[WM] The release of your latest album III marks the third chapter in the Hillsong Young & Free story. In many ways, Young and Free is like a third book in the Hillsong trilogy. The same way that United grew to become the voice of a generation, Young and Free has become a voice for the generation that followed. What essential elements of the Hillsong DNA connect the dots between the three generations that make up Hillsong Worship?
[Alex Pappas] Wow! That’s such a big, great question. I think the essential things would be genuine, heartfelt worship and a desire to write songs that would connect with people exactly where they are. Like you said, we’re the third band of the movement to come out of our church, and genuine heartfelt worship is so fundamental.
We’ve been calling III the third chapter, but the third chapter has really looked like really trying times. When we were younger, it was easy to have declarations like “I love you God” and big statements like that. But once you’ve lived a little bit of life and been through some seasons, God teaches you some things. We’ve had a few “trial by fire” seasons. Luckily for us, God chose to use those seasons to grow us and sharpen us. These songs are the representation of that.
[WM] Unlike the key members of the United team, you didn’t ‘grow up Hillsong’. You grew up in a small town here in the States before moving to Sydney to attend the Hillsong International Leadership College. After that, you went on to become the Youth Worship pastor at the Hillsong City Campus. Looking back, it seems pretty clear that God birthed a spirt of worship inside you and called you to Hillsong to develop it. Can you tell us about some of the dreams you felt God breathing life into, as well as some of the specific things you did in preparation for stepping into God’s call on your life?
[Alex] When I was seventeen I took over leading worship for the youth and young adult ministry at my local church. I vividly remember watching a documentary that Hillsong United made about one of their albums. Their story was pretty similar to ours in that they were just a bunch of kids who loved God, wanted to praise him as best as they could with whatever they had in their hand at the time. We watched that with our whole worship band and I remember thinking, “We’re not very good, but God can use this for something, and I don’t know what it is.”
And this is the thing. I knew I wanted to do music and had those dreams in my heart. The whole way people were speaking into my life saying, “You’re meant to do worship!” But I was a little bit reluctant, and was like, “Is this the thing? Is this what you have for me, because I don’t see how I can fulfill all of the dreams that you’re given me, so I’m just going to trust you.”
It wasn’t a day’s journey. It wasn’t the next day. But as I look back, the thing I would say to encourage people would be this – God’s got you where He’s got you for a reason. It’s not by accident. He’s often got us in places that don’t look like they’re the fulfillment of our dreams, but He’s using that to build our character. He’s using it to build our craft. He’s using it to prepare our skills, to prepare us for the day that He’s going to put something bigger in our hands. He wants us to be ready for all that He’s going to entrust us with.
[WM] In our last interview with Brooke Fraser, she echoed the opening line from “Only Wanna Sing”, emphasizing that when you guys tour it’s not a performance, you’re ‘just doing church’. Can you speak to the key distinctions that separate the two?
[Alex] Absolutely. Sometimes we play at a church and sometimes we play at a local venue. The amazing thing is that wherever we go, we really believe we are turning it into a house of God. Turning it into a place of worship. Wherever we are, we see different cultures and the way people worship represented.
We make set lists just like any other worship team or any other band if you want to call it that, but one thing I love is never knowing what to expect. We’re going to read the room, lead people in worship, and trust God to take it where He wants it to go. Our aim and our goal is to see where people are at, have eyes to see and ears to hear, and if its taking them one step deeper with Jesus, that’s the thing. There might be one person in the room whose arms are folded and they’re not interested whatsoever and don’t even know how they got there. If we can get that person to clap their hands, we’ve taken them one step further in opening up and bonding with Jesus.
Yeah, some people might call our events a ‘show’, but one of the guys on our team has started to say, “Maybe it’s a show of God’s glory, and what we’re doing up there is pointing people closer to Jesus!”
[WM] I saw MGC (Michael Guy Chislette) traipsing around in the ‘Making of’ video for III. In one of our interviews with him, he talked about not getting in the way of what you guys were doing instinctively. Albeit coming from a difficult season, this new album is more mature, and the sounds are awesome! Which songs speak to you most and why?
[Alex] My favorite song from the record is “Days Gone By” which is funny because you just said how good the sounds are, and this is probably the simplest song on the record. Going back to what I said before, I think we’ve all been through a bit of a trial season. I think about the Psalms and there are so many verses where God is teaching David, trialing him to strengthen his hands for the work, and for praise. It’s so relevant to us and where we’ve been. I love this song so much because we so quickly forget to look back, you know? It’s so easy to be caught up in everything we’re doing. What’s the next thing I’m working on? What’s the next thing I need to do? What’s the next thing I need to stress about? We so quickly lose sight of what has happened. The things we’ve prayed for. The things we’ve hoped for. “Days Gone By” is about looking back, and seeing the faithfulness of God. Seeing that He’s been there working it out. Remembering that I was crying over this, praying for that. Looking back at God’s faithfulness. Looking back at what He’s done.
[WM] You co-wrote “Wake”, “Alive”, “Love Won’t Let Me Down”, and “Real Love”. As I look back, I’d have to say that those are probably my favorite Y&F songs. Most people don’t wake up one day and start writing ‘hit’ worship songs, so who are some of the people who spoke into your life about writing, and how did that impact you?
[Alex] One thing that I’m so grateful for about the size of the Hillsong team is that people are still giving us feedback, still speaking into us, still challenging us on our melodies, our lyrics, and all that stuff. While I was still in college and serving in youth, I had a worship pastor who I served directly under. I would send him songs all the time. More often than not he would just be like, “Cool bro, that’s a pretty good idea.” I’d be like, “Yes! What can we do with it?” and he’d say, “Write another song!” and it would be like, “Rip my heart out – tear it into a million pieces!” What’s funny is that we had a conversation the other week and laughed about it because when we first wrote “Alive”, I showed it to him and he was just kind of like, “I think it sounds like something else, I don’t know about it man.” It was kind of devastating to me, but at the same time there were other people that did believe in it.
One thing I’ve learned as a song writer and a worship leader, having peoples’ opinions that you value is good. But being confident in yourself, backing yourself, and trusting yourself is best. God’s been good, He’s helped me write some okay songs I think. (laughs)
[WM] What advice do you have for churches on raising up the next generation of songwriters from within their ranks?
[Alex] Just let them be a part of it in whatever ways you possibly can. If you’re a worship team making music, let them in the room. Let them come to the studio and open their eyes to future possibilities. That’s the kind of stuff that sets brains on fire, so give them a chance. It doesn’t have to be taking the first song they write and doing it in church this Sunday. But, by saying, “I believe in you, you’re gonna crush it, and we need the songs that are in you, so be a good steward now!” I can’t stress how much letting a young person know that you believe in them means.
[WM] You have a great blog post on the Hillsong website titled “Leading a Young and Free Generation in Worship”. One of my favorite bullet points includes a quote from Jad Gillies about not leaving anyone behind. “You leave the ninety-nine behind for me…” right?” Tell us about what this looks like in the local church, be it big or small.
[Alex] It’s funny, I am so ADD, which is a really interesting quality to have as a worship leader. You need to be singing a song, aware of the lyrics, and aware of what’s happening musically. You’ve got a music director who’s talking in your head, pastors off to the side, the room. and the congregation you’ve got to read. So many things happening all at once! When it comes to leading His people, God prepares us and graces us for it.
Jad loves finding the guy with his arms crossed in the room and locking eyes. Not to make them feel awkward, it just means looking at a person and engaging them, letting them know that they’re seen. People often come to church and think, “I don’t really want to be here. I’m going to sneak in and sneak out. No one is ever going to notice that I was here.” Hopefully someone would have said hello on their way in and loved on them.
Our job is to engage with all the people in the room as best as we can. Sometimes it’s weird, but sometimes you see people’s walls come down, and they feel like they can be a part of this. If they were sitting there unengaged, now you might see them swaying side to side. That could be the step that they took today towards engaging in worship. If they’ve got their hands lifted, we’ve taken a huge step today. Like you said, he would leave the ninety-nine behind for the one. To the best of our human ability, we just have to see where people are and take them on that journey.
[WM] What are five things that you think are key to building a great youth worship team?
[One] The number one thing is to pray together. My favorite thing about our youth ministry is that when we pray, we cram into this little stairwell near the stage and pray together. We squeeze in real tight, talk about the night, have a young person pray, and rotate between who’s sharing a thought.
[Two] I’m no longer a youth creative pastor but I still work closely with the guys. I can’t stress how important it is to make sure that the people are being mentored and discipled. Even now, I still crave that big brother or sister mentorship. I crave to go get a coffee and say, “Here’s what I’m thinking, this is what God’s been talking to me about, and these are my challenges.”
If we think that young people don’t need that, maybe we need to recalibrate. Whether you have the time and ability to mentor everyone on your team or not, make time for five people that you can catch up with once a month. Then, have those five people look after five other people. Pretty soon, every person on your team can be mentored and have that relationship to look back on. It’s going to be the person they showed their songs to, who they asked for advice, and they made their life decisions based upon. I can’t stress enough how important this is.
[Three] Maintain a teaching culture. Similar to mentorship and looking out for people, teach your best drummer to mentor and care for the other drummers. There was a time that we had two youth programs running simultaneously, and only one drummer on a Friday night that could play. I told him, “I need you to look after the drummers and find drummers.” The only other drummers we had were like thirteen-years-old. He just picked the three or four drummers that were around who were thirteen at the time. Now, they are some of the best drummers on our team – all because one guy decided to handle what I couldn’t and just put his hand out!
Empower others and release them to build because you can’t do everything. I can’t train the production people. But I can find someone who’s going to build the other people up, build layers and tiers to the team.
[Four] Personal time with God, I don’t know how to stress that enough. I’m very careful how I stress this because you hear about some people who are so awesome with their faith and are like, “Oh, I can’t get out of bed if I haven’t read the Bible!”
Something that absolutely changed my life was getting to the place where I realized that God, my heavenly father, is God my father. The way you might spend time with your dad is different than how I might spend time with my dad. So why do we think that it’s going to work the exactly same way for everyone to spend time with God? It doesn’t have to be a beautifully taken photo of your coffee table with your Bible and journal open.
I think there are a lot of us out there who haven’t figured out how to spend time with God. So what I would say is find someone you trust and say, “I want to figure out how to spend time with God every day.” It might take you a little time to learn to love seeking the presence of God. There are probably some people out there who don’t know what I’m saying, so what I’m saying is there is no condemnation in Christ. In 2 Corinthians it says, “Christ’s strength is made perfect in our weaknesses, therefore I’m going to boast all the louder of my weaknesses.”
I can openly admit that I haven’t always been the best at knowing how to spend time with God. But, when I went on the journey with someone who helped me find a devotional that I liked to do, I slowly just learned to love seeking the presence of God. We’ve got to do that with our people. Have open and honest conversations with our people. Ask them how their time with God is going. How are they doing? Do they enjoy reading the Bible? Going on the journey with people in that way.
[Five] Have fun. If you’re not having fun, people aren’t going to stick around, so have fun everybody! As a leader, it’s so easy to feel the stress and feel the weight and be the one person in the room that’s not having fun. But that branches out, so everybody should