Leaving aside the phenomenon called Kendrick, CHRIS BOWATER is probably the most popular praise and worship leader and songwriter in Britain. Dave Massey spoke to the songsmith.
Born in 1947 to a Pentecostal minister in Solihull, Birmingham, you
could be forgiven for thinking that Chris Bowater was born into a Christian
environment with a 'silver spoon' of worship songs already in his
mouth. Nothing could be further from the truth. At the age of 18 Chris
packed his bags and headed 'down the turnpike' for the big smoke. In
London, he studied piano and voice at the Royal College of Music,
although he developed a keen interest in composing and conducting. He
learned his art under the watchful eye of Sir Adrian Boult, renowned
conductor and student of English composition. Whilst at college Chris
also developed an interest in jazz, which sadly went hand in hand with
a loss of interest in Christianity as he sank into the jazz subculture
propagated in and around the nightclubs of Soho. A narrow up-bringing
on the classics and the Redemption Hymnal meant that an introduction
to jazz at college was like 'two dreams' waiting for each other at
that time and Chris was soon playing piano in a quartet. He discovered
that lifestyle often goes hand-in-hand with the things that you
worship and he became wrapped up in the whole jazz lifestyle. Leaving
London and returning to the Midlands he went into teaching, becoming
ambitious and career-orientated. By the age of 24 he was the Head of
Music in two schools. Moving to Lincoln and starting to be involved in
the 'New Life Christian Fellowship' saw a change of direction for
Chris as he began to rediscover the roots of his faith and by the end of the '70s a new move of the spirit in Lincoln brought new people into the church and God "began to pour songs into me..."
Songs like "Here I Am" (1981), "Reign In Me" (1985) and "Rejoice, Rejoice, Rejoice" (1986) established themselves as praise and worship classics and by the mid-eighties Chris was much in demand leading worship in churches and conventions across the country. It was at one of these, the National Youth Council rally in Cardiff, that Chris began his recording career with a live album for Word. Another live album and two studio albums for Word followed, while his appearances at Spring Harvest took his songs into the churches throughout the land. This year has seen the release of two albums; a compilation album 'Wholly Available', featuring most of his best-known songs and an album for his new record company, Kingsway 'Time For Tears'. This is in their 'The Worship Leaders' series which features jazz-tinged studio-recordings of many of his classics together with new material. Today Chris Bowater stands at the crossroads. Possibly the most popular British composer of worship material after Graham Kendrick he is, however, critical of both the low musical standard of much contemporary praise music and the cult of personality - that has begun to creep into the high-profile Spring Harvest-toted worship leader. I spoke to Chris in his Lincoln home.
Chris, did you have an identifiable calling to lead worship or was it a natural progression?
"I think I had a renewal experience in the Holy Spirit and it became a time of totally changing my concepts about worship. About 10 years ago the elder came up to me and said "Do a worship conference in the church", and I thought well what should I share - I don't know about worship, I just do it. So I asked what I should read and he said to me 'Well why don't you try the Bible?' So I did, and on the day I was amazed! I was expecting 50 people to come and something like 600 people turned up from all over the country. It was the launching of a whole teaching ministry in worship. The worship leading is an outworking of that - The song writing is an outworking of that - all part of the teaching ministry about worship. I call my ministry now 'Life Style' because that's how I see worship; it's not just singing or even the songs that we sing..."
How would you define worship, then?
"On a simplistic level praise is a responsibility - there's not a lot of option. He says that if we don't praise Him then the inanimate objects will, so praise is the responsibility of all creation but worship is a response - God doesn't make us do it, we choose to do it. Worship comes out of a relationship and a recognition of who God is. It's a response out of love, it's as simple and profound as that. Praise has got to be the fruit of the lips but you can have wordless worship just as a loving relationship doesn't require words. Worship is about my family relationships, about how I am with my children and my wife, how I am with my finances. It's presenting my body as living worship, everything I am and hope to belaying it down. In the New Testament, often people came to Jesus and they fell on their faces, they 'bowed down' and central to worship is a 'bowing down our lives and recognising the Lordship of Jesus.'
How do you feel about the cult of the 'Worship Leader'?
"I don't believe in the phrase or title 'Worship Leader' and I don't think that I can actually lead people in worship. I can only lead people to worship, and that's my role. Many years ago, in a prophecy, I was told that I should be like an Asaph. He was the chief musician in the time of David but his name means 'one who gathers the people together then removes their sense of condemnation'... that's a lovely name. I see my role as gathering people together from all their situations and circumstances of life and all the things that are pressing in on them. You know, it's not difficult to get people together, it's difficult to get them together... I try to bring them to a place where they use their own words, their own heart or cry before the Lord - otherwise worship becomes a second-hand experience."
What about copyrighting what is essentially a gift - we wouldn't dream of copyrighting a prophecy or a sermon so why worship songs?
"It's an emotive issue, but I'm totally in favour of copyrighting worship songs - people may say 'That song was from the Lord' but I feel that you are also a part of the creative process. It's not as though you were standing there minding your own business and all of a sudden God bonks you on the head with a completed song - it doesn't work like that. When Scripture in Song first happened, there were tremendous ideals regarding the copyright issue and what happened was that unscrupulous people took the songs and ripped them off. If there is finance to be accrued from something that I have been a part of, then I want to have a say in it because I have to be a steward of the gift right the way through. I do have major anxieties about commercialism within worship but we live in a real world, and to get the material out there has to be a degree of sales hype. The touchstone has always got to be 'what is the motivation behind it?' Sometimes you can have a pure motive for releasing a record but the motives get obscured en-route. In my own experience, I once had an album released which was not out of my vision but which was released as a purely commercial venture and that makes me very sad."
You've been through a bout of illness lately. What was the cause?
"I nearly died last year when I caught a virus in Canada or the States. I'd been over there on a preaching and ministry tour and was suffering, I think, from long-term exhaustion. Also, since childhood I've suffered from asthma and all these things conspired to threaten my life. I was rushed to hospital unable to breathe and passing out from lack of oxygen; it was quite serious. It took me several months up to this January to recuperate by just taking time out and taking things easy. It was a very important time spiritually, when God began to redress the balance on some of the things in my life. I'm a great believer that all things work together for good but it's not a path that I would have chosen."
What about the future?
"I believe that the church for the last five to ten years has been taken up with the process of worship and not the person of worship and in the coming days we shall see the balance being redressed. I also have a vision to get all the worship leaders together over the next year or so and take them around the country on a tour called 'Together For Jesus', because I have a feeling that worship is becoming a divisive issue depending on who wrote the song and that's wrong. I feel that the only way to address that is for us guys to go around together and we shall be doing that around February or March of next year.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.