An interview with Keith Getty
Keith and Kristyn Getty have been friends with Worship Leader Magazine for many years, so it was very special when Keith was recently able to visit with us, despite a heavy touring and writing schedule. The Getty’s book, “Sing! How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church”, is newly published by B&H Publishers. Keith was also honored earlier this year with the OBE award from Queen Elizabeth II, for his contribution to music and hymn writing through the re-popularizing of hymns.
WL: You’ve dedicated the past couple of decades to the promotion of hymn singing in church, and among all ages. Can you tell us why you made that decision, and about your passion for good theology in song lyrics?
Keith: I think the easiest way to explain it was that I shared three passions with Martin Luther. As I read the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the church fathers, I think they are pretty consistent, and should be a part of Christian worship. And yet in the year 2000, I felt some of these passions were being lost. The primary reason (passion) was that God’s people learn their faith in significant part through what they sing. And so alongside all of the modern expressions of worship that exist, we need songs that help build believers. Luther’s view was that reformation of the church needed to happen through the preaching and the singing of the Word. By the preaching people were explained the scriptures, but they would carry it out of the church through the songs that they sang. We sing into our minds, into our memories, into our hearts, and into our emotions. Our emotions spill into our prayers and into our words. In other words, it would have been an absolute “anathema” to Luther that a pastor would preach for 45 minutes, and then the congregation would sing songs that simply gave an emotional release.
The second great passion was to restore congregational singing amongst generations. I understand authentic worship to be an authentic picture of the God we sing and the words we sing. Similarly, the worship experience is not primarily a personal thing. It’s primarily the fact that we are a family and that we sing to one another. This is a foretaste of Heaven, where God’s people of every nation, tribe, language, race, barrier, come to together to sing together. So the songs that we sing should be songs that are generational.
And then thirdly, we have a very high view of music in the arts. In other words, we try to lean more towards classic arts and poetry and more timeless melodies that each generation could sing together. And with the dream, of course, that they could the best of them could last longer than us. I believe we live in the most exciting moment in the history of the world to be Christians. There are more Christians today. The Bible is in more languages. And there have been more conversions in the last century. But if it’s true we live in the best of times, it’s also true we also live in the worst of times, to paraphrase Charles Dickens.
WL: Keith, what constitutes a hymn to you?
Ketih: Well, of course, there is no scientific definition. A hymn is a song of praise to God. Hymns have different priorities. I’m privileged to know many of the great modern worship songwriters. They’re outstanding believers, they’re outstanding leaders, and what they do is greatly needed in today’s church. But their goal with a song is to speak to the moment about the greatness of God, to capture the imagination and to reach the regular listening public today with a message that is relevant. In the past, the choice for a hymn to make it into their hymnbook was a very different qualification than it is for a song to make it onto the radio or in modern youth groups.
First of all, a hymn had to teach sufficiently about a doctrine or something we understand about God. And secondly, it had to be the kind of song you could sing for the duration of the publication. So in other words, they would analyze it and say, “If this hymn book is going to last 30 years or 50 years, could we sing it for 30 or 50 years”? So it’s just a different emphasis. Of course, there are huge amounts of overlap. I guess the two questions are, “How do we help people walk out of church singing Christian doctrine, and, “How do we find a melody that people might sing when they are 60 or 70”?
WL: Tell us about your work with Stuart Townend. You originate from Northern Ireland and Stuart from the South of England. How was your first connection made, and why has that been a good collaboration?
Keith: Stuart is really both my writing partner and my friend and in many ways my teacher. I mean he wrote, “How Deep is Father’s Love”. I can still remember the church and the seat I was sitting in when I first heard that song. I literally knew from that moment this is what I want to do with the rest of my life. There is nothing I would rather do. It took me a couple of years to meet him. But by the time I finally met him, he agreed to write one song as a kind of a trial. And so I went on trial, and our first song was “ In Christ Alone”. So that kind of bought me a bit more time to write a couple more with him (laughter). And so we just kept writing ever since. And it’s been just a wonderful relationship, which I am so thankful for.
WL: You recently hosted the first Getty Music Worship Conference with over 2,000 registrants in attendance and an even larger scaled event held at the Grand Ole Opry. As a visitor to the conference, I was impressed with how many worship streams and persuasions there were in attendance. There was an underlying theme of unity present. What can you tell us about the first SING conference and your plans for next year’s Getty Music Worship Conference?
Keith: Well, the Sing Conference is really echoing Luther. You know, Luther in 1517 to 1520, insisted on the importance of congregational singing. Then he started to set the Psalms. Then he started to set hymns, which catechized our faith. And then he created collections on the back of that (hymnbook collections). So 2017 to 2020 is really the same for us. The first year was just about reestablishing the importance of why we sing, and congregational singing. Next year we are doing our event based on the Psalms. The following year we are recording a festival of hymns. That includes children’s hymns and international hymns. From there, God willing, we’ll be able to release some really wonderful publications of these hymns around the world, and then help people engage with them. So we’re very excited.
WL: You and Kristen’s new book, “Sing: How to Transform, How Worship Transforms, Transforms Your Life, Family and Church” is a valuable resource for pastors, church workers, worshippers, and creatives. In this book, you detailed the components of why we sing, how we should sing, who we should sing to, and the radical witness that a congregation demonstrates to a local community when they do in fact sing. What can you say to our readers about this?
Keith: We had 5 goals with the book. 1) To help every believer in the world understand why we sing; 2) To explore what happens to individuals when they DO sing; 3) To examine what happens to families when they sing together; 4) To ask what happens to churches that sing; and 5) Present the radical witness that singing can have upon a community. To sing or to praise is the second most -common commandment or exhortation in all of Scripture.
We should rightly be suspicious of the pastor who isn’t excited about being involved in his congregation’s worship and would rather sit outside. We should be suspicious of a person who waxes lyrically about theology or church growth and isn’t actively engaged singing with his brothers and sisters unto the Lord. To not sing is disobedience. We also sing because we are created to sing. God has created each one of us with voices of different levels, to sing. Whether our voice is of a professional standard is irrelevant. Whether or not our voice is of a confessional standard is what’s important. All three of my daughters express their singing differently. But as a dad, I love all three of them equally. God delights in our singing. The gospel compels us to sing. Every one of us is created to sing.
When I first dated Kristen, I went to her home and her dad invited me in for coffee. He was a church planter and began his day listening to, and watching, the Brooklyn Tabernacle. He was singing “washed in the blood”. The gospel of Christ, the blood of Jesus, had changed his entire life. The tears streamed down his face. That’s symbolic of the entire scripture. The Psalms will say something about God, and then will say, “And I will sing”. Paul and Silas’s chains fell off, and THEY SANG. They didn’t run, they sang. We cannot expect to take Christianity to be taken seriously if the Word of Christ is not dwelling in us richly; if we’re not spending a long time meditating on it; or if it’s not the most important thing in our lives. And part of that is done by singing deep songs. I love the “Modern Worship” movement. We use those songs every day of our lives. But each of our churches needs deep songs to build deep believers so that we understand. So that we are articulate, wise, and intelligent, people. But certainly, we want to live also want to sing with our families. In New England, the Puritans didn’t allow a man to take the Lord’s supper on a Sunday if he was not singing and praying with his children every day.
WL: What comes to mind as something profound that has been directly spoken to you?
Keith: When I was to meet John MacArthur, I was so terrified. I didn’t know what he was going to think of my music. And I said to him, “Do you have any advice on raising children? And the first thing he said to me was, “Fill your home with songs of the Lord. Fill the car, their kitchens, their bedrooms, over and above doctrine and teaching. The songs they sing will have a bigger influence on them.” So in every area of the church, whether you’re Brooklyn Tabernacle or whether you’re John McArthur, the songs we sing are so crucial. No worship leader has any right to stand in front of the church on a Sunday leading God’s people in worship if he is not singing with his family, myself included.
WL: Do you have any advice for worship leaders?
I think the greatest thing any worship leader could do over the next year is to finish every Sunday by asking this question, “How did my congregation sing today?” If that means for us to give the entire band a Sunday off and simply sing “Holy, Holy, Holy”, “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art”, then that’s what we should do. One historian was asked, “Can revival ever come back to England?” And the historian said, “CAN YOU SING”? The biggest single commonality in revival movements in the UK and the US has been congregational singing. Singing can’t save anyone, but it can lead all of us irresistibly to the one Who does.