Tony Cummings goes to Merseyside, meets ANDY THOMSON and discovers a very special worship ministry.
I sit at the back of the municipal hall, Earlestown Town Hall. 17 miles from Liverpool, tears streaming down my face. Worship, deep, God-breathed worship is flowing wave-like around the 50-odd people sitting and standing, smiling and weeping in the hall. At the front of the hall the musicians, having finished Martin Smith's "What A Friend I've Found", move intuitively into another riff. It begins to take a new densely rhythmic shape. The slim, bearded worship leader, Andy Thomson, standing centre aisle, his eyes half closed in prayer, as he strums a wistful chord progression. To Andy's left, hunched over a Fender Telecaster electric guitar, sits Norman Barratt cascading delicious flurries of notes across the chords. Andy begins to sing, his simple words of a prayer. "How we need you/How we need you." The young lady in front of me, her arms sweeping in an imploring ark, sings out her need of the Healer. Beside me my friend Ken sits, eyes closed in prayer. "We are nothing without your love," sings Andy. The artless poetry of the worship leader's words cut like a laser through the self-conscious familiarity of Sunday morning services and the note-taking rigidity of the journalist. Everyone in this dingy municipal hall sees afresh that without God's breathtaking, awe-inspiring love we are hopelessly lost.
The worship flows on in liquid intensity. Finally, at its close comes a prayer, then a prophecy which bites deep into hearts laid open by the Spirit. We are called to examine all the critical attitudes we have stored up against those who've hurt us. Repentance is demanded by a holy God who has forgiven us. We must love. We must forgive. A girl begins to pray aloud her repentance before her raking sobs of anguish bring her prayer to an end. Pastor Gary McDermott steps to the mike. He sends the congregation from the building, a good 40 minutes early, without the normal sermon. The worship, and the prophecy, have done their work, now we're asked to go to our homes and examine our hearts and confess any unforgiveness that many of us sense is lurking there. Later that day, after I, Norman Barratt. his wife Babs and my friend Ken have prayed for that forgiveness to be permeating relationships past and present, I talk to worship leader Andy Thomson who on April 1st sees his debut album released. Over a coffee and an egg sandwich I ask Andy about his particular approach to the worship ministry. "When I was called to worship I saw the dangers of trying to whip things up. The old method seemed to be that you start with some fast songs then move to some slow songs. Now you could say that that was the format this morning. But what we're continually doing in our worship is saying, 'Lord, what do you want us to do next?' So we start as much as we can with a clean sheet. We've got an armory of choruses that we know. But we look to be led by God. The key for me is that you don't force anything. If you manufacture stuff, what's it worth? I remember Norman came to me, this is about three or four years ago, and he said he believed that one day we were going to record some stuff - an album for the fellowship. At the time I thought, 'Well, we haven't really got anything.' We had worship in the fellowship but it was other people's songs. So I put a bit of cold water on it. I didn't really see how it fitted in.
"Then in a meeting Gary, our pastor, prophesied over me and said that God would give me prophetic songs from God's heart to sing and that some of those songs would be songs that we would write down and sing in this fellowship and reach people outside this church. After that from time to time Gary would come to me and say, 'Have you got any songs?' And I'd say, 'Nope.' And he'd say, 'Keep listening, keep opening up to the heart of God.' In a sense I was getting a bit fed up with it! I couldn't work it up. I could start singing stuff but that wouldn't do anything. I'd already determined in my heart I didn't want to do that. And then gradually God gave me small things to sing out in a meeting."
Some of the songs coming from such prophetic worship are on Andy's debut album. In an age when so many of Nashville's CCM performers seem to be glinty-toothed, designer-clothed singer/models and where even the few praise and worship leaders who make it to CD inevitably seem to be those with the right connections to the money spinning Bible weeks, the emergence of 37 year old Andy Thomson from Newton-le-Willows Christian Fellowship onto the CD racks flies in the face of the practices of the market force-obsessed decision makers in the Christian music record industry. But then Andy's debut 'Look Down On Us' is for DML, a new international record company which are looking for anointing and character as well as musical talent and whose MD is Norman Barratt, one of the most respected figures in the history of British CCM. Norman played guitar and co-produced and engineered Andy's album at DML's Merseyside studio. How was it having a true rock legend playing on your album? "Well, he's a fair guitar player," Andy laughs, then continues. "Of course, it was great doing the album with Norm. He's a brilliant guitarist with a heart after God and his experience and insight helped me a lot. But more important than the sound we got on the CD - and the rock edge to some of the tracks - is that the album is really representative of what happens in worship at the church. What was most important was that the alburn captured the Spirit of worship. I think it's done that."
One of the outstanding tracks on 'Look Down On Us' is the seven minute, 28 second "Into Your Presence". Remembers Andy, "That song came about in a meeting. God gave me the first bit of it and then started adding bits. There are different segments of the song, different groups of words. Although it's simple it moves into different stages. All of those stages came that morning. I've tidied it up a bit because it would have been a bit long on the album if we'd kept it 20 minutes long! (laughs) But what you hear on the album is essentially it."
So how did Andy come to be one of the initial batch of artists signed to a major new CCM label? "I approached Norman about doing the album. That was before I knew there was going to be a record company. I just felt God say to me, 'Now is the time to go and see Norman.' I probably only had about four songs. Taking that step of faith began to release songs and they've not stopped coming - not just prophetically in a meeting but other times too I'd get up on a Saturday morning and go and have a strum on my guitar and some ideas would come, or singing in the shower or whatever. In fact the song 'Songs Of Deliverance' God gave me that while I was mowing the lawn! In the morning, Brigit, who is the wife of my friend Dave - we go way back - was talking to me about how God works in her when she's down and struggling and that God would bring songs to her heart. She might even have used the phrase "Songs Of Deliverance'. That afternoon, I'm mowing the lawn, and the song came to me above the racket of the mower!"
Apart from a three-year sojourn to Sheffield, Andy has lived in Newton-Le-Willows all his life. His father worked in the local sugar works. At age 14 Andy went to guitar lessons at a local pub. Very much brought up in the local Baptist church, God started to move there. Suddenly the teenager began to develop a spiritual awareness. "I just knew that I had to make some kind of commitment which was funny because as I recall there wasn't a gospel message at the church. It was like God was saying to me, 'You've got to make your mind up now. Do you want me or do you want to go your own way?' I knew that if I wanted him then I had to respond to him in some way and I had to get serious with him. 1 was going to have to start doing things like reading the Bible and finding out what he was all about. 1 thought, 'Well, there can't really be any choice. I've got to go for this.' My response was to get Ibaptised. So I went to see this elderly lady and I remember she was quite fearsome, 'cause it was her job to make sure that those that were coming forward for baptism knew something about God."
A year or two later came another act of commitment for Andy. "I remember one time seeing Billy Graham on the telly. He asked people to put their hands up if they wanted to respond to God. I was in the living room with my folks there. But I just felt I had to respond in some way. I had to do something. I put my hand up, there, in the living room. 1 felt absolutely stupid but the Gospel was in what Billy was saying."
The teenager was soon drawn in to work within the church. "I was keen. As it is if you're keen in a church then you get snapped up to do jobs and things. So what happened was I was involved with the Sunday school playing the guitar there with a guy who helped me a lot in terms of how to play the guitar. We would bring these new choruses in that we were getting to hear about, you know, 'Our God Reigns' and stuff like that. You could feel God in it."
The young man's efforts to bring a more contemporary mode of worship to a traditional Baptist church were not particularly welcomed. "A lot of people were I guess threatened by it. A lot of folk in the church were happy with things as they were. But I believe that the move came from God and quite a lot happened within that church."
Andy moved on to Sheffield University with his long time friend and musical associate Dave Alban. There the two teenagers discovered a new dimension in worship at Sheffield Community Church. "The worship there absolutely knocked my socks off. It was something totally different. I was only there three weeks before God baptised me in the Spirit. When we got back we recognised we'd gotten something and we wanted to impart it." Back home Andy, Dave and others started to meet on a Wednesday night for Spirit-led fellowship, prayer and worship. "It was with the express aim of building us up so we could take what we've got and share it. Unfortunately, the way things panned out it wasn't well received in the main churches. But it would be unfair to blame it on the individual leaders. It's more like you've got folks in the church who've been there donkey's years and they didn't want this. They didn't want God. So we came to a point where we felt that the Lord wanted to do something else. This coincided with a friend of mine, Gary, coming back from Eastbourne because God had told him to come back up here and that something was starting. He'd actually come early. He was looking round and couldn't see what God had called him to! He had to wait a number of months for it to appear. We got back together, we felt God wanted to start something so we started meeting in our living room. We started with 11 in our front room. I think the key for us was that we didn't know how to build a church. In the past we tried loads of evangelism and different things and it had never worked really and it came to dawn on us that the reason it hadn't worked before was that if folks got saved where were they going to be added to, what situation were they going to be added into? So we started from a basis that we don't know how to build church and that God is the one who does that. After all, he invented church."
So how does a 37-year-old writer of softwear for a glass company feel
as he prepares to make his recording debut? "I see it very much as a
step. I want to do things in God's way and in his time. What I had to
do many years ago was to lay down my desires. When I was 19 or 20 my
desire was to play in a band. What I had to do was surrender those to
God and stop playing in a band because for me I was doing it more for
me than for God. It took that period of time for God to turn me around
and get facing in his direction."