Keith Getty on Writing Hymns for the Church Universal
Keith Getty says that what we sing becomes the grammar of what we believe. That's why he and Kristyn Getty are writing and teaching modern hymns that all ages can sing and remember together. A feature story exploring Getty's ideas on writing hymns for the Universal church.
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Profile: Keith Getty
Getty, who grew up singing hymns and metrical psalms in a Presbyterian church, had already begun making a name for himself. He orchestrated choral arrangements for movie recordings and produced scores, shows, and albums, such as the New Irish Hymns series, which feature his songs.
Several experiences, however, tugged him back to his congregational hymn singing roots. His pastor in Belfast couldn’t find songs to fit biblical sermons so asked Getty to write some. Getty noticed that, even in dementia, his grandfather remembered "O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go" and other hymns he’d learned as a child.
And Getty fell in love with Kristyn Lennox, a gifted Irish singer, songwriter, and worship leader. For their 2004 wedding, they chose O Thou Who Camest from Above, Charles Wesley’s prayer-like request for the Spirit’s guidance and inspiration.
Keith and Kristyn Getty decided to join their musical talents in creating modern hymns for the church universal, hymns that all ages can sing together in worship. After all, he explains, “What we sing becomes the grammar of what we believe.”
Biblical truth, contemporary poetry
“It’s been several hundred years since Christian worship was as shallow as it is today. Christianity is more universal than it’s ever been, but people’s understanding of their faith and the Bible is disappointing,” he says.
Whether writing hymns with his wife or Townend, Getty says two goals guide him. “We try to write theological and Bible truth that speaks in everyday life, as Charles Wesley did. And I try to write melodies that large groups of people can sing. That is my filter: Can all ages sing this melody?
“From a lyrical point of view, we use Bible terms in a poetic way—to give the lyrics class and artistic credibility. But we write in language we would speak, that you can imagine saying.
“A poem that goes ‘my heart to God goes up’ we would not use. But ‘no guilt in life, no fear in death, this is the power of Christ in me’ is language we feel reasonably comfortable speaking. You can imagine saying that even though it might be more poetic than usual ‘speak talk,’ ” he says.
Given their Irish heritage, it’s no surprise that the Gettys often capitalize on the power of a story. “People will sing forever if the song takes them on a journey,” Keith Getty says. “The Power of the Cross” takes worshipers on Christ’s walk from Gethsemane to Calvary.
“When I have doubts about the Christian faith in the midst of moral pluralism—and I question faith itself—I find in the life of Christ the most compelling and incontrovertible evidence that his claims cannot be ignored,” he says.
Getty’s always searching for new melodic ideas. He rarely finds inspiration in Christian contemporary music because “it’s mostly copies of the last five or ten years.”
Instead he looks for melodies that transcend every generation and have been recorded in many genres, such as folk tunes.
“Most of our best hymns are based on folk melodies and tend to be equally accessible to rock and pop bands as well as to organs and choirs and orchestra arrangements.
“The greatest Irish hymn of all time is ‘Be Thou My Vision.’ It’s been recorded over 100 times in a decade by grunge, pop, rock, and worship bands…Its melody and lyrics, some believe, date back to the fifth century,” he says.
Since he grew up singing hymns and never listened to pop music, Getty has spent hours trying to learn a more popular songwriting form from classical songwriters, such as American composer George Gershwin, who leaned on folk music (and jazz and European classical music) for inspiration. He also credits Kate Rusby, an English modern folk singer, for fresh ideas.
“‘The Power of the Cross’ is really just trying to create a classic ballad using those simple steps that Gershwin used. The actual harmonic structures are quite Handelian. Listen to the verses. The melody never moves a note apart, but we build up a much more expansive chorus. It’s a bizarre mixture of a classic ballad inside what’s really almost a baroque chordal structure,” Getty says.
Writing songs for African Children’s Choir tours with Kristyn made him more aware of rhythm and inspired a lot of their children’s music.
“I love hymnody. We’re trying to preserve hymnody not for the sake of conservation but to reinvent it so it can live and breathe for a new generation.”
Easy to sing and use
While leading worship, Keith and Kristyn Getty have learned it’s often hard to find songs that fit a particular slot in the service. They ask pastors and theologians what congregations should be singing.
Keith Getty says anticipating how a hymn will be used in worship influences how he orchestrates it. He tries to simplify music so churches don’t need many instruments, people, skills, or rehearsal time to teach it. Congregations learn songs easily if the melody is singable and each verse has the same structure.
He suggests that songs used for a closing hymn, solo, or communion may require a different touch or fewer instruments. The key is for music to serve, not distract, the congregation.
In 2006, the Gettys moved to the United States for two years of touring and teaching. They are hymn writers in residence at Parkside Church in metro Cleveland.
“My goal is to write 12 useful hymns a year for the church universal. I want to keep getting better and hope the songs grow in popularity and get translated into many languages.
“Parkside is so supportive. They put no pressure on us to perform. Parkside is the willing guinea pig for our new songs. We teach the songs to the congregation. That’s the ultimate testing ground,” Keith Getty says.
Start a Discussion
Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your council, staff, worship, or music committee meeting. These questions will get members talking about songs and hymns in worship.
- What do your church’s favorite songs reveal about your theology? How do they form your congregation’s ideas on how to think about God, pray to God, and live as God wills?
- About what percentage of your church music would you define as hymns? If you use hymns, why do you use them? Do the hymn versions you use speak to all age groups?
Share Your Wisdom
What is the best way you’ve found to address and talk through principles of appropriate congregational songs? Please write to us so we can identify trends and share your great ideas. Whether you do these or any other things, we’d love to learn what works for you:
- Did you find a resource—visual, online, printed, multimedia, or seminar—that helped your church think through how and why to make changes in your congregational singing?
- If you have surveyed different age groups in your church about their favorite worship songs, what differences and similarities did you discover? How did you publicize findings and address the gaps?