By John Greco
It’s no accident the the hymnody of Keith and Kristyn Getty has taken the nation—and the world—by storm. Their music reflects the deep and rich theological truths longed for by both younger and older generatations of worshipers.
The husband-wife team from Northern Ireland are passionate about writing songs that congregations are able to sing together and that have strong biblical substance.
With his friend Stuart Townend, Keith co-wrote the immensely popular hymn, “In Christ Alone.” Sung in churches around the world for more than a decade, it has arguably done more for the modern hymn movement than any other.
Still Getty says neither “In Christ Alone” nor any of the other songs he’s written with Townend or Kristyn, are part of some new trend.
Instead, those songs are meant to do what hymns have always done—help people learn the faith through the words they sing.
“It is a means of putting into our minds, into our hearts, and into our lives words of truth that help us to know God,” he says.
During our conversation, Keith walked me through the history of hymns, starting with Scripture, from the Song of Moses and the Psalms to the words of the prophets and the hymns of the early church. Then there are the songs that missionaries and evangelists used to take Christianity around the world in the last 150 years.
“People learned their faith, and have learned their faith since the beginning of time, through what they sing,” he says.
And singing as a congregation, Keith reminded me, has been one of the hallmarks of Christians around the world.
“I asked a friend of mine, ‘What was the most meaningful worship experience you’ve ever been a part of?’” says Keith. “He told me about a time with North Vietnamese believers. They were sitting around a table, whispering hymns in rhythm for fear of being caught but for the joy of being together.”
That kind of experience is “a microcosm of heaven,” Keith says.
Today, instead of uniting God’s people, worship music often divides them. Some like hymns and reject new songs. Others prefer newer worship songs and look down on older songs. As a worship leader and songwriter, that worries Keith.
“God’s people have a history of singing new songs but they also have a history of singing songs that have been passed on from generation to generation” he says.
“So we want to encourage people to engage in songs from the past, but we also want them to sing new songs they themselves can pass on.”
“In Christ Alone,” like so many of the songs Keith’s had a hand in writing, is a hymn at home in the view of worship music Keith has just described. From the first note to the last, a picture of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection-victory is painted with words.
The melody insists on being sung in a congregational setting. And though the song fits neatly within the rich heritage of historical hymnody, it is refreshingly new and is sure to be passed on for generations to come.
There is something familiar in their songs, and there is a depth to the lyrics. It is the truth contained in those memorable tunes that grabs a worshiper’s attention.
Keith says theology in songwriting is important, but there’s more to it than that.
“People say hymns have to be good theology with a sing-able melody,” he says. “While there’s a strong element of truth to that, it’s really only a half-truth.”
Keith has my full attention, as I realize I’m guilty of spreading this apparent half-truth.
“What we actually need is beautiful poetry that lifts our eyes to the God of the universe, that arrests our emotions, fascinates our minds, and sticks in our memories,” he says. “And this poetry ought to be married to melodies that are so sing-able, they captivate us and all those around us—so much so that we want to sing them over and over and pass them on to our children. That’s what we really need.”
Keith says he’s encouraged by the state of worship in the church today.
“I think there are more people in the church today taking seriously the content of songs than there were, say, 15 years ago. That’s a good thing.”
And for a man who takes pride in crafting tunes that were meant to be expressed with instruments, Keith hasn’t lost sight of what’s most important: “The majority of the people in the world who sing ‘In Christ Alone’ don’t have music, given how much it’s sung in China and India and other places. We don’t actually need all the music, all that stuff. The golden bit is God’s people getting together and singing.”
John Greco is a freelance writer living in Atlanta, Georgia.