Hillsong UNITED's JD Douglass talks church's impact on Christian music, ministry and fashion

Hillsong United members pose for new promotional photo, 2019. | rogers and cowan

Multiplatinum-selling and award-winning Christian worship band Hillsong UNITED is gearing up for the release of their album PEOPLE, and The Christian Post caught up with founding band member JD Douglass to get a look at how the ministry continues to revolutionize worship music worldwide.

Hillsong church was founded by Brian Houston and his wife, Bobbie, in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia, in 1983. It has now grown from a single church to an international ministry that has churches in 21 countries on six continents, including: London, England; Paris, France; Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Cape Town, South Africa; Tel Aviv, Israel; and three cities in the United States. 

The church has an average global attendance approaching 130,000 weekly.

In the U.S., Hillsong is recognized for its thriving congregations in New York City, Los Angeles, California, and Phoenix, Arizona, and their services are frequently attended by  many A-list celebrities.

There are three different musical groups affiliated with Hillsong Church, these are Hillsong Worship, Hillsong Young & Free, and Hillsong UNITED. 

Hillsong UNITED has sold more than 4.7 million albums and remains the No. 1 Christian artist on all social media platforms with over 10.5 million fans combined. Their new live album PEOPLE will be released on April 26 and is said to reflect the band's roots and core mission of “unity.”

In support of their new music, UNITED will also return to the U.S. for the first time in three years for their The People Tour MMXIX.

The following is an edited transcript of The Christian Post's interview with longtime Hillsong church member and founding member of Hillsong UNITED, JD Douglass, who talks about the evolution of Hillsong music, their commitment to God, and their influence on western culture. 

CP: Your relationship with Hillsong Church has been a lifelong journey. What's it  been like to be a part of the ministry all these years?

JD: I feel extremely blessed. Everyone has a different journey, but my parents are Christian so not going to church wasn't an option in our family. I’m kind of glad that we've been going to Hillsong church my whole life. There really hasn’t been a time that I haven't wanted to go [to church].

We’re definitely not the best or the most perfect church but it's a church where we've got great leadership that just believes in the next generation. That believes in encouraging, letting people know that God does have a plan and purpose for everyone's life, and that's a really encouraging life-filled environment. 

Growing up in that, going from the school of Hillsong and then in the youth ministry, it’s been a great experience. I never dreamed or imagined that I’d be part of the music team, especially with UNITED and being able to be around those early days and to see 20 years on now what God has done and how faithfully He’s been. It's definitely one of those things that has blown our expectation and probably surprised us more than anybody.

CP: Hillsong has revolutionized Christian culture, even down to what people wear to church in a lot of contemporary churches. Was that intentional as a way to reach people?

JD: It's kind of funny to see how that’s unfolded as I look back over the journey. But to be honest, it wasn't anything that we did intentionally, and I think I can say that about the whole Hillsong journey. I think that we're just lucky that in the part of the world that we grew up in, Australia has always had great churches and people that are following Jesus. But I guess the culture is a lot different in the church. Different people, different languages, and they all have different accents. And I think one thing about Australia is that we’re very laid back because it is a secular nation.

It was actually a weird thing to go to church in Australia. The majority of Australians don't go to church. So just the way that our culture was in the church within Australia was very laid back. So I think for us, we didn't know anything else except to dress how we wanted to, and sometimes that was the same as our school friends or whatever was the fashion at the time. 

We have a lot of respect and honor for the house of God and the platform, but I honestly just think that, again, if we can just be who we’re called to be and be authentic to ourselves, and do our best to honor and please God, then He will have His way. 

It's funny, and I can see now that it's probably worked to our advantage, but it's all laughs that that has happened because there was absolutely no intention. It’s just kind of how we grew up and it was to our surprise that it wasn't the same all over the world. God has been able to use that to help people and to get His message into the hearts of many, and I'm all about it. 

But yeah, we kind of sit back and laugh about that stuff because it was not intentional.

CP: Discipling people to be like Jesus in this day and age is very counter-cultural. How do you, as someone who has been in church leadership, disciple people in this generation?

JD: At the risk of sounding cliche or too basic, I can't go past looking at Jesus and use His example. I think where we get it wrong is when we overlook, or we go too far away from the truth of God's word. I think, automatically thinking about Jesus' ministry, it was full of opposition from the religious people of the day. There's not many or any stories that I can remember, in the Bible, where He got attacked by the non-Christian or the nonreligious people of the day. He got all this opposition, all resistance from the religion that had been set up in His time.

It does surprise me that other religious groups, or churches, or people of faith would oppose what we do. But I also think that we've got grace for that, because, again, Jesus. Also, Paul was constantly writing letters about how “we are going to have opposition, living this life of faith and this life sacrifice and hard times.” What I love though is that the Bible always talks about the fact that it's worth it, and God is with us, and He's made us perfect in our weakness.

It's not always going to work out the way that we want, it's not always going to be perfect. But at the same time, it is always going to be worth it and God is always with us. I think that would be the biggest thing that I want to encourage the next generation or anyone really to not get discouraged when things aren't going our way. To understand that out our journey of following God and being in relationship with Jesus is one of trusting Him and that He’s working all things together for good. 

I think, if we just all go with our emotions or feelings or circumstances, I think we can all get pretty discouraged. I'm 35 now and have been on this journey my whole life. When it comes to disciplining, if we look to the world for our inspirational strengths or stability, then we’re not going to go the distance.

But if we look to the Word of God, which is the truth, I believe that we can re-center what's really important and live the kind of life that God has planned for all of us. Knowing that we are human, and that we are going to stumble, we are going to fall, but God loves us too much to leave us the way that we are. He works with us and I'm just grateful that every day we get new mercies.

CP: What’s the difference between Hillsong UNITED, Hillsong Worship, and Hillsong Young & Free?

JD: We all have a laugh about it because on one hand it's really clear that they’re different but it can get very confusing because we are all trying to do the same thing, really. 

There was always Hillsong Worship and that was from the very early days. That was just our main church worship team that would lead worship on Sunday mornings and Sunday night services and write songs for the church. 

Then you’d have our youth group. Even when I was in youth group, 20 years ago now, the pastor encouraged our youth group to write songs that would really hit home for that age group and write in the style of music that would really encourage and speak to the young generation. So that's how UNITED got birthed.

Our pastors always encouraged us to bring people through and give young people the opportunity to serve God. So that's how Young & Free got birthed because UNITED has been going for 10 or so years and youth was getting a little bit too old for us. So we all encouraged the younger guys that were coming through. Slowly, that’s how Young & Free was birthed and that was kind of a new generation.

As UNITED, we thought, does that means that we should stop doing what we’re doing? But God had really created a special lane for us to create music, so we've kind of just kept going. 

So really, at the end of the day, the three different brands are all about writing songs that glorify God and help people. 

Hillsong Worship is definitely more about writing songs for churches to be able to sing on Sunday mornings. Young & Free are going for that next generation. We’re (UNITED) somewhere in between, doing whatever we can really.

CP: In a recent interview with former Hillsong worship leader Darlene Zschech, she said she really loves how honest and raw some of the newer worship music is. What inspires your music now? 

JD: First of all, I have to honor Darlene because she was my worship pastor growing up. And when I was too young to have the opportunity to be able to sing in big church, she really put her arm around me and I was just lucky to have her as a worship pastor. She always believed in me and all of us from UNITED and Young & Free.

For us, [it’s about] writing honest and authentic songs. I think that religion always wants to paint a picture that’s not real. [But for us, we want to create] something that makes it all about the things that Jesus came to establish, which is have a relationship with people, operating in His grace, His love His mercy.

I feel like Jesus spoke to the hearts of people, not to the heart of a religious organization. Even within the church and even with the best of intentions, I think we've got to always commit to being authentic, to being honest, and that's probably been one of the most key things for us.

I know I can speak on behalf of Joel Houston, who is our main writer and our main leader over the years, whenever we get together to write a project or when we get in the studio, he always says, “I want to write the most honest song I possibly can.” So it’s always a balance because you've got to put faith in there and keep it positive and all the rest of that.

But to be honest, I think it’s the grace of God that people are connected with the songs more than anything. That commitment to just writing the most honest songs that we can and at the end of the day, we don’t want to write a song that sounds good or that lots of people are going to listen to or that sells a lot of records, we want to write songs that are going to glorify God. And secondly, actually help people where they're at. That’s always been our main focus. And we've been blessed to still have had the ability to travel the world as we get to do that.

CP: You guys are bringing your tour back to America, what's your goal with the tour?

JD: I feel like America is such a big country, and there’s so many people and so many churches. We’ve been going to America a lot over the last 20 years and it’s hard to make a general statement on the whole of church in America, or Christianity in America.

I think that it's probably different for each person, but one thing I know is that we’ve never been more excited about this tour. It’s going to be the biggest tour that we've ever done, especially because we’re coming off a season where we just recorded a new album and it's the first live album we’ve done in almost 10 years. 

CP: What overarching message are you are hoping to get across with the new album? 

JD: We recorded it in the same auditorium where we recorded a lot of the early UNITED albums and gave us the platform that we've got today. So just going off how these songs have been going in our church and even just the few that we've released already, the response has been the best response we’ve ever had.

The name UNITED came by accident because it was just the name that we were giving these nights at youth, when we're gathering all the different age groups that used to come to our church. We would all come together and have these United youth nights.

But I think God planned for us to be called UNITED because now what we feel more than ever is that now’s the time for people to come together and be united and understand that we're not always going to agree on everything but let's stand behind the things we agree on. As believers, that’s the truth of God and His word and plan for humanity.  

So I think that it's a really important time because there's a lot of uncertain things out there. But there is also some certain things and that's that God is in control and God wants to work His destiny through His church and through His people.

And so that's what these tour nights are all about. We just want to unite people. We want to unite America as much as we possibly can. We believe that with God nothing is impossible. We’re just fired up about this tour because we think God's gonna do something really incredible and we’re just pumped that we get to be a part of it.

The new album PEOPLE is now available for pre-order. For more information on Hillsong UNITED or their U.S. tour, click, here.

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