When the armies gather for the so-called "worship wars," it's usually safe to assume what each side will look like. The wizened and gray-haired will form in defense of hymns; the shaggy-haired and blue-jeaned young folk will argue for more recent musical forms. But a pair of young Irish song writers is changing the terms of the battle.
In their 30’s, Keith and Kristyn Getty are both fashionable and energetic. They look as if they could be the next big thing in pop music. But they are committed to a higher calling: writing modern hymns in a contemporary idiom that teach the faith and bring the generations together in worship.
Keith and Kristyn met in Northern Ireland (where both were born and raised), when Keith was just completing college and Kristyn was just beginning. After several years in a successful secular musical career, Keith collaborated with songwriter Stuart Townend ("How Deep the Father's Love for Us") and wrote "In Christ Alone." This experience confirmed Keith's calling to put his musical training to use writing modern hymns. Kristyn brings to the partnership her training in English literature, a gift for writing lyrics, and a beautiful soprano voice.
The Gettys worship at Parkside Church in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where Alistair Begg is pastor. They spend most weekends traveling, sharing their music with churches around the United States and abroad. Leadership assistant editor Brandon O'Brien spoke with Keith and Kristyn about their work and ministry and how they understand the place of hymns in worship today.
(For best results, read everything that follows in a charming Irish brogue.)
What trends do you see in worship that compel you to write hymns?
Keith: They say that in every culture, the signs of the church on the slide are, first, that the church becomes decreasingly knowledgeable of God. Second, the church becomes increasingly obsessed with itself. Third, the church views every part of the spiritual walk for what they can get out of it—its therapeutic value. We see that happening today. So we want to write songs that address this shallowness by articulating the deep truths of the faith.
In addition, I think the goal of congregational worship is to be congregational.
As the church's influence began to slip in Britain, the churches tried to use music to attract people. They moved music to the front, with professional choirs, and held well-developed and well-rehearsed services. In the short-term, it worked. But it ultimately distanced the front from the back, so that churches lost a sense of both community and what real worship is actually about. Worship music changed from something sung by the people to something done from the front by professionals.
Kristyn: That's why we have a lot of empty cathedrals and churches that are being sold as restaurants.
Keith: And although everything is contemporary in style in America, I think the pattern is dangerously similar. So we want to write songs that everyone can sing—songs that are truly congregational.
You're committed to the hymn. What are the musical and lyrical elements of a hymn?
Keith: There's no scientific difference between a hymn and a song. We just run with "hymn" because we couldn't think of a better word. For us it boils down to those two simple principles: songs that teach the faith and that the whole congregation can sing. So musically, a song has to be easy and inspirational to sing, and lyrically it has to teach the truth of God in a way that is emotionally engaging and poetic.
Kristyn: Not all old hymns have the same desire for content. They're not all singable. So we're not suggesting that a hymn is more sanctified or more holy. But there are creative and theological principles that have been thought through and worked out through the past that are worth considering and applying to a new generation. Every generation needs music in its own vernacular. But the principles of teaching people the faith and then giving them words to declare it are timeless.
So how do you develop the content of your songs?
Keith: We talk to our pastor and other advisers at the front end, and they give us their ideas. For example, our latest hymn is about the compassion of Christ. So we said, "We want to write a hymn about Christ's compassion. What is this issue all about?"
I'm Irish, so I am good at the verbal stuff. [Laughter.] We just chat about it and then we start the hymn. Then at the end, we send it to a couple of people to check that none of the phrases could be misunderstood. You don't want to set a phrase that half the world is going to misunderstand.
Also, when we write hymns, we deliberately try to tell stories, because people will sing doxological truth and theology within a story 'til they're blue in the face. Take "In Christ Alone" for instance. A lot of people are moved by the fact that through the verses, Jesus takes on flesh as a helpless babe and ends up on the cross. They've sung through half of Romans by the end of the song, but because you've taken them through a story rather than just giving them didactic truth, it really communicates to them.
Kristyn: As we write, we're also aware of where a song would fit in the service. That has led us write things like "The Communion Hymn" and "Speak, O Lord," which is like the old hymns of illumination that could be used immediately before or after a sermon.
Why are you so committed to music that has intergenerational appeal?
Keith: Plato the philosopher said near the end of his life that he wished he could have written the songs of his people, because he understood ultimately that knowledge is passed on, both intellectually and emotionally, by consensus—by people singing together.
Kristyn: We look for songs that bring people of all ages together because singing is an act of unity. You join the same melody line, the same words. Music, like air, connects us. We're all breathing the same melody.
How do you negotiate differing musical tastes in worship when trying to bring the generations together?
Keith: It's not a matter of singing "Here I Am to Worship" immediately before the sermon and "Just As I Am" immediately after.
Kristyn: And it's not running an election—trying to appeal to the youth vote and the middle vote and the senior vote. We're preaching the gospel, which is for all generations, all tribes.
We hear the word "blended" an awful lot—people trying to do the best of the old with the best of the new. Everybody sings the songs they like. And that's a practical effort at trying to do your best in a complicated situation. But there have to be occasions when the whole body is singing the same song together. So we look for songs—not just our own—that create opportunities for an eight year old and an eighty-eight year old to stand together and sing.
Keith: It seems to me that if a church splits up over music that music has become more important than togetherness in itself. Music is merely a servant to the body of believers. I imagine that in Kenya or Eastern Europe or persecuted China, gathering together as a body of believers is more important than the fact that half of you listen to Coldplay and half of you listen to Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, or Bach.
Kristyn: I wonder if approaching things from the two principles we work from, as opposed to drums or no drums or jazz style or rock style, it might erase some of the difficulties. We just over-complicate everything so much.
Keith: When we worship, we're effectively joining with believers all around the world on a Sunday. We're also singing with the generations that have gone before us, and we're singing as a foretaste of what will come after us. So what we're doing now is a representation of that. And if it's a representation of such unity, why are people walking through two separate doors?
So you're not concerned with writing in a particular style?
Keith: I think less than half a dozen times since we've started has someone come up to me and said, "Your music is my favorite style of music in the world." No kind of music is popular with everyone, so we try to write the kind of music that suits amateur singers. Most of our songs actually can be done in contemporary arrangements, but the goal is to write melodies that are singable rather than songs that sound like ones on the pop charts.
Where do you find your inspiration in that effort?
Keith: Our songwriting style has two main inspirations, both of them equally unchristian. One is Irish folk music, which is very singable and social. It's almost tailor made for congregational singing. The other is the only contemporary popular genre written in a similar style: the 1930s Jewish songwriters of Tin Pan Alley—George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin. Their craft was honing perfect melodies and then putting lyrics to it.
To clarify, why is the melody so important?
Keith: Because a good melody transcends musical style. For instance, a Gershwin song became a Broadway musical, a number one hit in the pop charts, a jazz standard, and a standard in the classical music cult long before pops orchestras.
Kristyn: Sometimes with modern music, you rely on the groove or the lead singer or the syncopation patterns in order for the congregation to be able to follow along. So if you take out the drum, the song doesn't work. But melodic folk music is quite versatile. You can dress and arrange it in so many different ways. You can sing it with the piano and a leading vocal, or without all those things.
We often cite "Be Thou My Vision" as an example. The lyrics date to around the sixth century, but it's still being sung. And you've heard it with a big rock band, and you've heard it just voices and nothing else. It's incredible what you can do with that folk melody. That's a great example of how a song continues to be relevant. It's not bound by any generation or style.
So we're always chasing that melody that might transcend all those boundaries and just be easy to sing.
That sounds like a lot of work.
Keith: Since June of this year, I've probably written three hundred melodies, and I'll only use two or three of those.
Kristyn: Our home church in Ohio is very gracious to us. They let us try out our songs with the congregation. Every couple of months, we'll be part of the church service, and we'll bring out a new song.
Keith: We've never had a song that after one, two, or three performance hasn't been changed.
Kristyn: I'll tell Keith that I could sense people couldn't quite get that little progression of the melody. Is there any way we can change it a little?
So are modern hymns the solution to the "worship wars"?
Keith: Church music fights did not begin twelve months after The Beatles started and the church realized that there was new music. These arguments about what Christians should sing have gone on all of time, from rival monasteries to rival cathedrals. They're not going to end. And so anybody who prescribes a musical solution is blowing smoke.
Keith: There's a reason why the Lord made the church a multigenerational, multiclass, multiethnic, diverse group of people. I doubt that everybody in Acts had the same musical tastes, if they were Jews and Greek and slave and free and Sabean and different things.
If modern hymns won't end the conflict over musical styles, what makes them relevant?
Kristyn: Well, the truth is always relevant. If the songs are full of truth, they will never be out of date.
Keith: Good art is good art. There's no such thing as good Christian art or good contemporary art. If you can create something that's good, it has lasting value.
I think part of the reason contemporary worship has been so successful is that it has put truth in the current idiom and melodies most can sing. But it's important we don't lose the point. The point isn't to be contemporary for contemporary's sake. If you try to create something that's contemporary, it's got a very limited shelf life because it only lasts as long as those things are considered contemporary. I think that's why everybody's rushing to go backwards to try and find something from the past—because they've totally lost context of where they're at.
Do modern hymns help re-connect the church with the past?
Keith: Sure. For instance, the hymn "O Church Arise" was a study of Lutheran hymnody. Luther's vision of the church was that it was the only hope for the world we live in, for the lonely person with the lonely eyes we walk past in the street. That's quite relevant today. "Speak, O Lord" was a study of old hymns of illumination that prepare the church for the preaching of the Word.
Kristyn: In America, "new" is a positive word. The positive energy and desire to do new things in America is certainly wonderful. But the truth is life isn't always just a blank page. The Christian life is about remembering, not just all that God has taught us through the Scriptures but also from church history. Every generation must find new expression, new color. But we're the worse off when we disconnect ourselves from the past and are always in pursuit of a blank page. That's true in the church and in society as a whole.
C. S. Lewis says that learning is not so much like a train going from one station to the next, so that we leave something and go on to another. Instead, in the way that a tree grows, you add rings to your understanding without leaving the old behind. We can harness all that is good and should never be forgotten from the past as we move on. We're still moving and ebbing and trying new things, without becoming disconnected from the root.
Keith: The contemporary generation talks a lot about songs having to sound contemporary for the unchurched to listen to. In my experience of having non-Christian friends attend Christian events or church, they're much more warmed when everyone is singing passionately and confidently, rather than somewhere somebody's trying to do something half as well as it might be done on MTV, or where everybody in the congregation is standing around and staring. Nine times out of ten, they're actually quite embarrassed by that.
If I've got non-Christian friends coming to church, I'd far rather give them four verses of comparatively heavy theology with some theological words which explains the gospel, than give them twenty repeated words that could be said about your pet horse or your girlfriend.
Kristyn: Wow. The real Keith just popped out. [Laughter.]
The relationship between pastor and music minister is notoriously troubled.
Kristyn: It's a match made in heaven. Are you kidding?
Keith: On paper, the pastor and musician are a great partnership, because one has a bent towards theology and message, and the other is creative and has a bent towards the arts. When the two work well together, like the Wesley brothers or Cliff Barrows and Billy Graham, it's a one plus one equals three.
So where do things go wrong?
Keith: A lot of pastors are content either not to get involved at all or to be happy with the music as long as it's bringing in the numbers. But the music is more than the PR and marketing department of the church that brings people in for the pastor to preach to. Singing is a holy activity which will go on into heaven long after expositional Bible teaching finishes.
How can a pastor and music minister work together to help the congregation worship?
Kristyn: When we visit churches Sunday to Sunday, the churches that sing the best seem to be the ones where the pastor is singing. If he's singing, people sing. For the musician or the worship leader at the front, having the pastor singing with you makes all the difference in the world.
Keith: Another thing, the effective pastor-and-worship-leader teams we've seen are totally geared to serving their congregation every week. They continually ask, "What really worked here and what didn't?" It's so easy to make the unimportant things the important things. So the music in itself or the sermon or the production values become the thing.
The best ministers have two goals—to teach the faith and to support the congregation. On Monday morning, they get together and ask, "How well did we achieve these goals?"
Then the pastor and music minister need to look at the words they put in their congregation's mouths and minds.
So we need to print out all the words from Sunday and ask, "Are these true words? Are these words giving people a bigger vision of God?"
Next you have to ask, "Did the congregation sing?" If the congregation can't sing a song, then it doesn't matter how good it is for the choir or the organ or the worship band or the lead singer. Can the congregation sing it?
I guess you work from pretty basic principles.
Keith: Absolutely. Our primary motivation is the need for twenty-first century hymnody that articulates the truths of the faith and builds up the young, vibrant, and increasingly persecuted church worldwide.