Amazing Grace was written in 1779. What a Friend We Have in Jesus, 1855. The Old Rugged Cross, 1912.
Joel Houston co-wrote Hillsong United's signature hit Oceans (Where Feet May Fail) in 2013. A century from now, is it not possible congregations will still be singing that one, too?
"I always think if you have one song that stands the test of time, that would be amazing," said Houston, leader of arguably the world's biggest contemporary Christian rock band. "If we're writing songs that are true to what is happening now, and honest to the lay of the land and who God is, I can't see any reason why that won't speak to people in the same way that we still sing How Great Thou Art and Amazing Grace. It's as timeless now as it was then. So why not?"
If anyone can do it, it might be Hillsong United. The band is a hugely successful arm of the Sydney, Australia-based Hillsong Church, founded by Houston's parents Brian and Bobbie Houston in 1983. Hillsong now has dozens of megachurches in more than 20 countries, and celebrity adherents like Justin Bieber, Kylie Jenner and Selena Gomez. For hundreds of thousands of followers, the church's alluring, Instagrammable aesthetic — inclusive yet exclusive, casual yet chic — is influencing the look and feel of modern Christianity like nothing else.
Houston is a huge part of that. In addition to steering Hillsong United, he is the church's global creative director, shaping not only its music, but its events, films and television network.
"What I try to do, more than anything else, is just look at what we're trying to say and who we're trying to say it to, and align our creative ends to serve that world," he said.
Hillsong United plays Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre on Saturday. When I got Houston on the phone from his home in California, I was on my way to a Kiss concert in Tampa. Which is where our conversation — edited here for length and clarity — kicked off.
Was Kiss outlawed in your house growing up? Did your parents have a problem with the Demon?
I wasn't a Kiss fan until I saw Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, because they play God Gave Rock and Roll to You at the end. Then, I became a fan. And because it had God in it, maybe my mum didn't care. But no, my parents were pretty cool. I had to put Guns N' Roses on common cassettes and hide the good stuff. I remember Nirvana's Nevermind was hidden on a DC Talk cassette. But we grew out of that in time, so we're good.
I know singers attend Hillsong Church, but are you friendly with musicians where you don't have that religious component in common?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. There's a lot of guys I grew up with who never shared my faith. But we shared our love for music, and they've gone on to do great things in their own right, and we remain close. I don't think I could have ever survived if my life was committed to living inside the bubble. A guy told me early on that when you preach, you should always have the Bible, and you should have the newspaper. What you're bringing should be something that speaks to culture and what's happening in the world. It's like, how do we take these truths that we've premised and based in the word of God, which is this ancient text, and being fully aware of what's really going on in the world around us?
How do you think you've changed the mission of Hillsong United to fit the times we live in?
The environment we grew up in, the church we were a part of, was rather progressive. There was a lot of willingness to break traditional rules when it comes to engaging with people in real ways. It's not so much this structural organization as opposed to this sense of an organism, a community that's living and breathing in the same way we as humans do. The church is allowed permission to move, and that's made sense to me. So naturally, I think music is kind of the tip of the spear when it comes to every cultural movement. The music has been around to, in some ways, shape where it is we're going, or what might be possible.
When's the last time you went to a traditional church service? Like with people in pews singing How Great Thou Art or Onward, Christian Soldiers?
Apart from weddings and funerals? I'm trying to think. I guess it depends on how you define a traditional church service. I do recall one time in New York, walking to a church down in SoHo, and I think it was Episcopalian. I enjoyed it, for what it was.
Do you know if Oceans is in any traditional church hymnals?
I'm sure it is. I hear stories all the time of where the songs go. Recently, a whole bunch of songs got framed into a liturgical advent calendar, which was cool. A lot of Catholic churches and Anglican churches sing our songs. Music has this ability to cross all kinds of boundaries, and so does the message that we're trying to contain within these words and this music. There's no reason why it can't speak to the breadth of the church as it does to humanity. That's the idea. That's the beauty of the whole thing.
Contact Jay Cridlin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.