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Keith Getty OBE: "We want new hymns that build deep believers"

In Christ Alone writer says Christ-centred music is an essential ingredient in Christian life

It’s now a couple of months since Belfast-born hymn writer Keith Getty OBE received at Holyrood the insignia commemorating the Officer of the Order of the British Empire honour he was awarded by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2017 for his contribution to ‘Music and Modern Hymn Writing’.

In a recent interview with the Evangelical Alliance, the founder of Getty Music in the US and New Irish Choir & Orchestra in the UK, reflects on his heart for music, considers whether this commendation marks a shift in attitudes towards hymns, and shares his hope for the UK church. 

Your passion for music was ignited more than 30 years ago and, evidently, it’s stuck and has only got stronger. Where has this zeal come from? 

I think it’s because I grew up in a home that was filled with music. My dad was a church organist and choirmaster, and my mum was a piano teacher. So, we were constantly surrounded by music, and we loved church. My parents introduced me to combining love for Christ with music and loving people. I remember when I was 10 years old, I started to play songs and practised the guitar like mad, so I would be able to play songs in church on Sunday. I’d invite my friends over to the house to sing and play songs, and my mum would make supper for us all afterwards. This has really been the essence of what I’ve been doing for the last 33 years. 

What’s the purpose of your music and how would you like it to effect Christians and non-Christians? 

The purpose of our music is to help give people a big picture of the God of the Bible and make it as beautiful for them as possible. It was theologian and composer Martin Luther who said that as he read the Old Testament God’s people learn their faith in significant part through what they sing. Last week I entertained a friend who was singing hymns to her father in his 80s, who is deteriorating day by day, and all he has is hymn singing. I also watch my three- and four-year-old children memorise Psalm 139 through a song. So, hymns reach our hearts and our minds, imaginations, memory banks, prayers and our passions in a way that even Bible teaching and study could never do. 

What we have found is when the artistry is of standard, we have a much better chance of being able to witness.

Will hymns and church music increasingly become mainstream? 

Honestly, I don’t know. But what I know about hymns is that they have the ability to affect each one of us profoundly. But also, they affect our families. Our songs should be filled with the songs of the Lord. I also know that our churches need to be filled with God’s people singing. In all of those things, they provide an extraordinary witness to our own families and visitors in our churches. In the case of a hymn like In Christ Alone, it’s sung at many weddings and funerals every year, and that is an opportunity to witness. Obviously, thanks to the work of radio stations, the songs are available on the airwaves all the time. 

What we have found is when the artistry is of standard, we have a much better chance of being able to witness. For instance, our Christmas show was partnered this year with Public Broadcasting Service, Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Centre. It’s the only Christian show in these venues’ Christmas season. While it hasn’t necessarily been easy, if our artistry is good enough, that can build a bridge. 

Primarily, we’re about helping families and churches sing, but it’s important that when we think of those things we’re constantly thinking about the witness. As a child I was told to sing up” because you may be a witness”. Of course, there is more to this, because we’re always a witness, whether it’s to our children, to our spouses, to visitors in our congregation, or to those who don’t believe or are struggling to believe. So, when we sing, we’re always a witness. 

Does your OBE for Music and Modern Hymn Writing’ signify is shift in attitudes towards hymns and church music? 

I can’t really speak with much authority. I don’t take awards that seriously, because there’s a circumstantial nature to them, and the award we were given was in part because we’re coming to the 25th anniversary of the New Irish Arts, one of the largest arts charities in Northern Ireland that we set up. 

In part, it’s also because Northern Ireland has been represented at reputable venues across the world; the hymns have been sung at the enthronement of Archbishops, and the Global Hymn Sing has made national television. So, overall, if we strive to do something of quality, opportunities will come. I don’t expect mainstream society to absolutely love it. In fact, Christ never promised that. 

What’s your hope for hymn writing in the UK and the UK church? 

My hope is multi-layered. For what we as a music company can do, we want to both write and help others around us write a new canon of hymns for the 21st century that builds deep believers around the world. In turn, the new artistry and the Christian heritage that began in the UK and the Celtic Islands once again reaches the world to build the global church. 

What was it like meeting the Queen in person? 

She is an incredible lady, and it was a privilege! We could’ve gone to Buckingham Palace, but we wouldn’t have been able to meet the Queen, which is why we chose to go to Holyrood Palace, as it was the only ceremony she was part of this past summer. It was a once-in-a-lifetime privilege, and one I’m extremely grateful for.

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