The Early Years

May 20 2014

Steve McPherson attended Hillsong Church in the suburbs of Sydney one night to see a Christian band and was struck by the heartfelt worship he experienced in a 30 minute set by the local church worship team. As a young musician with a heart to do something significant for God, he attended Hillsong College and approached Geoff Bullock regarding his desire to be a worship leader; who later connected him with the (then) Youth Pastor, Donna Crouch. Five years later, having served in every imaginable area of the youth ministry, Geoff asked Steve in passing whether he knew anyone who could play guitar in a band that went into high schools. Within a few weeks, Steve was a part of the church worship team – and 27 years on, his love affair with music and the local church has changed the course of his life…

Steve McPherson is now the Manager of Hillsong Music Publishing and a valued and invaluable part of the Hillsong Worship Team.

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Steve, you were around in the days of our very first Hillsong Albums, weren’t you?  That must have been such an exciting season… how did it all unfold?

It’s a bit of a strange question because our focus was never on albums or recording songs. We never asked how we could distribute songs around the world. Our focus was on our church services and our local area, and on creating songs that were going to inspire the people of Hillsong Church to worship God.

The recording of our first albums – The Power of Your Love, The Stones Been Rolled Away, People Just Like Us, etc. – was the result of people from other churches asking, ‘Hey, I was at your church the other night and I loved that song, how do I get it?’ In those days our answer was like, ‘Um… how do we give it to you? Um… what do we do? Um… I will handwrite some charts and some lyrics, and we will get a guy in a studio to sing it with an acoustic…’. And then that became ‘Oh we better make these sound a bit better, because they sound pretty bad’ … and that’s what we did.

When we started Hillsong Conference, the demand grew as more people heard our songs and responded, and we began to realise it was actually something that was blessed and God-breathed and that we had a responsibility to steward it well.  So, we just had to get a little bit more professional about it all! Pastor Brian would say that it’s a part of the mandate and mantle of our church to resource the body of Christ with those songs.

So, it wasn’t about selling albums then and it never has been. The priority was writing songs that will inspire the people that God has entrusted us with to worship first – everything else was simply responding to the platform God continued to give to us.

Group of singers B

Group of singers B

What are you thinking when you look back at the photos and footage of those early albums now?

I often laugh when I look at them and see us all in our suits. We had such a super squeaky-clean style. We wanted a standard of dress that indicated our respect for the platform. It was part of our whole church’s revelation that the church and our attitude towards building the House of God should be excellent. At the time, the words you would have used to describe church music were probably ‘dorky’, ‘daggy’, ‘uninteresting’, you know ‘little old lady on the organ’… there was nothing captivating about it! We wanted to break those rules.

It’s funny because the issue of how we should dress on the platform actually became a bit of a contentious issue in our team. Those of us who were back then fighting to maintain that high standard of dress now can see how the change made perfect sense. We had already established excellence as a foundational value of our team and our agenda had never been to create some big band image, or to make ourselves look good – we were just trying to lead people in worship. The next generation brought a revelation of the need to be accessible- that, as worship leaders, we actually needed to make people feel at home so that they would engage. And I think that again, we broke the rules there. There are lots of worship teams today who turn up in T-shirts and jeans, looking accessible because they are dressed like the congregation they are leading. Back then, we looked nothing like our congregation!

Does that mean that the whole idea of ‘excellence’ was abandoned?

No! Not at all. We definitely still hold it as the standard and especially so in our song writing and recording practises, etc. It’s more that we got a broader perspective on what excellence really meant. That it wasn’t a style, but an attitude. It was a good thing.

After we had moved through that initial season of responding to the demand for our music beyond our church’s four walls, we realised that if this was God, and if He wanted us to speak into other churches around the world, then it was a big deal. There was a sense that, you just don’t do this flippantly. Maybe in a band, you can be a guitar player who just turns up and plays your songs and leaves. But if you want to be a part of the Hillsong team, where we have been given the opportunity to influence church culture around the world, then there was a level of responsibility that went with it. And I don’t think that’s ever changed.

It’s become a bit of a clichéd phrase now that gets thrown around a bit, but we used to say ‘Whatever it takes!’ That attitude was a key part of our culture and simply meant that what we were doing was significant. I remember teaching our singers back then saying, ‘You can’t say, I love knitting or I love soccer and I love being a part of our worship team… it’s not on that level. You have to see it as ministry and you have to see it as what God has put in your hand.’

I still see that attitude in our team now: people turning up early, sacrificing their own time.  We’ve definitely matured a lot since those days and have learned the value of leading more balanced lives, but the underlying attitude is still the same. We are a ‘whatever it takes’ kind of team.