the paradox of Joel Houston

Posted by Craig Borlase on 20 August 2013

I am in New York, in a cab with an Australian the size of a slightly-scaled-down Avatar, talking about the failings of celebrity, being inspired by Africa and feeling a bit too shy to talk to Bono.

And so it is with Joel Houston, son of Hillsong founders and current pastors - Brian and Bobbie - creative driving force behind the church (both the United and the grown-up versions) and now resident and co-pastor of the latest Hillsong extension: New York City. Things aren’t always quite what they seem. Call them contradictions, paradox or puzzles, his life is full of them.

For Joel, the idea of being in front of the microphone with one of the world’s most popular worship bands is decidedly odd, and was never really part of his plan:

“I was a bassist, and happy about it. I was the guy who steps back from the limelight, whose contribution to the soundscape never really gets anyone all that excited. You don’t go home whistling a bassline. Not unless you’re another bassist.”

Such was the position Joel was in during the early years of Hillsong United. Until his youth pastor had a word.

“He told me that he was going to ask me to do something and that I couldn’t say no. I thought he was going to get me to do his gardening.”

Turns out that the request was for the lanky bloke that loitered at the side of the stage to step up and lead.

And as Joel did what he was told, a few things happened. And those things were... paradoxical. Instead of loving it, Joel’s first experiences of leading worship were characterised by self-doubt and insecurity:

“I didn’t feel in any way good enough. I was comparing myself to unbelievably great Christians and I didn’t feel like an unbelievably great Christian. I felt like someone who stumbled into this position unwillingly.”

Aware of his failings and dependent on God’s grace, something else happened: new songs arrived. Like ‘From The Inside Out’ - one of those worship songs that is both intensely personal and universally true. It’s a song about personal weakness, God’s strength and the importance of holding both in the same heart.

“It all boils down to this simple line in the chorus: let justice and praise become my embrace, to love you from the inside out. It’s a missional song, not just a personal one.”

A song that looks in, but that also sends us out? Welcome to the paradox, my friend.

“We live in a world that is outside-in - where appearance matters more than character. But purpose is to be found living inside out - allowing God to transform your heart and letting your life change as a result.”

The idea of life being full of contradiction has continued to appear throughout Joel’s songs. It’s there in ‘Beautiful Exchange’ - a song that views both the beauty and the horror of the crucifixion, that celebrates freedom that comes from death. And it is there in ‘Aftermath’, the title track of Hillsong United’s last-but-one album. With its upside-down artwork and hybrid images, everything about the project spoke of life being different to the way that some would have us believe.

“‘From The Inside Out’, ‘Beautiful Exchange’, ‘Aftermath’ - they’re pretty much the same song written three different ways at three different times,” says Joel. “With Aftermath we often think about the pain that follows a traumatic event. But with the trauma of the cross came the beginning of all that is good in life: the resurrection, grace, healing, forgiveness, the Holy Spirit, empowerment to live out the life we are called to live.”

It’s not just the songs that turn things on their head. Life itself throws up some challenging experiences, like pastoring a church that places strong emphasis on community within the heart of New York - surely one of the busiest, most intense cities on the planet - or taking worship services that place a high premium on personal responsibility and divine-transformation out to crowds gathered in stadiums:

“Brazil is the ultimate example. You are looking at 30,000 people and 20,000 cameras and yet you’re singing lyrics that are trying to point people to God. I know that it’s what we do as humans - gather in large crowds and call for entertainment - but I feel determined to get to a place where there is not one camera in the air, but hands, eyes and hearts focused on God.”

Perhaps this is where the paradox is the strongest: what looks like a mainstream rock band is actually just a group of mates, loving the creativity, passionate about the power of worship to transform lives and free to do whatever they can to encourage others to sing and live with equal passion. Take a look at the opening minutes of the DVD documentary ‘We’re All In This Together’ (the one that completed the trilogy of the I Heart Revolution series) and it’s even clearer: while we watch silent footage of crowds soaking up the euphoria of a Hillsong United live event Joel reads the following:

I can't stand your religious meetings. 
I'm fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
your pretentious slogans and goals.
I'm sick of your fund-raising schemes,
your public relations and image making.
I've had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. 
When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want? 
I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it. 
That's what I want. That's all I want.
[Amos 5:21-24, The Message]

“It makes me sick,” says Joel. Why?

“Because I have to wrestle with it, and yet I love it and wouldn’t want to do anything else at all.”

And maybe that’s the biggest paradox of them all, but one that each of us must learn to live with: what we love most we also have to wrestle with. Calling does not come without sacrifice. The disciple does not walk the same path as the tourist.

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