Modern-Day Hymn Writers Seek to Magnify Christ in Music
- 2007 17 Oct
CHAGRIN FALLS, OHIO -- Keith and Krystin Getty are probably best known in the United States for their modern-day hymn In Christ Alone, now sung in churches and receiving airtime on radio stations across the nation.
Their mission is to bring back into the churches a new hymnody using newer, more memorable and easier, more sing-able tunes, yet without losing the meaning and theology behind the words. They have been touring this country for the past several months seeking to magnify Christ and his Cross through their musical and lyrical gifts.
In an interview with ASSIST News, Keith Getty, the Scots-Irish modern-day hymn writer said he first started writing hymns in 2000. He quipped: "The millennium bug affected my brain in a peculiar way in that it gave me a vision for the twenty-first century church that had a place for modern hymns, not just worship songs, not just traditional hymns, but also a place for modern hymns."
He explained his goals this way: "In that year I guess I developed a two-fold goal of writing some songs that content-wise taught the great faith taught, the doctrines of the faith, the great passages of scripture, but also secondly taught that every generation could sing together -- 88-year-olds and eight year olds, churches with piano and organs, churches with rock bands, but also writing songs that taught the doctrines of the faith and used folk melodies -- which also means they’re very easy to translate into newer languages so we could partner with churches in the whole Eastern European block, in the far East and into South America. They’re easy to translate into other cultures. So, really, songs that teach the faith and are part of the growth of Christianity in the twenty-first century."
Does he actually base the lyrics on existing hymns?
"No. They’re completely new hymns. The reason they’re called hymns is because of those two principles and they’re principles that are really trying to teach the great doctrines, but also the principle of writing songs that every generation can sing as opposed to writing songs that divide churches writing songs that are accessible to multi-generations."
So why do they sound so much like something that’s always been around. You hear it and you think 'I heard that before I don’t know where, but I heard that'?
"There’s two reasons: one could be the songs are stolen, but as far as I know they’re not stolen! But I think that really boils down to melody, especially folk melody style. There are influences of folk music, classical music, and the influences of traditional hymnody, but also classic song writing. So that’s my kind of inspiration, and I think you can write in a contemporary folk melodic way. I don’t care if my songs never get played on the radio and I don’t care if they’re contemporary. My goal is to write songs that I can actually sing when I go for my walk every morning that can be sung in a church with a person or a person who’s just got a piano or a guitar. Even in America today 90 percent of churches still have less than a hundred people and sociologists say the fastest-exploding growing movement inside the twenty-first century culture is the House Church. So I think the next generation is going to be something really different. I think if it applies to America it applies even more so in the rest of the English-speaking world where Christianity will thrive, or in the rest of the developing world where resources are so small."
What is he hoping to achieve with his hymn writing?
"The two things we said are to write songs that teach the faith number one, and number two, songs that that every generation can sing. A friend of mine says that what we sing becomes the grammar for what we believe. We are what we sing, I guess. If you listen to someone pray, listen to someone preach, you listen to someone give their testimony, you listen to someone reason, they use the language of worship songs. So it affects what we say, it affects how we think, in turn it will affect how we pray and what we believe.
"So I think it is essential that the things we say are good. Our pastor Alistair Begg in Ohio often says that the congregation is a group of people who look perfect but are in quiet desperation if you live out their heads. So the words that we put in their mouth and the words that we put through their ears have to be good words and have to say something important."
Getty was asked about his relationship work with Sir James Galway, the Irish flautist? How did that come about and what was that like for him?
"That’s part of another project and it’s not really relevant to what we’re doing now. I studied flute when I was young. I was told that I wasn’t a very good flute player, but I should look at arranging more. So he helped me along the path. He’s a fantastic and inspirational person, but not really relevant to what we do any more."
ANS asked Getty to explain the process he goes through when writing a new or modern hymn?
"It’s actually all about the melody in the sense that people think it should be about the theology in the songs, but really it’s about the melody because there are more great songs that have good melody and have average lyrics than there are that have good lyrics and average melodies. The melody is the primary reason for the success of a song. So we get a melody, and once we believe in the melody, we then craft a lyric and take as long as we can to craft a lyric."
What’s so powerful or attractive or important even about writing hymns for the twenty-first century?
"John Stott he never would have wanted to have lived in any other generation. He said today we live in an age which is more universal than it’s ever been: Christianity is spoken of and understood by more people in more languages, the Bible is in more languages, and in one sense it’s the most exciting period in history to be alive, but Biblical knowledge is less than it’s ever been, especially among leaders and then by extension among congregations around the world. So he gave a lot of his life to building and raising money for pastors in the developing world to learn the faith as well as writing books and holding conferences for those in the English-speaking world. So I guess, as a little Irish tunes man, I can have a small contribution to that, and if we can write songs that are sung around the world, and if in the next generation and the generation that comes after me they will have modern hymns that will teach them the core values of the faith, that will satisfy both intellectually and emotionally."
ANS then spoke with Getty's wife Krystin asking her what part she plays in writing and singing. Dies she also write some of the words to the melody?
"I write some of the words: I love singing the lyrics, so a few of the songs on the album I wrote with Keith, Beneath the Cross of Jesus and Higher Throne which is the single out at the moment. That was Keith and my first worship song or hymn that we wrote together quite a few years ago now; and then a song that I wrote with Stuart Townend and Keith; it’s called The Kingdom. So they’re ahead of me in all their writing. I also enjoy singing the Power of the Cross. I love that increasingly, and I’m enjoying working on the writing skills as well.
So what is her background that allows her to do this?
"My passion and skill in university was English literature. I’ve always loved words and reading and poetry for as long as I can remember. I was writing little stories and poems and always appreciating those sorts of things. And it was Keith that suggested that I started to write as I started my English degree in Belfast, and he said you know you should take your passion for words and your love of music and try and combine the two. So it was his idea and I’ve been trying and working on it ever since.
"I would write the hymns with Keith and also increasingly I also enjoy writing little school songs, so we’ve got a bonus track at the end of the album called Don’t Let Me Lose My Wonder. I enjoyed singing that. We have started writing songs together now for children’s music as well. But I think in terms of worship music and Christian music in general, having grown up in a very strong Christian home, a Bible-based church -- my dad was a pastor -- so every Sunday hearing the Bible stories and then also enjoying as a Pastor’s kid everybody coming to your house for lunch, the chats abounded. And then also greeting leaders, things like that, they’d try and give me something of a foundation in the faith and understanding. I think they’re probably both important in writing. I’m nowhere as good as I’d like to be, so I’m still working hard at it!"
Krystin added: "It's so much the discipline, the people, and being inspired -- sometimes you can write instantly and then sometimes it’s hard work, I think."
What kind of response have they had as they’ve gone across the United States?
"That’s been very, very good. We’ve been very excited and encouraged by it. It’s particularly fun in strong, Bible-believing churches that are very passionate about the stories of the faith, the great doctrines of the faith, and who so very much like to be able to sing about them as well. So they enjoy the more story-telling songs. The words are more extensive: as we write we say a lot more. We love answering questions in a very long way and we love writing very long songs! It’s been really encouraging in that regard and also just with students -- we’re actually going to Cedarville University this week -- and we’ve had a good opportunity to go around to different universities and seminaries and teach the students these songs, and they seem to respond very well to the music as well."
Krystin said that what has been most exciting is watching the same song being used in different contexts. "We can go into a church that’s very contemporary, has a rock band, people who are much cooler than us, and the songs can set the tone of worship there. And then we can go to another church the next weekend where they just have an orchestra and no rhythm section at all and we can listen to a song working that way and that’s been very exciting to reach as many different people, irrespective of the style, which is one of the big areas of debate in modern church worship music."
It seems that the Getty’s have avoided the kind of commercialism that’s involved in Christian music these days. Do the Gettys see it that way? Are they avoiding the hype over whatever’s new in and around Christian music?
"Well I can answer the question a few different ways. One is in the writing of the songs. We are close to a local church which we love and have a strong Bible-teaching pastor who inspires and challenges us in what we do. So we’re not in the studio somewhere trying to come up with a hit song, but rather we’re trying to think what does the church need? After all, people say there are lots of things you could write about. We will have a sermon series that will inspire some thoughts and so the songs sort of grow out of the local church situation and then we will try the songs with the congregation and see if it actually works. So, from a writing perspective, it’s sort of outside of the commercial world in the sense that it’s more driven by the local church. Having said all that, we find the actual Christian music industry to be a helpful thing, as well in terms of websites and sending the music around to different places, several conferences and various things that have helped to get songs out. So I don’t necessarily think that the commercial world is evil -- it can be wonderful assistant and partner with what you’re doing and getting your songs out and helping to support you. But we do not write for the purpose of those in the industry. We’re not anti-industry in any way either, and we’re not trying to set ourselves up as the pure hippie style, out in the fields writing songs, hating everything that’s industrial and not wanting to drink coffee from Starbucks! We’re very much Starbucks drinkers and we go to down to Nashville quite regularly once every month or two month and get together with people there who are experts in the field, perhaps a couple of consultants who help us with the developing and thinking around it. Obviously radio is a wonderful useful thing: it’s something which we don’t’ really have very much of in the UK, as you know, in terms of real strong Christian music radio. So it’s been a challenging and exciting avenue for us just in the past few months how to work that whole thing out. But it’s been a wonderful way again of getting the songs out. I guess we would say we enjoy the benefits of an industry where parts of it, many parts of it, seek to support the music of writers and of artists, but we didn’t want ourselves to be utterly dependent on it nor necessarily told what to do by it. "
What kind of projects are they working on what’s coming down the pike?
"We’re trying to continue the writing. We’re touring really extensively -- we have been for the past year-and-a-half -- and we’ll continue until April of next year. What we find as a huge challenge is to continue the writing while we’ve been traveling so much. So next year we’re going to be taking a few months off from the touring, the really extensive tour every week or night, to focus on the writing of the songs for the next new project.
"We’d like to continue writing songs on the life of Christ and then in the future maybe even do sort of a live representation of what we do when we go to churches every weekend, a sort of a worship concert-type of thing. But these are all little ideas. I guess our primary concern for the next few months is to try and get the CD and the songs out to as many people who would like to use them in their churches or just for enjoying them."
Krystin was asked if there was one thing she would like to share with the American Christian audience, what would it be?
"Oh my goodness! My concern is not to come across very arrogant and preachy! I find so much more benefit from what other people tell me than what I tell them. But let me think: the one thing that’s always the most important is the centrality of the Gospel and of Christ in everything that we do. There’s so many great ideas and great things we can be doing around the Christian faith in our world today, but at the center has to be Christ and His cross -- that should be the focal point and the reason why and the beginning point for everything else that we do. And that’s been a huge help to me. People have told me that it keeps us on the right track. As (our pastor) Alistair Begg says 'keeping the main thing the plain thing and the plain things the main thing'. That’s his line."
Krystin concluded our conversation by saying:"Thank you for your encouragement and when you think of us please pray that we will continue to do that, because that is our goal to try and do those things. You know I’ve so enjoyed being in America and the help that we’ve gotten from so many quarters from local churches and pastors and seminaries, and even the industry down in Nashville: people that have helped us and supported what we do. We’re very appreciative of the fact that our efforts are part of a wider span of things. As you know lots of people are involved and helping."
ANS would like to thank Robin Frost for transcribing this interview.
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© 2007 ASSIST News Service, used with permission