Q+A: Darlene Zschech, the ‘Mama Bear’ of Worship Music
If you’ve sung along to Hillsong Music on the radio, at a conference, or at church, you partly have Darlene Zschech to thank.
During her decade-plus tenure as the worship pastor at Hillsong Church in Sydney, she wrote, produced, and sang more than 80 worship songs on more than 20 albums released by Hillsong as the ministry continued to rise in global popularity during the 1990s and early 2000s. Her legacy helped launch Hillsong Music into the global force it’s become today, with more than 50 million people singing its songs in church every Sunday.
But the Aussie singer behind praise and worship staples like “Shout to the Lord” and “Mighty to Save” doesn’t like being called a “worship artist.”
“If I ever see it about myself I make sure it’s changed,” said Zschech, who now pastors Hope Unlimited Church in New South Wales, Australia, with her husband, Mark. “I’m not a worship artist; I’m a worshiper. Yes, I’m a musician, but that comes first.”
Her music career has been closely tied to her faith. Zschech joined a national singing television show at the age of 10, performing until she was 15—the year she became a Christian. “I love the power of music and the way it opens up people’s hearts,” she said. “It’s the most powerful communicative tool that we have and defies so many other boundaries.”
Zschech spoke with CT assistant editor Morgan Lee about leading worship in jeans, handling fame, and her new book, Worship Changes Everything: Experiencing God’s Presence in Every Moment (Bethany House).
How has worship music changed over the decades?
It’s become more intergenerational, gathering generations together rather than segregating them. But I’ve also seen people mistake worship for God and really treat it as a bit of a commodity. It is disturbing. Worshiping God is not just a different musical genre. It is people’s prayers and people’s fights, people’s faith and people’s journeys. It’s a very sacred space. I get quite vehement about these things. I feel like a bit of a mama bear in this space.
How do you balance being a worship artist with commercial interests?
When the success started coming, I said, “Oh Lord, this is terrible.” I walked into a space that hadn’t been negotiated by many others. It really started with “Shout to the Lord,” when people started sending me money. I thought, “What should I do here?” Early on, I had to set up my parameters for how this money would be used. I had a board to lead my ministry, and together they make financial decisions.
When it comes to worship, own it. If you want to be a rock star, go be a really good one. If you are in the realm of worship, own it and be really good. There’s a responsibility that comes in this space. If you’re doing it purely for money, don’t call it worship. Call it something else.
Money flows into your life in lots of ways, and you don’t want to find yourselves joining a worship team so you can get a deal. It’s just dangerous territory. I’ve sat on the other side of it, with countless worship leaders who have gone down that path and then it broke down very quick. I’ve had to counsel people back to sincerity. I don’t think anyone means to go there. Get great people around you who are going to challenge you in these spaces. Just remember that the worship of God is sacred.
What’s your advice for handling fame?
The local church. I’m passionate about the local church. The second someone says “I’m a worship leader; I won’t stack the chairs,” I say, “That’s not how it works.”
I think the local church is like being in a family. If you’re in a family, you can be the president, but you’ve got to come home and take the rubbish out and pick up the things. You can be on platforms and have lots of people tell you how amazing you are, but when you come back to your local church, you serve coffee and serve the poor. You go into the highways and byways because that’s where our worship is lived out. The local church will be your best friend when it comes to keeping yourselves healthy in your heart.
What makes the church in Australia unique?
I don’t know you if you know any Aussies. We typically don’t do nonsensical flattering. We’re pretty honest. We’re not going to fluff around the edges. If a meeting’s not going great, we’ll stop the meeting and say, “Hey, what’s going on here? Like the meeting’s not going great. Is everyone good?” We’re very grassroots people. I don’t know that it’s always the nicest thing to be around. You have to be pretty thick-skinned to be an Aussie.
I’m really thankful for it because all through the Word when it comes to worship, whenever the word or action of worship is happening in the Word of God, very often before or after this section, you’ll find the word truth. With Australians, we’re pretty bluntly truthful. We probably need more grace than the rest of you.
What are the biggest intercultural challenges you’ve had to deal with in your career?
Being a female. It was never a problem being a female worship leader in Australia, but I remember distinctly when I first started going into the United States, I was really frowned upon for being a female. I was like “I’m sorry, I can’t help it.” I would wear jeans, nice jeans, but jeans. One place was very unhappy, and they asked if I would change and put on a dress. I actually lied and said that I didn’t have a dress even though I did. It just made me mad. In Australia, that was never a deal.
That said, I love the breadth and the color of the kingdom of God, and none of us have got it all right. We’re all learning. That’s one thing I love about worship. It crosses over so many walls. It breaks right through them whether it’s generational or denominational.
Where have you learned the most about leadership?
[Hillsong senior pastor] Brian Houston is an amazing leader. Even as a woman, when I was there, I never felt that as a woman there was something I couldn’t do. I also had beautiful parents who, even while they were going through their own challenges and two difficult seasons, were very inspiring. My grandparents too.
When I was a worship pastor, I went looking for information. I was like “What is that? I better buy a book on it.” I couldn’t find a thing. The only thing I could find were writings from Graham Kendrick and Jack Hayford on worship. Those men have been leaders before their time, both of them, and I consumed everything that they had written. I consumed and still consume everything that John Maxwell writes. By my bed, I used to have my Bible, Jack Hayford, and John Maxwell. They’re just people who have gone on before and give me great strength.
What have been your toughest moments as leader?
I find it very hard to watch people damage themselves and when they continue to make really hard decisions for their own lives. I’m a pastor at heart, and I find that very difficult. It’s also hard pastoring people through success. There can be entitlement. It can become very self-serving.
It’s a challenge for the church. We don’t ever want to keep people small and keep them away from being as amazing as they can possibly be—as long as that is accompanied by humility, servanthood, tenacity to keep doing the things that got you there in the first place. People can be very self-focused and try to keep hold of the success rather than continuing what they’ve always done. People don’t want to hear that, but that’s okay. We love. Love, love, love.
What is your vision for the global 21st-century church?
That we would be hungry for the presence of God in our midst and that we would be more united. When the Word says that when we’re united, there’s a blessing. There is a dying to self that happens when you want unity. A lot of people feel that that is too hard, so I would pray that we become better at that. I would pray that there is another great awakening and revival, and that we get passionate about people getting saved. It’s only Jesus that can do that.
As his representatives, I hope we have a great revelation of who we are in Christ. You don’t need a platform, and you don’t need a microphone. You just need to go and preach Jesus wherever you find yourself.
What's it like to know that your songs are still sung weekly at churches across the world?
It’s very humbling. I take the responsibility very seriously. Ministry is foundational to everything that I am and we are as a family. It’s a responsibility but very humbling. It’s something that I’m trusting God that, by his grace, I’ll be able to do until my last breath.