The vision of VINESONG is to encourage us to discover our own vital, full life in Christ by embracing the Jove of the Holy Spirit. Jonathan Bellamy caught up with the man behind Vinesong, John Watson.
Vinesong's blend of rich multiracial harmonies, crystal pure keyboards and strikingly original melodies is a unique experience. It's been featured on a series of highly successful albums of which 'Let Your Living Water Flow' is the latest. Many thousands of people from all over Europe, South Africa and America have gratefully been touched by the Vinesong ministry, and many lives have been radically changed as the power of the Holy Spirit has ministered into their fears, hurts, problems and pain. Furthermore, in the last three years the Vinesong ministry has seen over 10,000 people decide to trust Jesus as Lord and many others have received New Testament style miracles.
As founder, songwriter and Vinesong leader John Watson commented, "There is just so much that has happened. In Bulgaria in 1991, in one meeting over two thousand people were filled with the Holy Spirit, blind eyes were opened, the deaf could hear and the lame walked." On the same tour an outdoor concert was arranged in the centre of the city of Varna. As John Watson explained, "They set up a platform in front of the communist headquarters and then called me from my hotel to say they had got a permit for Vinesong to sing on the street. I thought, 'Oh! Street outreach, and we're doing a whole conference tonight. Will anybody turn up?' Anyway, we went and did a sound check and then I looked up. In five minutes there were nearly 10,000 people there!"
Also in 1991 Vinesong led the worship celebration for 12,000 people at the Flevo Christian rock festival in Holland. The event was so touched by the power of God that an invitation came to minister to 360 churches across America. Another significant event in the astonishing Vinesong ministry came during a winter tour of Germany. The invitation to sing at a vast Christmas market in East Berlin came one day. An estimated 150,000 people attended the market over the day and Vinesong were top billing. Picking up on the event national radio broadcast live several of their songs including the popular and eternal "Let Your Living Water Flow" and that Pentecost Sunday favourite "Peace Like A River".
Being a particular favourite of mine, I asked John Watson where the inspiration for "Peace Like A River" had come from. "Well, the Holy Spirit has become a very good friend of mine. They are his songs anyway and he won't share his glory with anyone. He gives me songs to use as instruments of healing and exaltation and teaching and evangelism. One song has to do so much it is not possible for a human to think of it. Anyway, I wrote 'Peace Like A River' on the way to a European convention in 1988. The Holy Spirit simply said, Tell them I am peace like a river! Yes, tell them that my love is as big as a mountain. And also tell them that the wind of my Spirit is blowing everywhere.' And I said, 'Wow, and your joy is like a fountain?' and he said, 'Yes, and I am also the healing spring of life but people must call me and they must learn to say, "Come Holy Spirit and let your fire fall," and I will fall.' And it just became so real and the melody naturally went with the words."
John continued, "You know, I never get bored with singing these songs. My first producer Chris Dimetrio, who used to be Cat Steven's producer and now pastors a church in England, once said to me that God had shown him that the songs God has given me have got an eternal cycle where they never get old. And you know as a team we feel they are fresh every time we sing them. I don't want to exaggerate but in 11 years I must have sung 'Let Your Living Water Flow' thousands of times and I love it. I look forward to it every time because we see everyone so lifted up and encouraged."
"Let Your Living Water Flow" was the song that marked the birth of Vinesong into the heart of John Watson. But to recognise its true impact on John's life we need to understand his background. Born to missionary parents on a mission station in Zimbabwe in 1944 John was brought up in a deeply spiritual environment. As he recalls, "My father was a giant in the Lord. It was just like having Abraham as a father! His nickname was Doc Watson and my parents were Mom and Dad to thousands of people."
Musically too John was influenced at an early age. "My whole family are musical. My aunt used to be the sort of campaign pianist for Billy Graham and Oral Roberts and I used to watch her, and when I was nine years old I would steal my sister's small piano accordion, lock myself in the toilet, lie on my back and try to work out how, if you put two notes together, they would become a harmony. And that's how I learnt and I think all the harmonies in Vinesong are established from that and from hearing the wonderful harmonies of the black people of Africa. It is deeply ingrained. Later on I remember having to play for my father on the mission station with my sister and brother providing the harmony department."
By his early twenties he was managing his own business in fashion wholesaling in South Africa, and during the same period his spiritual attitudes changed. "I became rebellious," John explained. "I rebelled against traditional church life and I didn't want to go near any church! But one day, some friends of mine found out about a small church that was rather radical in that everyone wore jeans and they had nice music! And so I went along and through that church God brought me back because I could see that the people there really had found Jesus."
By 1976 the rebellious John Watson had been transformed into a man capable of leading a team of missionaries to England to start a church. The Leftbank Fellowship was formed in Richmond but no sooner was this pioneering venture establishing itself when God stepped in and changed everything: "It's strange, I've never told anyone this, but when I went to Holland to do the same thing as in Richmond, Andrae Crouch came to visit me following the advice of some friends. (At that time Andrae was a very big name in CCM.) We spent a day together and got to know each other and he said if I ever came to California he wanted me to come to his place."
Six months later John found himself in California and realised that it was the Lord's plan for him to stay. "I wasn't there musically," he declared. "It was mainly to be spiritual encouragement for Andrae. Suddenly, having been on the front line on the mission field here I was driving limousines, living in an enormous house and fraternising with all the people the whole world were clamouring to get to know. Stevie Wonder would often visit and I introduced Andrae to Donna Summer and Bob Dylan, and it was a whole new classroom experience for me."
Determined to let God do the teaching in this new classroom John started a Bible study in Andrae's lounge. "I told Andrae I thought he should draw his friends from the people who would come to the Bible study, as a kind of filter system. Half the people stopped coming to visit him, but the Bible study started to go. Basically, it was made up of burnt-out actors and musicians, and a lot of them were pretty wealthy people. But the Bible study grew and grew. So I moved it to the studio and one day I counted and found there were 67 people there, and with cars parked all the way down the road I realised we couldn't have it in the studio anymore. And so I moved it to Hollywood. I rented a hall on Hollywood Boulevard and we decided to have a non-denominational outreach called Sunday PM, and it became actually one of the most exciting places to be on a Sunday night. Benches were put out by Lisa Welshall who had her own TV series called 'Facts Of Life'; Bernie Ledden from the Eagles was handing out tracts on the street; Lin Kellog, the leading lady from 'Here On Broadway' was in the worship team, as were many others. They were all very well known musicians and actors and God had really set them on fire!"
As the outreach developed John became worried it was turning into a church. Approaching his own church, California's The Vineyard, he sought the guidance of the founding pastor Kim Gallicson. Kim agreed with John and the outreach was removed from under Crouch Ministries and put under the covering of the Vineyard whereby placing John on the Vineyard staff. As John declares, "This was the Lord phasing Andrae out and bringing me back into the church." With the arrival of John Wimber plans were made to start a church in Norway and John Watson was the unanimous choice.
Having not been back to Africa for seven years, John requested a holiday en route to Norway and was duly obliged. Arriving in South Africa in late 1982 little did John know that he would never complete that journey to Norway. God had other plans and they weren't that easy to swallow. "During my dad's retirement he started a church for Indians. They were sugarcane cutters and most were Hindus. He felt really sorry for them but as they became Christians he hired an old Hindu cinema on the main street for a church. It was very depressing for me. It was hot and humid and I was happy it was only going to be a six-week holiday. However, my father was not well and I knew if I left he'd be worse. Both he and his doctor asked me to look after his church to give him a rest. Although America said they understood it started a deep, deep struggle in my spirit. I had a fear I wouldn't be able to leave again and I think that trapped feeling started churning up bits of rebellion I still had in my nature. Everything had been plain sailing up until then but suddenly there was a change of plan and I couldn't contain it. I would struggle and walk. Every night I would walk around the parking lot out back and look up to the heavens and say to God, 'You can't do this, I can't stay here! Ex-Hindu Indians can't even sing properly!' But the Lord had sent me out to pastor this church and after months of struggling one day he touched my life and I said to him I would stay if that was what he wanted, and I wanted to do whatever he wanted me to. And the day after I said 'yes' was the day I picked up the piano accordion and out of my own struggle I wrote from beginning to end 'Let Your Living Water Flow Over My Soul', never thinking that God would bless 75 nations with it. I believe this is my most anointed song. And then the songs just started coming, one by one. And the phone started ringing from all over the place -churches that were hungry to be taught to worship. We became so well known that finally a friend of mine who ran WEA records in Johannesburg encouraged me to record the songs and, being inspired by Vineyard, I called the worship team Vinesong."
Soon after the first album, 'Songs Of The Spirit', God put together a new Vinesong team of four members and, with a home base at Ray Macauley's church in Johannesburg, Vinesong began to tour South Africa. In those early years too the power of God was often apparent. One such memorable event took place in Cape Town during a campaign by the 'million soul' evangelist Reinhard Bonke. "Reinhard had the largest tent ever," John remembered. "It was in the Guinness Book Of Records and it seated 34,000 people. Then through some chemical reaction in the fibre it exploded and blew away! The whole committee had to have a meeting to decide whether to cancel or continue the campaign. It was in winter and they had winter rainfall in Cape Town. They came out of this meeting so discouraged. Meeting in the church restaurant the Lord told me to minister to those men. So we sang for them and God lifted their spirits and they decided to continue the campaign. The next day the rain stopped and we had a freak Indian summer which lasted for the entire time of the campaign. And at no time would the tent have been big enough because the crowds were never under 50 to 60,000. To me the most memorable time was on Holy Spirit Day as Reinhard calls it. Throughout the campaign they prepared people for the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and they prepared the size of two football pitches, one for men and one for women. Then, Reinhard called me to take over, and that's when I had to lead 78,000 people in worship. As we waited for the Holy Spirit to baptise them in his power, he came and it was wonderful. As I hit the keyboard I didn't know what we would sing and we just sang one word -'Hallelujah'. The Lord established the most wonderful cycle that had a melody all of its own, and we sang that for nearly an hour, all 78,000 people!"
In 1987 Vinesong felt God was calling them to leave South Africa and go to England. With just one invitation, to join pastor Ray Macauley and sing only three songs before Ray preached at the Kensington Town Hall, Vinesong obeyed. John believed at the time, "Well, if the Lord wants us here then he'll open the door from those three songs," and his trust was proven right. The power of God fell as they sang and pastors from all over England started to phone Vinesong. Soon after, different countries picked up on the ministry of the team. In the seven years they have been based in England Vinesong have toured extensively throughout Europe including Switzerland, Germany, Portugal, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary and Holland. Indeed throughout the second half of 1993 they are to tour not only Germany, Poland and Holland, but will also undertake an extensive state by state tour of the USA. 1994 should also see them embark on a major tour of the UK.
With such consistent commitment it is hard to imagine the group ever having the time to record an album. Yet, record they do, and earlier this year saw their seventh album 'Let Your Living Water Flow' released as Nelson Word's Premier recording of the month.
Recorded live at Kensington Temple in London, 'Let Your Living Water Flow' realised a long held vision to try and capture the flow of a whole meeting. As John was keen to explain, "The idea was to recapture some of the favourite songs, particularly those off the first album like living Water' and 'Worship The Lord', and to digitally record them in a live context. We ran continuous tape over four meetings and on the main evening about 300 people gave their lives to Jesus. It was a great experience for us and there was just a tremendous presence of God."
Very often a person's particular gifts will overshadow their true character. We see the power of God in action and we fail to recognise the motives of the bearer. As Paul said, "If I have the gift of prophecy...and if I have a faith that can move mountains but have not love, I am nothing." Love should be our motive if we desire any gifts, and we can only expect to share the love of God if we will first allow him to build his character into us. When you meet John Watson you can recognise at once that this is a man who has allowed God to shape him.
I asked John how easy it was for him to enter into worship himself. "You know," he replied, "I think in the beginning that was my greatest struggle. When I was first in that little church in Africa with the worship team, I once cried very bitterly to the Lord, 'It's not fair that I cannot close my eyes like everyone else to worship you.' (John plays keyboards.) And the Lord replied, 'If you will learn to worship me with your eyes open I will bless you and show you a different approach.' And I did learn and it has been wonderful. I don't even feel my eyes open anymore; I just get totally involved with everyone else because that, you see, is the secret of worship. I am not a chorus leader because that never satisfies people, they never feel fulfilled. I have to worship the Lord and the team have to worship the Lord and when we look we find the whole congregation follows. And there is nothing more pleasing than to see people with the glory of the Lord upon them, standing in his presence. You know then that there is no manipulation by man and they are directly in the hands of the Holy Spirit, and he is ministering to each person's need."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.