The composer of some of the most widely sung worship songs in Britain, Australian singer, songwriter and worship leader DARLENE ZSCHECH spoke to Mike Rimmer.
She is the composer of some of the best known worship choruses of the last decade. "Shout To The Lord", "All Things Are Possible" and "Jesus, You're All I Need" are all in the list of the most often sung choruses in Britain's churches. She is the best known of all the vocalists featured on the tidal wave of albums emanating from Hillsong Music Australia with a soaring, expressive voice which can tenderly purr the sweetest easy listening worship song yet also show a touch of call-and-response gospel fire. She is an internationally loved Christian figure through her frequent appearances on Christian digital and cable TV. Yet, despite the fame and giant royalty cheques, despite the worrying evidence that she's become something of a new personality cult for immature praise and worship clones, despite the fact that she's one of the few non-American singers who can snooze with the movers and shakers of the Nashville Christian music industry, DarIene Zschech remains an engagingly earthy, non-showbiz figure, sometimes calling journalists "mate" and much more at home talking about the transforming power of worship than indulging in the sad banalities of the CCM celebrity.
The rise to world wide fame and fortune has been a gradual one for Darlene Zschech. She was
something of a child protégé, by the age of 10 performing in a
weekly children's television show singing, dancing and hosting
segments. Brought up as a nominal Methodist by parents who were both
singers, a change occurred when Darlene's father became a committed
Christian and started taking her to church ,Darlene became a Christian
at the age of 15 at a youth meeting and her new found faith led her,
as a teenager, to front various gospel bands in Brisbane, Queensland.
In 1988 Darlene recorded her first pop gospel album (in fact,
Greybeard Cummings, on holiday in Australia, heard it on a Perth
Christian radio station and came back to the UK raving about this
Australian pop gospeller to UK record executives - to be met with utter disinterest). Darlene had met and married Mark Zschech, a drummer in her band, and for a while Darlene and Mark were youth pastors at their local church. But then they felt God calling them to a new, independent church in the hills of Sydney with 100 members and a dynamic young pastor by the name of Brian Houston. It was to prove a momentous decision. The Hills Christian Life Centre quickly became an epicentre of Holy Spirit activity. Darlene, together with other young worship leaders and composers like Geoff Bullock and Russell Fragar, became caught up in a breathtaking work of God. Hills Christian Life Centre became one of the fastest growing churches with attendances rising through the next few years to today's amazing mega church pinnacle of several thousand members. Its pop worship with its rock and black gospel tinges, hook laden new songs bringing God's Word to light, and a talented bevy of vocalists stepping out from a powerhouse choir became a spearhead in spreading the Word. Early albums like 'The Power Of Your Love' (1992) and 'Friends In High Places' (1994) showed there was an infectious vitality about the Sydney worship which had genuine international appeal. A whole slew of albums throughout the '90s steadily increased the popularity of both the infectious worship songs from Hills Christian Life Centre and the church's most easily identifiable worship leader, Darlene Zschech (even though nobody still knew how to pronounce her name).
It took one song "Shout To The Lord" to take Darlene and Hills to the stratosphere of international success. America's biggest praise and worship company, Integrity Music, released the 'Shout To The Lord With Hillsongs Australia' album in its Hosanna! Music series and suddenly the whole of the USA clamoured for this "new" name. Since then a flood of Darlene Zschech and Hillsong Music Australia albums, plus TV and live appearances, have kept the blonde housewife very much in the spotlight.
Darlene and I are meeting hurriedly in an American hotel. She's late, laughing and with a pile of friends post-lunch and in a good mood. I am in a hurry, needing to rush off for another meeting. I want to put her on the spot and ask her some pretty tough questions but she's so lovely, so friendly and so focused on the ordinary day to day pastoring of the music team in her home church that it's very, very hard to dislike her. I began by asking about the 'For This Cause' album. Just what is this cause that she speaks of? "We just really believe that we want to build what God said he would build. God said that he would build his Church. We just really believe that the Church, not our church, THE CHURCH, when it's operating as it should, that it can be a real lighthouse to a very dark and dying humanity. That is why we put our lives continually into making church the most magnificent place rather than the daggiest place on the block. We want the glory of God to be seen on his house. That is why we do what we do and are so committed to the local church. People should be able to come in and sense a different spirit. They should be able to come into any church and find not just suggestions but answers to life. Again, it's what Jesus said he came to do, to give us life and life more abundantly. I don't know about you but the only answers I've ever found that are concrete have been in Jesus."
Darlene believes that worship has a central role to play in the process and shares, "Worship and prayer are so divinely linked. It happens in song and I think there's a very supernatural thing that takes place. I've nicknamed it the 'Heaven Exchange'. When in your human experience you start to worship in song, I don't know why but it causes Heaven to move in your life. I think it's because you have to stand in such faith. It's actually so unnatural for normal, everyday guys to walk in and start to sing and yet God just commands us so many times to sing and to stand and sing. To exalt his name in song and to exalt his name in a joyous song, to come together and not forsake it. I think worship in song is a magnificent thing."
The history of Hillsong has seen worship pouring out of the church and finding an outlet across the world. From a quiet beginning to a global impact, it's been quite a journey. Darlene has been a central figure in the middle of it all and yet she has kept her feet on the ground. She shares, "One of the greatest things I do in terms of workload that no one will ever see, is pastoring this team here, to keep their hearts right. I've been committed to my church since I got saved. When there was nothing to be gained it was much less complicated. Once there is that pressure and the fame thing whether you like it or not, the spotlight if you want to call it that comes on, I think that's really what we have had to address more than anything. So that's what I do. I teach every week when I'm there. I share where we came from, a bit of the journey, the cost. Why we want to keep paying the price and how it benefits so many other people. I think that has been probably the biggest thing that we have had to deal with."
The global prominence of the music ministry at Hills obviously has a knock on effect, as many people want to get involved. Musicians and worship leaders beat a path to their door, which leads to some interesting conversations. Darlene explains, "They come in and say, 'God's told me to be here and I'm the new worship leader and I'm here.' Every week this seems to happen! So I say, 'Oh Praise God! Well, errrr. There's the choir and that's your first point of entry." And they're like, 'But you don't understand, I'm anointed.' So I have to tell them, 'Well, so are they! So jump in the choir."
The global influence that Hills is having is an interesting phenomenon. Springing from the success of 'Shout To The Lord', there must be a danger in reproducing Hills in different countries where culturally it's not going to be relevant. Darlene responds, "We're not trying to make clones of ourselves. We're actually trying to teach just the principles that Jesus taught about using what is in your hand. What have you got in your hand? Most people don't have a problem with thinking more highly of themselves than they ought, especially musicians and singers. Most of them think lowlier of themselves and so they never really commit to being part of a team or even thinking they could, which has really surprised me. But I've found that so many times as I talk to people. When God said to just use what you have, even if it's a little and not bury it in the ground. When you start talking to people about what is in them and the dreams in them to bring a new sound to the earth, you see them rise up and become better them, not clones of us. We can help hone their skill a little and talk about their heart. That's really all you need to do. Once they get a glimmer of what they could do, the real them starts to rise up and they develop their own sound. I've been to a lot of continents now and I've never really seen a cultural clash. It's amazing how in worship it's the one thing that tends to cross religious and cultural barriers. Whether they're using pieces of wood and just a raw voice or whether they're using orchestras and the greatest trained voices on the planet, the need and desire to worship God goes right across. The language of music is universal and crosses over the whole lot and that's a magnificent thing to be part of."
In these days when God is moving in so many different countries across the world, it's easy to find worship happening in different places with the same spirit but with a different sound. But there are also aspects of the worship revolution which is happening across the world which trouble me. In recent times I have travelled to churches in the UK where it seems that Hills has become so influential, that local church groups seem instrumentally and style-wise to become imitation Hillsong bands. They take the model of what Darlene has done and try and reproduce it with local musicians and that troubles me. "It troubles us too," Darlene responds, "because it's the method but it's actually nothing to do with The Cause which has captured our heart and soul. We will just continue to walk out this journey and to do it well and take a lot of people with us. That is the goal and not about creating Hillsong clones but really making church the most magnificent place."
A few months later, Darlene and I chat once again over the phone about the latest releases from Hills. She is working late in her office organising the rotas for the Hills worship team, engaged in the day by day unglamorous work of pastoring the worship team. She says, "One thing about Hillsong music which encourages a lot of church musicians is that in essence that's just who we are. We're not the hired hands or the gig players. There are only a handful of really brilliant, professional musicians in our team. God seems to use the ordinary things to confound the wise. We are the ordinary guys who have really taken what God has put in our hand and just tried to do our best with it. We're as staggered as anybody else about the influence. I think that's why we have got our feet on the ground because we know who we are. When we look at each other we just laugh. We think, 'Do you think we should actually tell them?' I do think that God loves those hearts that would dare look beyond their own ability and just trust him."
On a personal level, the success of Hills must have had a huge impact.
To the outside world Darlene has been a focal point for a lot that's
been going on over the last few years. Has there been a pressure with
that? "Yes sometimes, maybe more expectation." She continues, "A lot
of other people's expectations I can't fulfil but I can do just what
I'm called to do. I think once I get my eyes off the right things,
that's when you get overwhelmed. If I just keep my eyes on the things
that I know I've been called to do, the things that I've been placed
on the earth to do. If I can just keep my eyes there then the pressure
seems to slide off your back a lot easier. The other thing is being
committed and planted in a local church. God says if you're planted in
the house you will flourish. There's been a lot of temptation to leave
the house, from other people, not the temptation in my own heart.
Other people saying,
Come on, come on, come on.' I know that it's here that I'm planted and because I'm planted here that I am flourishing. Again, if I just keep my eyes there, it's a lot easier."
Aside from pastoring the worship team, travelling to speak at conferences and lead worship, times writing and recording songs, Darlene is also a wife and mother. She shares, "Parenting and high focal point ministry is interesting. With all that I take one day at a time and my children do a lot of school work on the road. They're 11 and seven."
I suggest it must be quite hard for them as well having a famous mum. Darlene laughs, "I think they quite like it. As long as when I'm home I'm mum. That's what matters to them. They don't really mind as long as I'm home with them. The great thing is that I'm here because I'm released by my husband and just having that covering makes the rest a whole lot easier." And of course there's the advantage for her children that at least people know how to pronounce their surname now. And again she laughs, "Oh man! I answer to most things though. If people are brave enough to attempt it, I'll answer. I don't even correct them. I say, 'That's close enough.'"
In the last few years other songwriters have emerged from within
Hills, in particular Reuben Morgan. From the outside it looks as
though he is being groomed to take everything forward. Darlene agrees
tentatively, "Yeah, I guess so. I think though, we will never again
build it on one person because it is hard. I think it can actually
leave the church rather exposed. What is great now is that you'll see
a lot more of Reuben. I think that is what God is doing with his life
because he is a great calibre of person. The great thing is that
alongside Reuben and myself there are probably three or four other key
worship leaders that if we got knocked over by a bus tomorrow, both
Reuben and I, everything would just keep going magnificently. Miriam
Webster, who wrote 'Dwelling Places'. You'll see and hear her voice on
a lot of what we do. Man! She is one of the most anointed worship
leaders I've ever seen. She is very uncomplicated and very godly. She
is magnificent! There's Mark Stevens, one of our key guys who will
sing up front with us who is a magnificent worship leader. Russell
Fragar who directs music on a lot of these projects is a magnificent,
anointed worship leader in his own right and again, a great
songwriter. He's just written love You So Much' and 'Holy Spirit Rain
Down'. A lot of the songs that Hillsong was actually birthed out of
were because of the music that Russell brought and the heart that he
brought with it. So, yes, I think Reuben can easily take us into our
future but I don't think it will ever be dependent on one person and
of course, I'm still here. I'm not going anywhere! I'm the rocking
granny, I think. To be honest, I feel like we've only just started. I
felt it at the beginning of this year that God was going to entrust us
with more if we would stay full of integrity and with a very full
heart after him and not after anything else. I really sense that is as
complicated as the future gets."