About intercessory worship
Godfrey Birtill is a song writer and worship leader. Many of his songs have a prophetic edge, uniquely combining worship and intercession and are connected with 'grass roots' city prayer gatherings.
Godfrey lives in Lincoln and is based at New Life Church and is also an associate of Pioneer. He is married to Gill and they have four children.
In this interview he talks to Huw Lewis, editor of Jesus Life and member of the Apostolic Team of the Jesus Fellowship.
Huw: Can you tell us about your spiritual journey?
Godfrey: I was born in Chorley, Lancashire and as a young lad went to the local Methodist church. I was also an altar boy in the Anglican church, but I didn't actually know the Lord. In my teens I went off track and got involved with rock bands - not a particularly wholesome lifestyle.
Were you a keen musician then?
Yes. I started playing guitar when I was about 14. In 1979 I'd hit rock bottom within the band scene and I was in a mess. I remember stopping to listen to a street preacher in Chorley town centre. Everything he was saying made sense. I walked away a different person! I took a booklet away and at home in my bedroom made a prayer of commitment on my own.
I went along to a brethren church but no one really talked to me and it all felt a bit strange. I'd made a commitment not really knowing what I'd done. I desperately needed discipleship, but it just didn't happen. In a way I was still-born!
Time went on and I married Gill, who had an eight year old son. We moved to Wales and I got a job as a press photographer.
Was she a Christian?
She wasn't at that time. My lifestyle wasn't particularly godly - I was drinking too much whisky! We went to a local Parish church, but it was as cold as ice and we didn't feel welcome. Afterwards, we moved to Derby and my stepson started going to a church youth club. A group of them went to Spring Harvest and he came back with some magazines and tracts. As I was looking at them when he'd gone to bed, I saw these people with hands raised and I remember saying to Gill that they were all brainwashed and crazy. I didn't know at this time that Gill had read one of the tracts and made a commitment to Jesus. She asked me, 'Don't you believe in this then?' I said, 'No, I don't believe.'
What brought you back to faith in Jesus?
During that night I woke up in a sweat, on my hands and knees. It was pitch black, like being cut off from any love that I'd ever known. I was in a place where there was absolutely no love and it was terrifying. I saw, in a vision, a luminous kind of rope going up and its strands were breaking. I cried out in desperation.
I was so relieved when morning came and thought, 'I've got to go and get a Bible'. I went into Derby and got the Good News Bible. I sat in the front seat of the car, opened it up and read a Psalm - I can't remember which one - but it really hit me like I'd never read scripture before. As I looked up there was this traffic warden walking towards me, and she had a really evil, mean face. She came up to me, her eyes like fire, poked a finger at me and said, 'You were just in time!' It shot me into the stratosphere of understanding that there's something beyond the physical. I suddenly recognised there was another dynamic - a spiritual dynamic - and that the rope was a taste of separation from God, and that 'just in time' I was rescued. Years later, a friend showed me the scripture in Ecclesiastes which says, 'Remember your Creator before the silver cord is severed.' I believe it was the silver cord I saw in the vision.
From there on it was initially very tough as there was a battle on for my mind - I thought I was losing it. But the Lord brought me to a place of stability. I got involved with a local Methodist church and I began to understand what Jesus had done for me on the cross - that He took all my sin, He died in my place, that I couldn't earn salvation, no matter how good I thought I was. One of the things that came to me was that it was outrageous! He did it for me and praise God that He did! Something happened in my spirit and I knew that I couldn't turn away from Jesus.
How did you then begin to develop your ministry of worship/song writing?
It must have been around 1988. The church that I went to didn't really involve me in worship. When I think back it was wise that they didn't because it would have been a dangerous thing to put me too early in to leading worship. We need to mature, spiritually, and get to know who we're worshipping before we start leading people in worship.
Then we moved to Preston with my job as a press photographer. I was involved in the worship band a little at a church there, and then the pastor at this church said, 'you've got a gifting there', and encouraged me in it. One day he asked me to lead the worship. I'd never been given so much responsibility and remember the congregation feeling like a big wobbly balloon full of water as I was learning to flow with the corporate anointing!
I'd written songs in the secular band but now I started to write Christian songs. I often felt my early songs were not 'proper' ones and it was a good year if I'd written two songs! I always felt that they weren't quite right and if people put their hands up it was just sympathy! I had almost ten years of that.
So it took a long while to enter into worship leading and anointed song writing?
God doesn't rush things! It's a long, long, long journey, one step at a time of learning. Increasingly, people were saying to me that when I led worship, God's presence really came. I remember going through a time of just doing the songs without a sense of anointing. But then I realised I was becoming like a folk singer, just singing songs, in a routine way. I had to know the anointing and the presence of God.
On one occasion, I felt really desperate on my way home from a Sunday night meeting. As I sat in my car in the drive I was in floods of tears, saying to the Lord 'I'll give up the music ministry - I'll just hand it over to You as I can't do it without Your anointing'. And I remember hearing the Lord saying to me 'Now you can have it'. It was almost like I had to realise that to receive the anointing the gifting had to be surrendered totally to God. I'd suddenly come to a place where God had given me a gifting and I was to lay it all down before I could pick it up again, and learn to hold the anointing lightly.
There's far too much just singing songs today, whereas real worship is prophetic declaration in songs and scripture and being aware of the supernatural dynamic of what we're doing. When Paul and Silas were singing in prison, the foundations of the prison shook and the doors burst open! The jailer asleep outside woke up. That's New Testament dynamism! I believe that when we sing, something happens.
But as well as the anointing there has also got to be character, because you can't have the anointing and not the character. We should get as excited about the character of Jesus in our lives as we do the anointing.
After that, did you gain something new in terms of the worship/song writing ministry?
Yes. I remember going to a worship workshop in Preston with a very posh worship band in a church full of about 300 people. I wanted to learn and I sat on the front row. The leaders asked for some volunteers to come forward and improvise a song to the music. So I nervously put my hand up, but nobody else did in the whole place! I stood on a platform in front of all these people, absolutely terrified and started improvising words and melody. It was something like, 'She'll be coming round the mountain when she comes' - out of tune, completely unbiblical and sounded absolute rubbish! Even my friends on the front row disowned me. The whole thing was an embarrassment and I went and sat down and they said, 'Is there anybody else?' Nobody else had a go - I think I frightened them all off!
But amazingly, within a week after that experience, suddenly the gift was released in me. I started improvising words based on reading scriptures, and melodies would start coming. I imagined God thinking, 'he hasn't got a clue, but he's not afraid to look daft in front of his mates and have a go!'
Did you receive any other encouragement?
In 1997, a prophetic leader from America, Dale Gentry, who is now a friend of mine, was speaking at Westminster at a place called Marsham Street. He was talking about breakout. I just knew I had to go. I travelled all the way from Preston. The Lord used him to unlock something that was inside me. He was speaking about that scripture: 'With my God I can leap over a wall', but when we get over the wall we go places we've never gone before (write songs we've never written before!). I received that faith breakout for myself, feeling I could go where God said I could go and do what He said I could do.
One of the key things was Dale saying that the Lord had spoken to him, 'give Me the first hour of your day and I'll change your life' and I remember thinking I'd try that. My prayer life changed from that point. I'd get up in the morning and seek the Lord and I started to hear God like I'd never heard him before. I began to write words and promises down that I felt God was saying through me. The Lord was speaking to me about my songs going across the world and that I would be going to America and Africa and other places. But I didn't show them to anyone because I thought they'd laugh at me, because at that time I was afraid of flying and I was not a traveller! I've still got the books now and just about all the words have been fulfilled.
You were then beginning to find a new sense of something happening?
Yes, I came away from Marsham Street that night feeling I'd been blitzed. Something had shifted within me. Whereas before I'd write the odd song, suddenly creativity was just pouring out. I'd go to prayer meetings and I'd be writing songs while people were praying and after listening to the speaker, I'd have a song by the end of the sermon. It had gone from two songs a year to two songs a meeting!
Something changed in the song writing as well. It was like the Lord had unstopped my ears. I'd be in a prayer gathering where people were crying out and I'd catch something of the heart cry of the people calling out to God and translate that sound into songs. It was like God opened my ears to the lament (grieving) of the land.
You've been described as a 'minstrel.' What does that mean?
I feel my song writing has been a continuation of my job as a press photographer. The songs are almost like photographs of what I see God is doing today. Charles Wesley expressed something of what God was saying through John Wesley's sermons. When someone is prophesying or preaching in the Spirit, my job as a minstrel is to catch that and register it. It's about listening rather than getting good ideas.
There is quite an intercessory slant to all this. You express some of the cries, groans, and the laments of people before the Lord. How did that happen?
At first I didn't have a clue what was going on! I still have to pinch myself that anyone is even interested in my songs. At one meeting, I was singing this song while people were coming in and this person came up to me and said, 'why don't you sing that song during the meeting? What you're singing about is what we've been praying about.' And so I brought in one of these 'intercessory' songs. I was astonished at the reaction. It wasn't so much that people were singing the song, it was that the song seemed to turn people to prayer. People were groaning in response - the song was bringing intercession. Songs that are born out of intercession, encourage intercession.
That was a genuine surprise to you?
I was bemused at all this. I was terrible at school. My spelling was atrocious - and still is - I'm not an educated person. I thought that if God's going to choose someone to write songs, He'd choose someone who's bright and intelligent and is good with words and spelling. I have university students who come to me and say, 'that's a really good song' and I'm thinking, 'surely they could do better than me!' But I guess God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. When I write songs the words tend to be very raw and not well crafted, using very ordinary, everyday language.
Some of your songs are prophetic songs, which express the heart of God.
I don't see myself as a big prophet man. But I do believe that, by God's grace, He speaks through the songs.
And you work with prophetic men, using your songs as a means of communicating a prophetic message - again, a bit like the Wesleys.
Exactly. People like Martin Scott. I believe he's a major prophetic voice in the nation. Whenever I get to sit under his ministry, I just suddenly start hearing God and writing. I'm not sure exactly what I'm doing always, I just know God is with me and I keep it simple.
What are you really seeking to do in all this?
I'm seeking to follow the finger of God. I'm seeking to walk within my call, to do what I believe God's will is in my life. I've nearly downed tools a couple of times, but felt encouraged by the Lord saying, 'there are good things ahead.'
I believe that part of my call is to be an agitator. I agitate the church. I irritate the church as well, which isn't always an easy walk because I like to be liked and some of what I do disturbs people. When I was a press photographer, I used to develop black and white photos. You need to 'agitate' the film. You put the black and white film in a tank, in a spiral and then in the developer and shake it. If you don't agitate the film, it gets highly developed in places and under-developed in others. I felt the Lord saying that part of my ministry is to agitate because the church is highly developed in some places and under-developed in other places - like the area of lament and the area of fearing the Lord.
What are you particularly challenging and disturbing?
I guess I'm an irritant within the 'cosy' worship scene. I believe I had a word from the Lord about the church needing deliverance from 'lovely times of worship'. The church has almost got addicted to having a lovely time and it's lost something of the supernatural dynamic of warfare and prophetic proclamation. Of course it's lovely to worship the Lord, but we've lost something of the battle we're engaging in when we're worshipping. I'm sure Paul and Silas didn't walk away from the prison after its foundations were shaken and the door broken, saying, 'well, that was a lovely time of worship!'
You've provoked some reactions!
One of my ancestors was a Moravian hymn writer, James Montgomery, and I remember sharing his hymn, 'Lift up your heads you gates of brass,' with a group of song writers. They said that it was too militaristic! It was an eye opener to me as to where the church is really at because these musicians were part of the mainstream. I really believe we need to be militant now, because what is happening on the earth is reflecting what's happening in the heavens.
I'm a bit out of step with much of what is being produced, musically, today. Some of the songs on my most recent album, 'Dread God', about the fear of the Lord and warfare, like 'This is an emergency', are not really in the flow of the mainstream. I've even had problems with the title, 'Dread God.' I also had stick about 'Outrageous Grace' when it first came out.
You've obviously experimented with various things. I was reading about your 'Night of the Thousand Drums' and your work with ethnic groups.
I've worked with Navaho Indians. I got an email from a Navaho reservation saying that they'd picked up the 'Outrageous Grace' album off the internet and were singing it on the reservation and asked if I'd come over. So I checked them out and went over there with my wife, Gill and youngest son, Jacob. It was amazing on their reservation. Their sense of lament over the land was very powerful. I encouraged them to write their own songs and wrote one with them prophesying to the place where they live! They'd never written songs before, but now they've written about 20 of them.
Part of what I do as I travel round is to impart song writing creativity. These are songs written by indigenous groups for their own areas and cities, that will have more cut than a Vineyard song or a Hillsongs song - they'll be unique for their location. I want to encourage others to write and be expressive and creative in their worship.
All the places that I go to have been opened up by the Lord. I never request to go anywhere. God puts order in my diary, though I occasionally get it wrong. All I want to do is what God wants me to do and just continue in that. If the Lord said, 'pull the plug on it,' I will do. But I must admit, I do enjoy it. I love serving the Lord. The Lord's equipped us as a family and Gill copes with it really well. She encourages me and is completely behind me in what I'm doing. She's a great song taster as well and she's a wild prayer warrior! Whenever I write a song I play it to her and if she says, 'that's a nice song,' it means, 'file it in the bin!' She doesn't like 'nice' songs.
It must have been difficult to keep raw and cutting, rather than becoming part of the music industry.
I've been approached by music companies and there was one time when it was very tempting, but I felt I'd lose my call and anointing if I went down that road at that time. However, a few months ago I felt the Lord saying that the songs are going to be brought into the mainstream. This year's Spring Harvest song book has got eight of my songs. But I am not seeking to be a famous worship leader, I'm just staying within my call, following Jesus.
Are there other directions your ministry is taking? You did do something in partnership with 'Betel UK' - how did that come about?
They are a group that help people off the streets - mostly, heroin addicts, prostitutes and the homeless. They prefer to say they are church planters, rather than a rehab and are seeing lives radically transformed by the power of the gospel. I have always had a heart to work with the outcasts. When I lived in Preston I used to go to the night shelter and sing and try and build relationships.
I'd heard that they were singing some of my songs and they use one of my songs like an anthem - 'If it wasn't for the blood I'd be dead.' They asked if I could go along and play and I found them very dynamic. It's the same as the Jesus Army - people that carry the fire and the passion for Jesus.
Do you do much in the local church here - New Life Church which is part of Ground Level?
Once a month I lead a worship and intercession event in the city called 'Spring up all Wells'. It is worship and intercession with a city focus. I lead the worship in the church on Sunday every now and again. The local church is important. There's a danger you can just spin off if you haven't got a home somewhere and I really value the accountability.
I remember when I was young in the Lord some of the old Methodist brothers urging me always to make sure I had someone older than me in the Lord to follow, who I could share with deeply and bounce ideas off. I found that to be good advice. For example, at the moment I'm talking to a theologian about my songs to make sure I'm not completely off the wall!
Who are the main influences that have shaped you, spiritually, over the years?
When I discovered my Moravian ancestors with their prayer and intercession focus, something fell into place. Martin Scott and Dale Gentry have been big influences, spiritually. I really look up to my pastor, Stuart Bell. I see him as a man who's filled with the Holy Spirit and of good character and open to whatever God wants to do.
What do you sense God is saying to the nation at the moment?
There is a sense of it being a pivotal moment in the nation. We need to catch the fear of the Lord again. I think we're in a state of emergency as a nation. My new CD is called, 'God Help Us', named after a song I've written on our social, moral and spiritual crisis. If you stand against the tide you get ridiculed, like Mary Whitehouse. It really is wake up time for the UK.
You're an agitator and a minstrel. What other areas of ministry do you have?
Serving the Lord is first in my life and then seeking to be a good husband and father. If I had a report on the latter, I feel it would say, 'could do better.' I am blessed with a wonderful wife and four wonderful children. I also hope to be an encouragement as well. I believe whatever God gives us, it's for sharing and to edify the body of Christ and see His kingdom come and His will be done throughout the earth as it is in heaven.
This article was taken from our Jesus Life magazine, and was first published in May 2005.