Brian Houston is senior pastor of Australia-based Hillsong Church, a global family of congregations comprising more than 100,000 weekly attendees. Regarded for his boldness, innovation and vision, he is passionate about the local church and empowering the next generation of leaders with fresh Biblical teaching, relevant worship and accessible community. He is also the President of Hillsong Bible College and the Executive Producer of more than 30 gold and platinum albums that have come from the Hillsong Worship team.
Notes from GLS15, Session 6
Notes from Bill Hybels One-on-One Interview with Brian Houston
Bill: Everyone thinks you are Australian but you are a Kiwi. And your parents were Salvation Army. What was it like growing up in a Salvation Army home?
Brian: I was born in a hospital for unmarried women – run by Salvation Army. (My parents were married.) But I was three when we left Salvation Army. My father had a breakdown and was hospitalized, so we needed to leave that ministry.
Bill: Brian has a brand new book out. Live Love Lead. This is the story of your life and your vision to build an incredible church. When did you first hear that call?
Brian: As long as I can remember, I would watch my father and I knew I wanted to do that. My calling was set.
Bill: When you started out you had a fear of public speaking. And you were tempted to bail.
Brian: I was the son of a prominent pastor and put too much pressure on myself. I had to gain confidence – by understanding grace and becoming comfortable in my own skin.
Bill: Where did Hillsong Church start?
Brian: At a school in a gymnasium. And there was a rope behind me. And one day I swung on the rope into the crowd. And a guy in the audience told all his friends. 30 people ended up coming to faith. And that was the start of the momentum of Hillsong.
Bill: Most people have heard of the reputation of Hillsong – huge church. Music that touches so many people. But it was really hard. You had an incredible disappointment with your dad in a public way. And you made it through it. Tell us about that.
Brian: It was the worst day of my life in 1999. It was a normal meeting with our church administrator – and I was told that we had a complaint that my father had abused a young person. My father was my hero. It hit me as a leader, as a pastor, as a son. He was the grandfather of my kids. It had happened decades ago, but we had to deal with it.
Bill: How did you deal with it?
Brian: I went into leadership mode. Leading everyone else. We went to the church board and the executive board of the denomination. The victim was 37 years old. In my state in Australia, there is no statute of limitations. I felt like I did everything to not cover it up. But internally, I looked after myself last and I started imploding the years.
Bill: You needed to do the leadership function but still own your soul. How do you do that?
Brian: It was God’s amazing grace on our story. Our church has continued to move forward. Internally, it was a different story all together. The grief and trauma wore me down. I’m generally a happy-go-lucky person. But I ended up in a place I never thought I would be.
Bill: You were speaking at a church and having a panic attack.
Brian: Over the years, the news got worse. More victims came forward. I made some poor choices. I used to take a sleeping tablet just to get on a plane. Slowly I found myself taking one every night. We were in the middle of an intense run, and I got into the danger zone. I went to get on stage and I found myself collapsing at the podium. When I went home, I couldn’t catch my breath. It was a panic attack. I had to confront it and work through it. By God’s grace I’ve never had another.
Bill: You made substantial changes.
Brian: I was surprised because I was not that kind of guy. I stopped taking sleeping tablets to travel. I gained more discipline in certain parts of my life. And I managed to come up quickly.
Bill: In the 1990s, there was a gifted woman in your church – Darlene Zsechech. And there was a music explosion at your church. How did that get started?
Brian: I’m a huge believer in the power of the church. It was intentional to have the kind of church that wrote songs. God’s grace has been on our church. I think music expresses the soul of the church – so a healthy church should produce powerful music.
Bill: So your son Joel started to sing. And he started a little band that wound up being one of the most impactful worship bands in history.
Brian: Funny story actually. Joel took piano lessons. He loathed going and one time the instructor said to him, “Just write a song.” His creativity switched on. Hillsong United was the youth band at our church. I didn’t see it coming. He wrote this song Everyday and we started singing it in church. I asked, “Who wrote song?” They said, “Joel.” I asked “Joel who?”
Bill: It had to be tricky when Joel was rising and Darlene was still on staff. How did that transition go?
Brian: It actually went well. It happened over a 10-year period. Darlene and her husband felt the call to pastor their own church. Our church is resilient. It keeps going forward. Over and over, it wasn’t about any one person. When Jesus builds the church, the gates of hell cannot prevail against it. I believe that. He really does build His church.
Bill: As a pastor, I have learned that the people you start with in your church are not necessarily who will stay with you until the end.
Brian: I absolutely agree. Sometimes the people you expect to stay, leave. Others stay. But I’ve had the fortune to have good leadership who stayed with me through the years.
Bill: I used to paint a vision of a 40-year run. Now I talk about seasons. Let’s give God our best during this season.
Brian: Interesting thing. People may move to the other side of the world, but they never leave your life. I’ve been blessed with incredible teams who have stuck with me for the long term.
Bill: Some years ago, you started planting churches in major cities of the world that many had written off as a graveyard. Extremely tough areas. Kiev. Copenhagen. What were you thinking?
Brian: I’ve always been inspired with big cities of influence. Ultimately we want to build churches that can impact culture. We don’t build churches in the Bible belt. We are not building a London church, but a Hillsong Church in London. With the right person, right place, right time, God blesses it. We will be starting Hillsong #14 and #15 in Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo.
Bill: Another surprise was when a film producer approached you about doing a movie.
Brian: Someone from Hollywood came to our conference in Australia and loved the atmosphere of Hillsong. He went to watch Hillsong United at the Hollywood Bowl and was really impacted by Mighty to Save. So the movie is put together and paid for by Hollywood. About Hillsong but not by Hillsong. And it brings the backdrop of the church behind the music.
Bill: Brian, wrapping this up. Every time I am around you, my faith is expanded. You have an anointing on your life that helps other people believe that God can do great things. Where does that come from?
Brian: I love what I do. I love the Lord. I love the church. I love people. I guess that motivation has never left me. I never got away from the vision God gave me. I keep getting up again and God does great things and opens doors. Longevity is one of your greatest strengths if you love people and want to have an impact.