Interview: Abundance of spirit
Bobbie Houston, cofounder of the globally-recognised Hillsong Church, talks to Stephen Tomkins and Charissa King
Unusually for Reform, we met Bobbie Houston in the penthouse suite of Kensington’s five-star Royal Garden Hotel. The penthouse, we were quickly told, was provided to Mrs Houston’s team as a free upgrade, but we might be forgiven for assuming that the cofounder of Hillsong Church is accustomed to largesse. The Church’s 2015 report states that donations from its 100,000-strong global congregation make up 56% of that year’s income of more than A$112m (Australian dollars; £64m). A heartening story of abundance in the face of what can feel like a consistent ‘church is dying’ narrative, perhaps.
Hillsong has churches in 19 countries and on five continents. It’s a massive global operation, and, over the 34 years of its existence, ministry has expanded to include chart-topping music, educational institutions, a charitable foundation, arena-filling conferences and a broadcast network.
As Co-Senior Pastor of Hillsong, Mrs Houston oversees women’s ministry. We met her two days before Hillsong’s London conference for women, Colour, which aims to ‘reveal the feminine heart of God’ and inspire a global movement by encouraging women. Mrs Houston’s latest book, Stay the Path: Navigating the challenges and wonder of life, love and leadership (ISBN: 9781473662964) was published by Hodder and Stoughton in May.
For a lot of people in the UK, church might be a dozen people in an old room, with a piano if they’re lucky.
I love that!
Is ‘church’ even the same thing when it’s a huge, high-production-value event like Hillsong?
Well, at the end of the day we are a local church. We just happen to be a local church with a rather large global footprint these days. Our beginnings were with 45 people. It was a small group, and it grew and became what it is. To us, church is community, church is knowing one another. We’ve always said, as a church gets bigger it has to feel small. So, even though some people perceive it as a big production, first and foremost it’s a local church, it’s about community and family. It’s just that we need big production because there are not 12 people sitting there but 12,000.
How do you make it feel small?
We have no end of beautiful pathways to make it feel intimate, like small connect groups or Bible studies. Connect groups are at the very core and backbone of our church, so we encourage everyone to find one, but there’s various ways that people can volunteer and minister. I can’t even begin – there are dozens and dozens of pathways. There’s a great sense of family in everything that we do and so there are oceans of ways in which people can be connected.
How did you get from that first church of 45 people in Baulkham Hills to where you are today?
Step by step. Sunday by Sunday. My husband is a great leader. Brian was raised in church life, his parents were ministers, and I think there’s a natural intuition that comes with that. He’s seen a lot and has an instinct for church life.
Our Church is huge these days – in Australia alone there are 29 locations where we meet and we have something like 72 services from Friday evening through to Sunday night. But he knows everything that’s going on. As well as being a great leader, he’s also a great releaser of people. Unless you are a leader with a gift set on you to release others into their gift set and their calling, you’re not going to be able to facilitate a ministry like ours. …
This is an extract from an article that was published in the July/August 2017 edition of Reform