No one has had a bigger impact on modern worship music than Darlene Zschech. At Hillsong Church Darlene crafted a sound, created a culture, and poured into a legacy that is still thriving a decade after she stepped down as Worship Pastor. Although she is best known as an anointed worship leader, award winning songwriter, and a brilliant singer, Darlene’s heart for Jesus – and people is what those close to her treasure most. Not immune to struggle, Darlene battled cancer and won and continues to shoulder an anointing that transformed the sound of worship as we know it. We recently caught up with Darlene to talk about her new record, raising up teams, keeping her voice in shape and so much more. Prepare to be inspired!
[WM] Here I Am, Send Me (read our review) is filled with great songs, gorgeous melodies, inspirational lyrics and outstanding vocal performances. “You Are Great” is a gem from start to finish, and the bridge is as anthemic as it gets. When you declare “we stand in awe”, it is a really special
moment in the song. What were you feeling when you wrote this section?
[Darlene] Lots of people have gone through incredible challenges in life. We all hit them at one point or another. For me, it was cancer. There were no guarantees. I had a very nasty prognosis. But through it all I just found the presence and the person of Jesus to be so consistent, and so “in my face”, and so complete. People ask me, “Did you lose your faith?” But I can’t think of anything further from the truth of where I was. No, I just found another level of who my God is. Deep in me, it was the first thing that came out: No matter what happens, God’s Word is true; He is great, and He is greatly to be praised! Through the fire, this is just where we are going. God was so close through it all, and the least I could do was say, “God is great!”
Martin Smith is so prophetic. I’ve always seen him as a bit of a “King David” kind of person. He has that amazing, beautiful, complicated thing on his life. I was really sick when he was here to co-write with me, and he just helped me to give voice to what was in my heart. That was literally just how the song came out.
[WM] The arrangement for “Here I Am, Send Me” builds and builds, really setting up the worship breakthrough moment that happens when you get to the bridge. What is the message and story behind this song?
[Darlene] The Holy Spirit revealed fresh things to me about that first worship moment in the bible. In Genesis 22, God calls Abraham, and Abraham’s first response is, “Yes, Lord.” To me that means “whatever You ask of me, before You even ask, my answer is ‘Yes!’” And then God tells Abraham to take his only son, and they go on this experience of worship. There’s an altar, and there’s a person’s heart on the altar. And I think we find a lot in that first experience of worship about how to respond when God calls us. Our natural response is to evaluate how it will affect our lifestyle, or what the paygrade is like, or if there are benefits. We need to learn to just say, “Yes, Lord! Whatever You ask, before You even ask, my answer is ‘Yes!’ And because You are a good God, I can trust You!”
[Darlene] I think that was just before my trip overseas to be part of an event where we sang for the Pope in St. Peter’s Square. I was spending a few days in Nashville on the way, and I think “You Will Be Praised” was the first bit of writing I had done outside of home. I was with Paul Baloche, and Jenn Johnson. We were meeting out for lunch and I said to him, “Why don’t you come in with us?” And we had the sweetest time just laughing and crying, and out came “You Will Be Praised”. I had a bit of an idea of what I wanted to do, and Paul and Jenn just helped me to bring it to the fore. I love the bridge. I love what it says and how it gets there. We’ve sung this song in our church now for a long time now, and it really helps people to declare and announce, “My soul, all my soul, will boast in the Lord!” That’s what the intent of the song is.
[WM] In your wildest dreams did you imagine that you’d be singing for the Pope?
[Darlene] And singing next to Andrea Bocelli? No! (laughter). It’s so funny. I caught so much flak for going and doing that. In the end, it didn’t matter, but it made me a bit sad because there were some Christians who got terribly personal and threatening. But I’ll tell you what I’ve seen over my life, and I’ve been leading worship now for a long time. I don’t want to do anything else. It’s my greatest privilege, as far as the musical context goes. But I’ve seen, whether it’s in Vatican City, or Capitol Hill, or distant crazy circumstances where I’ve sung with guards with automatic rifles standing behind me, like in Zimbabwe. I don’t go into these places to talk about people’s theology. I go wherever I’m invited to exalt Christ and to lift up His name. What I’ve found all over the world is that every time you do that, yes, there are going to be haters, and you’re going to get people who don’t understand, but I have a commissioning and a very refined purpose in my heart that knows that Jesus works anywhere that He is announced. Jesus works! He works in poverty, and He works in the richest of places. My job is to announce Him, and to get people to
So, singing in St. Peter’s Square was a crazy privilege. For the couple of days leading up to the event we were staying in some very modest hotels in Rome with various priests and some Jewish leaders that had come, along with Andrea Bocelli and his family. Louie Giglio was there too, and for those couple of days we ate all of our meals together, and we got to talk for days about what the Holy Spirit was doing. And that was probably as rich and beautiful as the actual experience of leading that worship moment in Vatican City. There were all of these beautiful people in the choir and the orchestra, young people, just running up to me; Spirit-filled young people running up to me saying, “We’ve got the fire! Thank you for coming! We’ve had the fire for years but we didn’t know what to do!” It was so good!
I feel sad that some of the church couldn’t come to the place that, even if they didn’t understand what I was doing there, could still pray for me and believe that God was going to do amazing things, rather than criticizing and being quite elaborate in their criticism.
Before I left for Rome I had a little bit of time with Matt Maher, who we all love. And he helped me also to understand about where I was going. The church at large is so beautiful in the ways that we help each other understand, and grow, and pray.
I still pinch myself, thinking about standing next to Andrea! Seriously? A year ago, the doctors told me that I may not even make it, and here I am one year later in my beautiful wig (laughs), feeling terrible from all of the drugs that I had been taking, and continue to take, and I just felt God saying, “I’ve got you.” And it was so beautiful.
[Darlene] The pastor at Hillsong in Australia, Brian Houston, is an outstanding leader. You can look at the music and the worship and all of that, but it comes down to leadership, and Brian is a strong leader. When you take a look at Bethel and the impact they are having, you have to look at where the fountain is flowing from, right from the top with Bill Johnson. He is just an outstanding human being. The impact that comes from these ministries is not a fluke. You don’t just decide to work harder, faster, bigger, and wider year after year after year. As momentum begins to happen, great leadership looks at how the people in the ministry are living their lives, and how are their children flourishing. Great leadership asks questions like, “Are they getting enough time to write, and yet enough time to live and enough time to play and have fun, and enough time to be in God’s presence?” A great leader evaluates these things to ensure that success can be sustained. A great leader looks at the balances and the actual people of the ministry. Everyone else looks at the fruit, but a great leader will be looking at the people and concerned with caring for the people while
asking, “Is this sustainable?” Without the right checks and balances, it is not!
Go back to the top of these ministries with impact and you will see some of the greatest leaders. Elevation Church is another example. Look at Steven and Holly Furtick; they are incredible! Look at what The Belonging Company is doing now with releasing all of this beautiful stuff, and you look at the top and see Henry and Alex Seeley in the mix and loving those people. They love the presence of God, and they really love those people, as pastors and shepherds.
Lots of people want what they see, but they probably don’t have the ability to do what is coming from the top of those ministries. At Hillsong we give a lot of credit to Brian because he is an exceptional leader. So, that’s just one thing.
Another thing that is really important is to have a consistent teaching to your teams. Week in and week out at Hillsong, year after year, (and I do it now with the teams at Hope Unlimited), we teach on the theology of worship. We dig into the meaning of worship, like, “What do these Psalms even mean? What am I actually singing? Do I understand what intercession is? Or spiritual warfare? Or intimacy with God?” We want people to understand why they are there on the teams. Lots of people get caught up in the playing of the songs, but do they really understand why worship is so important? Do they really understand why their unseen life and their seen life must be consistent, and how it will cause problems in their ministry if they are following two different paths? So, the framework and the teaching within the teams is so important for people to understand why it is that they do what they do.
Also, loving the person more than their gifts is another key. When people know that they are loved and valued you get much greater long term outcome for their life. In the end, we all want to know that if we are missing from the dinner table, we are missed! People are not just replaceable commodities. That drummer on your team isn’t just a drummer; he or she is a person. Let’s pastor and shepherd these beautiful people who are just doing their best. We have to let them know that they are more valuable for who they are than for what
[WM] More than just being a worship leader or songwriter, you’ve built a legacy of people whose lives you have sown into and raised up. Can you offer some specific advice for worship pastors who are not naturally gifted at raising people up?
[Darlene] I’ll be super honest. As a worship pastor, you must remember that it’s not about you. I was always surprised that I was the one leading the team and leading the worship. I kept waiting for someone to figure out that I wasn’t any good at it. I always felt like, “What on earth am I doing here?” But when you look at the bible, it is full of great people who all felt the same way. David said, “Who am I?” Moses was the stuttering, reluctant leader. And it just goes on and on with people who couldn’t believe that God was using them to lead people. I think there’s a measure of that attitude that is really good for worship pastors, because it keeps us on our knees, and it keeps us hungry for the things of God and recognizing that without Him it’s all just clanging cymbals and activity without any spiritual transformation.
If you don’t feel qualified, but you’ve found yourself in that position, I would say that you’re among great company and among really great people of God from the bible who found themselves in the same place and feeling the same way.
I would also say that you need to be a secure person. What I mean by that is that you need to be able to make it your job to raise and release; to get yourself out of the way and raise and release. After making a few mistakes early on, I realized that I had to put people in situations where they were doing things for the first time, and in environments where basically they couldn’t fail. Like bringing up a new worship leader, but always having someone strong right next to them, and a great band all around them, and people who can follow anything. It’s about trying to set people up to win at every level. With tech and production people, put them next to someone who knows what they’re doing. Don’t set people up to fail. You’ve got to take the time to set people up to win.
Often, people’s first go at a new thing happens in front of a lot of people. And if they fail, not many people have the ability to just say, “Oh well, I’ll just give it another try.” Not many creative people will do that. Creative people feel things deeply, and so when they make a mistake in public, they feel the pain of that so deeply. And often it’s just a simple musical thing that knocks people out of the game. Not because anyone else beat them up over it, but because they beat themselves up. So… set people up to win! Give them wins! Help build their tenacity in the Spirit.
And lead by example. I will often say to people on my team, “Just watch what I’m doing. I don’t even know how to explain some of this, so just watch what I’m doing.” Like when you break out into a free song, and suddenly you’ve got these beautiful young worship leaders with the fire of God in them, but you can see that they’re a bit nervous. You can see them watching and listening and observing how you’re leading the band. Give them that example and raise them up and release them to do it themselves. Set them up to win!
[Darlene] The older I get, the more I have to exercise my voice. It’s not rocket science. I do warm ups, and I cool down. I have to stay fit, which has been harder after chemo. My voice has suffered a bit after chemo. I used to be able to sing for hours and hours, and I have done that year in and year out, but I don’t have that kind of stamina now. My voice is a gift, and I have to treat it as such.
For women, as they get older, the tell-tale is in their vibrato. You lose some strength and vocal tone. So I have to work hard at that and use all of the basic exercises. They are probably more important now than they have ever been. There is no shortcut to being great at something. You have to do the work. People don’t like that word, but you have to do the work.
[WM] You sound incredible on this new album! Your voice really shines on the bridges, and you nail that daylights out some pretty amazing notes!
[Darlene] Thank you! To be honest, I felt like maybe I let the project down a little bit. But in the end, it’s not about my vocal performance. I did my best, and that’s all I can do. And sometimes I was a bit frustrated with that. But hallelujah! Praise God! It’s about His glory and not my voice! We just do our best for Him. I’m happy with the songs and really happy with the story and the journey. It’s very intentional on the album, from where we start and where we end up with “Here I Am, Send Me”, and “Go”. I think it’s more intentional than I’ve ever been, and I’m really happy with that.
[WM] In many ways, free worship is that antithesis of traditional arrangement elements like words, melodies, dynamics, and form. How do you prepare people to step into this and to respond to the Holy Spirit in the moment?
[Darlene] I see the song as a vehicle into those moments. I think freedom is the point. The one who the Son of God sets free is free indeed! Freedom is what we’re announcing over people. We are declaring the freedom that we have in Christ.
Part of my role in worship is to continue to say to people, “We’ve given you a song to help voice what’s in your heart. Now that you feel a little more secure in singing out… sing your own song! What do you want to say that I can’t say for you? I can’t worship for you. I can provide a vehicle, and I can declare His Word, but I can’t worship for you. Only you can do that for you. These songs will help you worship, by the grace of God. They will help release what’s in your heart. But there’s a song that only you can sing, and only you can declare.” I love that we get to lead people into that place!
There’s a moment at the end of “Beloved” that’s so powerful. There’s a line that says, “As Your Spirit pours out…” and then we just step back and see where it goes. You hear the people begin to just love God as they sing. And it’s not about being in tune. Worship has never been about all that stuff. Worship is when you see the human heart respond to the greatness of God. Music helps, but it’s not the be all and end all. I think there will be more of that. As the days of God’s glory grow brighter and brighter, and as the earth grows darker and darker, and as the Kingdom of God is advancing, there will be more of these moments when we least expect it.
Worship teams, get ready for it. Don’t be afraid of it. It’s not scary or spooky. It’s not weird. As you lead people to a place and then release them to where they can sing their own song to God, I think that’s one of the highest compliments for a worship leader. Because now you are out of the way and it becomes about the person and God. And how beautiful is that?