In a recent survey we discovered that just under forty percent of the churches in the U.S. have a youth worship team. While it is easy to see the impact that Hillsong United has had, it is just as important to remember they started off as a youth worship team. Thanks to the encouragement of leaders like Darlene Zschech, this team flourished and grew into the international phenomenon they are today.

Matt Crocker literally grew up in church, and the sound that is Hillsong United was birthed out the deep relationship between its members. Originally a drummer, Matt was encouraged to step out from behind the kit and lead worship. He also spent years honing his songwriting skills and as an end result, he’s become Joel Houston’s primary writing partner. Noting that Hillsong United is but one team, if all of us are missional about raising up the next generation of worship musicians, imagine the impact this next generation could have. If you’re looking for a playbook on what to do and how to do it, then read on!

(top) Dylan Thomas, Jihea Oh, Joel Houston, Taya Smith, Simon Kobler (bottom) Matt Crocker, Jonathon “JD” Douglass, Jad Gillies, Michael Guy Chislett, Benjamin Tennikoff

[WM] Hillsong United started out as a youth worship team. What specific things did you and/or your leaders do to propel you guys on to the things that you’ve done?

[Matt Crocker] I think just the fact that we all grew up together is the biggest thing. We all went to church together and went to youth group together. Some of the guys have known each other since they were toddlers. The music came after all of the friendships and the fun. The longevity is there because we are friends and family, and we treat it like that before anything else. Continuing to make sure that’s the main thing is what has driven us to keep going.

[WM] What did you learn about worship from Pastor Brian Houston?

[Matt] He encourages us, and is so releasing in his leadership. It doesn’t stop on the platform. He trusts us. For me, my understanding when I get up on the stage is that I’m to pave the way for the message of God. That happens through songs and worship, and we want to point everything towards the preaching and the message. We treat it as a journey. My goal is to create an atmosphere for people to be able to enter into the presence of God and then hear the message of God through the actual speaking of it. I love the idea of teaming up with someone to create that atmosphere. It allows people to encounter His presence.

[WM] How did Darlene Zschech’s hand shape the team, and you personally?

[Matt] I grew up with Darlene. She is kind of like a mother figure to everyone. I’ve been in the church since day one, so I’ve known Darlene my whole life. She just loves people. I think that’s the best way to mature people in their relationship with Christ, is to love them through it. She is that person. She’s obviously amazing at what she does, but off the platform she is even more amazing.

photo by Joe Termini

[WM] Do you have any discipleship tips for leaders so that they don’t miss the proverbial boat when it comes to raising up the next generation?

[Matt] I would say that you have to trust people through their journey and you have to release them. For us, we all came through the youth ministry, and most of us were in a leadership position at some stage through that. It’s about allowing the kids to use what they’ve got, and to not just think that your way (because you’ve done it already) is the way to go. I look at Hillsong Young and Free, and their journey. A couple of us were overseeing them at the start, trying to help them in getting through the first steps, and we quickly realized that we just needed to get out of the way and let them do what they do.

I’d say to any young person out there, you have to put the effort and the work in. Find out what you’re passionate about and go for it! I remember the day I decided that I was going to write songs. I didn’t know I was going to do it for church or for Hillsong United, I just knew that I wanted to write songs and do music. I decided then and there that is what I was going to do, and that I was going to put the time and effort into it. I spent a lot of time on my own, learning the craft and kind of slaving away at it. I found out that it’s kind of like a muscle. You have to exercise it to grow it. I spent many hours on my own, alone, learning how to write.

[WM] There’s a quote on your Instagram feed from when you guys were starting on Empires. It says, “The way we started this album looks something like this: We had nothing on the board, so we made the board and believed God for the songs to come. Believing for the supernatural takes a natural step sometimes. Especially when writing an album. So, we got to it and just stepped out and started.” Considering the impact that disc has had, it’s refreshing to hear how much you let God lead you as you stepped out of the boat. What are your suggestions for worship teams in seeking out what God has for them?

[Matt] I think people tend to look at what we do, and they think, “That’s the way to do it.” Our journey has only ever been just stepping out of the boat and kind of not knowing exactly what it was that we were doing, or how to do it, but trusting that was what God wanted us to do. I’m a big believer that God’s hand is on the Church, with a capital “C”. But also, His hand is on every individual church, and every church out there has its purpose in Christ and has a mission to do something in that neighborhood or that city. I would say, figure out what it is that you believe that God is wanting you to do personally. Take from what’s out there. There are so many churches doing great things, not just us. Take inspiration and learn, but also figure out what it is that you’ve got. Maybe it’s not the music, but maybe there’s some other form of ministry that is something that God wants you to tap into. But don’t just think that they way that other people are doing it is the only way to do it. God is incredible and He can use anything.

[WM] All of the Above came out a decade ago…

[Matt] That’s a long time ago!

[WM] That was a huge album and included “Break Free”, “Lead Me to the Cross”, and “Hosanna”. I was in Australia at the time and I remember that every church I visited was playing “Hosanna”. A lot of time has passed since then, and you guys are every bit as relevant today as you were then, probably more so. What advice do you have for teams that want to develop the kind of longevity that you guys have?

[Matt] We love music, and we’re not just trying to progress our music because that’s “what you do.” It’s because we love it and we’re listening to music all the time and learning and trying to evolve. When I was growing up, honestly, I hated Christian music. But what I fell in love with was worship. It drew me in to realize that these people were writing these songs to pour out their hearts before God. I fell in love with that part of it. Now, I guess I’m involved in the Christian industry, but I know that every single person I’ve ever met that’s involved with it is doing it for the reason of loving people and loving God. I think, for us, it’s been about continuing to press in for the deeper things of God. I think that connects with people on a level that makes them want to listen to us, or to be a part of what we’re doing, or to come to the nights that we put on. We’re trying to be as honest as we can in what we do.

[WM] I saw an interview you did with an Australian T.V. station, and you were talking about trying to reach unchurched people through the medium of what you guys do. People in the secular community are used to seeing someone like Justin Bieber, who many people know is a believer, but they see the performance side of what he’s doing. It’s not reasonable to expect that if you stand like a bump on a log on stage that people from the secular are going to be able to relate to what you are doing. What’s your advice for people who are trying to bring in elements that will relate to people who aren’t saved and build that bridge, while not having it be performance?

[Matt] I look at JD, who is kind of the classic crazy guy on stage. I look at the way he dances around on stage, and I know that he’s not doing it because he’s a good dancer. He’s probably the worst dancer on planet earth! (laughter) But he’s so amazing at just going crazy on stage and having fun! I think that’s what it is. It’s about having fun and having that joy that’s in God where you just let loose and go for it and be crazy. I don’t think it’s a performance thing for us. This is a real joy for us and we’re just going to give it all we’ve got. I think it does connect with the people that come to a worship night, or with a congregation, or whoever it is. It’s about just being vulnerable with them. We’ll come to the States for three weeks straight and do twelve nights, and Joel will say things that you hear every night on the stage, but if the moment needs it… he’ll take a different path and just start speaking out. That’s all about being mindful of what the Spirit wants to do on stage. We’re not afraid to do that and to step out of the box or away from what we’ve rehearsed. The more you rehearse and know the plan, the more you can deviate from it comfortably. You can always get back into it if it goes downhill. That’s what I always say back home if we’re rehearsing for a night, “Let’s make this as good as we can in rehearsal. Now we know what we’re doing. And now we step out of it and go the way God wants us to go.” I think that is what has helped me along the way – knowing what I’m doing, so that I can get out of that boat.

photo by Joe Termini

[WM] Like Chris Quilala from Jesus Culture, you’re a guy that stepped out from behind the drum kit to lead worship – love it! From the drummer’s perspective, you literally see everything that’s happening on the stage. How did that serve you as you stepped out from behind the drum kit, both as a worship leader and songwriter and arranger?

[Matt] I feel like I learned how to lead worship from behind the drums. I stopped drumming because I broke my leg, but I also felt like there was always so much pressure on the drummer, because if you mess up on stage as the drummer, it is so noticeable and can really derail everything that is happening. I didn’t really enjoy that pressure. I loved playing drums, but I didn’t like the pressure. I guess, in a natural sense, it was a selfish move not to play the drums anymore. But I felt like I genuinely learned how to lead people in worship through the drums.

I was very reluctant to sing though. One of my worst fears was to get up in front of people and sing. But Jad Gillies was kind of pushing me along and telling me that I couldn’t just keep writing songs and not get up there and sing. He was kind of joking, but also a little bit serious. And I knew in my heart that it was going to happen eventually. I didn’t want it to, but I also kind of did want it to happen because I felt that it was how God was directing me. So, eventually I just got over it and stood up in front of people. I stood there with my head down, and so nervous that I didn’t move an inch. I sang a song and kind of chipped away at that confidence issue I had, and I remember one day realizing that this was about God connecting with people so I needed to step out of the way. For me, that took away all of my issues with being confident up on stage and gave me a boldness to just do it and to get up and lead people in worship.

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