Hillsong: Let Hope Rise

“Who am I, to lead these people? I’m just a country girl.”

Taya Smith is all blonde curls and dimpled smiles and soft laughs. When she speaks, in her sweet Australian accent, it’s with a simple awe that she’s in the heart of something so big. She may be just a country girl, but she’s a country girl at the helm of the biggest Christian music phenomenon, ever.

In 1983, Brian and Bobbie Houston started a little church service in a public school in Sydney with 45 members. Today, it has exploded into a global megachurch, with branches in London, New York, Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Moscow, Los Angeles, South Africa, and two locations in Germany. As the church has grown, their reputation for worship has achieved international recognition. United, one of Hillsong’s worship bands, released its fourth album, Empires, in May to critical acclaim and a top 10 debut on the Billboard charts. Combined, the Hillsong bands have sold more than 16 million albums. It is estimated that on any given Sunday, 50 million churchgoers sing a Hillsong song in their church service.

The astronomical and long-lasting success of a Christian worship band from Australia has not gone unnoticed in Hollywood. United recently performed on “The Today Show” to promote their new album, and their music will soon hit the big screen. Let Hope Rise, in theaters September 30, is a documentary chronicling United’s rise to prominence. It focuses on the 11-member band, which includes Smith and leader Joel Houston, the son of founders Brian and Bobbie Houston.

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 9.28.45 AM In addition to leading United, Houston is also the co-pastor of Hillsong’s New York City campus. He explained that Hillsong’s global presence has surprised them as much as anyone. “It’s never been, ‘Oh let’s plant a church here and here and here,’” he told Good News. “It’s always been God’s lead. It’s never a goal really to have a big church, it’s just to have a church. By the grace of God they have all flourished.”

Houston said the call to expand globally from their Sydney location was first placed on his father’s heart about 15 years ago. “My dad really had it in his heart to reach Europe which led to London. This was a time where in that part of the world people really saw the church as dying. We wanted to plant a church in London that spoke into the culture and just kept it simple. We felt if it could thrive in a place like that then it would set us up to be able to reach even beyond that.”

Smith, who has traveled to many of the different Hillsong locations in her travels with Hillsong, said she feels at home in each one. “Every now and then we’ll get to stop in at different international churches, different ‘rooms’ if you will. It’s just so cool because it feels like home every time that I get to go. Whether it’s in South Africa Hillsong Church or Hillsong London. The cool thing is even traveling away from home as soon as I step into one of our churches it’s just like, ‘Ah, I’m home.’”

Although Houston has spent his whole life involved in Hillsong ministries, planting a church in New York City wasn’t what he expected to do. The last five years he’s spent there have brought challenges, although he admitted they weren’t the challenges he expected. However, he emphasized that God’s grace and presence have permeated the whole experience.

“America was never really in our cards. But I felt it in my heart a number of years ago that God was stirring here,” he said. “I had a couple weeks off and I’d been to New York a number of times, always just for a day or two. So I came and spent a week just hanging out in the city, walking around. On the last day I was walking around and it started pouring rain. I ran and tried to find a cover under a construction awning. I was kind of stuck there, just waiting. I had this moment with God. I turned around and looked at the wall beneath this awning and I read this quote there by William Booth: ‘While there remains one dark soul, I’ll fight to the very end.’ That really spoke to me. I felt like God said it was time to do something in this city.” Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 9.28.22 AM

For country girl Smith, her role in United was a surprise of a different kind. She described her path to Hillsong as “definitely a God story.” After growing up in the Australian countryside, she moved to Sydney four years ago to pursue secular music. “I had the opportunity to do backing vocals for a friend and sing some gigs,” she explained. “I thought I’d have more opportunity in a big city than in a small town. I ended up getting a job in retail.”

While she was adjusting to her new life in the city, Smith found her way into Hillsong’s doors. She had grown up in church and had a love for worship music, but she was unsure of how to get involved in their worship program. So instead, she became a youth leader.

“In Australia we have Thursday late night shopping where the stores stay open later. It’s pretty big,” she said. “So because of my job I couldn’t go to any of the creative team nights with the worship team night. So I was like ‘Ok God, you know I love worship but right now I guess I just need to love being a youth leader.’ No one really knew I could sing until a few months in.”

Slowly, Smith found opportunities to be involved in Hillsong’s worship program. In the beginning, she performed backing vocals for the young adults ministry. Her dream to make it in secular music, however, was still a big part of her life. “I had auditioned to go onto the Australian version of ‘The Voice,’” she said. “I thought maybe it was my chance because I had a cool opportunity to get into the audition right before you hop into television, where you sing for the executive producers of the show. I went into the audition thinking ‘Ok this might be it.’ I walked out thinking it went really well and it seemed really positive.”

Although Smith felt like she had found her big break, God had other plans. “I had a friend who challenged me and just said ‘Hey, I’ll support you if you do this. But if you do it just know that things are gonna change.’ And I was really challenged by that because I had a friend who had done a competition similar to this and I didn’t really like how it came about. So I had a few doubts.”

Smith prayed, “God if you’re going to do this, open the door. And if not, completely shut it.” Two weeks later she got a message from a member of Hillsong United, telling her that he wanted to use her vocals for a project. Smith had her answer, and she hasn’t looked back since. She’s enjoyed massive success as a member of United. On their third album, she performed the lead vocals for the single “Oceans,” which would go on to be a huge hit, making her a household name in the Christian music world. She has more than 160,000 followers on Instagram, and her voice is constantly on Christian radio.

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 9.27.59 AMSmith said she loves being a part of United and loves to travel with the band, but the best part has been coming home. “I’ve definitely been traveling quite a lot over the past year, I’ve got my miles up that’s for sure,” she laughed. “I think where haven’t I been is a better question! This year we went to different parts of Asia, South America, Europe, quite a few trips to America, we did a Zion [album] tour at the start of the year. We did a big concert in London with our church there. It’s been a lot of fun but I’ve definitely enjoyed coming home. It makes it special to be able to do that.”

Houston and Smith’s journeys are both part of the Let Hope Rise documentary, which was directed by Michael John Warren, who has previous worked with stars Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj. “I’m not a religious person,” Warren wrote on the movie’s website. “But I learned things from working with and becoming friends with the members of Hillsong United. They are lovely people. They are sincerely giving. They are sincerely supportive. I don’t believe the same things they believe, but I’m learning from them and I’m taking lessons from them and I believe I’ve become a better person having spent a year studying them. Their mission — without exaggeration — is to make music to save souls. They are trying to get people to discover Jesus. That’s probably the most righteous reason to make music.”

Houston and Smith both said they hope that their love for Christ is expressed in the film, and that those who watch will feel compelled to bring others with them. “It may be a lot easier to ask someone to go see a film with you than to ask them to Church with you,” said Houston. “I hope people do that.”

Jessi Hooley is the editorial assistant at Good News. “Let Hope Rise” opens September 30, 2015. To learn more about the film, visit www.hillsongmovie.com. All photos courtesy of Hillsong “Let Hope Rise.”


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