Podcast: Hymns and the Joy of Singing (Kristyn Getty)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

The Joy of Singing

In this episode, Kristyn Getty, featured in the ESV Psalms, Read by Kristyn Getty, discusses congregational singing, the power of music for teaching doctrine, and the foundational role of Scripture for the Christian life. She reflects on her career in the Christian music industry, explains why hymns still matter and are worth learning today, and shares how her family has been seeking to use music to serve others during this season of lockdown.

ESV Psalms, Read by Kristyn Getty

Featuring the voice of modern hymn writer Kristyn Getty, the ESV Psalms, Read by Kristyn Getty captures the expressions of tearful lament, prayerful meditation, and exuberant joy in the Psalms, offering listeners comfort and hope from Scripture amid the busyness and difficulties of daily life.

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Singing in the Home

1:38

Matt Tully
Kristyn, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.

Kristyn Getty
Thanks for having me.

Matt Tully
For the last few months of this COVID-19 world lockdown that we're all still living in to varying degrees, you and your husband, Keith, and your four kids have been doing these really fun live family hymn sings on your Instagram page. I'm just kind of curious what the genesis for that is. Where did you get that idea, and when did you actually start?

Kristyn Getty
Well, it goes back before lockdown. For years Keith and I have been very focused on writing hymns with the church and passionate about congregational singing and getting churches singing, but we really believe that is strengthened, and indeed grown and supported, through singing in the home. And so a few years ago we became a bit more intentional about that with our own children. We have four little girls ages nine, six, five, and two—and so Tahlia hasn't really known any different because she's still so tiny—and we started doing basically a hymn a month. And that's nothing fancy, it's a very simple little thing. We pick a song to start learning at the beginning of the month, and throughout the month we just build on that. We sometimes sing along with our iPhones, sometimes it's just singing acapella, and on very fancy evenings Keith will bring his guitar upstairs into the bedroom. We typically do this at nighttime before they go to sleep. We find that to be a good time to sing with them. And so over the course of the last few years, they really have built quite a library of hymns and songs. And we've added to that, of course, because they travel with us often and—well, did travel with us back when we used to travel and do tours.

Matt Tully
Right. When we actually left our homes

Kristyn Getty
When we actually left our homes and ventured out into the world, they would come with us on the bus, so they were familiar with a lot of the songs then. And so it was St. Patrick's night, it was a warmish evening in Nashville, Tennessee, and typically Irish people have lots of fun and get together and sing and dance on St. Patrick's Day. Keith was feeling very frustrated at having to be in lockdown, so I said, Why don't we just jump on Facebook Live—we used Instagram later as we went on—and let's sing a few songs. Let's bring the kids, let's sing some hymns, let's pick a few that are Irishy sounding, and let's see if other families want to join in with us. And they did! And we were so encouraged and excited by the response. Initially there was a lot of that. I know Fox News, for example, ran a story on it that next week, which generated a lot of interest. But it's just been a really great way to keep connecting with people and encouraging individuals and grandparents and families of every age to come together on a Tuesday night. Initially it was at 7:15pm because I knew Tahlia, our youngest, would be in bed at that time. We were on our own and I just thought, Keith, we can do this, but not with a baby. We're going to have to make sure she's sleeping. We have, as you said, pre-recorded some of them of late just to give the girls a break and also to introduce some new guests, especially in the run up to the Sing! conference at the end of the summer. But it has been a fun thing to do with them. I've told my kids that this is one of the ways that we can help people during this season, and encourage people in the things that always stay the same. Singing songs, particularly some of the older hymns that have been sung throughout many generations, are still true today and are something that we can rally around in these constantly changing times.

The Accessibility of Music

4:54

Matt Tully
Essentially, anyone with Spotify or Apple Music, it's that simple—just turn something on.

Kristyn Getty
Music has never been so accessible to us. It's such an exciting thing! As lovely as it is to be around a piano—and I love that with the girls when we can do that—if we have a phone, we can take it anywhere. Honestly, it's low-hanging fruit for busy parents. When it's hard to get them to sit down in the evening, I just find the music calms them and they just pick it up. Today Tahlia and I were out for a walk, and she was walking behind me, and all I could hear her saying was, Ha-yay-yu-ya! Dine the glory! There's just something about music. It just comes to your mind and you start singing. So what a great opportunity we have to fill these little eager minds with these great truths and songs that they can hopefully sing when they're seventy and we're no longer with them.

What Makes a Hymn

5:52

Matt Tully
It makes me think of my five-year-old son—he's our middle child—and he loves the song “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” He really only knows (sort of ) the first verse. He knows the sound of the words, but he says it and it's not really the word. But it is amazing how, to your point about the richness of hymns and all the doctrinal content that we can put into them, he is constantly thinking about the words of that hymn and he's constantly asking questions—even now, a year after he first memorized it—asking questions like What does that phrase mean? It's like it's just always running through his mind. You and your husband, as many of our listeners will know, are often referred to as “modern hymn writers.” And so I guess my first question is What makes a hymn a hymn?

Kristyn Getty
You're going to ask that—oh my goodness!

Matt Tully
I'm sure you get that question a lot.

Kristyn Getty
I can hear my husband's response ringing in my ears because one of the things he always says is there is no scientific answer to that question. A lot of people have very different notions as to what a hymn is and what a worship song is. The notion behind trying to write a hymn, I think at a very basic level, is you're trying to write a song that will still be valid and people will still enjoy singing along to it thirty years from now. That is one of the goals. A more pop music focus is to try and find a song that's for now and for today—

Matt Tully
For the moment.

Kristyn Getty
Exactly—for the moment. Historically, hymns were published in a hymn book and the hymn had to survive and still be part of the repertoire of people as long as the publication ran for. And so that gave a whole different spin. You were trying to say something that had a deep content that could linger on, but also a melody that could continue to be sung and still seem fresh and singable. For example, “Be Thou My Vision” is an old hymn that has been around for hundreds of years; and yet, when you sing it, it still seems fresh. It has a timeless quality to it. As I said before, our goal as we try to write—and we don't always hit it, for goodness sake! It's such a lofty goal, but that's something we're aiming for. Will this melody be sung in twenty years, thirty years, forty years from now? And is this text worth keeping around and can speak to a lifelong journey of following the Lord? Those are our goals. And that's not to say that some modern, more pop songs don't last that long. It's just slightly a different emphasis. In America, Christian music is usually transported through the radio, and the radio has a different list of priorities—very often contemporary radio does. That wouldn't necessarily be the same as a hymnal. And so those are some of the differences, and I'm sure you have other thoughts yourself and people that are listening will have lots of ideas on that, but I think it's good to talk about it in terms of goals and what you're trying to go after as opposed to the word hymn. People called them hymns really before we did. It just sort of happened.

Songwriting with the Congregation in Mind

9:13

Matt Tully
I'm struck that one of the things that you kind of assumed even in your answer is that hymns are meant to be sung by normal people, even often in a group context. That connects with the emphasis that you and your husband have both made on congregational worship and the idea of congregational singing in the context of the church, and that really seems to be the main context for the music that you both typically write. Speak to that a little bit—is that true? Is that very intentional in terms of what you're trying to do?

Kristyn Getty
Yeah, and that idea is probably best expressed in how we go about writing a song. We have a concept of something that we're trying to talk about, be it the church—“O Church Arise,” a Stuart and Keith song; or the cross—“Power of the Cross”; or “There Is a Higher Throne,” let's do a song about heaven. But we always start with the melody—typically—and occasionally there will be a lyric idea that comes to mind, but we know that if we get a melody that is singable and attractive, that it will be sung. A lot of people will sing great melodies with very bad words, and very few will sing great words with a really bad melody. And so I think that's where the power of the melody lies, to make it attractive and engaging and memorable and, honestly, beautiful. Beauty is important. We were made to appreciate beauty. And so we try to find a melody that will work that way. Sometimes we feel like we're hitting ourselves over the head trying to get there, but that's what we're always trying to do. Then, after that, we form the skeleton of the lyric. We always want to have a direction, some sort of consistency, a coherency to what we're trying to do, to develop a theme and to bring it through. And then we hook that onto the melody. Sometimes if you start with a lyric, you can get very bound to that lyric and you start to bend the melody to support it. But that slight bend in the melody might not actually be congregational.

Matt Tully
I was going to ask that, actually. Are there ever cases when you have this turn of phrase—or you have a whole verse written—that you just love, and maybe it beautifully captures some biblical truth in a way that you just really appreciate, but you're struggling to get it to fit with the song or with the melody?

Kristyn Getty
Sometimes you just have to work harder. When we first started writing hymns with Stuart Townend, he was just a master at being able to distill such big concepts and big lines of scriptures into neat, memorable phrases. I just really appreciated years around him to try and learn this. And in these recent years, people like Matt Boswell and Matt Papa do a great job of that too. That is the art. That is it right there: how you can turn a line in such a way that it captures everything—well, not everything. Obviously, no song tells every part. Sometimes we've been able to make a line work, and other times we just have to set it aside and put it on the lyric shelf, and we'll pull that for the next song.

Scripture-Based Worship

12:36

Matt Tully
I think it's easy for us to think about the Bible primarily in terms of it being like a compendium of historical narrative, didactic instruction in the New Testament, letters from people like Paul, and we can sometimes miss how much of Scripture was originally written to be sung, written in a musical or poetic form, in some way. So do you remember, maybe going back to childhood, the first time that you realized just how much musical content is in the Bible?

Kristyn Getty
Oh my goodness! I remember singing plenty of Scripture songs when I was little where they would just take direct verses, and obviously there's been so many songs that have been written inspired by verses—Beloved, let us love one another!

Matt Tully
That doesn't seem to happen as much.

Kristyn Getty
Not as much. We tried to do one little song with our kids—and you can see what the heart of this was—it was Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you. We were trying to homeschool three children around a table and we were like We need a Bible verse to help bring this thing together! I grew up singing many different songs—contemporary and hymns—that were filled with Scripture, and obviously a lot of reading aloud, particularly the Psalms. The Psalms are often used as a call to worship in our own church now. It's very few Sundays that there's not a psalm read, and I know in certain more traditional formats they can't imagine a Sunday without a psalm being read and how that has formed not just the songs we sing but the shape of the services and liturgies that we share with one another from Sunday to Sunday. We have a very good friend that passed away a few years ago, and my uncle spoke at his funeral. My uncle was able to ask him, What is it you would wish to tell people at the funeral? And he said, Tell them to submerge their whole selves into the word of God so that they have something to say. And whether we sing it or read it for ourselves or hear it read out loud or pray it, the world is full of so many noises and there is such a growing space to roar my own opinion in any given format or digital platform. And not that there shouldn't be conversation and space to be heard and to hear, but the voice that we should be listening to most to inform our own voice, to give us something to say, is the word of God. That was very much spoken into my life as a kid as I sang and as I listened and went through countless Bible studies and Scripture memorization, and it's something that I am trying to do in this new world with my own kids. If you were to look at the hymnal, for example—and I'm even thinking of J. I. Packer passing—if you take the table of contents page from his book Knowing God and consider all the different themes, and then you go to a hymnal and see so many of those themes replicated in those hymns, just covering so many different topics from the life of Christ and the church's year to different parts of the service—it's just an amazing thing.

Doctrinal Truths in Hymns

15:58

Matt Tully
I'm struck that the hymn book itself—which to a lot of people may feel like an antiquated, stuffy type of thing that maybe they don't use very often in their churches, if at all—but it is such an interesting physical thing because it does bring together so many of these doctrinally rich songs, but in a way that you can go and find a song on a particular doctrine. It's organized. It's comprehensive.

Kristyn Getty
Yes, it's organized. I feel like I'm going to keep saying this word, but the intentionality of it. For generations people cared hugely about what their congregation sang. If you go back to the first Genevan Psalter and Calvin finding the best musicians in the land to write beautiful music and setting the psalms to music, he was so careful and had set such a high standard on the musicianship of all of that to try and create a canon of work that could become part of people's lives for a long period of time, that whole families could grow up singing these and so sing the truth of God. And then compare that to perhaps the last generation or two where it's Let's pick a good opener that gets people going. And not that that's not part of it, but it's so much more than that. It's a holy activity, it's a sacred thing. So much is learned and understood. And for a watching world looking in, they are figuring out what it is we believe, how we understand the Lord, how we approach the Lord, and how we approach each other by how we're singing. And if it's all happening at the front and nobody's really singing together, then you would think Maybe this is not something that people are really engaged in. Perhaps this is a performance thing. Or if it's a song people can't really sing, then you sort of think Well, if it's a congregational activity, it's sort of a bit odd that maybe they would choose that song because everyone's sort of standing awkwardly not knowing what to do. Or if it's a song that you could actually take all the lyrics and apply it to a completely different scenario and you think Perhaps they're not thinking too seriously about this topic. It's okay just to sort of think about it in this way. Those are obviously massive generalizations, but it's just interesting to consider what an unbeliever would think if they were to walk in—how would they understand the Lord and your response as a group to the Lord through the songs that you sing? Is it big enough, serious enough, strong enough? Is there enough conviction?

Matt Tully
That's such an interesting rhetorical question for all of us, but maybe especially even pastors to ask themselves What would an unbeliever think of our God based on just the music that we're singing together? You and your husband have not been shy in saying that you are interested in fostering a reformation in worship music.

Kristyn Getty
He's so great, my husband. You should talk to him too. He's just brilliant, and so much of my understanding has come through being married to him. He's great in all these thoughts and has written a lot on it.

A Favorite Hymn

19:09

Matt Tully
So maybe it's like asking you to pick one of your children as your favorite, so this might be a difficult question; but if you had to pick, is there a hymn—and obviously, you can't pick one of your own or one that even your husband maybe wrote separately—is there a hymn that you just find yourself returning to year after year that just has a special place in your heart?

Kristyn Getty
There's a song called “Before the Throne of God Above”—a hymn that is an old text and then updated with a new melody by Vikki Cook—and I love that. Because the sinless savior died my sinful soul is counted free. For God the just is satisfied to look on him and pardon me. When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within upward I look and see him there . . . Sorry, the verse was back to front there, but those are some of the greatest lyrics ever written. In recent years, there's a mission hymn—sorry, I'm not going to be able to answer this question. There's no one hymn. I love the simplicity of something like Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so, and just how solid that is, how timeless that is, how it's not just a little notion in my head. It's just such a beautiful piece. Then I also love a song like “Facing a Task Unfinished,” which we did write a new chorus to, but Frank Houghton wrote these verses back in the 30s to try and inspire believers in the West to go out to China, persecuted China, with the gospel. Facing a task unfinished that drives us to our knees. We've buried the torch that flaming fell from the hands of those who gave their lives proclaiming that Jesus died and rose. When I sing that song, I feel I am part of thousands of believers all over the world through time with this beautiful, precious gift of the gospel. What am I going to do today? What am I going to do this week? That song is one of the reasons that I've missed going to church so much these last few months. Having young children, even when we gather around to watch online church, you're so distracted because they're there. I've just so missed having that sort of still, protected space with the congregation, knowing that my kids are taken care of by the children's ministry department. Just hearing everybody's voices together, just singing these things; it keeps short balances on our life because how quickly do we wander off and so often not intentionally; and it's not even incredibly harmful, but it's just it's not fruitful. We just lose the opportunity of being part of something so much greater and so much more wondrous and so much more soul stirring and longer lasting. And singing a song like “Facing a Task Unfinished,” it just gets me so excited about being a believer.

Worship as a Christian Artist

21:58

Matt Tully
I know for me, too, this period of quarantine and being apart from our churches, from gathering together in person, is really a good reminder that some of the things that maybe seem normally just so routine and mundane—the idea of singing next to other people in the church, and maybe someone's singing a little off-key next to me—and in the everyday it can sometimes feel a little bit just ordinary and mundane. And yet, we're being reminded of how big it is. I guess that's related to a question I had for you. You and your husband, whether you're in a recording studio recording a new album or at an event of some kind leading a whole venue in worship, do you ever struggle with just not feeling it? You're singing some of these songs over and over again—I'm sure when you're touring maybe it's every night or every other night you're doing a show. How do you deal with that as an artist?

Kristyn Getty
I do think that leading people and singing is slightly different than just standing up and singing the same song because you're engaging with a fresh group of people, different people's lives, the lyrics connecting to different things. And also being able to sing songs that have such rich content, there's so much room and space for it constantly to be connecting to your life in different ways. Take the hymn “In Christ Alone.” I am so grateful that of all the songs that I ever had to sing over and over and over and over again, that that was one. No guilt in life, no fear in death. I mean, I can't hear that enough. With all the fears and worries of just being a mom and the world that we live in, I just need that reminder all the time. But it is a hard thing to stay refreshed, and that's why your own walk with the Lord is always so important, and that has always been a huge challenge. I think I've had great seasons of walking closely with the Lord and being able to have more time to read and pray, and other seasons which have been so crazy. When I was pregnant, I found it very hard because I was very sick and I found it very hard to get myself onto a stage to sing because I'd just thrown up a few minutes before. But the Lord knows those things. And then I find lockdown very difficult because for some people it has created lots of rest and a sabbatical from life—for us, a sabbatical from tour. But the day we went into lockdown my life changed so significantly. I had the kids, I was homeschooling, I was still doing the work. Before lockdown we had help with cleaning and various different things just to help keep our life going. Now it's all gone and the nanny help disappeared, and so I find it so difficult to find the same amount of time for singing personally and for reading, and then you take away the church being so there all the time. I think it's been actually quite a vulnerable time for moms in particular these last few months. Sometimes it's been the songs that have kept me going. A song comes to mind and keeps my mind from despair and worry, and it can just turn a day right round. And when those songs are filled with Scripture, that is so important. But I think the role of a worship leader, or someone who's a lead singer, is to be invitational to everybody else. And part of being invitational to everybody else is that that will require focus to that purpose, which means that you're not always thinking of every single line and every single word that you're saying. It's not that you don't believe it, don't agree with it, having many moments when you're thinking intensely about it; but you're doing a job just like the person who's playing the piano is thinking through notes and chords as well as the song. So we don't beat ourselves up because we're not completely focused in the moment. There are moments of personal worship when I'm standing in front of people. My act of worship is just as much trying to encourage you to sing as it is focusing on every single phrase before the Lord. All of it is done for the Lord, and I feel it is a special thing to be leading people and to hold a microphone because there is a responsibility with it. But I do feel that space is an extension of walking your life to honor the Lord. So if I've just been out on the bus before a concert and been saying good night to my kids or reading a story or talking to them about something or on my walk from the bus to the venue and then onto the stage, it should all be a long line of obedience. And that's what we hope. We never walk it all correctly. But thanks be to God for his grace. It's sufficient.

Scripture in Audio Form

26:33

Matt Tully
You were talking a little bit about just the struggle of this quarantine season. We all have busy seasons in our lives when our time singing to God, and our time in Scripture itself, can be challenging. One of the things that I know I found to be really helpful is just listening to the Bible read aloud, and that's something that you recently finished working with Crossway on—a brand new audio recording of the entire book of Psalms.

Kristyn Getty
Which was a lifeline to me, Matt! I'm telling you, it couldn't have come at a better time. Sorry, kids, I have to go outside for a second and record a few chapters of the psalms! I just had this lovely, private space and it has been a sheer delight for me in this season.

Matt Tully
And you're already beginning on a recording of the entire Bible, the rest of Scripture as well. And I'm just kind of curious, most of us probably certainly have never taken the time, and probably would never need to, read aloud the entirety of Scripture; but you're on that journey right now, and so I'm kind of curious—now that you've done a chunk of Scripture but have a lot more ahead of you—what has that experience been like to read the Bible out loud like that?

Kristyn Getty
As I said, a wonderfully refreshing thing for my own spirit, and particularly during lockdown to have what feels like a delightful escape. And reading it out loud—we started with the book of Psalms, and as a songwriter, singer, worship leader, church goer, I'm very familiar with many of the Psalms and have used them often in many different ways. But I haven't often sat down and just read them through out loud. Being poems and lyrics, they were meant for an audible purpose and to be heard, to be sung, to be shared, to be spoken out loud. And so to read them out loud has been such a refreshing thing and even how they've been grouped together has been helpful. For example, there was the Psalms of Ascent—and there was a number of them—the songs that would be sung on the way to Jerusalem on the way to the temple, and they just made me think about what are some of the things that we should be caring about and thinking about as we approach the Lord and gather together? And so it just gave me so many thoughts and ideas. One of the ones that popped out a lot was just the celebration of God's justice: that justice is important to him and that sin is taken very seriously and that he will make things right. That whole idea has all of creation and all his people trembling with excitement and anticipation that he is a God of justice, that he alone can make things right. And so that, in the context of these last few months, has just washed right over me and has been such an encouragement.

Matt Tully
Do you regularly listen to Scripture in audio form? Has that ever been a part of your life?

Kristyn Getty
Maybe not as often as throughout my life, but in the last couple of years I find it actually a multitasking dream for me. There's been a few times that I've tried to exercise on the elliptical and I can't read and do the exercise at the same time. At the beginning of this year I started the two year Bible reading plan, but I sort of lost my way during lockdown, and Crossway came along and said Would you like to read the whole Bible? And I thought Yes! Come and help me get through this! Help me do my Bible reading! But I would listen to the audio Bible while exercising to try and help me get through some of those chapters. So for all those mothers out there, audio Bibles and audio books have sometimes been the only way I can actually read something.

Learning Piano

30:27

Matt Tully
If you had plenty of free time, which I know you don't right now, but someday if you do have free time and you had the inclination, what instrument would you love to learn to play?

Kristyn Getty
The piano. Absolutely.

Matt Tully
That was easy.

Kristyn Getty
That was easy. I learned it when I was younger a little bit, but singing sort of took over and it became the main thing. Then I met Keith when I was 18 and he played piano, so there was no need for me to play. I'd love to play the violin, but I just feel the piano would just be such a great thing in being able to accompany myself but also particularly for my writing. The piano is just such a great instrument for understanding music and chords.

Matt Tully
I've heard it described as sort of a foundational instrument that then allows you to more quickly pick up other instruments.

Kristyn Getty
That's what I've heard. And my little bit of understanding has helped me greatly, but I wish I had spent a bit more time on that. My Eliza is learning a little bit. Our daughter Eliza and Charlotte—she's learning violin, actually. She had to be different and do their own thing.

Matt Tully
Kristyn, thank you so much for taking the time today to talk with us and just share some of your own insights into music and hymn writing and what it means to love God through music and teach our children more about him through music. We do appreciate it.

Kristyn Getty
Thank you for this opportunity. We're so grateful for all our friends at Crossway and just the immense work that you do through books and audio Bibles and podcasts. So many of us are very, very grateful for all the work that you continue to do to help support us as individuals and families and churches all over the world. So thank you.


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