Israel Houghton: Bridging the black/white worship music divide

Friday 2nd October 2009

Mike Rimmer went to Nashville to meet up with one of the giants of modern worship music, ISRAEL HOUGHTON

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The project moved on to Abbey Road. "Well, I mean, why not?!" Israel laughs. "The story is so big; I think this idea is very, very fresh. I think Martin Smith is an absolute genius. I felt like the story was so big, we were documenting everything and I said, 'Abbey Road makes the most sense for us to go to. It's a storied place; it's historic.' Plus Mike," he confides, "I had a bit of an agenda! I've always wanted to work there and because I had been planning on doing my next record there, I wanted to experience it as well and get a feel for the place. Yeah, it was just unique and historic for me. It was life-changing for me."

What was it that attracted him to the project in the first place when he was invited? What made him leap up and go, Yeah, I want to do that? Israel ponders for a second, "It was really the give. I felt the concept was so fresh. Like we always think of, how can I go and do a benefit concert? Or, how can I do something else to do a one-time shot? As opposed to, how can I use my ability to earn residual income to do that? And I just thought it was brilliant. I mean, without knowing any details or any logistics I said, 'Martin, I'll be there!' We showed up in Scotland; everybody showed up in Scotland at their own expense. That was the initial part of the give, just to get there and write. And then beyond that it felt like an invitation from God, 'Since you said you were gonna give it away, come into these rooms and I'm just going to hand you stuff. I'm just going to hand you great melodies and lyrics and ideas.'"

I want to ask Israel more about songwriting, particularly how it relates to his home church. It seems that he writes a lot of songs that are worship in feel but they tend to be less about God and more about 'me'. He responds, "We're dealing with people culturally and historically who have a lot of problems and it affects their ability to see how great God is. So sometimes you have to go back to the genesis of who people are. If you can get them saying over themselves, 'I know I'm loved. I know I'm accepted. I know I'm a friend of God. I know I'm not forgotten.' That has been very intentional because what we're seeing is a breaking open of people who've been closed off and scabbed over and hurt for so long. At the same time I'm not going to spend a whole record or a whole day or a whole night of worship talking about my identity only in Christ but at some point I have to recognise: I have this identity in Christ because of his grace, because of his greatness, because of his vastness and because of his love for me. So there has to be that balance found. I can certainly understand your concern and even possible discomfort at times because I agree with you. I don't want to spend the whole night discussing how great we are now. I don't like making those kinds of statements. But I also understand that if you try and break somebody into understanding how great God is but they've got major issues with their earthly fathers and they've got major abuse issues and all that kind of stuff, they're going to stand and look at you vacant-eyed the entire night. But if you can give them some sense of hope and fuse some identity into it, and kind of sucker them into singing along, the more they sing 'I am a friend of God,' it goes beyond a song, it goes to a statement, it turns into a conversation with God saying, 'This is how I feel about you. This is what I think about you.' And when that breaking happens, then they start realising how great God is. And again, I'm not the be-all end-all. New Breed is one statement in a line of many statements being declared by many worship artists."

But some of the worship songs that Israel is writing with New Breed feature a certain style of 21st century Gospel preaching which is just slightly one up from 'the power of positive thinking'. Theologically that worries me too because you could lose something of the power of the Gospel because of that. "Sure," Israel agrees. "I think you can but again I would argue that a tree is known by its fruit and when I look at Lakewood Church for instance, where over the last eight years we've seen this insane amount of growth. I don't expect the hard line Christian to like it, buy it, care; if anything they have the opposite affect, the opposite response. But I do care about the guy who hangs out at Starbucks who wouldn't set foot in the church who says, 'All those church people are x,y,z. They don't like people. They hate each other! They can't get along with each other. What makes them think they're gonna make me enjoy what's going on?!' When they see a guy get up there that goes, 'Man, I don't want to do anything but give you hope. And if we are one stop on your journey and you get more of a hard line message later, that's cool too!'

He continues, "At the end of the day people are gravitating like magnets to hope; a message of life and love. I grew up in a society that just preached condemnation and, 'If you don't get right it's over for you!' It was scaring people into the Kingdom of God. I'm convinced that you can love people into the love of God and the Kingdom of God and their journey starts there. Joel Osteen has been termed a 'pre-evangelist', where he's sort of the introductory offer to the Gospel. My thing is: whatever it takes! I've been talking to people who are straight-up atheists, heathens, pagans, who go, 'There's something about this environment that draws me because nobody's beating me over the head.' Now granted, if you're going to follow Christ it's gonna cost you; it's gonna require you taking up a cross at some point. But the idea of getting people into that - and I'm just coming from an American point of view right now; we done such a shoddy job over the last 40 years of portraying the Gospel. It's this very hypocritical, very self-righteous garbage message and it's, 'The only way you can do this is if you live this way and walk this way and talk this way and dress this way and change that and don't do that. . .' There's been a whole set of rules - of don'ts - and there's never been any do's and people are going, 'Okay, where do I fit into this whole thing?' So I'm watching an incredible grace revolution right now. That doesn't mean that there's not going to be a phase two. There's got to be a phase two. There has to be a true dying to self that kicks in. But I'm enjoying watching people's minds and their preconceived ideas about the church change, and I'm enjoying being a part of that process." 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.
About Mike Rimmer
Mike RimmerMike Rimmer is a broadcaster and journalist based in Birmingham.

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Reader Comments

Posted by patricia kalungi in uganda @ 14:47 on Oct 14 2013

am a worshiper and encouraged through Israel's story. God bless you

Posted by Joshua in Gaborone, Botswana @ 11:38 on Sep 13 2011

Thanks for the article Mike, great interview, I'm studying Israel Houghton and wanted to know of his background, Wow! i'll be listening to more of him, hoping to incorporate his work in our worship service's, by the grace of God i'll catch on. Bless you Mr Houghton for your work and your response to your calling.

Posted by Dan H. in Los Angeles, CA @ 14:30 on Nov 15 2009

Dear Mike, I would be honored to know your thoughts on how to create worship albums that equip others to grow in their own ministry, but are not formulaic. The very essence of organized religion is formulaic to some degree (not necessarily a bad thing!). I guess one could say: "hey, let's sit around and create a new version of John Cage-esq worship music that our critiques sip their bourbon glasses to!". But remember, worship music needs to be accessible, as Israel so passionately described. Not tryin' to hate on you Mike, but perhaps the answer lies in the often formulaic questions from our beloved critics.

Posted by JonnyP in Oxford @ 23:28 on Oct 28 2009

Great article! I hadn't heard Israel's story before or his take on songwriting, really fascinating. I'm also a bit shocked to find you think Israel's albums are formulaic.. as a musician who's played in lots of worship bands I know ALL about formulaic, and his/new breed's music is definitely not that in my book!!

Posted by Julie in United Kingdom @ 23:25 on Oct 4 2009

awesome article Mike! i love that statement that Israe, makes that we are given this strength to do the work of God and not to big up ourselves....great to be reminded of that and to be humbled by this Biblical statement, good to hear every once in a while don't ya think! so looking forward to hearing more from Israel but also to seeing what God is going to do in the lives of our modern day worship leaders....i hear mighty things are coming and I wanna see it, experience it, live it and be a part of it for myself.

The opinions expressed in the Reader Comments are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.

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