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Sep16FriHillsong UNITED frontman Joel Houston shares how his Australian worship band made it to the big screen. September 16, 2016 by Brianne Zelinsky
Hollywood director Michael Warren walked through the doors of a Hillsong church in New York City and took a seat in the back. He'd come to see Hillsong UNITED, an Australian worship band The New York Times has labelled “a global phenomenon.”
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As Michael watched lead singer Joel Houston perform under the glow of the stage lights, he noticed something about this audience that he had never before seen at a concert: They weren't fawning over the band. They were worshipping God.
“The only way Michael could describe the atmosphere was that it felt like love in its purest form,” says Joel, creative director of Hillsong Church. “That's the greatest compliment you could ever give us because that's what the church should be.”
Genesis of a Movie
Michael's past projects include Jay-Z's and Nicki Minaj's documentaries—a far cry from UNITED's Christian music. But when he saw them, one thing flashed through his mind: We have to make a movie about this.
“We thought, It's a nice idea but who's going to come see a movie about a worship band from Australia?” says Joel. “In the eyes of secular society, we're not the biggest band you've ever heard of. We're anonymous even though we have this huge following because we're part of a church.”
After meeting with the band, Michael pitched the idea to film a documentary of UNITED's world ministry. Warner Bros. bought into it and, soon enough, camera crews flooded into the studio to chronicle eight months of footage for a feature-length film titled Hillsong: Let Hope Rise.
The film, in theatres now, follows the band to Sydney, New York City, Los Angeles, Johannesburg and Manila and captures their song-writing for their most recent album, Empires.
“The film is very unspectacular,” says Joel, “and that's what's powerful about it, because I don't think there's anything spectacular about us. That's the beauty of our story.”
For Michael, directing this faith-based documentary presented both challenges and opportunities for the band's ministry.
“The way Michael shot the worship night is different from how we would have,” explains Joel. “He wanted to focus on us, and the paradox for us is that we draw attention to ourselves only to deflect it to God.”
While the band strives to be humble, the loud and flashy Hollywood flavour caused minor setbacks.
“Some conversations were hilarious,” laughs Joel. “Hollywood studio guys initially talked about how it would be awesome if the guys had their shirts off. And we said, 'Yeah ... that's not going to happen.' ”
Though the production team and UNITED had different visions for the film, Joel believes its message will reach both religious and non-religious viewers.
“To have someone that's not a Christian come in and do it their way was challenging,” says Joel, “and yet the end product is something true and honest. The whole movie is a beautiful story of God's grace and just how scandalous it is.”
The Writing on the Wall
Despite initial resistance from the producers, the band made sure that the movie promoted child sponsorship through their longstanding partnership with Compassion International.
“Our calling here on earth is to love and serve others, and that means everybody from the top end of society to those whom society tends to ignore and reject,” says Joel. “That's something we fought to make sure the film included.”
For Joel, whose grandfather was a Salvation Army pastor, social outreach has been a hallmark of his ministry.
“The Salvation Army, more than anyone else, knows that's what it's about,” says Joel. “When I moved to New York City, I was caught in a rainstorm at two in the morning after coming back from a trip to Africa. I found an awning where I could hide and, as I started praying, God spoke to me about there being a church that feels like a home for people in the city.
“I finished praying, turned around, and inscribed in the wall behind me was a William Booth quote that read, 'While there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I'll fight until the very end.' ”
Shortly after this experience, Joel went on to found three Hillsong churches in and around New York City.
Platforms of Grace
As the band has transitioned from their small-town roots to the face of Christian music, they have been forced to temper fame with humility.
“Of course, there are temptations and the pull of wanting to make it about ourselves,” admits Joel, “but we all understand that we're just playing our part in something much bigger.
“I don't think our identity is wrapped up in who we are on stage,” he continues. “At the end of the day, we love church and we love people. To me, the worship platform is secondary to what it means to be a follower of Christ.
“The platform we have—whether it's playing in front of a couple of hundred kids in our church or playing to thousands in stadiums—has always been about trying to connect others to Jesus. We're not in it for the money.”
Big Screen, Big Impact
“One of the most rewarding aspects of the film for us was the personal relationships we built during the process,” says Joel. Memorable moments were found in “the one-on-one conversations with the director, cameramen, producers and the team.”
Though the project was birthed in Hollywood, Joel believes the film can be used as a tool to reintroduce the church to “people who were once a part of the church but have been disillusioned or people who have a distorted view of who Jesus is. The opportunity is there to break down stereotypes.
“I'm sure the movie is going to speak to someone,” says Joel. “Five years from now someone may stumble onto it on Netflix, or wherever, and experience God, or their eyes might be opened to Jesus' grace. That's where the reward is going to be.”