Episode 093: Am I Singing Good Worship Songs? with Keith Getty
“Am I singing good worship songs?” For many, whatever they hear on the radio and whatever they sing at church is what they believe is “good” worship music – or at least the standard. Sadly, there is a good majority of songs we sing that actually don’t help us worship God at all. That’s why we got a hold of Keith Getty (one of the songwriters behind “In Christ Alone”) to work through the question, “Am I singing good worship songs?” You may not agree with everything he says in this conversation, but what he says will definitely get you thinking not only about the songs you sing, but the seriousness behind singing.
Who’s Our Guest?
Keith Getty (and his wife Kristyn) occupy a unique space in the world of music today as preeminent modern hymn writers. In re-inventing the traditional hymn form, they have created a catalogue of songs teaching Christian doctrine and crossing the genres of traditional, classical, folk and contemporary composition which are sung the world over.
The book that Keith and his wife wrote is called Sing! How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church.
Also, make sure to check out gettymusic.com for other resources.
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
With me today is Keith Getty. Keith is a songwriter for the church and has spent many, many years now along with his wife Kristyn and others to write songs for the gathered church to sing. As you’re listening right now, you’ve most likely sung at least one or two of his songs in a church setting. One of his most popular being, “In Christ Alone”. But anyways, it’s great to have you on the show today, Keith.
Honoured to be here, thank you so much, indeed.
The first thing is just, help us know who you are, a little bit. Who are you? How did you meet Jesus? What is your life look like day-to-day right now?
Well, I group up in Ireland. I grew up in a Christian home, musical parents as well. And I came to know Christ when I was young. Music was a huge part. It’s been a huge part of my life. As I was finishing high school, went into professional music.
And then in my mid-20s … Well the concern with what was being sung in church is sort of the reinventing the hymn form. And the first song that we wrote was called “In Christ Alone” which some of you will know. And that really was the start of it. Then by 30, I got married. Married by just before I was 30. And at 30 we quit the music industry to focus entirely on writing hymns and being stewards of those hymns. So that’s what we’ve been doing ever since.
That’s awesome, and you’re right now, I mean, the conference was down in Nashville. Now is that where you reside now or …
That’s right. We live in Nashville from September to June. We’re kind of like students that never grew up. So, September to June, we actually live in the university in Nashville would you believe.
And then June until September we head back to the coast of Ireland where our little small home by the beach that we all just hang. And we ease up for decompressing, and then also for quite a lot of writing.
And of course, all our families are there. So, it allows our kids just to be with their grandparents and their cousins and stuff so it’s cool.
That’s so good. Well, thank you for sharing that little bit. All right, so let’s jump into here.
There are only a few evangelical churches today that I don’t think would maybe emphasize singing, but most do. Obviously, we know from the Word of God and experience as well that corporate singing to God as praise and worship is an essential activity of the gathered church.
So, as someone, Keith, who’s devoted his life to writing and singing corporate worship songs (maybe this is a personal answer you’re going to give), but why do you think God established singing out of all these other things? Why is singing such an important activity in the gathered church?
It’s amazing, isn’t it? Because, of course, God doesn’t need our praises because He’s ascetics, what the theologians say. The absurdity of God, the theologians say,
He exists and doesn’t need us. He is immortal, and He is invisible, and He’s God-only wise. And He’s all knowing.
And yet the Bible actually commands us to sing more times than it commands, I think it’s the second most common command in Scripture is to sing or to praise which is an incredible thing.
But more than the Bible tells us that we were created to praise, it is part of what we were created to do. And certainly, if we look through the history of the Old Testament, the New Testament, they all have church history. It is the natural response of God’s people who’ve discovered Christ, God’s grace.
Alistair Begg, my old pastor, he always used to say, “I love it when I see someone coming to church and the singing, if they’re a stranger or say their wife was a believer, is so abhorrent to them, but to watch them gradually discover it and then see their faces filled with joy as they sing to the Lord.”
It’s just an extraordinary thing. So, I’m probably most miraculously of all, I mean, given the failures of my own life and my own heartache in the last since I woke up today, it says, the Bible says God desires our praises. He delights in our praises, you know?
It is ultimately a mystery, but it is right across the Scripture that it is not. It is a holy activity. So, if you’re a pastor, or you’re a leader, or you’re a parent, out there, this is not a joke that we sideline for musicians to take care of. This is something that we have to model. This is something that we have to make sure our families are actively involved in. And this is something we have to make sure our congregations are actively involved in.
This is not a job that can ever be hired out to somebody else.
Yeah. No, that’s really good Keith. And even just going back to your first point, I find that fascinating. Just the reminder that God doesn’t need us, He doesn’t need our praises, yet there’s something about our singing to Him that He takes some sort of delight in, which I just find fascinating, because we think about we read in Revelation that, I mean you know this, there’s going to be multitudes upon multitudes just continually singing praises to God.
That’s right, that’s right. And I think when we get together as a congregation, it’s important to remember that as we meet on a Sunday, and we don’t like the music and our congregation, where we see all the dysfunctions that exist in people and interpersonal relationships, we have to remember as you said, that it is actually a foretaste of heaven.
This picture of heaven is every tribe, multitude, language, nation, people are together singing. Why? Because, we’re singing about the Lamb who was slain. And so that Lamb who was slain is what gathers us together.
And that’s why, for example, as leaders we have to have the humility to find songs everyone can sing together, because it’s the togetherness that’s important.
And that’s why as those who are part of the congregation, we have to make sure that we never let music separate something that the gospel has put together.
That’s very good, Keith. Looking around today, and within maybe the last 50 years or so, church music in general seems to be one of the top reasons why churches bicker with one another and even split. Has music in the church always been this way, as you can see? And why is it such a sore topic in the church?
I think, well, there’s a few obvious things. Number one, music is a very emotional thing. So for example, my wife who is much more of a reader than I am, was recently studying a book called, The Early Worship Wars of Lutheranism. In other words, the very first generation of Luther bringing hymns back to the church 500 years ago resulted in the whole burst out of worship.
So, they’ve existed forever. And the church fathers argued about singing and all those kind of stuff. And right from the very start, right from the very first generation of believers, it seems according to historians, there were those who followed the more Judaistic method of Psalms and liturgy. And there were those who follow the more free-form of just simple songs that celebrated Jesus.
And those two patterns have kind of existed hand in hand all throughout the history of Christendom.
It’s any highly emotional subject and brings that kind of thing, and it is so dear to us. And so it is, but I think honestly, there’s a lot of confusion. One of the reasons we started the sing initiative is because globally, what we see around us is so similar to Luther’s situation 500 years ago.
The Bible is in more languages today than at any point in history, which we thank God for. And secondly, people are talking about church worship all the time. People are obsessed, or people are leaving churches over it.
Whereas, so in one sense, it couldn’t be more different than Luther’s time, but if you actually look below the cover, you actually see that the average Christian in the west, in fact, the average Christian in the world today. There are more Christians in the world put in history,
but your average Christian in the world or even you’re average Christian in the West knows less about the Bible than our grandparents did just by attending school.
They could probably tell you the Old Testament better than most evangelicals. People who weren’t even Christians because of education. And then on the other side,
there is actually more confusion about singing if you take out the first three rows of most churches, you would find there is almost no singing being done.
And not only that, and not only that the singing that is being done isn’t songs that people carry with them through life. It’s a transient thing. It’s a transient journey. And a transient journey, which tends to journey through a few happy thoughts about God.
And so we come up with these phrases like “authentic worship,” but you’re describing an emotional feeling, whereas, authentic worship should actually be an authentic picture of the God of the Bible.
So, for those two reasons, both the lack of Bible in our worship, both lack of Bible understanding and the lack of congregational singing as a whole, we decided about 500 years after Luther we have to do a little of a litmus test. And to try and see, to try and help encourage churches and congregational singing.
Yeah. No, that’s very good, Keith. And I think what you just said will kind of flow into this next question.
When you consider the body of Christ, the church body, with all of its members from various backgrounds and cultures and interests from over all these different years as well, what do you see are the essential features or characteristics of a corporate worship song? What needs to be there and why does it need to be there?
Well, gosh, what a wonderful question. What’s the essential characteristic of a worship song? Well-
Everybody has a different opinion. What does the Bible say? The Bible in some ways gives us a very blank sheet. I mean, I’m a classical musician, my wife’s a pop musician, and most of our band are folk musicians. So we all have different answers to that. The Bible actually resignly doesn’t care with that side of things. But, it does care that the Word of Christ dwells in us richly.
The Psalms are very ruthless about whether there are all kinds of different literary form lengths, short, long. You use repeat. Don’t use repeat. All that kind of stuff. But, they do give us the deep picture of the God of the Bible. So they’re not scared to tell us things that aren’t too nice for us to hear. Things about His wrath, His judgment, His holiness, His intolerance of sin, His punishment of those who disobey.
All of these things are part of, “authentic worship.” But that mightn’t give me a feeling of consolation when I’m feeling bad all the time, although it should actually in some ways. But it’s not instant therapy stuff. But that’s authentic worship.
When we talk about authentic worship, or good worship, let’s ask, “What are we actually singing about?” And is this giving us an honest picture of the God of the Bible?
My wife’s expecting our fourth child right now. And she’s having to go for regular tests at the doctors. I don’t want the doctor telling her that he makes her heart feel glad.
I don’t want the doctor telling her that she just feels in the presence right now. I want him to tell her the truth. Because if the truth is, if there are warnings that we have to change our diet or change our behaviour or whatever, then we have to do those things.
That’s also rooted in thankfulness as well. That’s another thing that I always try to remind myself. And I remind my artist friends. Remind the artists in your church as well, filled with thankfulness.
The New Testament, let the word of Christ dwell in richly as you meet together, sing your songs with thankfulness. So it is the joy of our lives to do this. So those things are important. And then, if we’re singing together, obviously we’re singing together. When Kristyn and I want to listen to music, we like interesting jazz, we like complex arrangements of stuff. When we’re singing with our girls we’d sing in the car this morning we sang the B-I-B-L-E, yes, that’s the book for me. And then Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho. And then, This Little Light of Mine, because you know what? We could all sing it together.
The thing about it is, it’s about being together. So we choose songs that all of us can sing together as a family.
And I think that that kind of stuff’s important.
Yeah. No, that’s very good. And just last week, Keith, we talked with Jonathan Leeman from 9Marks asking the question, “How do I know that I’m in a good church?” And we sort of went through that. And I see this conversation as asking, “How do I know I’m singing good songs?” This might be an interesting question. I want to get your thoughts on it, but are there any good reasons to possibly even leave a church because of the music?
Gosh, that’s a question that’s probably above my pay grade. I haven’t been asked it before. And so I’m not sure I could …
I think if something is not clearly bringing us the gospel of Jesus, so if worship leaders are telling us that something else is the way to do it, or they’re not telling us a complete gospel, or they’re eschewing such selfishness to their congregation, that 80% of the people can’t participate, whether it be a musical snob from the classical background or whether it be a self-obsessed young worship leader, who wants to write songs that were written two weeks ago and don’t deserve to be sung by next week.
Then that could cause enough problems that people would feel they needed to leave. But, I think that issue is a much broader issue. And I wouldn’t want someone to leave purely based on that statement that I made because that would be … I don’t feel I’d be well enough informed to discuss into it.
No, I understand that. That’s very good. Now, Keith, when you reflect on and sort of consider the general evangelical landscape of what you see as corporate worship music in churches today. And I want to think a little bit more in the West because how we worship here in the West is probably different than what we see in maybe China, and Africa, and things like that, but what are you seeing? What’s good? What do you see as maybe unhelpful and even wrong? What are you seeing?
Well, when we started writing hymns, we were really discouraged.
Our hymns were really protest songs every bit as much as Bob Dylan’s songs were protest songs.
They really were. We were angry with what was being sung in church. And while our attitudes were not right and were not measured, and were not humble, I do think we were right to be angry. I think in the 15 years that has passed, since we started writing songs, I do think churches are caring more about the theology of the songs, but I’m not sure congregational singing is necessarily being fixed and is necessarily where it should be. There are many reasons for that, but I think I’d point to two main reasons.
And that is, if you’re the daddy you take control. So, that means two things. That means in my home, I want my children to sing songs of the Lord. I want them to look at me loving singing songs of the Lord. And there’s all these surveys that say 70% of kids who leave the church say they never saw their dads sing. That kind of stuff. It’s a terrible witness when a daddy doesn’t sing.
But taking that to the church level, the senior pastor needs to be in control. We went to Leeman’s church. Leeman goes to Mark Dever’s church, I think in DC. And we went to his church, and about three weeks before we had just been to Brooklyn Tabernacle with Jim Cymbala. And there’s not a huge amount of musical, theological, ecclesiastical or socioeconomic things in common those two churches have. You might argue, you couldn’t get two different churches, but they’re actually almost identical in one way. In that they both love to sing because their senior pastor loves to sing.
And so, what I’m saying is, one of those churches has 25 professional musicians on the Sunday, and one has none. One has a deep theology of hymnity, one doesn’t care. One believes in the gifts of the Spirit, one does not. Taking all that stuff aside, if the senior pastor is with the privilege of singing at a church in Auburn, Alabama with the privilege of singing in a church. In the middle California last year, I’ve rarely seen such passionate singing in my life, but the senior pastor cares.
The senior pastor is there for the whole time. He teaches why you need to sing. He gives you a document and why you need to sing.
He maybe reads a book on why you need to sing. He will encourage the congregation to sing. He will be at the front singing. So daddy has to care. One of our band members Zack White, said he grew up, their family real fun Christian kids. And they grew up where their dad was the most passionate singer in the church. And I think it took them until they were teenagers to realize that their dad couldn’t even sing in tune. But the passion of that was enough. So, number one, daddy has to start singing, whether it’s the daddy in the home or it’s the daddy in the church.
No senior pastor listening to this show should dare think he can improve his congregation’s singing by hiring somebody to do music. It is his job. He will stand before God, he must deal with it, he must stand up and he must waken up.
The second thing, the second thing is that we’re singing really bad songs. The standard of songs is terrible. And so, the end of the day, great songs sing well. If you come into an Irish Pub, they will sing Amazing Grace well. Do you know why? Because it’s a great song. It sings well. It’s wonderful to sing. And so, I have far more respect for churches who will sing 40 songs well than the church that’s constantly jumping on whatever the fad is or constantly letting some out of control worship leader try out his new songs all the time.
And even Kristyn and I as professional songwriters have only averaged three to four songs a year for 17 years. And we write, we probably record between 500 and a 1000.
So, we’re recording that number and then we’re releasing three to four, because I at least have enough respect for God’s church that I would not, until I was absolutely certain something added a value both in its message and in the musicality of the song that it was so good to sing.
And even then, we sometimes fail, you know? And that’s years of my life given to that. Years of my life doing nothing else, but sitting in a room trying to write tunes. So those two things- daddies and senior pastors have to waken up. And number two, we got to sing good songs.
Let’s start with good songs. You’ve seen it a 1000 times, you’ve gone to these big events at these big churches, and some young kid at the front is singing some dumb song and the first few rows are jumping up and down like it’s a disco and everybody else doesn’t care. Then you actually sing something like, How Great Thou Art, and suddenly everybody starts singing. You know it’s excruciating. And I think, again, it actually comes back to the senior pastor, they need to get these guys in order, you know?
That’s good. That’s really good. And I’ve heard it said Keith, I’m not sure where I heard it, but someone was saying that a good song, one of the good marks of a good song is that when someone’s dying at their deathbed and the family can come next to that person and sing an acapella song that would bring this person that’s dying to a place of just treasuring Christ. And I just love that.
That’s a brilliant plan. I love that. That’s brilliant.
Yeah, well it wasn’t from me, Keith, so it was from someone else. Maybe it was Piper who said that, I’m not sure, but-
It doesn’t matter. Say nothing. Say nothing, take the credit.
I’ll take the credit, there you go. On a different note here as we sort of get close to wrapping up, Keith, what are your thoughts on the importance of experience and emotion when singing corporate worship?
Unlike many of my reformed friends, I have both a high view of music in church and a high view of emotion. I’m an extrovert Irish musician. Do you know what I mean? So, I love, I’m happy for people to use as much music as they want in church and use music in as many different ministries in church, I think it’s one of the most powerful tools that God has given us. Luther believed, after the Bible itself, it was the next most important tool we’ve been given, from ministry.
And I actually agree with Luther. Except I also agree with Luther that the apex of that is congregational singing.
And everything else is completely secondary and optional.
And the second thing, is in terms of emotion. Indeed, when we read the Psalms, the New Testament, and indeed, when we read revivalists from all parts of history. And there isn’t a lot of evidence to suggest that we should be subdued or look like we’ve got some kind of emotional expression problem derived from kind of a parental or grand-parental kind of misjudgment or something.
We should be glad people. This idea … When Luther brought back congregational singing, the idea that Christians would be stereotyped in the media today as people who look sad and somber in church and serious would’ve broken his heart. Do you know what I mean? There’s no evidence for it in Scripture. It betrays even basic common sense. Do you know what I mean? I mean the idea that you can be- that a non-Christian goes to your sports game on Saturday night are much as people filled with joy, are as much as people on a Sunday morning singing with kind of angry looking eyes is just horrendous.
So, I think we need to watch that. But, I think a lot of it is just all of us embracing and re-understanding what congregational singing all about.
And then ultimately realizing what our Lord is all about, but then to help and understand how congregational singing seems to help with that. And realizing that these worship leaders at the front, they might help, but for the most part we’ve got to kill this worship in our culture. And if that means getting rid of them altogether, that’s great. See what I mean? But, congregational singing is a congregational activity.
Yeah. That’s really good.
And if a choir or a worship leader or a tuning fork or a guitar at the front can help then God bless, God bless him. And may they do it better and better every time for the sake of our churches and for the sake of God’s kingdom.
Yeah, that’s awesome Keith. The last question is this, what’s one word or maybe two words of encouragement or warning you’d give to young adults involved or wanting to get involved with the worship music ministry at their church?
I’d ask them why they want to do it, but the main job is to help the congregation sing.
So, I hope the people we work with deal with extraordinary skill and extraordinary seriousness and extraordinary joy. But that’s what they have to do.
And if they can help the congregation sing then God bless them. And may they continue, may that remain their focus.
It’s so easy to get lost in the whole thing. We did 13 talks in 2003. And we asked different people what their one question would be to congregants about the church. What’s the first word you would say or first question you would ask? And not one person said, “How did the congregation sing?” So that’s if it’s helping the congregation sing, then that’s great.
And if it’s not, better to use all that enthusiasm and youthful zeal to do something else.
Yeah. Well, thank you very much, Kieth, for taking the time to share with all of us today. If you’re listening right now and you’re interested in hearing more from Keith you can head to gettymusic.com. G-E-T-T-Y music dot com. And there you’ll find songs and other resources as well that will be able to help you as you want to worship with the church through music.
So, anyways is there anything else you’d like to share? Maybe, any resources that you are coming out or anything like that Keith or …
Gosh, I think the thing I’m most excited about at the minute is this book called, “Sing,” which is really helping people learn why they sing. And then how it affects us as individuals. How it affects us as families in homes. How it affects us as churches. And how it as affects our witness. And a there’s a few little practical bits at the back to go through. A book called, “Sing”. I think it’s a B&H book. You can get it in LifeWay or Amazon or B&H or you can get it at Getty Music as well. I think they’ve got a special deal there as well.
We’re trying to encourage people in music groups and leaderships to engage with it just to take congregation singing more seriously.
That’s great. Well, thank you again, Keith. I hope to talk to you again soon.
Thanks so much indeed, sir.