Chris Mountford quizzed Australia's globetrotting modern worshippers HILLSONG UNITED
Now seems a particularly good time to feature Hillsong United as the modern worship aggregation emanating from Sydney's Hillsong mega-church are the first act to show at number one on Britain's brand new official Christian & Gospel Albums Chart. Their 'Zion' album is getting much critical acclaim as well as huge sales so Cross Rhythms broadcaster Chris Mountford got on the phone to Joel Houston, Jad Gillies, Jonathan 'JD' Douglass and Matt Crocker to get an update.
Chris: What's happened in the last few years up to the launch of this new album?
Joel: I guess in the aftermath of 'Aftermath' we had a very busy time. A couple of the guys were getting married, we had babies arriving - that time in life - so we thought it was best to take a bit of time off. It was the best thing, because it meant we were able to rejuvenate, recalibrate, remind ourselves just how incredible the opportunity is and how faithful God has been. It gave fresh wind. We spent a lot of time working on it - probably more time than projects in the past - but with the greatest sense of joy and excitement and passion. The end result is 'Zion', and we couldn't be more excited about it.
Chris: How has the freshness worked out in the album?
Joel: I'd like think you can hear it in the lyrics, the songs, the sound, but for us it's very simple. The more you try and complicate or try to figure some of these things out - particularly when it comes to writing worship songs - you don't do any justice to the whole thing. Our job is to try and keep it simple, to dig deeper in ourselves, and I think that's what is reflected practically. If God has truly got a plan for us and we get to be a part of what he's doing, we should give it everything. We sing about that kind of stuff all the time, and with this project we didn't want to rest on our laurels. Keep digging until we really felt like we found the gold.
Chris: The album has been described as containing the hallmarks of the band while taking steps forward sonically.
Joel: Musically, we wanted to be true to what we love now. Sometimes when you've had a degree of success, if you start thinking about what other people like - it's not an unhealthy thing to do, but it can mean you limit yourself creatively: 'We can't do that because people won't be able to connect to it'. We rob ourselves of the opportunity to be part of a new thing maybe God wants to do. God's always breathing new things. From the spiritual aspect, the lyrical aspect, all the way through to the music aspect, we wanted to make sure we weren't going, 'This is our safe zone: let's stick there', but rather, 'Let's step into what we love, not for the sake of risk but let's step into a place where we have to trust God'. It ended up defining the project for us. I think it's why so many people are listening to it like it's the first time they've heard us, even if they've been following us for a long time.
Chris: Do you think it's an overhaul of your sound?
Joel: Someone asked me, 'How would you describe the album?' I said, 'It's retro electro future folk worship'. The idea was that we looked back and we looked forward to create a sound that we thought was now. Sometimes in our humanity we can get so good at backwards, at what God's done or what worked then, what was the sound of yesterday; or we can get really focussed on what's God going to do, what's the sound of tomorrow. I felt like the best way to go is to do both: let's look back, let's look forward.
Chris: What does Zion mean to you guys?
Joel: It's a theme that came up as the songs were coming together - this overall theme of trying to empower the plan and purpose of God in our everyday lives, wherever we find ourselves. Funnily enough, I thought it was interesting when the Olympics happened in the UK and the opening ceremony started with the song "Jerusalem"; two weeks before that we had our conference and we opened with the same old English hymn. It got me thinking about Jerusalem, what that means, and obviously Zion has been tainted for so many reasons, because a lot of stuff's been done under that banner that probably isn't reflective necessarily of what God set out for. I thought, 'Let's not be afraid of it. Let's try and reclaim it'. I see it as the dwelling place of God; I see it as the people of God, the city of God, which is us - established when Jesus came and laid the foundation, the cornerstone of our faith, that we would build a temple on top of that. That is the Church, what we're a part of - the idea that we don't just live our lives 50, 60, 70 years, if we're lucky, looking forward to one day, someday, when we get whipped up to Heaven and have a big party. But God's wanting to breathe his Kingdom in and through us now: we have a job to do, an amazing part in building the Kingdom here on Earth. That's empowering; that's a really exciting revelation. We've had a great opportunity to talk about it.
Chris: What song in particular sticks out?
Jad: I love the song "Nothing Like Your Love". A young guy in our church named Sam Knock wrote it. When we brought it into the studio, we didn't have to do much to it, to be honest. When we played it in the studio, we had a couple of friends in, hanging out and listening; the atmosphere in the room when we were playing it, we were so excited. Even the guys that weren't playing, just hanging out, had big grins on their faces: they were really excited. It was evident that God was on whatever was happening. When we do that song live, or when I hear that song - obviously it talks about the love of God, how incredible, how unfathomable the love of God is - I love it.
JD: I really like all of the songs, but I think for me, at least at the moment, the song "Stay And Wait" has got to be one of my favourites. I really like the way that it sounds, but more than that I just like the message behind it. I love that we get to feel the presence of God, he is with us; but the truth is we don't always feel his presence, but it doesn't mean that he's not here and he's not with us. My prayer is that Christians all over the world, we made a decision that we're going to follow Jesus because of who he is and what he's done for us - not because of the way that we feel or our current surroundings: they're always going to change. God will never change, and we can put our trust in him. There's something so powerful, I think, about that. For me, I really pray, and I hope, that I can be truthful when I say: regardless of what happens in my life, I'm going to follow Christ; I'm going to stay with him.
Matt: For me, and a lot of people - it's really struck a chord with them - is "Oceans". It encapsulates this album, stepping out in faith. Locationally, we decided to do this in New York. A lot of the guys in New York, a whole bunch of us in Sydney, another guy who produced it is travelling the world a lot, so we decided to go to New York and make this - stepping out into the unknown. This song, I don't know, there's something about it I love. I remember sitting in the car listening to it before we finished and it drew me in. It's a song that speaks out of the story of Peter walking out on the water, meeting Jesus out there. I think it applies to everything we do in our lives: God calls us to step out in faith. It's the unknown, it's scary, it's uncomfortable; but when we do we meet Jesus out there - he lifts our eyes above the waves. Life can be comfortable for a time, but we're always going to be going through a season every now and again when we have to step out in faith.
Joel: "Love Is War". It's a bit of a provocative title, but it's a song about surrender. God made his story complete in Jesus, as far as revealing his love to us by surrendering. Our job is to love God, to love others: this is what we're here to do. The only way to do that is to die to ourselves daily. The fight, the battle, is to die to ourselves, to fight against our pride, our selfish desires and all the rest of it. I think if we get a hold of that, then what we can achieve for God is limitless.
Chris: Have you got plans to come to the UK?
Joel: Absolutely. We can't stay away from the UK. We haven't been there for too long, but we're hoping to come very, very soon. We're trying to figure everything else out as well. No doubt we'll be seeing you guys soon, and we can't wait.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.