This past Monday I had the privilege of being able to go to Hillsong United's "Empires" Tour in Toronto at the ACC.
Believe me, it was a trial getting there. I had booked the wrong day off from work and worked from 2-6pm on Monday when I thought the concert was on Tuesday. I work in Waterloo and the concert was starting in downtown Toronto at 7. AHH.
I tried to get the shift covered but to no avail. I hadn't really worried it about it until the few days before, since I had been SOO SURE I had been good and booked the day off and was all good to go. Nope, silly Nathan, being prepared is for adults (although truthfully the older I get the more I realize we're all still petty children at heart that just get better at acting).
BUT. Thankfully my friends at work heard about the concert and were super nice and let me go an hour early. So with that Sarah and I head to T-Dot. I was exhausted and slept in the car like a good boyfriend does (note: this is not what a good boyfriend does) while my fearless significant other drove. It was a beautiful night, but it was also rush hour, so when I woke up it was already two hours later and we hadn't even gotten to the ACC yet. We parked at Sarah's aunt's place and we Ubered from there to the ACC. Our Uber driver, while very nice and having had a bad experience with a previous customer (which he proceeded to tell me all about), took a wrong turn and we went onto the Gardiner by accident. I played it pretty cool, Sarah was a little more exasperated.
Once we arrived, we ran in to hear the excited cheers of everyone as JD came to the stage to talk about the band's experience with Syrian refugees. Sarah and I were super happy to not have missed them singing. We missed out on the fantastic Lauren Daigle (who was their opening act), but we got here for the main event, albeit 45 minutes late.
JD was basically talking about their experience as a band with Syrian refugees. They were there partnering with World Vision, and at the end of him telling their story, he asked if anyone in the audience would like to donate to World Vision's projects working with refugees. Sarah turned to me and said, "look how many people are going to give." And it's true. A lot of people raised their hand to receive a form and more information.
To the cynic this could be seen as a big money grab for an NGO by manipulating the emotions of people to give money to Christian music icons. To the naïve it could be seen as the best thing ever, all altruism and goodness. The truth is always I think somewhere in between. And perhaps the most important truth is the genuineness of JD and his recounting of the band's experiences. He was truly moved, and with all his heart wanted to help these kids, these men and women who had lost their homes and found no one willing to welcome them. He had gone there and he had seen their struggles, and if there's anything that I know is that actually going out and seeing and helping and listening to people in their struggles changes everything.
His compassion for these people didn't appear forced, it didn't seem fake. And I don't believe it was. I think it's continually easier for us as we get older to not trust anyone or what they say. Indeed, I learnt from a very young age to not trust people. But I think as this happens more and more we have to fight against it and take people for what they say they are. We should be careful, certainly, but if we consider every person to be out there to lie to us, what kind of life does that result in?
That's why I think I've become very good at seeing people and what their intentions are, because I'm always looking for what their intentions are, regardless of whether they think I am. So when I looked at JD and listened to what he was saying, I saw authenticity.
And that set the tone for the evening. There was an authenticity in everything the members of Hillsong United did that Monday night. It was authenticity that transcended their status as Christian worship music giants, that transcended their hip stylings, their technical genius and their incredible gifts (notably Taya Smith's insanely good voice). It was an authenticity that came off in waves from Joel Houston, their tall, grizzled leader, as he semi-preached between songs.
This is a group that has had tremendous success even in the secular world's eyes and especially in the Christian world's eyes. Their church has a congregation of thousands, with Hillsong Churches all over Australia, Europe, South America, and North America. Their songs are sung in churches the world over, and their influence, from generation to generation, has been almost unparalleled.
They have every right to get caught up in it.
The reason they don't is because they're all too aware of their human tendency to do just that.
I think that is especially embodied in their leader, Joel Houston. Not just in terms of his stature, but also in terms of the wealth of wisdom that he seems to carry. There was a time not too long ago where he was burnt out, where he didn't feel anything, as documented in RELEVANT magazine's 2013 article on the group. He couldn't feel God in what had become his work, and he decided he needed to take some time away from ministry. This was something that the Carl Lentz, the Hillsong NYC pastor, comments seems to speak more to Joel "taking what matters most - the state of his soul and his passion for Jesus - as seriously as he could." And I think that speaks to his priorities.
Because at the end of it all, after all the hoopla, it was all about Jesus.
And that was beautiful. Before the whole thing got really going Joel said that whatever you came here for, he hoped that you find it. I found that interesting because we really do affect what we find when we go to places and experience things. We get out of it what we're willing to get out of it so to speak. If we were there to be entertained he said, we would hopefully be entertained. If we were there to be critical, he said that there would be lots to be critical of. If we were there to meet with Jesus, that of course, would happen to.
That reminded me of the utter importance that surrender and faith has in the Christian faith. We have to let go of ourselves and let God expose us. And while that is so difficult for most people, even when they try, it is so vitally important to the life of a Christian. That for me was the difference between a One Direction concert per say and a Hillsong United concert. There is an element of vulnerability and transcendence because you have the opportunity to put your mind in a different place, a place of focus not on pleasure or earthly things, but on God.
And I've missed that so much. There were times when I felt tears come to my eyes as I felt the truth of the words that I sang. Adding to this was the thousands of people around me feeling the same thing and singing their hearts out.
It was a beautiful night of worship. There are a few things that I can list that I think were among my favourite things. And because everybody loves a good Top 5 list, I've decided to make one. This are top things that I enjoyed from the concert, so this isn't just deep thoughts about my faith that they prompted or even purely 'Christian' stuff either. It is a concert after all, and thus there were other mundane things to be enjoyed and appreciated besides the 'God' moments (although, most of my favourite things facilitated those moments). I'll count them down for suspense's sake.
5. The technical brilliance.
Now, while this video isn't from the concert or even of the Hillsong United band (this is Young & Free, Hillsong's youth band), it is I think very indicative of the technical brilliance of Hillsong's worship team and tech crew in general. While traditionalists may decry the 'show' of it all (an argument I think always has some merit if Jesus is lost as the focus of worship), my brother once wrote something about technical brilliance in worship that has really stuck with me. My brother is a huge fan of Elevation Church and how they do worship at their GTA campus, and the reason why is because they take worship seriously. Not in that they are serious/without joy in their worship, but rather because they are using their talents to the best of their ability, and offering what they are able to do (whether it be a fantastic light show, a stellar guitar riff, killer synth, or a lofty high note) to God.
I think there is a great lesson in that. We shouldn't be offering God worship that is mediocre. God rejected Cain's gift and accepted Abel's because while they both offered Him something, only Abel offered what was his best. God deserves our best, and he deserves worship to the best of our abilities.
I think that is demonstrated in the technical brilliance of the musicians that played and sang, and the tech team that put the show together, and I take great joy in seeing people use their talents for God.
4. Joel Houston's lack of voice/overflowing charisma.
Now, Joel's voice isn't what it used to be. It still has a great, gravelly power to it, but it can't reach the heights or volume that it used to, back when I was at the "This is Our God" Hillsong conference in high school. But what was so clear about him was that despite this, he held everything together up there. He seemed almost like an anchor. And hearing him speak only confirmed that for me.
He exuded a natural charisma that really is an intangible (perhaps a shallow one to some) that I think is vital for leaders in Joel's position. He was the kind of guy I'd listen to, regardless of him being the son of Brian Houston and Bobbie Houston or an internationally renowned songwriter and singer. He was an impressive person to listen to and to observe, and ultimately, compelling by nature.
3. The words.
The words of these songs are always the most important part I think of the song itself, beyond the chord progressions and the notes hit. It's what gives the singers, both on stage and in the stage the fervency and passion they have. My friend Isaac (who was also at the concert) likes to joke around and whenever I say something insulting to him he'll respond with "don't speak that into my life!" While we may joke, I think both Isaac and I understand the importance and power of words and speaking them, and in this case, singing them. The words that the team put to song were so clearly agonized over. Based in the Beatitudes, the words of the songs point us directly to God, to Jesus, to his grace, and to our freedom in that grace, and the difficulty in that journey.
Words have power, and the songs we sang are evidence to that.
2. The humility.
Despite all of their ability and their success, nothing about this night was about Hillsong United.
It was all about Jesus.
And that is humility that is not just incredibly difficult to find in the face of having such gifts, but also worthy of noticing and striving for.
1. Taya Smith's gift.
The most impressive vocalists I had ever seen in concert before this past Monday night were Zayn Malik and Ryan Tedder. Zayn's four octave range is beautiful and effortless, but he has very little charisma and didn't do much surrounded by the three other One Direction energizer bunnies. Ryan Tedder's voice and falsetto were also incredible to hear, and he left me shaking my head at his vocal acrobatics time and time again when I watched One Republic in concert (I seem to have a habit of watching bands with the word 'one' in their name).
And then there was Taya Smith.
I love a big, powerful voice. As a vocalist myself, I find tremendous joy in hearing a beautiful voice sing to its fullest extent: unrelenting, loud, uncompromising, and demanding to be heard. This is why I love gospel music, why I love ballads, and generally any song where the vocalist can shine. It's one of my favourite things, bar none.
And Taya Smith has all of that. Her range is mind-blowing, and her power shook the ACC. Her incredible gift is so evident, and it cannot be ignored. Joel, after she sang her first song that Monday night, didn't ignore it. He talked about her, and he talked not just about her ability to sing (I believe his exact words are "she sings pretty good") but about her spirit, and about its purity.
Not only does she have an incredible gift, but she is herself a gift, not just to us who hear her sing, but to the kids she ministers in the youth group at church, to those who listen to the advice that she gives.
She was incredible, and I found myself shaking head constantly at her ability, but more than that, how lost she was in singing to her God.
You know when you watch something, or hear something, and you just imagine that that's what heaven is like?
Taya Smith gave me one of those moments. And not because of her in and of herself, I want to make sure to note. But because of what she's done with her abilities to the glory of the One who deserves it all.
Well! That was that. Such a dope concert.
HUGE SHOUTOUT to Chelsea Campbell, who gave Sarah and I tickets for the concert. She's a beautiful, rambunctious lady who was unable to come, but who is doing some incredibly cool stuff this summer. Check it out at her blog here and if you'd like to, donate here to help her and her team do incredible work around the world.
Can't wait to go to another Hillsong United concert. Looks like they can't wait to come back either! Check out their Instagram post below about their time in Toronto.
Come back soon pls Hillsong miss you already.