Hillsong United is a worship band formed through Hillsong Church’s youth ministry in 1998, now responsible for fifteen albums and dozens of worldwide tours. Now, the band is led by Joel Houston, JD Douglass, Matt Crocker, Taya Smith, and Jad Gillies, who share their worship philosophy, family background, and firsthand experience in a feature-length film, Hillsong: Let Hope Rise, out September 16. To get an exclusive behind-the-scenes look, Christian Cinema caught up with Gillies, as the native New Zealander called in from the home of Hillsong Church in Australia.
Gillies shared that his mother accepted Jesus twenty-five years ago when he was ten, and that he tagged along behind her. “I ended up playing the acoustic guitar for home groups by the time I was thirteen,” he shared. “I’ve been leading worship ever since then.”
After moving to Australia in 2001 to attend Hillsong Bible College, Gillies ended up as part of the group now known worldwide. But now, Gillies isn’t just an accompanist, he’s part of the face of worship.
“That’s a big responsibility,” he said. “It’s our prayer that people will see the thread of our own life in God’s story, and that will encourage them. We really believe that we embody the real example that God uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”
It’s that kind of humility that led Gillies to ask the question that he knows fans of the music – and casual film fans – may be asking: “Who would watch a film about us?”
The truth is that the film wasn’t Hillsong’s idea, but rather the brainstorm of Grace Hill Media’s Jonathan Bock, who invited a friend to a Hillsong concert at Hollywood Bowl. Bock lost track of his fan midway through the show, and figured that his friend had left after losing interest. Instead, after the show, they reconnected: Bock’s friend had snuck into the pit area and was moved not by the band, but by “the energy.” “He just told Jonathan, ‘Everyone needs to experience what I experienced,’” Gillies shared. “So they approached us about making a movie.”
One of Gillies’ favorite moments in the film involves the development of a song that the band played in the LA Forum for the first time. “It wasn’t finished until twenty minutes before we were to go on stage,” he remembered. “It was more about Joel waiting for the right words, so we knew the melody but not the words.”
“He knew he wanted it to say something significant. And twenty minutes beforehand, the words to “Empire” came to him. We just sat around after performing it live and said, ‘Can you believe that just happened?’
While there is plenty of music here, through live concerts, rehearsals, and song development, the heart of the film isn’t in the music itself, but the people behind it. Hillsong: Let Hope Rise digs into the backstories of the band, through interviews with their families at the forefront.
“It was a tough season filming that,” Gillies admitted. “The cameras were following us with interviews asking us tough questions, trying to figure out what threads to follow.”
“But the truth is that it made me refine why I was in the band. It made me ask questions and boil my philosophy down to a couple of pillars. First, it’s about the message of the gospel that we get to present. Second, we get to encourage people that seeing God is a powerful thing. God is looking not for the best or the prettiest people to do what God is doing, but God is looking for the most available.”
In one moving scene, Gillies’ son, George, points to a plane and tells everyone listening that his dad is on the plane. (He’s not, but it’s still a sign of the band’s hectic, worldwide schedule.) “He never knew any different,” Gillies admitted. “I FaceTime them when they wake up and before they go to bed which really helps. But my wife is a hero. She and the rest of our families release us to do what we do.”
“It’s not me doing ministry but it’s us doing it together.”
Hillsong: Let Hope Rise is more than a music video, even more than a movie. It’s the story of a church, and a band, about who they are and what they do. But more than anything, it’s the story of the way a church is more than an individual, how a ministry takes a family’s worth of support.
It’s the story of Hillsong United, where without family, all the music would just be noise.
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