PHIL LAWSON JOHNSTON is one of the most sensitive worship composers in Britain. James Attlee talked to him.
Phil Lawson Johnston has always stood slightly outside the mainstream of worship musicians who've come to prominence in the British church over the past two decades. Known principally through his work with classically-influenced worship group Cloud who took their spirit-filled and intimate worship style out from their base at Holy Trinity, Brompton to churches up and down Britain in the 70s and 80s and, as the author of songs like "We Will Magnify", "Jesus Is King" and "Give Me A Hearing Heart", after 15 years in the worship ministry Johnston remains his own man.
Although London-born Johnston came from a church-going background, it wasn't until he had left school, been to Italy to study Art History and returned to London that he came into contact with what he terms 'real Christianity'. "It was through hearing someone called David Mclnness speak that I first gave my life to the Lord. Having been involved with the drugs scene I went through a period being still involved in it even after I'd become a Christian - it wasn't until about two years later that someone talked to me about the power of the Spirit, and when I asked for that and prayed for that the change really happened."
There followed a year in which Johnston wrote a stream of Christian songs, mostly later discarded, a time of "purging and learning", which ended with Johnston and friends opening a Christian eating place called the Kitchen in west London. There Cloud was formed, and every Sunday night as many as 80 people would gather to worship the Lord. Eventually the group felt the need to belong to a wider fellowship and ended up at St Michael's, Onslow Square, which soon merged with Holy Trinity, Brompton, where they pioneered a then radical form of charismatic worship. "We began to really get stuck in there, particularly the evening service. We must have led worship there for 12 years. When the two churches came together someone had a vision of the gallery being full, which at that stage was far off- but it did happen five years later, with a congregation of around a thousand people. It was an exciting time, discovering new things as we went along, doing our own material but also trying to pick the best from all streams."
The team were particularly influenced by the Vineyard worship leaders - John Wimber visited in 1984, with fairly devastating effect.
"Although all along we had a tendency towards fairly intimate worship as a group, when we came across their stuff it was a stage further on, it added a new dimension. It wasn't just the songs, it was the whole atmosphere of what one was trying to achieve - a real meeting face-to-face with the Lord.
My main aim has always been to lead people into the presence of God and open people's hearts to the Lord through the worship so He can minister to them. What I'm happiest doing and feel most fulfilled in, is seeing people being ministered to during worship - healing and whatever taking place during it. That's my aim.
"I veer personally towards simplicity in worship because if you dress it up too much you distance yourself from people - I'd much rather give people something they want to say from their hearts to the Lord. As worship and praise becomes more high profile there is a danger of it becoming more performance orientated. At Spring Harvest, for example my own feeling was I didn't find there were many times when we actually worshipped - we didn't come face to face with God on too many occasions. We sang a lot about Him, and praised Him and danced and shouted and that's great, but a lot of it is quite a performance, quite controlled, tied down and buttoned up. I suppose to an extent you have to be with five thousand people, but having said that I think one could loosen up a bit and allow God to have more space with songs that are less rigidly structured.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.