In Part 1 of our interview with Brian Houston, founder and global senior pastor of Hillsong Church, Houston talked about his current role in the larger vision of the Hillsong movement, and he shared a little about the inspiration for his latest book, There Is More: When the World Says You Can’t, God Says You Can (March 13, 2018, WaterBrook). Below, in part two of the interview, Houston dives deeper into some of the principles he explores in There Is More and shares how he’s navigated them as a leader himself, and how other church leaders can incorporate them into their congregations too.
Some leaders—especially those just starting out or in a desert season or facing disappointment—might think when they look at you and your ministry, It’s easy for you to preach perseverance. You’ve been blessed with God’s abundance. What would you say to them?
I think that little phrase is the answer, really: We’ve done 35 years of this, and it most definitely hasn’t always been this way. Along the way there have been incredible seasons of challenge, of trial. Some of those have been pretty public. So I think it’s a mistake, really, to look at someone who’s 35 years in and not really consider the road they’ve taken, the price that’s been paid, and the sacrifices that have been made to get there. The Bible talks about the fight of faith. There’s no way a younger version of myself would be able to withstand the pressure of where we’re at today, so I think it’s all a part of building us as much as it’s a part of anything else.
No one ever said ministry was easy or that serving Jesus was easy. So I really feel like for those pastors—the ones who might be in their early years and pioneering, or who are facing challenges related to being smaller that we don’t face at Hillsong necessarily—their challenges are all the making of them.
To me it all comes down to how strong your calling is in the first place. If a pastor gets discouraged and gives up too easily, I would question how strong their call was. Because when you’re convinced that this is what God’s called you to, then you’ll find a way to get up off the floor no matter what’s going on in your world.
Sometimes in churches, congregants can let familiarity rob them of their receptivity to God and his movement in their church. They become critics and claim the church, the pastor or the worship has changed, but the change might actually be in them. Even if the problem is with the individual and not the church, enough people who feel this way in a single congregation can lead to an unhealthy organization. How can leaders ensure their people retain their childlike faith and receptivity to what God is doing?
The longer a church—or any organization, for that matter—goes, the easier it is to become familiar, and the easier it is for human nature to settle down. I think it’s one of the great challenges of leadership, really, to keep things fresh and to keep alive that spirit of receptivity and that wide-eyed wonder that says anything could happen and that it probably will. As I’ve led people in that, I’ve learned a lot of it is personal example. If we are settled down, if we become familiar and lose that sense of receptivity and hunger, then that’s going to spread through everything we have the opportunity to lead.
A lot of it is also the ability to inspire others. We need to have a disdain for the idea of settling down in order to keep the spirit of receptivity. I feel that vision has a lot to do with it. You keep your eyes pointed toward vision. You remember there’s more out there. I’ve got a sense that God wants to do more. There are new levels. There’s something further. Those things, I think, help keep us receptive. There’s a huge advantage to being able to have that atmosphere of receptivity, because it breeds hunger and creates the kind of culture within a church that’s magnetic. You can sense there’s an expectation, there’s an anticipation, but it’s also very easy to lose that.
Credibility and consistency are essential to a healthy church and to healthy leaders. People trust and invest in churches that are consistent and leaders who are the same on the platform as they are off. Is being authentic and consistent as simple as it sounds, or is there something leaders should know about intentionally operating a church—and themselves—through this lens?
I think authenticity is extremely attractive to people, and I think people are smarter, sometimes, than we give them credit for. They can read through a lack of authenticity or see inconsistency very quickly. So I want to encourage leaders to be themselves, to be who God’s called them to be, and to not fall into the traps of pretense or to fit into whatever image people feel leaders should fit into. Here in Australia, people are very quick to see pretense and to pull you back down to size, too, if you live that way. So we’re really trying to build a church and a ministry where we love God, we love people, we love life and we’re passionate about those things. We want to have an environment where you can just be real. I think that’s been one of our strengths.
To me, all of that is demonstrated. As leaders become more successful, it’s even more important that we don’t take ourselves too seriously, that we really understand it’s by the grace of God that we don’t change in a negative way. We’re still the same authentic person we always were. And humility has a lot to do with that.
The breadth of Hillsong’s reach and its ability to grow the church in attendance is well known. Explain a little about what you do to go deeper with your people. How are you discipling the ones who already show up?
That’s a great question. I think you’re right. I think a lot of people look at church impact, see a brand like Hillsong, and see all of that outward stuff. You know, we have really tried to remind ourselves to keep the mindset that we’re not a big church—we’re just a little church with a lot of people—so that we don’t develop a big-church mentality. Instead, we keep it about the individual, keep it personal.
So discipleship is something we think about a lot in various ways. That includes evening schools and teaching opportunities during the week. We have what we call Next Steps. Every person is just asking themselves, What is my next step in terms of church involvement, of discipleship, of growing in my faith and so on? During the midweek, we have various opportunities for people under that general umbrella. We have Alpha courses, for example, for people who are still unchurched. We do everything from that all the way through, basically, evening college, which is more of a part-time Bible college, and all sorts of other possibilities in between.
In the book, you reference 1 Timothy 3:5: “If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?” You say, “The fulfillment of my calling, and yours, begins in our homes—in our personal walk with Jesus, the daily decisions we make and the disciplines we instill … God bids us to get our natural lives in order and then watch our spiritual lives take healthy shape.” How do you model this principle for your congregation?
We have three kids who are now adults and have their own children, and by God’s grace they’re all serving Jesus. I’m very slow to judge any leader or church pastor or any other person on their children, because at the end of the day children have their own free will and you can see that kids can grow up in the same household and yet make totally different decisions in life.
But I do know that when people look to a church leader, to a pastor, they’re looking not only at their successes, but they’re looking at their challenges as well. And the way we model leadership in our challenges probably helps people more than the way we model leadership in our successes. Raising a family is challenging, especially if you’re busy people. Yet for me it is the most important thing we do. It’s just the natural thing to really invest in my family and take our kids on the journey with us. I’m not big on the whole idea of God first, then family, then church. There’s no doubt that God’s first in our lives, but I don’t think we should live our lives that boxed. I think sometimes people set up family and church almost like they’re enemies. Family time versus church time.
I’ve often talked about how we as pastors and leaders shouldn’t cancel appointments. But if one of my children is genuinely in trouble, then I will leave whatever it is I’m doing, wherever it is I am, to go help my child. I believe we’ve tried to live by that model.
You talk about the idea of creating a legacy, of making your ceilings the next generation’s floor. You write in the book, “Our opportunities, decisions and blessings today are not simply about us; they are about releasing others into their God-given destinies. My definition of success is building a platform for future generations to win.” Hillsong has done an excellent job at reaching the next generation. How are you building the platform for that generation to do bigger and better things for God?
What inspires me the most is setting up a new generation to win. You know, I love crowds, I love all the things that relate to ministry, but those things come and go. The legacies we leave for people are what remain. Psalm 45:16 says, “Your sons will take the place of your fathers; you will make them princes in the land.” And I love the idea of raising princes, of raising princesses, raising people who reign in life to be all that God calls them to be. That’s what pushes me on most in ministry. I’m committed to lifting the ceilings of people. I remind myself and I try to remind others that the right to look at the big vision didn’t stop with me, it didn’t stop with my generation. I want to be committed to lifting up future generations of visionaries.
We’ve been blessed over the years to have so many long-term team, staff and pastors here in Australia and globally who in their own way have risen up and now they’re doing something very significant: becoming leaders of leaders. All of that is intentional.
I think the pastor has to be committed to the long-term responsibility of building the potential in people. That’s what inspires me: investing in the people we teach and preach to, and always being committed not just to preaching to people’s Sundays—their devotional life—but preaching to their Mondays—their vocational life and everyday life.
I want my life to end with bruised shoulders. In other words, I want people to be able to stand on my shoulders and on our generation’s shoulders and take things beyond what my generation ever imagined could happen for the kingdom of God. Leadership transition is an ongoing conversation we have for sure. I’m feeling pretty healthy, but we’re definitely very aware of the importance of looking to the future, and while I don’t know 100 percent exactly what that’s going to look like, we’re very committed to making sure we set up the next generation to win.
What’s one main thing you would you say to encourage leaders?
I love to encourage leaders and pastors not to let life, its discouragement and its challenges, set boundaries on the expectations for what God can do in us and through us. I feel like my own life is the perfect example. I grew up in tiny New Zealand in a government-owned house in a world I thought was really big at the time, but it was extremely small. And I love that by God’s grace, he’s opened up so many opportunities to us after many years of consistency. You know, I couldn’t be more surprised at the grace and goodness of God. It’s inspiring other people to also believe, as Ephesians 3:20 says, that God really can do exceedingly above all the things that we ask or think, according to his power working in us. That last little phrase is important to me, because it’s all about the power of God working in us.
Jessica Hanewinckel is an Outreach magazine contributing writer.