Just this year, new albums have been released from both Hillsong United ('Zion') and Hillsong Live ('Glorious Ruins'), both being incredibly well received for their fresh anthemic lyrics and stellar production quality ultimately leading to many of the songs featured on these albums being sung in churches across Australia and no doubt the rest of the world.
Of course, Hillsong as an identity has branched out considerably over the last three decades with campuses found throughout the world and albums rising from almost every corner of the worship genre. Consequently, when an identity with this magnitude ploughs new ground in the worship music genre. The Christian music industry can't help but take notice, and with the launch of Hillsong's 'Young and Free' label and the subsequent album release 'We Are Young & Free', a bold and impassioned step has been taken to reconnect the music styles of the current generation with the lyrical gravity for which Hillsong is famous.
If this purpose seems familiar, it's because this was the mantra with which Hillsong United was born more than a decade ago when the necessity for a Youth-infused worship band became evident in the life of the Hillsong church in Sydney. Fast-forward to the present day, and Hillsong United has matured as a label and a global band with its audience, appealing to young adults and even the greater church-going demographic.
Young and Free
Young and Free seeks to engage with the youth in today's churches encouraging them to 'stand strong in their youth and in their freedom', being 'awakened to their purpose in Jesus and empowered to step out into their calling,' (hillsong.com/en/youngandfree).
Undergirded by this background, let's take a look at how this emergent label and album plays out, not only as an album release but also as a trend in the worship of of our creator and saviour in this generation.
The opening three tracks on the album, 'Brighter', 'Alive' and 'Wake' all seem to soar straight from the dance tracks that have made themselves at home on the iPod's and phones of youth across the world, but all centered on the fullness of joy, life, and hope that is found in Christ. These tracks explode with synth layers and heavy beats all contributing to an opening that immediately hits home with their energetic and passionate audience.
You can sense the utterly electrified atmosphere that was present when these songs were recorded, as thousands of young people gathered to rejoice for the life they have found in Christ; and the lyrics directly channel the unabashed party to exalt the King of Kings. But when the track ends, and you take the headphones off, you realize just how difficult this sort of atmosphere would be for the local youth group to reproduce. And this is where I run into problems.
The majority of Hillsong's offerings have permeated nearly every Christian circle and worship team no matter the skill level or budget of those leading God's people in worship because of their lyrical finesse and reproducible arrangements. However, these opening tracks establish an atmosphere and an experience that is difficult to replicate with the same passion and energy as the songs were originally recorded.
I feel that the strength of these tracks is the atmosphere and explosive joy that they created - an atmosphere of which almost any young person (including myself) would love to be a part. Unfortunately, this style of worship can run the risk of leading youth to chase the emotional and experiential high that this kind of music produces rather than the person of Christ. Closely tying the atmosphere and experience to vibrant but worshipful dance tracks can be dangerous as we were made to praise our Creator and express joy to our Saviour regardless of the atmosphere or circumstance of that worship.
I'm definitely not saying that this was the case at the album's inception and recording, but without the focus being on Christ, young listeners could be allured by the exuberant production and atmosphere, but never fully understand the joy and life of worshipping Christ in their own lives.
Next on the album
Tangent aside, the second act of the album takes the listener to new lyrical depths with 'Lifeline', 'Close', and 'Love Goes On', affirming our identity in Christ and his undying love and passion to be walking with us. Anthemic choruses that echo with vivid imagery and passionate confessions of faith, these songs are Hillsong worship doing what they do best: leading God's people into intimate worship and adoration.
Regardless of the youthful target audience, these songs are sure to find their way into churches soon as the message applies to all believers, and encourages you while you warble away at the dishes, or sing with all your might on a Sunday morning.
The next two songs on the album, 'Gracious Tempest', and 'End of Days' both seem to take cues from their predecessors (Hillsong United) both in lyrical content and sound. Swirling with analogue synths, 'Gracious Tempest' reminded me of the intimate tracks 'Oceans', 'Mercy Mercy', and 'Scandal of Grace' from 'Zion' with their almost Psalmic lyrical approach and swelling choruses delving deeper into the nature of our God. 'End of Days' follows with a building anthem of God's faithfulness and eternal glory accompanied with heavy percussion and atmospheric pads.
'Back to Life' and 'In Sync' see a return to the dance floor - albeit with a little less gusto, once again returning to the themes heard earlier in the album. The fulfilling nature of a life lived in Christ's love are woven into the verses of 'Back to Life' contrasting our broken human nature with the life-giving faithfulness that is found in a relationship with Christ. With dance-infused rhythms and chanting choruses, 'In Sync' continues on the same train of thought, celebrating the joy and freedom that comes from identifying ourselves not based on others' opinions but based on what Christ did for us on the cross.
Last two songs
Finally, the album's last two songs, 'Embers' and 'Sinking Deep', quietly lead the listener into intimate worship of our Creator and Savior declaring our passionate love for Him while gratefully acknowledging His passionate love for us. 'Sinking Deep' stands out as a personal favourite on the album for me, both melodically and lyrically.
Starting out as a close piano ballad, it contrasts greatly and satisfyingly with the large production value found throughout the rest of the album. The sincerity and simplicity of this song compliment each other perfectly as you are drawn into the lyrics and heartcry of the song. Halfway through the track, full-instrumentation takes over, at which stage feels perfectly natural as the song builds towards a worshipful anthem bridge that fades the album out.
The album is also complimented by a few studio versions of the more lively dance tracks, 'Alive', 'Wake', and 'Back to Life' for good measure.
Overall, 'We Are Young & Free' is a welcome addition to the Hillsong label as it brings a fresh, youthful and joyful element to worship that we should all be experiencing more often. Some of the more excited tracks certainly won't take off with the more conservative church goers, but to my surprise, the majority of tracks actually would.
Young & Free is unashamedly a Youth worship album/project with lots of potential, and I'm excited to see how this album impacts the youth with whom I work, and indeed the impact of this project in the future.
Blaine Packer is studying a Bachelor of Cross-cultural Ministry at Worldview Centre for Intercultural Studies in Launceston, Tasmania.
Blaine Packer's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/blaine-packer.html