Israel Houghton: An Intimate
Portrait of Worship
By Kristi Watts and Julie Blim
The 700 Club
In this interview with Lisa Ryan, Joel Osteen’s worship
leader shares how he went from a likely abortion statistic to
a true friend of God.
LISA RYAN: You had a difficult
start in life. You could have easily been an abortion statistic.
ISRAEL HOUGHTON: I could have. My mother is
white. My biological father is black. When my mother was 17, she
got pregnant. They lived in Waterloo, Iowa, which at the time
in 1971 was a very segregated society. She came home and told
her parents, ‘I’m pregnant and the father is black.’
They had a really difficult time with it.
The suggestion was, ‘Have an abortion. Move on with your
life.’ She was a terrific concert pianist, she had everything
ahead of her, and in a lot of ways had every reason to go, ‘Let’s
just chalk this up as a mistake and move on.’ She said,
‘No, no, I’m going to keep this baby.’ She ended
up kind of getting shunned for a good chunk of her life after
that and didn’t have a lot of contact with her parents.
When she was eight months pregnant, her and my father split up.
So, if you get the picture, it’s 17,000 miles from home,
she is pregnant with a black man’s baby that the state of
California is getting ready to take away from her because she
was considered an unfit mother, and she was on drugs. It was like
the perfect Lifetime movie.
God sovereignly knew what was going on and made it such that
this lady came up to her out of the blue and said, ‘I don’t
know you, and I don’t want to give you a hard time, but
I was driving by and I really felt that I needed to come tell
you Jesus loves you. You’re not forgotten. You did the right
thing. It’s going to be all right.’
Those words of life were so powerful to her and so revolutionary
to her that she got on her knees on the street corner on Carlsbad
Avenue, out of San Diego, and gave her life to the Lord. I’m
here today because of that woman’s faithfulness to God to
share the gospel with my mother.
LISA RYAN: How did your background and circumstances
affect your relationship with God?
HOUGHTON: When I was 7, I met my grandfather for the
first time, who was the same guy who told my mother, ‘You
got to move on.’ I saw my cousins and my younger siblings
running up and jumping on his lap and hanging out. A great time
was being had by all. So I thought, Let me do the same thing.
Well, I ran and jumped up on his lap, and the next thing I knew,
I was on my back. He had pushed me to the ground. He had still
not been able to make peace with this cultural thing. I just said,
‘What’s wrong with me? Why?’
Later on you’d hear, especially when worship started taking
shape, you know, Kent Henry was one of those worship leaders,
‘Hey, just crawl into your Father’s lap and let Him
love you.’ And I’m sitting there going, I’m
having a difficult time with that.
You want to think you’ve moved on from that, but at the
same time, the intimacy of worship with God, it affected me. I
realized, You’ve gone through all of this, not to hurt
you but to shape you, to be acquainted with the pain that a lot
of people feel. So it has shaped my life incredibly by just
diving into the Father’s love and encouraging others to
do it -- not trivializing the pain that a lot of people who come
to church and come to a concert or whatever are feeling, but just
the sensitivity to where people are at and helping them come into
a place of breaking through into what God really has for them.
When you read Psalm 139, it throws out all the ‘I’m
here accidentally’ stuff that I believed for so long. I
felt like an accident. I felt like a mistake. But when you understand,
‘I’m fearfully and wonderfully made; I’m skillfully
crafted; how precious are your thoughts toward me; how marvelous
are your works,’ when you start considering all that and
going, Ok, I didn’t just sneak into the earth, I was created
for something great, the more I dwell on that, the more I meditate
on that, the more I share that with people who want to hear it,
the better I feel about why I’m here.
I love being home. My first ministry is in this house. The church
that I pastor is right here. My congregation consists of Malaysia,
Mariah, Duncan, and Mylonlily, and everything else is secondary,
I believe that if I don’t take care of my family as a great
leader and husband and father, I could have all kinds of accolades
and awards and a big mantle up there or something with a bunch
of statuettes, but if my children don’t respect me, if I
haven’t been a good husband, then that’s all a joke
My first real experience with worship, I was 19. I was playing
drums in the church band at a church in Phoenix, and they asked
me to be the worship leader. They had heard me sing or something
and they said, ‘Why don’t you consider leading worship
for us?’ I said something like, ‘I’ll pray about
that.’ He said, ‘Pray hard because you start tonight!’
Honestly, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was like Ron
Kenoly Jr. -- I knew three Ron Kenoly songs, and I sang them every
service, for weeks. Finally, this lady came up to me and she said,
‘You might want to go find your sound and go find who you
are.’ My first real experience of just knowing this is what
I was born for, this is what I was created for, I took my piano
in to the kitchen because I had tile on the kitchen floor, and
it was great acoustics in there and I would just worship. Four,
five, and six hours would go by, and I’d sit there weeping
and crying and having this conversation with God all by myself.
I like to say I was doing worship before it was popular. I was
doing worship as a lifestyle before it was a section at the bookstore.
When I started getting into the recording industry, I would hear,
‘Choose a style,’ and I used to say, ‘How about
we just put it all together?’ Because when we get to heaven,
there’s not going to be sections -- ‘This is the black
section of heaven. This is the white section of heaven. What kind
of music do you like? Well you’re going to be over in that
I believe the Kingdom has a sound. I believe glory has a sound.
So I want to be a part of doing it. I believe it’s a very
multi-cultural mix of sound and style and lyric and melody and
LISA RYAN: What do you hope is accomplished
in people’s lives through your worship?
ISRAEL HOUGHTON: Ultimately hope, which ultimately
leads to transformation. I believe worship has the power to change.
The environment has the power to change a life. People need hope.
I want to give good news to people. I want people to experience
hope, and if somebody could lift their hands and say, ‘I
am a friend of God,’ whether they felt like they were or
not. The word says, ‘You are’, so walk in that. The
more they sing it, the more they believe it, the more healing
that comes to them.
I love watching the transformation. I love watching the guy who
came to church because his wife forced him to and he’s standing
there, he’s got his arms folded, and we go, ‘Lord,
we lift our hands to You.’ And he’s like, I’m
not doing that. You get to the end of the service, and somehow
this guy has begun to cry. He’s got his hands lifted up.
He doesn’t know what’s happening. I think worship
and the Word of God has so much to do with that.
LISA RYAN: What does the future hold for you?
What are some things that you want to accomplish?
ISRAEL HOUGHTON: I want to build a dynasty that
speaks of what I’m building along the way and what I’m
leaving behind, as opposed to a destiny that speaks of my destination,
of where I’m ultimately going with this, of the fact that
I hope I’m going to go to heaven and it’s going to
be great. My goal is not just to get to heaven, but to truly build
something lasting. So the songs I write, the people whose lives
I touch, I want it to be a lasting thing. I’m more interested
in building a legacy and a dynasty with my children and with spiritual
sons and daughters that God gives me opportunity to lead and to
mentor and to inspire. I want it to be something that brings honor
and glory to the Lord. I want Him to smile and go, ‘That’s
My boy right there. That’s My friend right there.”
If I could be a friend of God by just doing what He called me
to do while I’m here and doing it in a maximized way, then
I’m going to.
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