Tony Cummings reports on Northern Ireland's popular exponents of hymns, KEITH & KRISTYN GETTY

Keith & Kristyn Getty
Keith & Kristyn Getty

It's funny what a few years can do. Until recent times the rise and rise of contemporary worship brought forth numerous dissenting voices in the Church complaining that these new fangled pop-orientated worship songs had all but eclipsed hymnody and certainly for a period there seemed to be an almost scandalous lack of modern hymnwriters able to carry on the proud traditions of Wesley, Newton, Crosby, et al. Now that has changed. Stuart Townend is now acknowledged as a composer of church-impacting hymns as well as more contemporary worship songs while his musical compatriot, Ireland's Keith Getty, is, like Townend, being praised for bringing hymns back centre stage to the worldwide Church.

Keith and his singing wife Kristyn are the high profile attraction on the latest Prom Praise album. Although Ghanaian soprano Margaret Fergusson and those orchestral stalwarts Noel Tredinnick and the All Souls Orchestra are also featured, it is Keith and Kristyn's presence on the album which is making it one of the best selling Prom Praise albums for years.

Keith spoke about his mission to revive the art of hymnody for a new generation. "There are two reasons we write modern hymns. First, it's to help teach the faith. What we sing affects how we think, how we feel and ultimately how we live, so it's so important that we sing the whole scope of truth the Bible has given us. The second reason is to try and create a more timeless musical style that every generation can sing, a style that relates to the past and the future."

Kristyn added her thoughts, "In the Church, the purpose of singing is to express the community we have as the Body of Christ. To try and search for the melodic ideas and song structure that might bring more people in, that's what we're trying to investigate. Is there a way to bring everyone together musically?"

It is of course "In Christ Alone" penned by Keith and Stuart Townend which has become acknowledged as a modern hymn classic. The melody, based on a plaintive Irish folk tune, and the stirring lyrics seem a marriage made in Heaven. Said Keith, "My main conviction with melody is the same as that of Stravinsky, Bernstein, Gershwin, Burt Bacharach and The Beatles, which is looking at folk music melody in its simplest form," Keith says. "The simplicity of the melody helps make it more accessible, and I believe melody is so fundamental to human culture and psyche."

Of equal importance to the formula of the modern hymn is the story. "I love storytelling in songs and I think people love stories. People will sing theology forever if the song takes them on a journey, and with 'In Christ Alone,' I wanted to write a song that would tell the whole story of the life of Christ, almost like a modern creed."

As well as his work in hymnody Keith is, of course, a producer of albums and a score writer whose credits include instrumental arrangements for flautist James Galway, and choral arrangements for movie recordings. In song orchestration he has worked for artists such as Clannad's Maire Brennan, Graham Kendrick, London Community Gospel Choir and Dove award winning Ginny Owens. With such experience, he is in an ideal position to give some insights into the art of writing orchestrations for worship teams.

Keith told the heartofworship website how he first began writing orchestrations. "I actually began my orchestration work in the church. I started being involved in the praise times during youth group and evening services when I was mid-teens and really wanted to combine classical instruments with the band. We tried adding string quartet and then brass and wind for Christmas services. I always loved and worked hard at it although some of the early arrangements must have been a challenge to listen to!"

Keith & Kristyn Getty: Husband and wife duo bringing fresh popularity to hymnody

Keith suddenly shot to the notice of the worldwide Church with the release in 2001 of Kingsway's hugely successful 'New Irish Hymns' album, featuring the voices of three successful recording acts Margaret Becker, Moya Brennan and Iona's Joanne Hogg. What was particularly pioneering about 'New Irish Hymns' and the subsequent volumes of the project were their lush yet creatively deft orchestral-meets-Celtic arrangements. Said Keith, "For worship albums, I believe we should try and write expressive, powerful music of the very best quality whatever the song type. Too often we have compromised or undervalued what we do by rushing or uncritically accepting mediocre standards. The bible gives us an incredible wealth of creative inspiration inviting us to stretch the gifts he has given us. In terms of writing for church services the two things I am most aware of are the context with which they are being used and the restrictions the practicalities bring. If the piece is being used for closing hymn, solo or communion - it may require a different touch or leaving certain instruments out and should not distract the congregation - music is only at best there to serve the people in the service. Also we must keep in mind the practicalities of rehearsal time, standard of the players and size of the group. It is often best kept as simple as possible for their benefit."

It has been the marriage, both physical and musical, of Keith and Kristyn which has been a key component in establishing the duo's fame among churchgoers worldwide. Although Kristyn Lennox, as she was then, recorded independent EPs in 1997 and 2001 (the latter bringing forth a review in Cross Rhythms suggesting that Kristyn "had a voice like melting chocolate"), it was her teaming up with Keith for the 2002 album 'Tapestry' which first brought together the two fine talents. Keith, 32, and Kristyn, 27, grew up in separate communities outside Belfast in Northern Ireland. Each was blessed with Christian parents and taught to love the local church. Kristyn's father still pastors the church he planted when she was eight years old in the community of Glengormley. Both testify to coming to faith in Christ during childhood. Kristyn's love for music was also nurtured in her home church. "I remember when I was only five or six years old hearing a lady in our church sing a Graham Kendrick song, 'O Lord, Your Tenderness,'" she said in her gentle Irish lilt. "I remember saying to myself, 'Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing to sing something about God, rather than just say it like Dad does in sermons.'"

It was while attending Durham University that Keith met the brilliant John Lennox, a world renowned mathematician and Christian apologist. Lennox's academic reputation had given him a notoriety that earned him audiences before royal families and high level government officials in Europe. Lennox befriended Keith and advised him that he did not have to become a pastor to be used by God. "He told me that he stuck to math and the Lord used that," Keith said. "His advice was to be the best musician I could be and to make sure my faith grew as fast my career."

About six years later while living in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, Keith received an e-mail from Lennox congratulating him on his emerging music career. Lennox also wrote that his brother had a daughter who could use some help with her music. Since she was attending a nearby university, Lennox asked Keith if he would "look after her." The niece was Kristyn. Their friendship soon turned into a musical partnership with Keith encouraging Kristyn, who had a love of language, to try her hand at writing lyrics for his melodies. The collaboration worked. In leading worship, Kristyn began to use the songs she and Keith wrote, as well as others written by Keith and Townend. As time passed, it became apparent that music was not the only thing Keith and Kristyn had in common. Their relationship was growing beyond friendship. In 2004 the couple married.

In 2007 Keith and Kristyn's 'In Christ Alone' became an international best seller. Keith spoke about working with Kristyn. "I had a music business composing and arranging music for many artists I felt privileged to have the opportunity to work with as well as being a record and show producer. Kristyn was a talented singer who had a couple of record deal opportunities, a gifted worship leader and a very gifted songwriter in her own right. The more we thought however, the more apparent it became to us that we should work together on a common calling rather than constantly being stretched and so we decided to make the hymnwriting our primary focus where we would write, perform and develop a company and ministry that fulfilled these ideals. As we have gone along we have increasingly seen that our different gifts complement really well confirming that we went in the right direction!

"There are times that we disagree over a lyric and we have to train ourselves to not let it spill into home time at the dinner table! But while it is challenging it is a great blessing that we can share so much together. We are currently working on Kristyn's solo project as well as preparing for a couple of recordings later in the year. She has a presence on a stage that I could only dream of as well as some great new songs and I'm excited to see what will happen in the future."

Keith and Kristyn have now relocated to the USA for two years. Said Keith, "We are based at Alister Begg's church in Cleveland, Ohio which gives us a sense of local church support throughout the challenges of travelling. Additionally we're releasing a number records, print music and books about our hymns as well as developing our website and existing songs. We do hope however to create a ministry ultimately that sees far beyond the reaches of the Western World and can partner with ministries throughout the world and become a truly innovative, word centred and missionary orientated organisation."

So how difficult is it for the Gettys to sustain their spiritual energy away from home and family? Kristyn told journalist Kevan Breitinger, "It can be a challenge because patterns are hard to work in when every day is different. Each year we work out a plan of action for our daily devotions but we are definitely not perfect students! This year both of us are going through the one year Bible, journaling our thoughts and using a basic prayer guide we individually add to week to week. Most days we try and pray together - always when we are performing and leading. One of the great advantages of visiting all the churches and conferences we do is that we often get to sit under great teaching. I think if they would permit it, we would have enough credits for a seminary degree!" CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.