Charles Wesley. Fanny Crosby. John Newton. Their names evoke timeless melodies and lyrical truths synonymous with the Christian faith, and as writers of such prolific hymns as “Christ The Lord Is Risen Today,” “Blessed Assurance” and “Amazing Grace,” they are among the musical theologians who forever changed the Church. While there’s no disputing the perennial relevancy of their great songs, a look at history’s renowned hymn writers begs two important questions for today. Who is creating the next generation of hymns for the Church? And greater still, has the unique formula of the hymn been abandoned on the back pew of the praise & worship movement? Irish composers and artists Keith & Kristyn Getty don’t believe so, and they’re on a mission to revive the art of hymnody for a new generation.
“There are two reasons we write modern hymns,” explains Keith. “First, it’s to help teach the faith. What we sing affects how we think, how we feel and ultimately how we live, so it’s so important that we sing the whole scope of truth the Bible has given us. The second reason is to try and create a more timeless musical style that every generation can sing, a style that relates to the past and the future.”
“In the Church, the purpose of singing is to express the community we have as the Body of Christ.” Kristyn adds. “To try and search for the melodic ideas and song structure that might bring more people in, that’s what we’re trying to investigate. Is there a way to bring everyone together musically?”
The Gettys needn’t look further than their homeland for the answer. Throughout Europe, the their modern hymns have already taken hold, crossing musical genres and bridging generations beyond the Church’s traditional sphere of influence. The hymn most identified with the couple, “In Christ Alone,” penned by Keith and acclaimed British songwriter Stuart Townend (“How Deep The Father’s Love”), has been recorded more than 200 times—including arrangements by such top artists as Natalie Grant and the Newsboys—and is now one of the most popular Christian songs of all time in the United Kingdom.
The simple folk melody and storytelling lyrical style of “In Christ Alone” has given rise to its universal appeal, Keith & Kristyn believe. “My main conviction with melody is the same as that of Stravinsky, Bernstein, Gershwin, Burt Bacharach and The Beatles, which is looking at folk music melody in its simplest form,” Keith says. “The simplicity of the melody helps make it more accessible, and I believe melody is so fundamental to human culture and psyche.”
Of equal importance to the formula of the modern hymn is the story. “I love storytelling in songs and I think people love stories,” Keith shares. “People will sing theology forever if the song takes them on a journey, and with ‘In Christ Alone,’ I wanted to write a song that would tell the whole story of the life of Christ, almost like a modern creed.”
The song is also the fitting focal point and title-cut of Keith & Kristyn’s stateside debut. Produced by Keith, along with John Andrew Schreiner (Fernando Ortega, City On A Hill), In Christ Alone features the Gettys’ renditions of 11 of their most well-known hymns. From “The Power of the Cross,” another epic anthem in the United Kingdom, to the meditative prayer of illumination, “Speak, Oh Lord,” and the concert favorite, “Don’t Let Me Lose My Wonder,” the album is designed to offer an overview of the life of Christ via Keith & Kristyn’s pen and presentation.
“When we write, we should be thinking all the time of the person who puts the CD on as they head off to work on a Monday morning,” Kristyn adds. “After listening to a song like ‘Hear The Call of the Kingdom,’ how wonderful to walk into work thinking, ‘the King has called me to live for Him with the person who sits at the desk beside me.’ That excites us—people taking the words into work.”
“We’ve always talked to church leaders and practical theologians to get insight on subjects we want to write about, what’s important to convey, or the next priority for the Church,” Keith says. Case in point: “Beneath The Cross of Jesus,” a song the Gettys composed following one such conversation.
“A friend from Westminster Seminary inspired us in the thought of how the cross is not just something in our past providing a way for our salvation, nor is it only providing a secure hope for the future in Heaven, but actually it should impact everything we do today,” Kristyn explains. “When we come to the cross, we don’t just stand there by ourselves—we stand with thousands of people from every tribe and tongue under the same Savior and same grace. Considering how unworthy I am coming to the cross, and finding I am forgiven, how can I then turn and look at others and dishonor them or somehow think I am better than they are?”
While conveying the message of the cross is at the heart of Keith & Kristyn’s ministry as modern-day hymn writers, they also place a high priority on being ambassadors for their music in the Church. The couple is in the midst of a two-year stay in the United States to introduce their songs in churches around the country, in hopes of leaving behind a repertoire of 21st century hymns that will be embraced for years to come.
Whether on a recording or leading worship with a congregation, Kristyn’s lilting, crystal-clear soprano is an ideal contrast to Keith’s richly melodic piano arrangements and accompaniment. An acclaimed soloist in her own right, Kristyn began singing in her family’s church in Northern Ireland—a congregation her father helped plant—as a teen. Today she is both an accomplished songwriter and artist, having penned children’s musicals and been featured with Christian music’s Margaret Becker and Celtic artist Joanne Hogg on the New Irish Hymns series, among her diverse credits. However, since her marriage to Keith two years ago, the plight and power of the modern hymn has won Kristyn’s heart too, and she’s equally dedicated to reviving the art alongside her husband.
A multi-talented instrumentalist and composer, Keith first learned to play guitar, but later became an understudy of renowned Irish flutist Sir James Galway. Ironically, it was Keith’s piano—not flute—arrangements that most intrigued Galway and helped open the world of the music industry to him. Keith has since orchestrated and arranged more than 200 projects for recordings, concerts, theater, television and film, including arrangements for Michael W. Smith’s 2004 Healing Rain album, as well as producing and composing (with Kristyn) various projects for the internationally renowned African Children’s Choir.
Though he was raised in a Christian home in Northern Ireland, it was ultimately a yearlong study of the life of Christ during his time at university that affirmed and crystallized Keith’s faith. Since then, he has carried a passion to communicate the basic tenets of Christianity through music in a universally appealing way. Now, after several years in various aspects of the entertainment industry, Keith has returned to his roots to use his gifts for the benefit of the Church.
“I was challenged by a pastor in Belfast to perhaps try and bring some of what the old hymns of the faith had brought to the Church through the centuries to the contemporary Church,” Keith remembers. “I didn’t set out to create the modern hymn. I wanted to write songs that contemporary, traditional and liturgical churches could all use.”
“Our hope is not in ourselves, it’s in Christ,” Kristyn says of their purpose. “We want music for the Church to be able to lift us beyond our circumstances and become a plumb line for bringing all of our life experiences to the Truth.”
As Keith & Kristyn Getty stand at the helm of an emerging group of new hymn writers today, it seems the Church need not fear the death of the medium in this modern age. With songs that are timeless in theology and melody, much akin to the prolific works of Wesley, Crosby and Newton, it’s not hard to imagine the esteemed roll call of the Church’s greatest writers will one day include the name Getty, as they carry forward the great standard of the hymn for generations to come.