The Christian musical landscape includes dozens of widely known worship leaders and recording artists but comparatively few hymn writers. Of these, Keith and Kristyn Getty are preeminent. Their songs are enormously popular (over 40 million people sing “In Christ Alone” in church services each year, according to their website). And in June, Keith—who is from Northern Ireland—became the first contemporary Christian musician to be honored as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, an award given by Queen Elizabeth II. Over the last decade, the Gettys have been leading seminars around the United States for pastors and ministers of music. This teaching work forms the foundation of their book Sing! How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church. Steve Guthrie, professor of theology at Belmont University (and head of the school’s Religion and the Arts program), spoke with Keith about reinvigorating the Christian practice of singing, in congregations and families alike.
With so many difficult issues facing the church today, why give special attention to congregational singing?
As evangelicals, we take the Bible as our authority. And when we look at the Bible, we find that, actually, the second most common command is to sing. It wouldn’t come up that often if it weren’t extremely important to God. Yet when Kristyn and I started studying this, we realized we couldn’t find good books on singing for ordinary people.
In 2013, we did a series of leadership lunches where we would ask the participants: “What’s the first question you ask about music in church?” And we got a whole range of answers, from production to musical style to personality to presentation. But not one person asked, “How did the congregation sing?” And so we find ourselves in a peculiar culture where what is primary—singing—has become secondary, and what is secondary—all of these other concerns—has become primary.
How do we nurture and encourage congregational song?
We need to understand this holy privilege of congregational singing: Something we do in response to God’s command is also a high privilege. That will transform how we sing.
As we’ve traveled around, one thing we’ve noticed is that it doesn’t really matter what a church’s budget is, what its demographics are, even the number of professional musicians up front. These things can help, but only a little. Congregations that sing well are congregations that understand why it’s so important. They have pastors and leaders who are passionate about it.
Why do you devote so much space to the idea of families singing together?
If you look at the Puritans, they really understood the importance of family worship. My wife always describes congregational worship as a Sunday feast that we prepare during the week. Families that sing—actively, in family devotions; or passively, just by having music playing around the house—tend to sing well on Sunday. The New England Puritans used to meet on Wednesday to begin preparing themselves for Sunday worship. Our culture may not be structured for that level of commitment, but we do have technology that allows us to fill our homes with songs.
I once asked John MacArthur, when we were visiting his church for a concert, if he had any advice for raising children. He said, “Fill your home with songs of the Lord. It’s one of the most important things a parent can do.” I would only add: Where life is—inside and outside the home—fill those places with songs of the Lord.
It sounds like a wonderful idea—but you and Kristyn are professional musicians. What about Christians who aren’t musically gifted?
The point we make is that your voice doesn’t have to be professional standard, only confessional standard. That may sound a bit twee, but it’s true. Children will be shaped by the passion, not the quality, of their parents’ singing. Further, the same technology that in many cases is destroying our families can also be used to build up our families. If we have music playing in our homes, that kind of passive enjoyment can, in time, lead to more active participation.
People probably imagine Kristyn and me as the Christian version of the von Trapp family. But actually, we started thinking about all of this because we were noticing ways we had been overlooking singing in our own family. Some time ago we visited a classical Christian school where students had been learning our songs. When we got there, our girls went running up front with the other kids, and who would you guess didn’t know the words to many of the hymns—including “In Christ Alone”? It was pretty humiliating. Right after we left, Kristyn and I resolved to give more attention to the singing going on in our home.
You mention the importance of training leaders. Are there other factors—changes in church architecture, the structure of our services, shifts in our culture—that create obstacles to effective congregational singing?
In the last 50 years, everything from education to entertainment has flown in the face of congregational singing. Fifty years ago, schools taught children to sing and had them perform in school choirs. But education and culture have changed. The collapse of the arts in education is tragic. Likewise, entertainment has changed. My grandparents would have “sing songs” in their home. That’s peculiar to Ireland, but I still think public singing was much more common for our grandparents. So everything has changed, but we have to remember that we follow Scripture, not culture. And as I mentioned earlier, Scripture seems quite obsessed with singing.
I’ve lived through the generation that basically said, “The only way to get people to like Christianity is to more or less sing Coldplay songs in church,” or try to reproduce CCM songs at about 60 percent of the original artist’s skill level. Frankly, people can go to their iPhones and listen to something better. What a radical witness it would be—in a society where families are broken, where parents don’t understand their children, where neighbors can’t be civil to each other, where we can’t have even civil political discourse—if people from different backgrounds would come together and sing together.
You and Kristyn have traveled and led worship all over the world. What can American churches learn from singing in other nations? And can churches in other nations learn anything from singing here in America?
That’s one of the beauties of being in Christ’s family: We can learn from the church in other parts of the world. Our director of marketing at Getty Music recently spent three weeks with Chinese underground churches. He has videos of them singing, and it is just extraordinary. But then, going the other way, Kristyn’s dad was a church planter, and one of the ways he would encourage himself was by watching videos of worship at Brooklyn Tabernacle. In one of the videos, a man who had been rescued from an addiction to crack cocaine was in front of the church singing, “I’m clean, I’m clean / I’ve been washed by the blood.”
But of course, Christ’s family includes not only those in other places, but also those of other generations. One of the tragedies of the loss of the hymn book is that we lose the perspective of the church fathers, the Reformers, the revivalists, and the radical worldwide missionary movement, just to name four movements that were honed by song.
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