and unbiblical divide between black church and white church is being challenged by artists, songwriters and worship leaders who refuse to stay in one or the other cultural camp. Now along with figures like Ron Kenoly, Clint Brown and Martha Munizzi, Israel Houghton is pioneering worship music that connects with both black and white congregations and his compositions like "I Am A Friend Of God", "God Is Good" and "I'm Still Standing" have become internationally popular worship songs. Houghton is, of course, a worship leader at America's famed mega-church Lakewood Church in Houston. He says, "It creates a vacuum of challenge for me to be an advocate. I'm half black, half white, raised in a Hispanic church. I love the meshing of these cultures."

Houghton's songwriting for the last 15 years reflects that blend and at Lakewood Church he is at home among the culturally diverse congregation of 30,000. In most churches, though, Houghton finds that Sunday morning worship services are segregated. He says, "It's sad there's still a skin-tone issue. In Heaven are there sections? A black section? A white section?" Houghton is motivated even more because he was born of a white teenager shunned for getting pregnant by her black boyfriend. Pressured to abort, Houghton's mother ran away, was led to the Lord and named him after reading about Israel in the Bible.

Born in Oceanside, California, Israel grew up surrounded by music. "My mother was the musician. The first musical memories I have are of her playing piano and writing and singing songs. She was in a kind of hippie Jesus band that did a lot of street ministry and she played in church, too. I just started picking up guitar and piano and drums from hanging out after church, until somebody would come up and yell, 'Get off those drums!'" (laughs)

For a while the secular music scene seemed to be drawing Israel away from the church. He remembers, "I went to Phoenix when I finished high school and did a lot of clubs. I was running from God for a while. I still loved God, but I felt kind of burned out. Then, after about a year, I really began to take stock of my life and my future and where I was with God. It really had been a turbulent time. I went to this church in Scottsdale, Arizona and God began to get a hold of me again. For the next seven months I went to the church. I didn't sing; I'd just sit there and cry and cry and cry. It was a real cleansing process. The church's music programme was not going too well and the current music pastor had just resigned. They asked me if I'd like to help out and I said yes because I knew I was in the will of God and was where I needed to be. We got some new people and started making it more exciting and it grew from five people to a 100-person choir and 12-piece band. We did five live recordings when we were in Scottsdale and began to see the music going all around the world. That's when my desire to record came alive."

Israel Houghton

By 1996 Israel had signed to Cadence Communications. His album for them, 'Whisper It Loud', produced by Nashville stalwart Chris Rodriguez and featuring such guests as Chris Eaton and Angelo & Veronica, didn't sell though. For a period Israel toured with Fred Hammond's worship ensemble Radical For Christ. But it was Israel's formation of the storming worship band New Breed, with his wife Meleesa and long time friend Aaron Lindsay, when everything began to slot together for the singer, keyboard player and record producer. Leading worship at Lakewood Church, pastored by renowned TV preacher Joel Osteen, meant that he was now working with many of the giants of gospel music and by the time Israel & New Breed recorded their first album for Integrity Music, 2001's 'New Season', things were set for Israel's music to become a true groundbreaking phenomenon. The 'Real' album sold well while 'Live From Another Level' enjoyed sales of over 500,000, winning both Stellar (black) and Dove (white) awards. His latest release is 'Alive In South Africa', a two-disc CD with live and studio music. Recorded in Cape Town, its recording was very much a labour of love. Says Israel, "I first went there in 1994. The visit was so powerful to me - so defining. I felt like I was at home. I've never been anywhere where I felt that way. I fell in love with the people there - the country, the culture. The dream to come back and eventually merge us with the country, and specifically with Cape Town, was born then. And this was the year that it came to pass. Actually, I've been there once a year for the past 12 years. I feel that there's a spiritual inheritance connected to it."

Israel is aware of his unique role in bringing together the black and white strands of musical culture. He continues, "I was the only black kid in a white family in a Hispanic church. For me, there were multiple streams of influence, and it shaped the sound of my music. Quite frankly, I enjoy diversity and variety. I never, ever got into this business to talk to one specific group of people, but I wanted to reach people globally. It was amazing going to a place like Cape Town where there has been division, segregation and unrest related to cultures and race. To be able to do a concert where you look down the row and you see Indians and Afrikaans, white people and black people and coloured people - people who are half white and half black - it was powerful to make a cross-cultural statement from Cape Town."

One thing Israel is a little uneasy about is the unrelenting popularity of worship music. He told Christian Retailing magazine, "I'm thrilled about it because that's where I'm at. (However), I'm concerned about it (too). When an industry industrialises something as sacred as worship, it concerns me as 'hey, let's do some worship now' instead of understanding the purity of it. I can think of worse songs that everybody could be jumping on. But, I'm like, as for me and my house, we're going to keep it authentic and pure."  CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.