Hillsong Pastor Brian Houston: Mountain Tops and Valleys - Hope 103.2

Hillsong Pastor Brian Houston: Mountain Tops and Valleys

Brian Houston talks candidly about a PTSD diagnosis, depression, his new book, and dealing with the glare of the media.

By Clare BruceSaturday 27 Jun 2015Inspirational StoriesReading Time: 8 minutes

During one of his most successful decades, Pastor Brian Houston was quietly suffering a near breakdown, triggered by his father’s fall from grace. 

The head of Sydney’s Hillsong church has made this raw admission in his new book, Live, Love, Lead, released by Harper Collins last week. Speaking to Hope Media, he said the discovery in 1993 that his father Frank Houston had abused children, caused him massive personal fallout over several years.

Video: Brian talks about his father and the ensuing panic attack and depression

In public he kept his head above water; in private, he was experiencing a “10 or 12 year decline” into an emotional valley.

“I feel like I only really have in recent times  moved on,” he said of his dark-tunnel season. “At the time [when Frank Houston’s admissions emerged], I went into leadership mode, in the church and with my own family. I looked after everyone else but I don’t think I looked after myself.

“Our church, and [wife] Bobby’s and my lives were exploding outwardly, but I was imploding inwardly, to the point where I got diagnosed as having post traumatic stress. I wasn’t about to jump off a cliff, but I would say that I did go through years of depression.”

A panic attack and PTSD diagnosis was a turning point that helped him progress towards recovery.

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“Even just being told that [I had post traumatic stress] helped me, because I understood this is real,” he said. “In the first half of my life, up to when I found out about my father at age 45, if you had told me that one day I’d have a near burnout experience and go through periods of depression, I would have thought you were on drugs. I just was never that person. I was happy-go-lucky, took everything in my stride and everything in those days in my life was great.”

Lessons Learnt From An Emotional Meltdown

 He said he’s since “bounced back” to an emotionally strong place, and is now in a position where his pain has been translated into strength.

“In relation to my father, apart from anything else I’m fundamentally just disappointed,” he said. “But you come through those tests and you work out that God is still God no matter what, and if you come through, you’re going to be all the stronger for it.”

His emotional struggle has also made him more understanding of human frailty.

“As I look back across my life, I don’t feel I’ve ever been ready for any new step. It’s really just a constant journey of faith.”

“I’ve learned that no-one should ever think it can’t happen to them. And we’ve all got to look after our own inner well being.”

Despite his outer confidence, Brian said he often finds his responsibilities overwhelming – including the annual Hillsong Conference, due to start next week. But he believes being out of his depth is not a bad place to be.

I think it makes us depend on God,” he said. “Sometimes I find things a little overwhelming, but I’ve learned to be much better at just being confident and trusting God, looking straight ahead and doing what’s next.”

“As I look back across my life, I don’t feel I’ve ever been ready for any new step. It’s really just a constant journey of faith.”

The Making Of A Preacher

 The seeds of Brian Houston’s calling were sown at age 7, in one of his father Frank Houston’s “crusade” meetings in New Zealand.

“My parents were Salvation Army officers when I was born, and later took on an [Assemblies Of God] church in Auckland,” he said. “In those days my father used to go out into rural New Zealand and do crusades, revival meetings. I remember specifically, in a tent in the north of New Zealand, going up the front and making that decision [at age 7, to accept Jesus].

“But age 17 was when I really started developing a relationship with God.”

He says he only ever wanted to serve God.

“I grew up with this passion to serve Jesus. I think a lot of it then was my father’s influence, I admired him greatly and loved what he did. I literally can’t remember a time when I didn’t think “one day I want to preach, and be involved in ministry”. It’s been part of me as long as I can remember.”

The young Brian was, surprisingly, once a nervous preacher who fled from his first Bible college preaching assignment out of fear. It’s arguably a work of God’s grace, then, that his church has become such an international influence.

Hillsong’s Global Influence

Bobbie and Brian Hoston

Brian and Bobbie Houston. Photo: Supplied

 At Hillsong’s recent ‘Heart For The House’ weekend, spotlighting the church’s missions and humanitarian work, it was clear how far its influence reaches. They’re partnering with a church in persecuted Iraq, supporting work with street kids in India, rescuing children from slavery around the world through A21, and helping local Sydneysiders in need through City Care, among many other initiatives.

And later this year, the church will launch its 14th and 15th international campuses, in Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires. One wonders which nation will be next. Brian says, though, that there’s no blueprint.

“I’ve never had a master plan,” he said. “My goal is just to keep on serving Jesus, keep building the church, and I find that when the time’s right God just puts something into my heart or the heart of those around me, and we make those decisions. It’s really about the right person, at the right place, at the right time.”

Surviving The Glare Of The Media

 Despite the church’s positive influence in many areas, the Australian media is famously intent on finding fault. As a result, Brian has had to develop some thick skin and media savvy.

He’ll never, for example, publish another book like You Need More Money – which he admits made him a sitting duck for the media after its publication in 2000. (He still stands by its principles, but admits it was poorly written and titled badly.)

“These days, a lot of it’s water off a duck’s back. I’ve got better at not allowing it to rule my spirit.”

These days, while he still finds the guilty-before-innocent approach of many journalists disappointing, he has learnt to roll with the punches.

“At first when we started getting criticism, the unfairness of a lot of it and the fear of what might happen – (will people still come to church?) – was very real,” he said. “These days, a lot of it’s water off a duck’s back. I’ve got better at not allowing it to rule my spirit.”

Brian Houston On Same Sex Marriage

A thick skin is an asset when it comes to answering journalists’ questions about moral debates – like same sex marriage. On that issue, Brian said he hoped laws, if introduced, wouldn’t affect the church’s right to decide which couples it would marry.

“I think it’s a very vexing and challenging topic,” he said. “The moment you get asked about something like gay marriage on secular media in particular, you’re either going to lose people on the one side, or you’re going to lose your constituency on the other side. And if you say nothing, you lose everybody. And so it’s one of those questions where there’s just no great answer.”

“Real people grow up in churches struggling with their sexuality, and sadly sometimes they’ve spoken to their youth leader, perhaps, or their own parents, and felt this incredible rejection – and either spend the rest of their life hating God and hating the church, or sadly even more tragic than that, become suicidal because they feel hopeless. They’re in a world that doesn’t accept who they believe they are. So I very much feel the human weight of it.

“[Yet] I think the word [of God] is very clear that homosexuality is a sin. So I don’t find it easy. I find it sad that you’ve got to try and write a whole lot of people off through one media statement.”

Life Has Softened His Approach To Ministry

Brian Houston and Hope 103.2's Clare Chate

Brian Houston with journalist Clare Chate of Hope 103.2

Years of ministry have changed and softened Brian towards people and their personal struggles.

“I’m a lot softer I think than I used to be, even towards our own team and staff,” he said. “And some of the things that seemed to matter when you were younger just don’t seem to matter so much when you get a little older.”

His view of God has changed, too.

“I grew up in what you would call a classic Pentecostal church, believing that you shouldn’t be in movie theatres in case Jesus comes again while you’re in the theatre. My sisters didn’t wear jeans and you didn’t buy ice creams on Sundays.

“But in the early years of our church, I got a revelation of God that was just much bigger, broader. I think I got to know the heart of God a whole lot more, and really started to believe in a God who wants to bless people and build their lives.

“I definitely would have a greater revelation of God’s grace. It was out of that, that I feel like Hillsong Church really has become all that it has become. I think it’s framed my preaching, our ministry, the personality of our church and the Australian Christian Churches, all out of a revelation of God.”

Getting revelation from God is one of his greatest loves.

“Bobby and I now have such a great team around us that I have far more time to be just studying and meditating and writing and in prayer, spending time with the Lord. And I love it. I find my passion for learning, for really getting to know God’s word is stronger than it’s ever been.”

Handing Over The Baton

 In 1993, Brian Houston famously sat in his office and journalled about ‘the church that I see’ – envisaging the TV broadcasts, worship music and international influence that are now a reality. His aim was never to be big for big’s sake, but rather to see people touched by the love of Jesus and the local church.

“I would love to go down as an advocate for the local church because I’m a great believer in its potential – to be a house which is family, community, that equips people to go out and be all that God’s called them to be,” he said.

His hope for the next 20 years is that Hillsong will continue to grow, in the hands of younger, greater leaders.

“I’ve always tried to be very intentional about empowering younger people,” he said. “I hope my legacy is to build a church that is passed on to a younger generation, who believe by God’s grace that they’ll make it even stronger. I think that’s the way to grow old gracefully in ministry.”

Watch the full Brian Houston Interview

Live Love Lead by Brian Houston is out now from Harper Collins.

Live Love Lead by Brian Houston