Tony Cummings quizzed one of the New Wine worship leaders, NEIL BENNETTS, about his life and ministry.
The worship ministry at the New Wine event has brought singer, pianist and composer Neil Bennetts to the attention of the national Church while Neil's 'solo' album 'Everything We're Living For', released in 2005, was in the opinion of the Cross Rhythms reviewer one of the best worship albums of the year. Neil has mixed memories about the gruelling recording process at ICC. "I was totally shattered at the end of it. Everything seemed to happen at 100 miles an hour. I was in the middle of a sabbatical from church and had decided that recording an album would be a good idea. Now I'm not so sure! So much for rest! But other than that there were some great times. I remember the night that James White did some of the guitar solos. It brought out the old rocker in me: even now I put them on in the car (when I'm alone) and whack up the sound (check out the solo on 'Great Redeemer' - it builds into this huge scream that blows you away!) Then there was the moment I heard the Prague Strings mixed in. Even this part had seemed so rushed, but Trevor Michael (who produced) was either a complete genius with the production or totally flukey (my guess is the former) and to hear these strings weave in and out with the band, especially in some of the 'big' moments like on 'What Can I Say', was fantastic. The other reflection is that, however much I enjoyed making this album, it doesn't come close to the passion I have for actually leading worship and building church. I loved doing it, but my main thing is leading worship and seeing our church grow. It's why I only rarely do events outside my church: I really sense my main call is to be here, and make church work in Cheltenham."
Neil spoke about how his music ministry slowly developed. "I've been involved in church music since I was a teenager. But what I now understand about worship is far removed from those first days when it had more of a 'sing a few songs around the camp fire' sort of feel. I even learned to play the organ and played in quite a few services (I can still rustle up a vaguely passable wedding march if I have to!), but I honestly don't think at that stage I had any real concept of what it meant to lead worship. At university, I began to understand a little more of worship as something involving an encounter with God, and then after university moved on to a largish Anglican church in Norwich where I spent around 10 years. I learnt a huge amount whilst I was there and worked with some great people, some of whom I am still very much in touch with and count as great friends. Over that time I also started to write songs, and even recorded a few tapes (yes, remember cassette tapes!). But they were pretty cheesy. One of them even had a picture of me sitting in a field of corn on the front cover! I loved my time at this church, but it was (and still is) quite a conservative evangelical church, and whereas I loved the teaching, I became increasingly at odds with it theologically on the activity of the Holy Spirit, and particularly how that related not only to worship, but to mission. I also began to get more of a sense of God's call on my life to leadership and wasn't really finding a place to grow in it. It was during the last few years in Norwich that my now great friend, Mark Bailey, was the curate. Over those years we not only became friends, but we began a journey in ministry together that is still going strong! We both moved to Cheltenham and I started to lead worship there in 1994. I say 'lead worship' but in those days I sat down at the piano and didn't even sing. Over the years I began to stand up at the piano (a big step of faith!) and then only a little later started to sing and lead vocally. So probably I've only really been leading worship as I am now for around 10 years. And it's only the last six years or so that I've written songs that I remotely think are any good."
It has been Neil's involvement with the New Wine event which brought this modest musician recognition. In 2000 he and American worship leader Scott Underwood led worship at the event and were featured on the subsequent live album 'The Heartbeat Of God'. Each of the subsequent New Wine albums - 2001's 'Grace', 2002's 'Journey In Faith', 2003's 'In Pursuit Of God', 2004's 'Echoes In Eternity', 2005's 'Hope' and this year's brand new release 'Heavenbound' have all featured contributions from Neil. The worship leader spoke about how he got involved with the event. "In the first few years in Cheltenham we started to go to New Wine as punters. Around 20 of us from our church went in 1995 (now around 500 go!). I was totally inspired by some very young worship leader called Matt Redman, longing to see anything remotely like it at our own church. One evening I was sitting down at the end of one of the celebrations and said to Mark something like, 'This worship leading is fantastic but seems too far away from anything we could ever do.' I remember he turned to me and said, 'You'll be doing that one day.' I think I laughed in his face! But some years later our church band got asked to lead at a smaller New Wine event, and the very next year I was asked to lead the main venue alongside Scott Underwood. I find it quite funny looking back, but for some reason he was late. And so all these famous musicians started to turn up on the stage - people who I had only ever seen from a distance and heard on worship albums - and I hadn't a clue what to do! I felt physically sick with fright! Fortunately Scott did eventually turn up and probably rescued me from disaster. I guess I can't have been awful because the New Wine leadership kept asking me back."
I asked Neil what it was that made New Wine so special. "There's so much I love about being involved with New Wine. As a parent I particularly love the children's work - I've seen my own girls grow hugely in their relationship with God through the events. If for nothing else, I would still come to New Wine for this reason alone! But more than this I think that New Wine down the years has embraced passionately both the Word and the Spirit: great biblical preaching and a huge desire to encounter God in worship. And these values go through every event and every venue and every age group. For many people, this makes the summer events a time of huge refreshing and envisioning - many come from difficult church situations - and to be able to come to an event like New Wine is their life blood! And as someone who believes passionately that everything we do should be borne out of encounter with God, this is a great movement to be part of."
Over the years the church where Neil ministers, Trinity Church, Cheltenham, has seen spectacular growth. Remembered Neil, "When I arrived it was a family church with around 120 members. Most of those seemed to leave soon after Mark and I arrived! But over the years we have grown to a congregation approaching 2000. We have five weekend services (including our youth service The Path on a Saturday night). One of our aims as a church is to be as broad as possible - not theologically, but in terms of the people we want to reach. So we have people from all backgrounds and walks of life. We have a team of people who are serving those who are underprivileged - whether serving meals, or helping ex-offenders or those with addictions. We have a huge work amongst single parents in Cheltenham, which provides practical help, like car servicing or financial advice, as well as providing a real place of belonging and support. Trinity is a big family church too: loads and loads of young children, as well as our youth work and student work. We are also very much part of New Wine, and as a church we're taking an increasing role in resourcing and supporting churches in this region, and hosting one week of the main summer conferences at Shepton Mallet. I have a great team of worship leaders here too - with Jules Woodbridge and David Gate (who joined us this summer) working with me on staff. And this summer, for the first time, I took my own band from church to play at New Wine. This was just too much fun - as well as being so exciting to just take what we do week out here in Cheltenham and serve New Wine with it."
At the moment Neil's three best known songs are "Name Above All Name", "Great Redeemer" and "Glory To God". I asked Neil about each. He responded, "'Name Above All Names' was the first song of mine that ever really worked. There's no big story behind it: I just picked up on a prayer one Sunday evening at church that had the phrase 'name above all names' in it, and thought it may work. The next day I spent a few hours in church writing and it sort of happened quite quickly. 'Great Redeemer' has a bit more of a story (if not a hugely spiritual one). I wrote the words of the chorus around the old Wesley hymn ('O For A Thousand Tongues') and left it on my white board in the office for a few weeks. Bailey came in and said something helpful and encouraging like, 'You can't do that, it's been done before'! But I stuck with it and finished it off a few weeks later. I did a little demo but then decided at that point that I would probably bin it. A few days later I spent some time with my friend Eoghan Heaslip over a conference we were putting on. I said I'd written this song but was not sure about it and was about to give up on it. He listened to it, looked at me and said, 'You're stupid Bennetts, it's great'. So we tried it that night at the conference and it just seemed to take off. Then Eoghan used it on his recent album 'Grace In The Wilderness' which I really love (although I'm a little bitter and twisted that his version is far better than mine!). As for 'Glory To God', I've never considered that one of my best! And for the life of me I can't remember when or how I wrote it!"
I finished our Q&A session by asking Neil what plans he had cooking for the future. "We're just thinking through doing another album: but from this point on it will probably be under the banner of Trinity Cheltenham rather than Neil Bennetts. More and more I want to be connected this way - we've even recently set up our own publishing house so that the church can own the songs - the plan is to publish them free on the web so people can try them out in their churches without having to pay for songbooks, etc. We're hoping to record live around Easter time in our home church too. There's loads still that needs to happen (like writing the songs!), but I'm very excited about the possibility and what it may mean for our church: the main vision really is to write and record songs that will serve our home church first: there's something very exciting about having songs that really express what God is doing in our churches and that our own congregations can really own. I would love the songs to serve a wider church too...but I guess if that happens, it just happens!"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.