That doesn’t mean they want churches to stop singing the old hymns – just the opposite – but they do want churches to see that modern songs can have a similar lyrical depth.
The husband-wife team from Northern Ireland just released their third CD, “Joy: An Irish Christmas,” and in late November will embark on a U.S. Christmas tour. Christians who have never heard of the Gettys may nevertheless have sung one of their songs, “In Christ Alone,” which was co-written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend.
Baptist Press interviewed the Gettys Nov. 2 after they sang in chapel at LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, Tenn. Following is a transcript:
Baptist Press: Why are you so passionate about hymns?
Keith Getty: I think the things we are most passionate about are, first, making sure that congregations are able to sing together and, secondly, making sure that the Word of Christ dwells in us richly. When you look at the New Testament, the radical thing about the church wasn’t its performance capabilities, it wasn’t buildings, it wasn’t even artistry. It was the fact that these people from every background were coming together to sing. In other words, what congregational singing represents is actually what the church represents. The whole concept of congregational worship is to represent the church here on earth as to what it will one day be in heaven. So it is a unifying thing.
The second thing is, when we look at the models of hymns that we have in scripture, we have all the Old Testament hymns – mostly hymns of faithfulness like the song of Moses and the song of Aaron, which go on for 30-40 verses. We have the Psalms, which is our Old Testament songbook. And then we have the early hymns of the New Testament, which take us through the central gospel story in Philippians and Colossians. There is a strong sense of God’s faithfulness, but there’s just a much greater level of lyrical depth. Songs can be short, they can be long. They can be any structure. That’s not the issue. But we do have to write songs of substance, because there is a direct correlation with what we sing as to how we live our lives. In the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy, the people were told they had to learn the song. It was 20-30 verses of what God had done for His people. They were told to learn the song so it would be a witness against them if they ever fell away. That’s how important what we sing is to how we live our lives.
Baptist Press: What distinguishes a hymn?
Keith Getty: There’s no scientific answer. If you go to England, they will tell you that hymns are songs in the English tradition of hymn writing, and something like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” or “I Come to the Garden” or “Because He Lives” are gospel songs, and modern worship songs are worship songs. If you go to America, everything written before 1980, for the most part, is called a hymn, and everything written after about 1980 … suddenly is a worship song. So everybody has a different definition of it. Because they have an artistry that is slightly more timeless and slightly stronger, I kind of gravitate toward (hymns). And I think there is something to be said about valuing the heritage that we have. I walk around Nashville, and there are all sorts of heritage sites – civil war battlefields, buildings, that represent something of our heritage. It seems a curious arrogance to me that musicians only want to sing songs that are contemporary; I say that to myself as well, because I’m a writer and I want to use my own songs. We need to have some understanding of the past that we can learn from, because each generation will be visited through the eyes of history as having its strengths and weaknesses.
Baptist Press: So you see that we lose something when we don’t sing hymns?
Keith Getty: I think when we don’t listen to those who have gone before us and we don’t have some sense of understanding from the past …
Kristyn Getty: And we don’t acknowledge that we’re part of something greater than ourselves. People have been creating music and art for generations. We can’t assume that we operate in a vacuum and are not connected to anything but ourselves. (Singing hymns and recognizing the past) helps us be better, it helps us not be arrogant in how we consider ourselves. And it helps us also be mindful of what it is we’re passing on to the next people.
Baptist Press: When you’re writing a hymn, what is the goal?
Keith Getty: To write a piece of art that somehow helps a congregation of people be illuminated by some character of God, and respond to it in a song. In congregational worship, you’re writing for an artist, and that artist is singing to an audience. In congregational worship, the artist is the congregation and the audience is God.
Baptist Press: What role do hymns play in teaching theology?
Keith Getty: We learn through many different things. Scripture is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path, and 20 percent of it is poetry. So, immediately, you have to look at it and ask, “On what levels do we learn?” So if you’re asking us, should hymns be used as expositional Bible teaching? No, they shouldn’t be. They’re pieces of art. A song with a great lyric and a bad melody is an awful song. The point is that your soul and your emotions are engaged with others around you to sing. It is a piece of art like poetry is a piece of art. It’s creating a picture, it’s creating an illustration.
Kristyn Getty: And no song can tell the whole story. We try to structure a song in such a way that it tells a story or carries a thought in some sort of coherent pattern through a song, as opposed to several different phrases put together that are all true, and of course you can sing them in that way. But we enjoy being able to take a theme – like “Joy Has Dawned,” which tells the Christmas story – and follow that right through as to what it means. You can probably find many passages in scripture which tie to the various lines in that song. One time we did the song called “By Faith,” and I tried to put an entire chapter of Hebrews 11 into the song. And they were saying, “You’re going to give the congregation a headache if you make them sing that. Let’s try to stand back from this a little. What’s the whole movement of the passage saying?” You only have three minutes to sing it, and it’s not necessarily the place for me to have people cite Hebrews 11. There’s more creative ways of getting the main points across. There will be points that we miss, but then we’ll write another song about it. There’s always something to write about.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.)