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Modern hymn writers revive a lost musical art
First Published Apr 30 2013 11:08 am • Last Updated Apr 30 2013 11:08 am

Nashville, Tenn. • Most songwriters in Nashville want to get their songs on the radio. Keith and Kristyn Getty hope their songs end up in dusty old hymnals.

The Gettys, originally from Belfast, Ireland, hope to revive the art of hymn writing at a time when the most popular new church songs are written for rock bands rather than choirs.

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They’ve had surprising success.

One of the first songs that Keith co-wrote, called "In Christ Alone," has been among the top 20 songs sung in newer churches in the United States for the past five years, according to Christian Copyright Licensing International. It is also a favorite in more traditional venues — including the recent enthronement service for Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

Hearing that hymn sung by a boys’ choir with a brass ensemble and thousands of worshippers thrilled Keith Getty, a self-described classical nerd.

"We couldn’t watch it here," he said, "so my mom, as soon as it came on, turned up the television on full and phoned us."

The Gettys got their start writing music about a dozen years ago, when they were living in Northern Ireland.

Keith Getty, now 38, was an aspiring songwriter. His wife, now 32, was a student. She sang on his demo recordings in exchange for fajita dinners at a Mexican restaurant in Belfast. They married nine years ago and have a 2-year-old daughter, Eliza.

Keith Getty wrote the tune for "In Christ Alone" on the back of an electric bill and sent it to his friend, Stuart Townend, another modern hymn writer. Townend wrote the lyrics and began playing it in churches in England, where people would line up to get the sheet music afterward.

Today it’s often performed in churches where young people congregate, like the Axis Church in Nashville.


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The Rev. Jeremy Rose of Axis, who is in his 30s, said most new songs focus on how worshippers feel about God but don’t contain much theology. Older hymns often have good theology but lack a personal touch. But "In Christ Alone" has both.

"This hymn takes theology and attaches it to my day-in and day-out life and practice," he said. "It has such depth and truth put to music."

Similar to hymns such as "Amazing Grace" or "Be Thou My Vision," the song makes people want to sing along.

That’s a lost art, said Mark Hosny, artistic director of the National Praise and Worship Institute at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville.

Newer Christian music often makes the band or lead singer sound good but doesn’t engage the congregation. That’s missing the point, Hosny said.

"A lot of today’s melodies are not singable," he said. "That’s why they don’t stick."

Hosny recently attended a Getty concert at the famed Ryman Auditorium, which featured their hymns as well as gospel songs and traditional Irish music. Everyone was singing along, he said.

That’s what hymns are supposed to do, said Dave Clark, director of creative development, publishing and A&R for Nashville-based Lillenas Publishing. They make space for people to join in.

"There is a familiarity in hymns — that even if you are hearing it for the first time, you feel like you know it," he said.

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