The Modern Hymnal: An interview with Keith Getty

Keith & Kristyn Getty
Keith & Kristyn Getty

Over the past decade or so, the Protestant church in North America has experienced a revival of sorts. The revival of which I speak is the renaissance of hymnody. I first encountered this movement to resurrect the ancient hymns of the church in 2009 when a band called Page CXVI released an album entitled “Hymns.” With the clear intent of “making hymns accessible and known again,” countless musicians have repurposed, rearranged, or revamped the great hymns of old. [1]

Preeminent among these are Keith and Kristyn Getty.

Standing on the shoulders of giants, the Gettys have distinguished themselves as leaders in the hymnody revival. Though they are among the vanguard of artists reintroducing the church to her musical heritage, they are perhaps best known for their original compositions like “In Christ Alone” (penned by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend). Together the Gettys and the community of musicians with whom they work are revitalizing the church by providing this generation with robust and moving church music.

The following interview of Keith Getty was conducted via email.

KA: I’ve heard you describe your calling as that of a “steward” of the great hymns of the church. Can you unpack this a bit?

KG: We are hymn-writers and stewards of those hymns, but part of that wider responsibility is pointing people to all songs that they can carry with them through life, whether they are old hymns or new.

KA: Who are your top three favorite hymn writers? Why do you favor these three?

KG: Martin Luther, Cecil Frances Alexander, and Charles Wesley.

Luther because he rebirthed a vision for reforming the church through the preaching and singing of the Word and had the courage to take time out of his life to write, collate, and inspire others. Wesley because for every hymn I’ve ever written on any subject he has a better one! Alexander, because she took her Irish heritage and wrote for her local church and realized that Christian catechizing through hymns begins at a young age.

KA: What is your all-time favorite hymn? Why?

KG: St. Patrick’s Breastplate because it is the essence of Christianity, the essence of poetry, and because it’s lasted 17 centuries.

KA: Contemporary Christian music is sometimes criticized for being uncreative and shallow, especially when compared with the great hymns of the church. What are your thoughts on this? Can you offer any thoughts on why modern church music doesn’t quite pack the punch of an Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley?

KG: I think there are two things. In defense of church music, we are comparing what was written yesterday against the very best 0.1% of what was written in Church History. However, my concern is that the values have changed in the world of church music. Where in biblical times, and through the history of the Church, God’s people articulated what they understood about God in all of its breadth and depth and they tended to pass down songs from generation to generation, thus prioritizing only the highest works of art. Contemporary worship seems to be more about an immediate emotional connection with no particular theological depth or long-term approach.

KA: “In Christ Alone” feels like a great hymn of old. Why do you think this hymn, in particular, has resonated so deeply with this generation?

KG: I think Stuart’s lyric is fabulous. The melody is basically pentatonic and so it can fit any generation. I think there’s also a completeness to the hymn because of the statements that it makes and I think there is a relevance to this generation because most church historians will be known for the battle for the exclusivity of Christianity among world religions, so it speaks perhaps even more deeply to the questions people have in current generations. Ultimately, though, it’s a piece of art and the mysterious nature of it I don’t really understand… otherwise I’d repeat it!

KA: Back in the summer of 2013 you and Stuart Townsend refused the request of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to amend the lyrics in “In Christ Alone.” The PC(USA) was not comfortable including the hymn unless they were granted permission to change the lyrics from: “Till on that Cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied” to “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified.” Both of those statements are true about what “happened” on the cross. Why were the original lyrics so important to you that you refused the amendment?

KG: Let me share with you here what we said then and still maintain. First, it’s important to express how truly honored we feel that these groups would consider adding “In Christ Alone” to their hymnals. We support the approach they take of studying the lyrics of hymns as they select music worthy to be sung and preserved.

However, we believe altering the lyrics would remove an essential part of the gospel story as explained throughout Scripture. The main thread of what we see revealed throughout the Old and New Testament is the need for man to be made right with God. The provided path toward reconciliation came through Christ’s predetermined and perfect sacrifice on the cross, satisfying God’s wrath once and for all. The two hymnal committees wanted to change the lyrics to focus on how Christ’s death on the cross magnifies God’s love for the world. And indeed, God’s love was magnified on Calvary’s hill. Yet the way this occurred was through Christ doing for us what we could not do for ourselves—shedding his own perfect blood to atone for our sins.

KA: Can you briefly explain your creative process for composing hymns? How do you begin to put pen to paper? Where do you find your inspiration?

KG: I write tunes all day long – hundreds of them, until one isn’t as bad as the rest. Then I discuss the concept I want for it with Stuart and Kristyn, who usually have a better idea, and then they write beautiful lyrics.

KA: Do you think the church adequately values and supports artists? In what ways do you think the church could afford to change in order to cultivate a better environment for creating art, in all its diverse forms, that sustains the faith of the church?

KG: I think historic Protestantism has undervalued God as creator at multiple levels. From the level of wonder and mystery in how we rightly acknowledge God, right through to understanding our own identity of being both fearfully and wonderfully made, as well as being sinners saved by grace. That said, I think 21-century artists have the bigger shift to make, not the church. Artists should not value their local church for reasons of potential patronage (the church is rarely supported that way), nor should artists value the church for the platform it can give them, nor indeed should we expect everyone in the church to understand or even be passionate about our work to the level that we are (after all most of society is blissfully unaware.) On the other hand, we have a role to care and serve and be part of the community that is our local church and to enrich it with the gift that God has given us and with our lives in a way that is both humbling and encouraging. I see the relational discussion as being a bigger struggle for the artists than the church.

KA: What wisdom would you offer to aspiring musicians and poets who are contemplating devoting themselves to church music?

KG: Be the best musician you can be and make sure your faith grows faster than your music. If those things are applied to your local congregation and the context of its ministry and work and the people and leadership that are there, I think it’s the highest calling any musician should have. I have also been regularly challenged by C.S. Lewis’ words in The Weight of Glory – that the immortal things that change history aren’t the works of art, but the human beings that we sit beside. As church musicians we have a chance to make beautiful music, but we also affect the lives of the people around us every day.

If this interview has piqued your interest in the modern hymn revival, here are a few musical recommendations.

Keith and Kristyn Getty, especially their two most recent albums The GreenGrass Session (2014) and Hymns for the Christian Life (2012); Page CXVI, especially Hymns (2009), Hymns III (2010), and Lent to Maundy Thursday (2014); Wayfarer’s The River (2012); and Matthew Scott’s Poets and Saints (2013).

[1] This being the mission statement at the top of Page CXVI’s website.

Kevin M. Antlitz and his family live in Princeton, NJ (USA). He received his M.Div. and his Th.M. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston, MA. He currently serves as a Ministry Fellow with Christian Union at Princeton University. Prior to his work at Princeton, he taught as an Adjunct Professor at Gordon College. In his spare time he loves to travel and imbibe fine beverages. He is currently attempting to learn piano, French, and how to be a father to his newly minted son.





  • Kevin Antlitz received his M.Div. and his Th.M. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston, MA, while also completing coursework at Harvard Divinity School and Boston College. He is currently working on his PhD in Systematic Theology at Durham University. His research explores how modern Anglican theologies of the Eucharist might developed by attention to theodrama. He currently serves as a pastor at an Anglican church in Washington, D.C. Prior to this post, Kevin was a chaplain at Princeton University for five years and taught at Gordon College as an adjunct professor.

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