Song Story: In Christ Alone
By Keith Getty and Stuart Townend
This article was originally published in the Worship Leader magazine, September 2010. Subscribe today to get access to the entire archive of Worship Leader magazine, going back 20 years.
For this issue of Worship Leader with a thematic focus on the use of “story” in a service of worship we decided to tell the story of the song “In Christ Alone.” Really, it was an obvious choice. It is one of the best modern examples of storytelling conveying the power of the gospel. And as it turns out, the story behind the song is the testimony of Keith Getty, one of the song’s co-writers. It includes his personal journey towards worship leadership and the many nuances of art and craft that he has learned along the way.
WL: We know that you co-wrote “In Christ Alone” with Stuart Townend, him on the lyric side and you mostly focusing on the melody and music. But you still have a deep connection to the origin of this song. Tell us your side of the journey towards writing “In Christ Alone” and towards your passion for writing modern hymns.
Getty: I grew up in a home where we sang contemporary Christian songs and also traditional church music. During high school I was influenced by teachers and musicians who loved historic church music. This continued at university, when I lived beside Durham Cathedral, and experienced the music there—the genius and artistry of timeless melodies married to the texts of some of the most fabulous poetry ever written. Around that same time, I struggled to understand and fully embrace my faith amid an unbelieving, universalist, and multi-religious culture. It was a journey to believe in the uniqueness of Christ, the Scriptures and the gospel story. By the time I came through this, my faith was stronger, and I really wanted to write songs for the Church that brought the full, rich, life-giving story of the gospel into believers’ hearts and minds.
I then had the privilege of connecting with songwriter Stuart Townend, who had penned the hymn “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” When we first met, there wasn’t an immediate personal connection. But we said, “Let’s write one song.” I knew I wanted the song to be story-driven, so I said, “Let’s do a song that tells the whole story of Christ coming to earth—the whole gospel story in one song. Let’s have as many verses as we want, and let’s just go for it.”
Our song originally was called “My Hope Rests Firm in Christ Alone,” but we later changed it to “In Christ Alone My Hope Is Found.”
WL: Where did the melody come from?
Getty: My melodies tend to be heavily influenced by Irish music, and the Irish melodic style is essentially congregational. Although Irish music isn’t particularly spectacular compared to say, African rhythm or to the unusual tones of Chinese music, or even the sophistication of much contemporary music, it has tremendous strength in its ability to be experienced and sung by large groups of people—whether in our homes, schools, or even at a sports match. It can be sung with or without instrumental accompaniment. I think the underlying sense of lilting pathos in Celtic melodies (which can also be heard in our speaking voices and is tied closely to our history) also helps the songs tell a story with all its raw emotion and passion. All Irish music centers on stories, whether of love or war or of people and places.
In this case I just sent several of the melodies I’d worked on to Stuart and he chose this one to build the song on. He has a fabulous ear for melody.
WL: This song has been classified by many as a “modern hymn.” Could you describe what that is?
Getty: Well I should say first of all that I’m not sure modern hymns are a genre yet. As with any form of art, it’s hard to describe, but there are two particularly clear distinctives with our music we try to achieve: the depth of lyric and the simple singability and flexibility of melody.
The first aim is modeled for us throughout Scripture and is specifically seen in Colossians 3 when Paul commands the Church to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly when we meet together, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. It seems clear here that style is not the important issue as much as the depth of content.
What we sing is so fundamental in the formation of a believer’s heart and mind as it also shapes our imagination and memory. The congregations in front of us each Sunday are in need of this gospel story to sustain them throughout the week. We must feed them on the truths of the gospel. Our congregations today are exposed to every religion and philosophy through media and the Internet in a greater way than ever before, so we must have something of substance to say in our worship that reminds us why Christ’s story is so unique and so utterly essential.
Second, it needs to be a song every generation can sing. The message of some churches today seems to be, “Only sing if it appeals to your sense of style, or your demographic.” Yet when we look at heaven, we see that every tribe and every nation will sing together. Worship should not be primarily about the worship leader up front, but about the worship leader serving as a conduit to allow the family of God to sing together to their creator. The family of God is the choir, and God is their audience.
I think it’s of huge importance to us as worship leaders in preparation and in reviewing Sunday services to ask ourselves these two questions: What were the words we put into our congregation’s mouths, minds, and memories? And how well did our congregation sing? Our role is simply to be an accompaniment to them as they sing.
These were our priorities when Stuart and I wrote “In Christ Alone.”
WL: You are working in a very familiar style, yet you have been able to keep things quite fresh. How are you able to avoid clichés?
Getty: Well I’m glad you think we are! For me, it’s just hard work.
I know that’s a really boring answer, but when we wrote the Awaken the Dawn project, we recorded about 700 different song ideas in part or in whole. And in the end we used eight of them, in addition to four old songs.
Stuart and Kristyn spend anywhere from two to 15 months on every song’s lyrics. “In Christ Alone” took Stuart about three months. So we work at it. I also encourage lyricists to read beautiful poetry. Consider the fact that almost 20 percent of the story of scripture is told through poetry. This speaks to the power of words. And to the enduring power of beauty. And perhaps most of all to the unending creative potential the story of the gospel releases in each of us.