Online Conversation | Joy to the World: Caroling Christmas and Christian Formation with Keith Getty

As we move through Advent and prepare to celebrate Christ’s incarnation, Christmas carols are an integral part of the experience for many of us. In this season–and at all times–how can we understand and fully experience the formative power of music? And amid distraction and anxiety, how can we keep Christ at the center of our hearts as we sing?

Keith Getty, extraordinary hymn writer, musician, and catalyst for a modern hymn movement, joined us for a special Trinity Forum Online Conversation on December 8 to explore music, formation, and beauty.

Online Conversation | Keith Getty | December 8, 2023

Cherie Harder: Thanks so much, Campbell. And let me just add my own welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with Keith Getty on “Joy to the World: Christmas, Caroling, and Christian formation.” I’d love to add a special welcome to our first-time guests. I think we have well over 100 of you joining us for the very first time, as well as our 122 international guests that we know of, from at least 28 different countries, ranging from Ireland—which seems to be especially well represented—and Israel, to Jamaica and Japan. So thank you for joining us from across the miles and across the time zones. And if you haven’t already done so, let us know where you’re joining us from in the chat feature. It’s always really fun to see where everyone is tuning in from.

If you are one of those over 100 people who are registering for the very first time, or are otherwise new to or unfamiliar with the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith, and offer programs like this Online Conversation to do so, and to come to better know the Author of the answers, and we hope today’s conversation will be a small taste of that for you today.

As we move further into Advent and the anticipation of Christmas, one of the undeniable delights of the season is gathering together to sing Christmas carols. Carols may be just about the only songs out there that actually close generation gaps, are equally known by grade-schoolers and grandparents, and proved so consistently popular and beloved that radio stations now start playing them even before Thanksgiving. But as our guest today will discuss, Christmas carols are not only about festivity, but also formation. For all of the delight they bring, they stand as musical masterpieces that teach deep truths, embed them within our memory and consciousness, and unite a disparate people in praise and cultivate and orient our sense of joy. It’s why, he has previously argued, the Church needs to think more deeply and talk more intentionally about singing and, of course, needs to sing. And it’s why the joys of caroling also serve the very serious purpose of forming us to more closely resemble him whose coming we celebrate.

And so it’s a real pleasure to get to introduce our guest today, someone who has thought deeply, written wisely, and sung joyfully on the subject, musician and hymn writer Keith Getty. Keith, along with his wife Kristen, are Grammy-nominated musicians and the preeminent modern hymn writers of our time. From the time back in the year 2000, when Keith first wrote the tune for the hymn “In [Christ] Alone” on the back of a Northern Ireland electricity bill, they began writing together and championing hymns, and are now the authors of many of the best-known and most widely sung hymns in the world. They founded Getty Music to encourage collaborations around hymnody, and developed a catalog of hymns that crosses genres of traditional, classical, folk, and contemporary composition, for which work they were recently honored by Queen Elizabeth as an officer of the order of the British Empire. They are also the parents of four daughters, the authors of the best-selling work Sing: How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church, and the creators of the Getty Irish Christmas Show, which has toured annually since 2011. So for those of you who are in New York, they are actually playing tonight, I believe, at the Philips Theater and tomorrow night at Carnegie Hall. And for all of our D.C. viewers, they will be coming to D.C. in the next few days and playing at the Museum of the Bible from December 11th to 13th. And I believe we have a lot more information on that in the chat feature.

So, Keith, welcome. It’s great to have you on.

Keith Getty: Hey, Cherie. Greetings from the Stanley Theater. We’re up here in Utica, New York. It’s a gorgeous old historic theater here, and we’re so excited to be playing tonight. And, as you can see, it’s just beautiful here. And so excited to be with you guys now as well.

Cherie Harder: Well, we’re really delighted to have you. So starting out, it seems highly unlikely that someone would, in his mid-twenties, write one of the best-selling and best-known hymns of all time on the back of an electric utility bill, unless a love of music had long been instilled into him. So I’m curious just how you first came to love music.

Keith Getty: Yeah, well, first of all, the “In Christ Alone” story is kind of a little bit of a mystery to me. I’ve never been able to repeat it. So I really do think it was a gift of the Lord above all else. I grew up in a Christian home, got into music, and was pretty obsessive about it from the age of ten, really did nothing else. Probably spent 5 or 6 hours a day in total doing music. But also I love church music of all kinds. Around about 18, broke into the music industry, had the privilege—I was just finishing high school—and I was studying flute with Sir James Galway, and Henry Mancini had been his arranger and got lung cancer, and he needed an arranger for a project, and he liked my arrangements and asked me to step in. And that catapulted me into doing a lot of work in the commercial music industry. And we started a charity in Ireland.

But at the same time, I also had this amazing evening just before I went to college, where I went to hear a man called John Lennox, who came to visit Ireland and spoke, and he was from Ireland, and he inspired me. That night I got to go to supper with him, and he encouraged me to do music. And he said, “Rather than being a pastor,” he said, “be the best musician you can be, but make sure your faith continues to grow faster than your music.” And as those things went on, I tried to work on both, but I felt a curious discomfort, nay, anger at what was happening in church music around the world. It seemed neither biblically deep and rich, nor was it of artistic beauty and integrity that would draw people and that would last. And it certainly wasn’t uniting families and congregations, in fact, quite the opposite. And so we created this catalog of— we wrote this series of songs which we called “Protest Hymns.” One of them was written on the back of an envelope. And I’d say in the kindness of the Lord “In Christ Alone” was the first one out of the box.

So the rest of life is history. I ended up marrying John Lennox’s niece, and a few months after that, we quit the music industry entirely, to spend the rest of our lives really just trying to steward and encourage and publish and write great hymns that can help build the next generation of believers, our children, our grandchildren, as we move into what is such an extraordinary season to be a Christian.

Cherie Harder: Absolutely. You wrote something in your book Sing that really struck me, which I wanted to ask you about. And you wrote that, “People are taught by what they hear, but they are catechized by what they sing.” And that “there’s no songs that plumb the richest doctrinal depths as the carols.” What is it about singing the carols that goes beyond just the delight of singing or even instruction and actually goes to catechesis?

Keith Getty: Yeah. Well, I think, I mean—. It was a Scottish politician in the 19th century who said, “I wish not to write,”—he was asked about the fact that he had actually in his lifetime written some of the laws of his country—he said, “I wish not to write the laws of my country. If I could only write its songs.” In fact, it even goes back to the Greeks. Who said—? It was a contemporary—. I forget which of the Greek gods said something very similar, that if I can write the songs of my culture that that will have more to the changing the profound imagination. The Bible itself is a book which is 20 percent songs and poetry. And indeed, the command to sing is the second most common command in Scripture. So it’s obviously something that’s very important to God. When I tell my girls something, they sometimes obey, they sometimes don’t. But when I tell them a number of times, they know it’s extremely important.

So it’s first of all, to reflect on your first comment, it is part of how God has made us. We’re fearfully and wonderfully made. We remember tunes and we forget sermons not because we’re bad people, but because it’s how God made us. That’s how we are. And the carols are special because, I think, for a number of reasons. In life, you know, repetition is a form of liturgy. And each Christmas the liturgy of singing provides such an opportunity for us. There’s a famous story told of the church having a potluck dinner, and a little boy goes up to the pastor, in front of all the kids, and goes, “Pastor, why is it you always say, ‘the grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word of the Lord stands forever’?” And the pastor pauses and goes, “That’s why.” Walks away. The illustration being that the repetition of things, the liturgy of things, is what helps us understand it.

Winston Churchill famously, after World War II, when they were debating how to repair the parts of the Houses of Parliament that had been destroyed by the Luftwaffe, the proposal was made that it should be an egalitarian parliament where everybody sat beside each other. Churchill famously said, “We choose the shape of our buildings. Thereafter our buildings shape us.” Liturgy shapes how we think. And so singing these Christmas carols every year, whether you’re a liturgist or not, is a form of liturgy that allows you every year to shape the end of your year with them.

Now, of course, many of my friends say it’s important we sing, and many of my well-meaning friends say it’s important we sing good theology and singable melodies. I know what they mean. It’s not wrong, but it’s not a full truth. Because the reason carols are sung is not because they’re good theology or singable melodies. It’s because they’re also stunning art. And so if you take something like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” you’re combining Charles Wesley’s lyric and the melody of Felix Mendelssohn, probably one of the top ten melodists in the history of Western society, for sure. So you look at that, you take that lyric, and is it good theology? Yes. But it’s more than that. It’s “hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace, hail the son of righteousness. Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings. Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. Hark! The herald angels sing.” But what he’s doing there, he’s taking you in this wonderful crescendo. He’s using language and he’s flowering it. It’s truth that is just firing us. It’s bursting. He can’t help it— in the same way as he does with something like “and cannot be and conversion.”

So the carols give us a liturgy. The carols also are beautiful art and we get to sing them together. And then also, I think the practice of Christians just singing together as people, generationally as families, is such a huge thing as well. So we love it. And interestingly, I think for all of us—I’m presuming most people here are convinced by the Christian faith—it’s a wonderful opportunity to share our faith. In that movies, Hollywood, Wall Street, retail, everybody uses Christmas carols for taglines, you know, so they’re still very much part of mainstream culture. And all great art by definition becomes part of mainstream culture. And the carols have successfully done that. So they’re a wonderful gift. You can listen to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” being sung by Frank Sinatra. And he wasn’t really meditating on the words, but he just loved to sing it, and his people loved to sing it. And he was always fairly well aware of the stats of how successful his songs were. And he knew that it was successful. So, I mean, he was happy to sing it.

And so it’s a wonderful chance. We do each year—our Christmas show has been on PBS, it’s been on BBC, and we’ve had wonderful partnerships with those groups. And I don’t think any of the people involved in the production of either were people of faith, but they’ve enjoyed working with us. So it’s a wonderful opportunity for all of us, whether at a family home level, whether at a local church level, whether at a community level, or whether at a broader level, to share our faith as well.

Cherie Harder: There’s a lot there. And I want to dig into a lot of it. Well, one thing that occurred to me while you were talking, I’d love to get your thoughts on. It sort of reminded me, at one point we had hosted Jeremy Begbie, who had sung for us, and he compared the Trinity to a chord and talked about the fact that often one of the reasons why the Trinity is so hard to understand is we’re a visual culture, and we tend to use visual metaphors. But if you think about the Trinity actually as a chord, three distinct notes, all distinct but omnipresent, blending together in beautiful harmony, it’s almost easy. You gain an insight you wouldn’t have otherwise. And I’m curious as to whether you think that there are truths or lessons that are accessible to us through music that may elude us otherwise.

Keith Getty: Yeah. Multiple levels. Jeremy Begbie, of course, who’s a dear friend and who comes to the same conference every year, expresses that much better than I do. But carols remind us of those things. Harmony reminds us of those things. I tend to work as a—. Jeremy is more of an academic. I’m more of a songwriting practitioner. And I’m more interested in how the two work together. For example, great songs are essentially onomatopoeic. You know, they’re not just singable melodies and sound lyrics, they’re actually words in music that feel right together, you know what I mean? They just go. And so whether it’s “Home, Home on the Range” or “Silent Night” or “Joy to the World,” you know, they sound like they sing. They have this kind of mysterious way of joining us together. And what happens with that, again, is it comes back to your catechesis question that we never even got to, which is that we remember the songs forever, that, you know, if I told you ten of the greatest pop songs of all time or ten of the greatest hymns, I guarantee you in 90 percent of the cases you could tell me the first time and the first place you were in the world when you heard it, because they just have that way of sinking deep into one’s mind and into one’s emotions.

I remember with my dad going to visit my grandfather in the last years of his life, and he didn’t even know my name anymore. He still recognized hymns and he could still viscerally react to hymns, and he knew them. And I think that’s one of the huge warning signs for our generation, is if we’ve gone from knowing 100 great hymns of our faith into our old age, which we sing as consolation and as hope and as peace, and the next generation only have five to ten, we have robbed ourselves. And that’s not just a pro-hymn thing. Previous generations had similar relationships to the Psalms as well, which ours don’t have. So it’s a huge concern, whether you’re a mom or dad or a grandparent or a Sunday school teacher, or a worship leader or a pastor, that all of us are loving the people around us and loving the people in our care enough to be teaching them and sharing with them beautiful hymns of the faith, whether they’re Christmas carols or others.

Cherie Harder: Going back to something you said a little bit earlier, you mentioned the importance of not just singing, but singing together, singing in congregations. What do we gain from singing with others that’s different than just singing by ourselves? And why is it so important to sing in congregations?

Keith Getty: Well, of course, the obvious thing is we sing to one another because, first of all, because we’re commanded to. The Lord commands us to multiple times, not only in the Psalms, in the New Testament and other places. It is a command. And indeed, if we want to think about the macro-theological level, the picture of heaven that we have, much of it’s in our imaginations and left to slightly deluded speakers and slightly ambitious moviemakers. But what we actually know is that it is every tribe, nation, tongue, and people singing together. So we know that that’s part of heaven. And so, in a sense, singing together on earth is a microcosm of that. It is a holy privilege that all of us have to gather together on Sunday, beside all the people who we have dysfunctional relationships with and still sing to our Lord.

So we do it because we’re commanded to. We do it because it’s a picture of heaven. We do because we’re created to. When we sing together, it warms up our singing. And it’s part of, as Jeremy Begley said in your program, is part of how God has made us, in our DNA, regardless of how good or bad we are at singing. But I also often, to be honest, I often remind the people we lead with on a Sunday, we are singing in the service, yes, because we’re commanded to. Yes, because it’s good for us. Yes, because God is worthy of our praise. Yes, because it’s the thing of heaven. But the person in the room in front of you today might be in some silent dismantling of their lives. They may be somebody who’s yet to believe. There may be somebody going through deep, deep sadness. And us all singing to one another galvanizes and encourages. And so we’re singing to show our solidarity with the people in the room as well. We’re singing because we love each other.

Cherie Harder: You mentioned just a second ago the fact that later generations don’t remember quite as many hymns or carols as perhaps previous ones do. And you can correct me if I’m wrong, but I have heard the report that your wife literally put together a soundtrack for the world debut of each of your four daughters. So essentially, they entered the world with pre-selected music playing. So clearly you both have given a lot of thought into how to inculcate a love and appreciation for music. So I’m sure there’s probably many people here watching, listening, who think, like, they would love to pass along that kind of appreciation and love, but are not exactly sure how. How do you think about instilling and cultivating that love for your own children?

Keith Getty: So love of singing?

Cherie Harder: Yeah. The love of singing and the love of music.

Keith Getty: Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of funny. I guess in some ways we’re a little bit different, but in some ways we’re exactly the same as everyone else. Obviously our kids grew up in a home with singing, but I’ll tell you what we do. We just do a thing called “hymn of the month” in our house. And Kristen puts it up. She puts it up on a chalkboard, and she puts it up in their room, the lyric of the hymn of the month. And I’d like to tell you we’re one of these perfect families who, you know, catechize our kids every night and teach them some Old Testament Bible language at 8:00 every night. But we don’t. We’re just normal. We just do almost nothing. But once every few days, we’ll get time to teach them about the hymn, and we’ll get them to pick out a big word and ask them what it means, and discuss what it means, and discuss what this means for our lives and how we can learn and grow. But most nights, we just stick the song on Spotify and play it and sing it once to the kids and then say a prayer and the Lord’s Prayer. Amen.

So it’s more— Most days it’s just that, and just the repetition of it. I think the repetition of it, you know, has helped them learn those songs. It’s not a magic bullet for them to become Christians. But what we do know is that you train a child in the way they go, and the truth will not depart from them. Whether they depart from it, we’ve got to be very careful about that. But the truth will not depart. So we want to fill our kids with deep truths about the Lord and not diluted truths about the Lord.

Christian radio, for example, you know, is in significant part owned by Wall Street, for a start, and is aiming to reach two different types of people: a woman in her 20s and a woman in her 40s. And so they’re trying to write songs that are less than three minutes long, that use very easy, discernible words, and can bring those people comfort. So if you’re building your church worship language out of that, those two ideas, which a lot of churches are, that is a far cry from the Psalms, who are talking about a God of goodness and a God of creation and a God who’s worthy of praise, but they’re also talking about a God who is just, a God who cannot deal with sin, a God who loves the poor, who is omnipresent, who knows what we are thinking at all times, as well as the God, of course, who’s a shepherd and longs to forgive and desires our praises. But we also in those songs can lament and can weep and can mourn and can be silent and can come before the Lord with our questions.

And so I think it’s really important that we build a healthy understanding of God and the songs we sing. And if we don’t, we have to accept that God has made us people who are supplied a song. So if we’re not filling our kids’ minds with songs, then Taylor Swift, Disney and company are going to for us. Do you know what I mean? And so that’s why we can’t just be passive on this. We can’t just, for the person who’s not musical, they can’t just go, “Yeah, we know that’s not really our thing. We’ll just leave it.” No, we have to be. We have to be proactive.

Cherie Harder: You have written, what, probably hundreds of hymns at this point, and know far more than I—

Keith Getty: Not a hundred good ones, I’ll tell you that.

Cherie Harder: [Laughs.] —that in many ways music, like poetry, it distills and compresses language. And we’re actually at a time when a lot of our language is muddied. Facts are disputed. Information streams are siloed. Cognitive biases are more easily confirmed. There’s a lot of manipulation around our language as well as the media through which we receive it. What role, if any, do you see ancient hymns and Christmas carols playing as an antidote to the linguistic confusion of our time?

Keith Getty: Well, I think it’s a wonderful question. I’m not sure I have a precise answer for you, but I have a few reflections. And the first one is this: the first Sunday we came to America and we were at our friend Alistair Big’s church. And the opening prayer, after the opening hymn, the pastor got up and made a few beautiful comments about the greatness of God. And he says, “And after a week like the one we have had, it is with relief that we lift our eyes to the one who is from everlasting to everlasting.” And so I think there’s something about singing in worship with beautiful hymns that lifts our eyes beyond the mass of society around us.

It’s interesting, we’re opening our Christmas show, the first half is about Irish culture—really just Irish artistry and virtuosity. The second half is an Irish Lessons and Carols service, and then we do an Irish jam session, an Irish party afterwards. It’s kind of the three things our country is known for: our culture, our religion, and our partying. If we got a fight in the lobby, that will be all four. But we open the second half, the Lessons and Carols, this year with a carol called “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent,” which is from the fifth century, the liturgy of Saint James. But it was this cultural idea that we don’t listen to our flesh. Our life is not about self-actualization or self-help. It is not about giving us all the things that we desire, but it’s actually about silencing our flesh and turning to the one who can save, turning to the one who is our Creator, who is our Redeemer, who is our judge, who is our salvation, and who is the God of our worship.

And so I think a lot of it is actually finding that. The great thing about Christmas carols, to answer the Christmas carols thing, is I actually think they are brilliantly cross-cultural, cross-ethnic. And this is where hymns really help us. If you sing modern worship songs—and I’m including myself in this, by the way—you’re probably singing a song, there’s a 75 percent chance you’re singing a song by a guy between the ages of 35 and 55 who lives in one of seven wealthy suburbs in the world. That’s actually what 75 percent— because that’s 75 percent of us fed into that demographic. Whereas the Christmas service we’re going to do tonight begins with “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent,” which is goes back to the fifth century liturgy of Saint James, which Vaughan Williams then put together on the turn of the century to a French melody. Interesting, interesting—he wrote that just as the world was going to war, first World War, and what comes after that, after this beautiful carol, is just a world in absolute crisis.

The second one is “Come Ye Sinners” into “Sinnerman,” which is a combination of an American folk song, which derived Celtic, and “Sinnerman,” which was a spiritual, so from the Black culture. Then there’s “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”; “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” in Latin, but that’s a ninth-century carol. “Come O Long Expected Jesus” is Charles Wesley. Then we’ve got “Carol of the Bells,” which is a Ukrainian carol, a Ukrainian expression of Christmas. Then we have tonight we’re doing— at Carnegie Hall we’re doing, because of the 300th anniversary, the choir are doing “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” which was Bach. Then it goes into “Wayfaring Stranger,” which we’re dedicating to what’s happening in the Middle East at the minute. And, again, there’s some Middle Eastern music at the start of it, but then “Wayfaring Stranger” is a folk song, again, American, but with Irish origins. Then we go into “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which is written by Christina Rossetti, who actually grew up English but I think of German extraction. And Gustav Holst, who was also a German who lived in England. Then you finish with “In Christ Alone,” which we wrote, and the song of Emmanuel is “Hark! The Herald Angels” sing, which again was Charles Wesley and Mendelssohn. And then we finish with “O Come All Ye Faithful”—”Adeste Fidelis.” Then we finish with “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” a series of three spirituals.

But in that, you’ve actually managed to— And I actually left out some of the— there’s a couple of Spanish flavors in there, too. You’re going all around the world and you’re covering nine different centuries, so you’re getting different expressions of things. And I think that’s why the hymns and the carols are so healthy for us because every hymn writer, myself included, are going to write to our own biases. We’re going to write to our own experiences. We’re going to miss all the blind spots, of which there are many. And also we’re just going to miss the things we don’t have to write about. Is that a long-winded answer?

Cherie Harder: No, it’s a great answer. You know, we’re going to turn to some questions from our viewers in just a second. But first I have to ask, you know, there are probably many people listening who are somewhat like me. You talked about blind spots. I don’t know what the equivalent is for, like, maybe a tin ear—you know, hungry for music, curious, just can’t carry a tune in a bucket, and, you know, find it somewhat discouraging. It’s almost a little bit like being color blind, that there are dimensions it seems like other people like you hear and resonate to and intuit and delight in, that seem a little bit inaccessible to those of us who perhaps have less than perfect pitch. What encouragement or what counsel or guidance do you give to folks like us who don’t have the ear? Some people see through a glass darkly; we hear, I don’t know, through an ear thickly. Like, there’s just kind of a lack there. What could we do to make it better?

Keith Getty: I’m exactly like that when it comes to golf. And I still love it. I still love it. But there’s a very low ceiling to where my ability will ever go at that game. But, boy, do I love it, getting out there and having fun. So does God care about artistry and standards? Of course he does. We should work at it. We should get better. And because we have a God who is interested in art and creation—he’s a creative God—if you’re a musician, the hours of practice are important. The detail is important. Each note, each rhythm, each harmony is of value. But for all of us who sing, the Lord hears and delights in what we do. One of our guys tonight, Zach, in the band, who’s been with us ten years, his siblings are all remarkably creative, and he always says that they got to love hymns through their dad, but until they were like a significant age, they thought all dads only had one note because their dad was almost clinically tone deaf. And they just thought that’s what dads did. But their dad’s love and passion for singing to the Lord was what grabbed them. So I think, you know, we do it— ultimately we’re all commanded to do it. So for those of you here in the pew struggling, you do it. For those of you here who are leaders, don’t give in to the temptation to either write for the choir because it sounds so good, or play to the people who sit in the front two rows and put their hands in the air every second chorus. You know what I mean? But actually lead everybody, encourage the whole congregation. It is a communal activity.

Cherie Harder: We’re going to turn to some questions from our viewers. I see several of them are coming in. And just as a reminder to all of our viewers, you can not only ask a question, but you can also “like” a question. And that’s sometimes helps us get an idea of what some of the more popular questions are. So our first question comes from Brenda Cox, who asks, “With familiar hymns and carols, we believers can easily sing them without thinking about the meaning of the words. Is there still a benefit in singing them, do you think?”

Keith Getty: Oh, yes. I think the great carols are brilliantly written and well worth singing. I think if we’re taking it for granted, that usually begins with us. So, for example, if I’m not appreciating how giving my wife is, I don’t give up on my wife. I actually go, “Okay, why am I taking Kristen for granted? Why am I thinking about myself too much?” And so you re-orientate it. So a lot of it is about reorienting ourselves. And personally, on a practical level, I recommend you read through these carols. Read through them first, or take a moment or use them—. You know, historically, both my sets of grandparents had a hymn book and a Bible by their bed because it helped give color and flavor and joy and emotion to their Christian faith. And so I would encourage that. I would encourage you to read through them and enjoy them again. And I said the fact that you know the words of them, that is actually important too because that is culture that’s going into your mind and has stayed there. And so even at the subconscious level is a huge value. But they’re also great evangelism, too. They help us share our faith in unique ways at Christmas.

Cherie Harder: Dr. Bob Stoffer asked, “What is your favorite Christmas carol and why?”

Keith Getty: You know, it changes pretty much every day. But I think, all in all, I have to go back to your Northern Ireland carol, because I’m from Northern Ireland. “Once in Royal David’s City” was written by Cecil Frances Alexander. She was the wife of Bishop Alexander, who was the Bishop of Derry, Londonderry, and he was later the Primate of all Ireland, and she moved to Dublin. But she got to that church, and she was so concerned with the paucity of content in the songs that were being sung by the children in the church. She said the hymns that the adults are singing are great, but these children are singing trivial songs. She goes, “Their faith will not last to adulthood if they only have a diet, a song grammar of shallow songs.” And so she decided, for those kids in that little class, in that little class in that little town in the corner of Ireland, she decided to set the whole Apostles Creed, each line, and turn it into a song so the kids would learn what each line meant. 

So, for example, “We believe in one God, maker of heaven and earth.” The line “maker of heaven and earth” became a little song called “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” So I start with “Once in Royal David’s City.” So “Once in Royal David’s City” was her attempt at telling the story to children. And so, for example, the King’s College Cambridge Carol Service in “Nine Lessons and Carols,” which we imitate in the second half of our show, always begins each year with a little child singing “Once in Royal David’s City,” and then it goes through their life and “through all his wondrous childhood he would honor and obey.” And then it goes on and tells the whole story, “when our eyes at last will see him, through his own redeeming love.” And “not in that poor, lonely stable with the oxen standing by. We shall see him but in heaven, set at God’s right hand on high.” So it reminds me of the importance of crafting hymns that children will sing for generations and what that does.

Cherie Harder: Great. So a question from Mark Pearson. And Mark asked, “How should churches use traditional carols that have bad theology in their lyrics, for example, ‘little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes’? Are they a big problem or something not to worry about?”

Keith Getty: That’s for you to think about. I mean, you know, I will be— How do I answer this question? It’s a good question. I think, firstly, if you feel the theology is not good, you probably shouldn’t do it. But also we got to remember that I think there was probably, sometimes there’s a poetic element to it. I don’t think the writer ever actually believed that Jesus wouldn’t cry. I think it might have been referring to the fact that he was, you know—. I actually don’t know the answer to that question. I think if I’m not sure about it, I wouldn’t sing it. I’ve never used that song. I’ve never used that song. I think it’s a beautiful song, but I’ve never used it in our show or in services. So I wouldn’t is the short answer. I don’t think you should do it against your conscience.

I think where it is just poetic use, like, for example, “in the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan”—of course, of course, of course, Bethlehem did not have frost. We know that. Do you know what I mean? Creating in that one— it’s creating a sense of the coldness of the time. It’s a picture. It was trying to help people understand the context of the darkness of the time, the broader darkness, and then helping people understand it and sort of the December of their lives, so to speak. So I would be a little more liberal than most in terms of the use of metaphor to try and tell a story. Like the oldest Canadian carol changes some of the characters in the story, some of the animals in the story, to Canadian animals to help them understand. So if the purpose is kind of an almost Narnian purpose to do that, then I’ll be happy to use it. But yeah, the “no crying he makes”— Yeah, I personally have never, ever used “Away in a Manger.” 

Cherie Harder: So David Campbell asked, “Do you think the context of the Troubles in Northern Ireland of your youth helped to shape your approach to music making?”

Keith Getty: I’m not sure. Maybe. I mean, here’s the thing: you know, I grew up in Northern Ireland in a Presbyterian home. I played classical music, and I spent three hours a day trying to practice melody, just playing melodies on the flute. And so if you put all those things into a juicer, press on, 50 seconds later, and shake it out, you can probably guess, okay, we see why your music doesn’t sound like my friend Chris Tomlin’s. Our sound’s different. And I think that’s an important thing for anybody who’s creative, whether you’re wanting to be a worship songwriter, whether you’re an author, whether you want to be a filmmaker, or even just an entrepreneur. We take the things that we have.

And so part of my thing was I was born in the north of Ireland, and there was a little bit of rebellion in it in that as a Northern Ireland Protestant, our identity was British. But I always felt that my identity was both British and Irish. And so I loved the historic English tradition of Vaughan Williams, the liturgy, the Anglicanism. But I also loved Irish folk music. And I also felt Irish folk music was uniquely orientated to be very singable for congregations because it’s a community-based folk music. The cordial hospitality side of the Irish comes out in their folk music as it should. And so I always felt being able to work into our culture, and then also I wanted to partner with North and so we set up an organization in my teens called The New Irish Arts. So we were wanting to stretch a hand out to the broader culture. So we deliberately, you know, had a strong Irish identity in our music. So, yeah, I think so. Yeah, it’s a great question.

Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Michael Hart, who asks, “What is your understanding of the prophetic nature of carols and worship generally, both as a strengthening of the Church in an era of declining morality, as well as a welcome to those outside living in the shadow of darkness?”

Keith Getty: Wow, that’s massive question. I’ll never do justice to something like this. You know, I think we live in the most exciting generation in history to be Christian. The Bible is in more languages. There are more Christians in the world today. And the opportunity for witness is stronger than it’s ever been. That said, the average Christian, the average person who’s an evangelical adult in the world today knows less about the Bible than the average pagan in Britain pre-World War II because of religious education and school assemblies and just broadly being part of a Judeo-Christian culture. And so, you know, I don’t think— I wouldn’t be the first person to say and certainly the likes of Os Guinness and many of your other guests have said this as well, in 20 years’ time, that the chances of finding nominal Christians who find Christianity a comfort and convenience is highly unlikely. So we need to build deep believers. And whether we look at the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Church Fathers, the Reformers, the revivalists, or the worldwide missionary movement—in all of these things, we see this beautiful joining of the teaching of the Word and the singing of the Word.

And my criticism even of post-World War II confessional Christianity is that the reason we exist is because for half a century we did not do well— The great preachers who came along did not also rise up great singing, great songs and great singing and a great theology of it. In fact, to be honest, I think they ran away from it because they were a little confused and they didn’t know what to do. So the need to build singing churches and the need to have a great singing culture and great songs to sing is huge in the prophetic nature of building up of the church.

And then, yes, I also think, while it’s not primarily for the outsider, I think we choose our songs not to try and be seeker-sensitive to our society in a kind of a pathetic marketing way, but I think we choose our songs and we tell our congregation to sing, in part, because there are people who are looking on who are yet to believe. I have friends from the Islamic faith who became Christians in Christian worship services because they understood the faith. More people have become a Christian through the singing of “In Christ Alone” than all the concert tours I’ve ever done. But the issue is not trying to work out what the average most popular style of music is in our area to get young families and their kids to rise our offerings. The question is, how do we sing songs that most clearly and beautifully make the gospel of Jesus irresistible to the outsider, and then to be singing churches who are so passionately singing and are so joined together as a community that the sheer countercultural dimension of that is just overwhelming for a society that is lost, is splintering, and is falling apart more every year?

Cherie Harder: So Michelle Arthur asked— and pardon the voice, I have been struggling with a sinus infection this last week.

Keith Getty: You’re going to sing in five minutes. You better get ready. 

Cherie Harder: [Laughs.] Michelle Arthur asked, “What are some Christmas traditions that you and Kristen use to shape your daughters’ spiritually?”

Keith Getty: Great question. Honestly, I’d probably just go back to the singing. Our Christmases have been dominated with this Christmas tour each year, and so helping the girls learn has been great. I’ll tell you another thing as well, you know, I don’t necessarily suggest, you know, the vagabond culture for two and a half weeks of your Christmas season is good. But along the years, we’ve got to meet some extraordinary people. We’ve got extraordinary friends in D.C. and all these different cities, in New York, that we live with. And our girls get to see them each year. And, you know, so honestly, I think, you know, for me, as a kid, it was being around people that I could look up to and admire and want to be like. And so, you know, for us, a lot of it is just giving the girls these relationships. But also, you know, singing the carols and helping them understand them. They’re just so good. So I’d say that.

Cherie Harder: You mentioned your vagabonding life, and we actually have a question from an anonymous attendee who says that, “I’ve heard you have plans for Carnegie Hall this weekend. For those of us far from New York, can you give us a preview?”

Keith Getty: Or a preview of the show, or just find out information about it? 

Cherie Harder: I’m not sure the intention of the anonymous attendee’s question, but I think either would be great.

Keith Getty: Sure. Well, I think there’s a couple of hundred tickets left, I think, but they’re all singles and restricted viewing, so we’d love you to come. This year, the first half of the show is, as I said, it’s just an artistic, cultural, virtuostic thing. Our band’s extraordinary. Kristen sings carols, does a bunch of carols, the band do some instrumentals. And we got a few special guests. Trip Lee— We’ve a song we wrote called “O Children, Come.” It was initially written for our first Carnegie Hall, which you might have been at, Cherie, way back in 2014. And this guy was with us and I wrote it for him called “O Children, Come.” It was then recorded three years later by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, you know, from Paul Simon’s Graceland, the South African vocal group. And then in 2019, Trip Lee, the rapper, did a version of it. So Trip Lee’s coming this year to rap it with [us].

Cherie Harder: That’s great.

Keith Getty: My daughters will be making their first appearance of the tour. And then Malcolm Guites is also premiering a poem called “The Lights of New York,” which is going to be a really special poem. It’s inspired by Tim Keller, who passed away this year. So it should be a very moving poem. And then the second half is the Lessons and Carols. And we went through the Nine Lessons and Carols. It starts with creation and sin entering the world. It goes through the Old Testament and the Christmas story in the New Testament. And then Kristen lifts all of Carnegie Hall at the end to read John 1. She reads John chapter one and we sing “In Christ Alone,” “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

Cherie Harder: That’s great. Robert Weigel asked, “What is your best advice for introducing carols, hymns, and psalms to congregations that are only used to singing music from some of the YouTube powerhouses?”

Keith Getty: Well, I think it’s like anything. I think anything which involves a physical exercise in life, whether it’s physical exercise itself or a diet or just a practice or a discipline is something you build over time. So what I’d suggest is you decide this Christmas we’re going to teach them one carol. Next year, two. Then the next year, three. And gradually build it. Then secondly, find what the love language of the congregation is. So if the love language of the congregation is contemporary Christian music, find a contemporary Christian artist that they like who’s recorded a carol and do their version of it. The other thing is, as well, we need to get a little bit ahead of the game here. Everybody else is. So if your church you’re going to go to this Christmas— have everybody download it. Send it to everybody’s phone on YouTube or Spotify. Send it through amazon and get people listening to them at home. You know, at the end of the day, the people, the families that sing best in church, are the families that sing at home. The families that don’t sing at home, it’s a standing start. It’s a cold start. It’s not going to work that well. So I would say do it gradually. Find the love language and then encourage people to do it at home and see how it goes. I think once they get a taste for it—. Anybody who wants to know the Lord more deeply will respond well.

Cherie Harder: Just a few things to share with all of you who are watching. First, immediately after we conclude we’ll be sending around an online feedback form. We really do welcome and appreciate your feedback. We read every one of these, and we try to incorporate your suggestions into making these programs ever more valuable, so please do it! We’d love to hear from you. And as a special incentive for getting your feedback, we will send you a code for a free download of a Trinity Forum Reading of your choice. A few that we would particularly recommend to go along with the subject of our conversation today is “A Christmas Carol” by Dickens or Handel’s “Messiah,” or “Bright Evening Star” by Madeleine L’Engle.

In addition, for all of you who registered, tomorrow right around noon, you should be receiving an email from us which includes a lightly edited video link for today’s Online Conversation, as well as additional resources to help one go more deeply into the topic that we discussed. We encourage you to share this Online Conversation and start a conversation with others as well, so be on the lookout for that that email.

In addition, I’d like to invite all of you who are here to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people who help make Trinity Forum’s mission of cultivating, curating, and disseminating the best of Christian thought for the common good possible. There are a number of benefits of being a member of the Trinity Forum Society, including a subscription to our quarterly Readings, as well as a daily subscription to our “What We’re Reading” list of curated reading recommendations. And as a special incentive for all of you who join the Trinity Forum Society, or with your contribution of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Keith and Kristyn Getty’s book, Sing: How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church. In addition, if you would like to sponsor a future Online Conversation, we would love to hear from you. Shoot us a note in that follow-up survey form and we will circle back with you.

And in addition, as we look ahead, this is actually our final Online Conversation for the year. So stay tuned for next year. We have one wonderful guest to announce on January 5th. We will be hosting our 100th Online Conversation, and I’m delighted to announce that our guest will be the poet Malcolm Guite. There should be a registration link in the chat feature. You can register for that right away. And we have other wonderful guests lined up as well, including John Mark Comer, John Inazu, Miroslav Volf, and many more. You can also access all of our past Online Conversations on our website at or our YouTube page, and many of them also appear in podcast form as part of our series Trinity Forum Conversations.

Thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a very Merry Christmas.