February 2008 – Without a hint of false humility, Keith Getty says that music, even including his own compositions, is not the most important aspect of Christian worship.
That opinion may surprise those who would think the composer of such profound new hymns as “In Christ Alone,” and “The Power of the Cross” would promote music as a centerpiece of Christian worship.
“Seems to me that when Paul talks about authentic worship it’s when believers from every background come together,” he says. “So music really becomes a very small deal. The radical part of it is when the Greek and the Roman, the Jew and Gentile, the slave and the free are all singing and worshiping together.”
Keith’s take on the subjugation of music to a higher purpose in worship may go against the grain in Christian circles that place a premium on musical presentation. However, it is characteristic of his desire to understand his own calling in light of the Scripture. And although he doesn’t consider himself a Bible scholar, this young Irish composer brings a well-developed theology to his role as modern hymn writer.
Keith and his musical partner and wife, Kristyn, unpacked their vision of music and ministry in a wide-ranging interview during a recent visit to AFA headquarters.
The church, the music, the call
Keith, 32, and Kristyn, 27, grew up in separate communities outside Belfast in Northern Ireland. Each was blessed with Christian parents and taught to love the local church. Kristyn’s father still pastors the church he planted when she was eight years old in the community of Glengormley. Both testify to coming to faith in Christ during childhood.
By his own admission, at about age 10, Keith became obsessed with music. “All I wanted to do was make music – perform it, write it, set up concerts, just make it happen.” While his formal training focused on the classics on piano, another musical outlet was strumming guitar in his church’s praise band.
“Over time, I began to struggle because the music didn’t focus on the fundamentals of what we as Christians believe,” he said. “The emphasis was on the subjective emotion.” That tension eventually resulted in a desire to write music that expressed the wide breadth of characteristics of God, he said.
“I want to write hymns for the 21st century that really articulate what we believe as a vision for churches in the Western World and beyond,” Keith explained. That goal not only necessitates lyrics that communicate deep truths in understandable terms, but also requires melodies that can be sung by people from every background and that can be adapted to a wide variety of musical settings. Keith’s melodies that accompany lyrics by songwriting partners Stuart Townend and Kristyn apparently hit that mark. “In Christ Alone” is sung in churches around the world and has been recorded over 200 times by artists in jazz, rhythm and blues, pop, rock and Celtic genres, as well as arranged for choirs and orchestras.
Kristyn’s love for music was also nurtured in her home church. “I remember when I was only five or six years old hearing a lady in our church sing a Graham Kendrick song, ‘O Lord, Your Tenderness,’” she said in her gentle Irish lilt. “I remember saying to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing to sing something about God, rather than just say it like Dad does in sermons.’”
By the time Kristyn had reached 17, she was singing regularly around her small Christian community in Northern Ireland. On one occasion her uncle heard her sing. Little did she know how God would use that small event to orchestrate His purposes in her life and Keith’s.
Keith recalled that while attending Durham University in England, he met the brilliant John Lennox, a world renowned mathematician and Christian apologist. Lennox’s academic reputation had given him a notoriety that earned him audiences before royal families and high level government officials in Europe. Lennox befriended Keith and advised him that he did not have to become a pastor to be used by God. “He told me that he stuck to math and the Lord used that,” Keith said. “His advice was to be the best musician I could be and to make sure my faith grew as fast my career.”
About six years later while living in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, Keith received an e-mail from Lennox congratulating him on his emerging music career. Lennox also wrote that his brother had a daughter who could use some help with her music. Since she was attending a nearby university, Lennox asked Keith if he would “look after her.” The niece was Kristyn.
Their friendship soon turned into a musical partnership with Keith encouraging Kristyn, who had a love of language, to try her hand at writing lyrics for his melodies. The collaboration worked. In leading worship, Kristyn began to use the songs she and Keith wrote, as well as others written by Keith and Townend.
As time passed, it became apparent that music was not the only thing Keith and Kristyn had in common. Their relationship was growing beyond friendship. In 2004 the couple married.
Kristyn sees God’s good providence not only in bringing her and Keith together, but also in their complementary gifts and interests. “I like to sing; he likes to write melodies,” she said. “We both like to travel and like to talk. He comes from a classical background; I come from a new church and pop background. All that has worked for us in doing what we do.”
The plumb line
Musically, Keith is both a traditionalist and visionary. He claims musical moorings in Irish folk melodies, the classics, church hymns and the best of the 1960s pop songs from composers such as The Beatles and Paul Simon. However, he has also found a musical model in a surprising source.
When asked by a Christian music journal to write an article on the person who has fueled his take on church music, Keith responded that it was a hedonistic Jew who never went to church in his life: George Gershwin.
In Gershwin, Keith hears the successful fusing of Yiddish folk music inside a classical context. “I’m not trying to compare myself with Gershwin,” he said. “That would be ridiculous. But as a model for crossing and combining genres in a way that is multi-generational and universally singable, Gershwin is my inspiration. That’s what I’m striving for in my hymns.”
Thematically, Keith identifies three sources of inspiration for his hymns in addition to the Scripture itself. First, he often goes to pastors and Bible teachers in an effort to respond musically to the needs of the church.
Lyrical themes also come from a knowledge of historical Christian worship. “I wrote the hymn ‘Speak, O Lord’ informed by the Presbyterian and Methodist tradition of offering hymns of illumination,” Keith said. “Traditionally, many churches had a hymn just before the sermon that provided a reflective moment. In the hymns, worshipers were to ask themselves if they were ready to receive the message of the Word about to be preached. So we wrote: ‘Test our thoughts and our attitudes in the radiance of your purity.’”
Thirdly, Keith is keenly aware of his own need for God’s grace. “I understand that the seeds of every sin are in the heart of every man,” Keith said. “So no matter what I write or what I pray or what our ministry might achieve, there is not one despicable sin of which I am not capable. And so, I start from that position.”
Also wrapped up in the Gettys’ hymn writing is a desire to help restore the unity that is lost when churches battle over musical styles.
“It comes down to this,” Keith says. “If songs in worship are not expanding your mind to the glory and wonder of God and His redemption, and are not joining believers together; if you look around and 80% of the congregation are not singing even if the band is good and you are getting a massive crowd; then you have to ask, what is that actually doing for Christ’s church? For me the plumb line is: Can the church sing it and does it edify?”
The mission, the future
For the present, Keith and Kristyn make their home in the Cleveland, Ohio, area. They live in missionary housing provided by Parkside Church where well-known preacher and teacher Alistair Begg serves as senior pastor. “He has become a father figure to us as we have been trying to navigate life in America,” Kristyn says.
However, because their mission to take their hymns to churches across America requires extensive travel, they are home only about one weekend a month.
Kristyn says the benefit of touring is that they generally sing in churches that are very Bible centered. That means they frequently have the opportunity to sit under a variety of outstanding teachers. “Our journals are full of wonderful food for thought,” she said. “It gives us plenty to consider when we write songs.”
Keith and Kristyn chose not to live in Nashville, the center of the Christian music business. They see this arrangement in Cleveland as more productive for their artistic and spiritual development.
“We think of our careers as a slow build,” Keith said. “We have publishers and people who help us in Nashville. However, we manage our own office, record label and bookings. We also do our own second level distribution through our Web site (www.gettymusic.com). I know we might not reach the same level of success as some other artists, but it’s a trade-off that helps us spiritually and musically.”
Kristyn says in the next year the couple would like to trim back on their travel schedule in order to carve out longer periods of time to write. They also look forward to having children, should God allow.
In the meantime, their days and nights are filled with airports, interviews, writing, performing and attempting to build a solid career foundation in the fickle music business.
Kristyn says keeping their lives Christ-focused in the midst of a call that takes them around the globe requires laying hold of the common means of grace that God has always provided to believers. “On our best days, we think kingdom thoughts, and that simply comes from being in the Word every day and prayer. That is our lifeblood and power source.”
Sample the music and lyrics of Keith and Kristyn Getty at www.gettymusic.com.