Irish songwriters Keith and Kristyn Getty are bringing renewed focus to the important role of hymns in the Christian life. Keith Getty, along with Stuart Townend, co-authored the popular modern hymn “In Christ Alone.”
Here, adapted from a seminar given at the PCA’s 44th General Assembly in June 2016, Keith Getty addresses why hymns are essential for worship and teaching, and why it is important for believers to create a canon of hymnody to carry through life.
Why is music essential in building our faith?
God’s people learn a significant part of their faith through what they sing. In the Old Testament, the songs of Moses and Aaron reveal how God acted in the past. The Psalms paint on a canvas something of the revealed character of God, His holiness, glory, justice, compassion, and majesty. Through the Psalms we understand that He is God and we are in need of Him.
In the New Testament we learn that the church is reformed through the preaching and singing of God’s Word. It’s how we reform the mind, heart, memory bank, imagination, and prayer life. When Paul and Silas were in prison, he [Paul] wrote to the dysfunctional churches of the New Testament, “get together and sing.”
“God’s people have historically learned the faith through psalms, liturgies, and historical hymns.”
How does congregational singing build up the body? And what’s the difference between hymns and worship music?
Congregational singing is a high and holy privilege, and it’s also a command. It has an effect on individual spiritual formation but also joins believers together and can serve as a radical witness. Congregational singing is also a microcosm of heaven, where every tribe, tongue, and nation will sing to the Creator and Redeemer forever.
In this new age, there are so many new worship songs being written and so many being promoted by the industry. Many aspire to write music that sounds like the moment to have maximum impact for younger generations. But our desire is to write songs that last. God’s people have historically learned the faith through psalms, liturgies, and historical hymns.
How do you cut through the clutter to preserve hymns that stand the test of time?
I think it’s the job of heads of families and of church music directors to encourage people to create a canon of songs that they carry with them through life. Ask any spiritual hero of yours who is more than 70 years old about hymns: How have they affected your individual spiritual life? Your corporate worship? Your car journeys? Your family life? The way you have dealt with suffering? The way you have faced death?
Can you imagine a generation where fewer than 10 of the songs you carried through your life in Christ are passed on to future generations? Will that breed healthier or less healthy Christians? If we don’t sing about the hard things, then we’re not thinking about them. If we only sing songs about a God Who delights in our praises and is holy and loving in a fairly nondescript way, then when tragedy hits or difficult things happen that have to be digested, Christianity is harder to believe.
We hope and believe that coming generations will thrive. But we can’t expect them to even survive without deep believers in the next generation, and part of that is connected to the depth of the songs we sing.