Interview by Elizabeth Waibel
Keith and Kristyn Getty have written numerous songs and are an important part of the modern hymns movement, which encourages churches to use songs with meaningful lyrics in worship. They are most famous for the song “In Christ Alone,” which they co-authored with Stuart Townend.
The “Cardinal & Cream” spoke with Keith Getty ahead of the Gettys’ concert at Union, Sept. 22.
Cardinal & Cream: My first question is, why hymns? Why are you interested in hymns as opposed to other types of music?
Keith Getty: I don’t think I was interested in hymns, as such, I don’t have hymns on my iPod…but I wanted to write songs for churches to sing, for Christians to sing, which had two important things. One of them was songs that had a real depth of lyrics, songs that help people understand God. That’s historically what churches have done. Through the Old Testament people were taught the songs so that they would know, so that they would learn, so that they would not forget what God had done for them, and that happened in the New Testament — the early hymns and Paul’s letters told the Gospel story.
Throughout church history, whether it’s liturgy or hymns, people have learned their faith, memorized it, by doing that. While I grew up in the modern worship movement, I wanted to write songs that had a lot more lyrical depth to help people understand theology and doctrine, but not as boring stuff, but as exciting, life-giving stuff.
The second thing was I wanted to write in more of a folk melody style so that the songs could be sung wherever they worked. In other words, they don’t really need music. So, if you know something like “In Christ Alone,” it kind of tells the Gospel lyrically, but the melody can be sung just by a group of people with no music, or, if you want to have a guitar, you can use it for a rock band, or a pipe organ, or whatever your taste is. … That’s the two reasons why we wrote in the style we did. Because people felt it sounded more like hymns or was closer to the old hymn format, a lot of people have called it modern hymns, because it’s not quite a hymn and it’s not quite a modern worship song.
C&C: How did your musical background influence the type of music you write?
KG: I became a Christian when I was young. University was a very formative time for me, but I grew up in a home where we listened both to traditional classical music and contemporary church music and [attended] a church that used both traditional church music and contemporary music, and I, as a musician, studied classical music, but also loved playing more popular music…. As well as studying my subject at university, which was music, I wanted to study theology and learn, so I think there’s a degree to which that has been a huge help, too.
C&C: What are some concerns you have about Christian music today, or some things you think the church can do better?
KG: I think as churches we need to make sure that our congregations are letting the Word of Christ dwell in us richly. That’s done by making sure the songs that we sing are full of the truths of the Gospel … filling our congregation’s minds and hearts and memories and lives by extension. … I think secondly, as musicians, the Bible is very emphatic that music and art and, I think, all of life should be done as well as it can be done, so if we choose songs that are of high quality, if we choose hymns that are of high quality and if we sing them and play them at high quality, then singing is a vibrant, exciting thing, whatever style you’re in — whether it’s a traditional style or a contemporary style or a Latino style, whatever style. We need to make sure in our congregational singing that the Word of Christ dwells richly, and (that) the singing and the music that we bring supports the congregation to sing as well as they can.
C&C: I understand that you collaborated with Stuart Townend on “In Christ Alone.” How did that come about?
KG: We met back in the year 2000, and I had just started to write hymns and, of course, he had written a hymn … called “How Deep the Father’s Love.” … That was our first song we wrote together, actually, and we’ve written together ever since.
C&C: What are you working on right now?
KG: At the minute we’re writing a new collection of songs. … We’re planning over the next year or so to perform a thing called Irish Christmas, which is a new adventure for us, doing a Christmas event, which features a few of our hymns, similar songs and some traditional Christmas songs with a full Irish band. Really, it’s a chance for people to bring their friends who don’t go to church to hear the Christmas story, the whole Gospel story. … The second thing, (is writing) a new collection of hymns … which will be our third album.
C&C: How did living in Northern Ireland influence the type of music you write?
KG: Northern Ireland is a curious combination of Scotch-Irish Protestantism — evangelical Protestantism — and probably it’s the only real stronghold left in Europe — but also, it’s equally Celtic-Irish; it’s a combination of the two. So, I think my love for both cultures is reflected in that. I grew up in a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian background, and we learned to study theology and talk about theology. … At the same time, I loved Irish music, and Irish music has a wonderful sense of melody to it. Everybody knows “Be Thou My Vision” and “Danny Boy” and all these tunes, and they’re so easy to sing. You see, Irish music is written for groups of people to sing. All folk music is, to a degree, but Irish music is particularly distinctive, and whether you’re going to a sports game or a family funeral or a dinner or whatever it is, people love to sing together. … The influences of the very passionate, Celtic approach to theology, but also the Irish music, I think, were very important and very foundational for me.