Tom Whitman reports on worship veterans VINESONG and a father of the Church, John Watson.
On a warm evening in May John Watson stepped onto the platform at Cornerstone Community Church in Esher. The church is in an unusual setting - the plush environs of the Sandown Park Racecourse and the bespectacled Zimbabwean is an unusual minister. John is the founder and leader of one of the longest established worship ministries, the praise harmonisers Vinesong, while his function as one of the fathers of today's Church is internationally recognised. The night's theme was on the subject of overcoming fear and to emphasise his point he testified from an experience of his own, stating, "The whole point of this testimony is to show you that God can go far beyond all you ask him to do."
Far beyond indeed, as John swiftly unravelled the shocking state of his health problems which had gone hidden from family, friends and supporters for years. Until, that is, a series of events prompted him into action. He told the rapt congregation: "Last year I eventually saw three doctors on three continents and they each didn't know what the other one had said. And every one of them said I could drop dead at any second. So I knew the time had come for me to do something about it." To the sane reader this will perhaps appear as a casual understatement, but one that highlights the remarkable humour of the man in the face of adversity.
He continued to tickle the audience and purvey a calmness of approach as he recounted the early stages of his time in hospital: "The anaesthetist, who was a professor, came and sat on my bed and said, 'I'm here for you, your life is in my hands. Ask me anything you need to know.' I said, 'Are you going to stop my heart?' He replied, 'Yes, for five and a half hours, minimum.' When you're not feeling all that healthy you don't want to hear that really. I was very anxious about that and then he told me how they take your blood away into a tank. I said, 'When it's over how do you restart my heart? Do you put a shocker on it like you see in the movies when they put the two pads on and you jump out of your bed?' He said, 'No we just tap your heart and it starts again [pause], most of the time [laughter].' That's the part I didn't like."
The nurses prepared their nervous patient for the morning's surgery. Fortunately for John an antidote to the undoubtedly scary "big old nurse with a bunch of razor blades" was provided in the form of another nurse. John recounted: "I could tell she was a Christian the minute she walked in. She started to help the other nurse and she was very gentle and was humming a song. Then she stopped humming her song and started to sing 'Let Your Living Water Flow'. Then she finished and asked me, 'Are you a Christian sir?' And I said 'Yes.' So she said, 'Then you will probably know the song I just sang.' And I said, 'Yes, I wrote it.'"
"Let Your Living Water Flow" is in fact one of John Watson's and Vinesong's most well-known compositions. John continued: "She had a sit down after the shock, and explained that she and her husband were in great tribulation spiritually. And I told her to read Isaiah 62."
Isaiah 62 had in fact been given to John by the Lord just before the nurses had walked in to prepare him for the morning's surgery. The passage held a particular significance for John personally, though it was to be equally impacting on the singing nurse: "I read the whole chapter and he said this will all come about and be fulfilled in your life after the surgery. My sister's name is Beulah and the only place in the Bible where the name Beulah is mentioned is in that chapter as well, so I realised that my sister was part of that."
His sister Beulah was in fact by his side in the hospital when he woke up from an operation he wasn't even aware had been completed. On the second day in intensive care he received a surprise visit from another Beulah, Beulah Kleinveldt. She had come to the hospital with her husband Jonathon, both from South Africa, who had been members of Vinesong 17 years previously. Explained John: "Jonathon said, 'God promised me I would have another opportunity to serve you.' So he and Beulah came to our house and cooked for us and took us for drives. I now had two Beulahs in my life. So already they were beginning to fulfil Isaiah 62 in my life. And before I left Cape Town my sister and I prayed and my sister said, 'Perhaps God is calling them back into Vinesong after 17 years of absence.' And it was to be that they would come back into the ministry."
As John expounded this story, Jonathon, now Vinesong's sound engineer, and singer Beulah sat as part of the congregation at Cornerstone, and later were to join John on the platform with another two members of the group, South Africans Daniel and Charlene Kok. The group's musical director, African-American Johnny Lee, was unable to join them at Cornerstone. John completed his tale of the singing nurse, "We have just completed a tour of South Africa and that nurse came to all our meetings. She brought carloads of people. She brought her husband, sick people and unsaved people, and God saved and healed them all. It was a great miracle."
Earlier in the day, John sat in a small side room at Cornerstone discussing his decades in ministry. Over the years Cross Rhythms have interviewed John on two previous occasions, in 1993 and 1998. Therefore it seemed a good place to start to pick up things in 1998 when Vinesong completed their first appearance at the United Nations. "We've been six times altogether and when God opens a door no man can shut it. We were the first Christian music ministry to ever minister in the building. So, it was rather daunting and then we got used to it, going back each time. Since then we've had 16 diplomats and ambassadors give their lives to Jesus and a hundred converts on staff. There are 3,000 people who work in the building and they now have a Bible study in the basement."
The team is no stranger to leading worship at places of great significance, having regularly done so at America's National Day Of Prayer on Capitol Hill since 1992. Through not charging for their work, they find themselves travelling from such political institutions to palaces and prisons. A Texan jailhouse was the subject of an exciting 2006 visit: "There were 320 young criminals in the three concerts and their ages were from between 10 years old to 18. And they were there for violent crimes, sexual crimes and murder. And it broke my heart when I saw these babies coming into the meetings. 275 out of 320 gave their lives to Jesus! When they had the first altar call there was such a response I told them to sit down. I was angry. I said, 'Don't play around with this, this is not kind of jumping up and saying well, I'm going to try Jesus. Your lives have finished and you haven't even started. Sit down and let's do it again.' But they wouldn't. The ministry that had invited us to the prison were absolutely flabbergasted. We were too. And in the staff room I couldn't talk to anyone I was crying so much. These kids were just so messed up."
With a commitment to travelling pretty much anywhere in the world, and speaking to anyone from criminals to bureaucrats, Vinesong still find time to release albums. In 1998, Vinesong set up the unique VM Music label, undertaking the recording, marketing and distribution of their powerfully anointed worship music. Since then they have released 'Healing Stream' (1998), 'Adoration' (1999), 'Let Your Living Water Flow' (2000) and 'Just Music' (2005). John explained the decision not to continue hooking up with Christian record companies but to do the whole thing themselves: 'If I were to come out and say I felt that our way was the only way to do it, I think that would be arrogant. I believe all people need to make a living. But it's a pity that we as Christians have to do it in a similar style to the world. Our whole church system, not only music, but book publishing, is run on a very results orientated basis. The representatives go round and they have to produce results. And if it doesn't achieve certain sales it goes in the sale bin to make room for the new release."
John also argues that a near franchising mentality in the Christian music industry has even crept into the realm of revival as churches across the world try to re-enact movements such as Toronto and Pensacola: "Unfortunately we learnt the term franchise from America. But I believe what God does is indigenous and this is why we can't stereotype and contain the Holy Spirit. He's free, he's liquid, he's like the wind, he's like water and he's like fire. And the moment you label and contain him I think he puts an end to it. Because arrogance and pride step in and the manufacturing of man, franchising this and that, starts to demean God and put him at our level. But God is supernatural."
The anointing on John's songs is clear: "When God gives me a song it's like dictating a letter and then it's finished. I've got a whole book like that and I look at it afterwards and see that I've hardly had to change anything. And when we're busy recording a song that the Lord has given, I always picture a small apartment with a lonely person, or someone trapped in a hospital bed, or someone going through a divorce. And this is the kind of ministry I feel makes a difference. CDs can go where people can't. A song has to do an awful lot of things. It has to bring glory to God, it should edify the listener, it should bring healing and it should also evangelize, and the doctrine of the words is always of paramount importance to me."
A first foray into DVD territory is in the offing for Vinesong, with footage from TV shows amongst other material to be edited into a package. The plan is to release the DVD before they record their next set of fresh songs. There is no doubt as to the desires of John's heart in the meantime: "We're so inundated at the moment that we can't really discern anymore what God is breathing on. I'm just longing for real revival. I'm very privileged because I lead worship with an audience of three million people in Nigeria every December, so I get to feel a little of what it will be like when revival hits the Earth. A sea of people as far as you can see. I think there's just something unique that God's going to do."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.