Press play on Hillsong Young and Free's Youth Revival, and everything you hear might sound familiar.
Real Love feels like a Zedd jam. Where You Are kind of sounds like Disclosure. Falling Into You isn't that far off from Paramore.
All of that, says Alexander Pappas, is no accident.
"I love the idea that anybody can take this music, our music, and slip it into a playlist at a party, and without people realizing it, they're hearing about Jesus," said Pappas, one of the singers and songwriters for the youth-ministry arm of contemporary worship music conglomerate Hillsong Church. "We love seeing and hearing stories when the songs are hitting outside the four walls of the church."
That keeps happening more and more. Hillsong Young and Free may be relatively, well, young compared to arena-filling worship groups Hillsong United and Hillsong Worship, but their music is landing big with young fans. Youth Revival was nominated for a Grammy, and the band's concert Saturday at Jannus Live in St. Petersburg sold out well in advance.
What's the angle? Aside from the music — which even secular listeners have to admit is pretty well-produced and catchy — there is simply no more bankable brand in Christian music than Hillsong, which started in Australia but now has churches in 19 countries on five continents, and a roster of celebrity adherents including Justin Bieber, Kendall Jenner and Kevin Durant. At Young and Free's release party for Youth Revival, Selena Gomez hopped on stage to sing along.
"They're people, at the end of the day, and they're on their own journey," Pappas said of Hillsong's famous followers. "They deal with the same things that you and I do. It's just an amazing testimony to see what God's doing with it, that these influential people are finding support and encouragement through what we're doing."
Though he now speaks with a slight Australian accent, Pappas, 28, is Hillsong Young and Free's lone American member. Born and raised in California, he grew up in the church and toured a little with a teenage ska band. At 18 he enrolled in Hillsong International Leadership College, inspired by the music of Hillsong United.
"To be honest, I'd only really ever heard of Hillsong United before I went," he said. "I didn't even really realize it was a church until I got there. And then once I was here, I quickly learned about it all. But I just wanted to get better at music. I had every intention of going back to the States to serve in my local church. But God clearly had some other plans for my life."
Working in Hillsong's youth ministry for the past nine years, he's seen plenty of kids come to Sydney for that same reason, "to develop their craft and learn and deepen their relationship with God, but spend that time expanding their abilities and understanding of worship music."
They come to the church the same way he did: through music. Progressive and contemporary services the world over use Hillsong's music and message, which Pappas sees when fans tag him on social media.
"If it's an upbeat song, most of the time they're singing one of ours," he said. "It's so surreal when you see things like that, like, 'Wow, who am I that people around the world would be latching onto these songs?' "
Young and Free doesn't fit the mold of a traditional pop band, even if, for Pappas, writing pop songs comes naturally: "Top 40 music and current, contemporary music is what most of our crew and band listens to." All members write and many sing lead, and some members stay at home in Australia to help steer the ship from afar. Concerts feature fan Q&As and meet-and-greets so members can further their youth ministry away from the stage.
"As a worship band, our job is to draw people in and then point them to Jesus," he said. "So most of our nights are, generally speaking, just that. It's a lot of fun, it's a lot of dancing, it's a lot of singing, it's a lot of shouting.
"While it does feel like we're a band, especially while we're touring ... it always feels like we're a part of something that's so much bigger than a band," he added. "We're just striving to bring people closer and deeper in their relationship with God, and at the moment, it's through music. And at the moment, we're the people doing it.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.