Hold the dream
Co-founder and global pastor of Hillsong Church Bobbie Houston talks to Catherine Larner about the importance of women’s ministry, facing criticism and staying the course
Lavish stage sets, pounding music, bright lights, glamorous presenters… confetti cannon, tiaras and fur-trimmed rubber gloves! The Colour conference has surprised, delighted, inspired and challenged delegates for 21 years as a forum for creativity, affirmation, worship and teaching.
Springing from the Hillsong Church in Sydney, Australia, the conference now takes place in multiple venues across the world and this summer Bobbie Houston and her Hillsong team were once again in London championing women in the local church.
“Women are the same the world over,” says Bobbie. “They love to not take themselves too seriously, they love it when you are open and transparent and real. And if you scratch the surface of the human heart in any culture, you discover the same things. People want to be believed in, they want to be valued.
“There is something inherently powerful about the feminine heart when she gets together with her friends, when she is with women of like spirit who are growing in their experience, growing in their stature, and where they don’t pretend to have everything worked out,” she says.
“I think when you get women in that environment, you give the Lord an opportunity to harness that potential, that strength, for good.”
At each conference, for two and a half days, delegates are encouraged and affirmed.
“They come fully expectant, fully hopeful, knowing it’s going to be a great experience. But Colour is way more than a Christian faith conference with a great worship team and some fancy speakers.”
Women are equipped to return home with eyes opened to local needs, whether among family or friends, in their neighbourhood or school community, in their town or city. But they’re also urged to look at global issues.
“We have a number of partnerships – whether it’s working with our sisters in difficult situations in Africa, with street children in Mumbai, or against the plight of human trafficking around the world. But this year we felt compelled to focus on the refugee crisis.
"We can’t begin to address it at every level, but you can shift people’s hearts by presenting the need, and creating pathways of response – obviously prayer is a massive one, but we talk about advocacy. So, rather than people fearing situations, we can intelligently respond with the mind of Christ.”
Bobbie felt led to form Colour when she was looking out on the congregation she was pastoring with her husband in Australia.
Hillsong was growing massively. Formed in 1983 in the suburbs of Sydney, an area called the Hills District, it was initially called Hills Christian Life Centre. With the higher profile of the Hillsong Conferences and Hillsong Music, it changed its name to Hillsong in 1999.
With Brian’s charismatic leadership, a powerful music ministry and a contemporary appeal, congregations today can fill stadia with up to 20,000 people, reaching millions through television and there are further church plants across the globe.
“In those early days, Brian and I pretty much did everything that goes with pioneering,” Bobbie says. “But as a young woman, wife and working mom, I was happy to be behind the scenes.”
It was God’s prompt which caused her “to take responsibility for the feminine heart within the house!”
Bobbie felt God wanted a conference for young women, “girded” by older women. She heard him say “Who is going to role-model a woman of God to these young people?”
“I think the world needs to wake up; the body of Christ needs to wake up and realise there is much gold in the feminine heart that’s going to add to the beauty of the Church,” says Bobbie.
“When women are welcomed to the table; when women are included in the conversation; when women are given the opportunity to bring their strength and their skill set, and the dynamic of who they are, it adds much colour, much weightiness to what we’re all about. I think these things are important to God.”
Celebrating her 60th birthday this year, Bobbie has spent 40 years ‘up front’ in this ministry with Brian, the majority of that time co-leading on stage. In her latest book, Stay the Path, which was published this summer, she has been able to share some of what she’s learned in her own journey.
“Sometimes longevity gives you a platform to speak,” she says. “So I chose a handful of things which I thought would help people. It is very open and honest, and I’ve had a lot of people say that it has resonated with their heart. I wrote it inspirationally.”
‘Keeping on’ in the face of challenges and obstacles is indeed a message worth hearing and Bobbie acknowledges how she writes from her own experience of difficult times, albeit different trials from our own.
Having long endured a battery of negative press articles – about the commercial nature of Hillsong, the alleged materialism of its leaders and the seeming lack of transparency in its financial affairs; an opposition to its policy on homosexuality; the glitz and glamour through the celebrity profile of its congregation (Justin Bieber worships at Hillsong Los Angeles); a questioning of accountability in the leadership team which now has the three Houston children and their spouses involved – Brian had to handle accusations of historic sexual abuse by his father which came to light in 1999. Facing the cases both as a son and a church leader, it was claimed that he did not acknowledge the conflict of interest in dealing with the situation.
“Brian was contributing to the inquiry in the context of his father’s failings, but he was facing media frenzy because of the profile of the church,” says Bobbie, writing in Stay the Path. “It would be untrue to say I was overwhelmed, but I had never felt as spiritually exposed and vulnerable as I did that day.
“The reality of sexual abuse is inexcusable at any level of society … but in this instance, it felt like other agendas were at play.”
As she writes about this difficult time, she describes how she prayed … and then went for a manicure, pedicure and massage!
While her humour is evident, she is a woman with today’s concerns. Travelling for three months of the year to present Colour across continents, what does she need?
“I’ve been away for almost 12 weeks. I have three suitcases and one suitcase is called staying alive – it’s all my vitamins, all my supplements, all my powders!
“The bottom line is that we do this out of conviction. If I was doing this out of vain ambition, forget it,” she says of the gruelling schedule and responsibility. “We do have a remarkable team who carry the vision. I don’t do this alone. We get tired, but we dig deep and our favourite hashtag is #canyoubelievewegettodothis.”
In the difficult times though, she admits she considered walking away.
“There was a fierce season in our lives when we were being assailed very unfairly,” she says, “for a sustained period of many years. And at that point I did feel like quitting. But it was a strategy of the enemy.
“He hates the Church and often that means we’re the target; we take the firing line for the body of Christ. Jesus said ‘they hated me, they’re going to hate you’. It’s the Christ in us that the enemy hates.
“And then there’s the small mindedness of mankind. People say your church is all about production, lights and action. It’s not, actually. We’re a local church, we’re about people and we only need big production because it’s not 12 people in a room, it’s 12,000.
“Everyone faces difficulties, everyone has obstacles, so while the challenges might look different for all of us, at the end of the day we are going to apply the right things, the right godly principles, the right Word of God and we’re going to discover the same things about the same God – that God is faithful, that he’s present in the midst of challenge, that he’s a good God, and that he’s the author of good things.”
People often look at Hillsong and think it charmed or favoured, but Bobbie says “every inch of advancing the kingdom has come with some kind of heat, opposition, attack, or fire. And it’s in those very steps that we have had our moments of divine exchange.”
The fact that her children, Ben, Joel and Laura, are all believers and have followed their parents into the church, Bobbie counts as a great joy.
“We would have encouraged our kids to follow any career path or dream in their hearts. We would have always hoped and prayed: so long as they loved Jesus and loved the Church. They’ve all had their own moments of truth, but they are as passionate about the kingdom of God as we are and they are doing it the way their generation should. They, by the grace of God, are living proof that this thing God is doing is generational. He can be alive in our children.
“So I think if you stay your course, stay gracious and not lose sight of what you are about, you actually outlast the critics, or you prove them wrong when they see the fruit of your life. So keep on, stay the path!”
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