It’s well past Thanksgiving, the unofficial day when many find it permissible to carry on with Christmas cheer. In many homes trees, stockings, and lights are going up. It’s a season to reflect on the coming of Christ, of God becoming man, of light entering darkness.
Christmas is also a time of year when unbelievers are more likely to attend our worship gatherings. It’s a strategic season, then, to creatively think of ways to reach them with the gospel—a universal and disarming one being through music.
Few have given more thought and attention to thinking about Christmastime and music than Keith and Kristyn Getty. The Gettys—known for such songs as “In Christ Alone,” “The Power of the Cross,” and “By Faith”—are marking their fourth-annual tour of “Joy—An Irish Christmas.” The concert is now a feature-length television broadcast reaching into tens of millions of homes on America’s public television system and the United Kingdom’s BBC. The live concert tour, expected to be seen by some 60,000 people, includes stops at notable venues such as Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, Carnegie Hall in New York, Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., and Fox Theatre in Atlanta.
I corresponded with Keith Getty about how churches should prepare for Christmas, why suffering should be a theme this season, losing the “Christmas spirit,” and more.
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
When we look at the simplicity and focus of the early apostles, especially Paul, we see individuals who were uncompromising about the gospel but sought to use strategic opportunities and platforms for its spread to those who had yet to believe. Since Christmas is a time of year when many unbelievers visit our churches, we should be on the lookout for creative opportunities to share the good news.
If the question is about church music, I’d suggest that singing the great Christmas carols is one obvious place to start. The best of them tell the gospel story in some of the most innovative and inviting language we’ve ever seen in religious verse, certainly in the English language. In terms of art, they are the masterworks, the treasured heritage of the church we shouldn’t ignore. Young and old, churched and unchurched, are united in wanting to sing Christmas carols during the Christmas season.
More than that, however, I’d say it’s our responsibility to have a high view of congregational worship. Our singing is always a witness; therefore, if our churches don’t sing well, or sing apathetically, or sing while distracted by iPhones and casual conversation, we become an appalling witness to outsiders. So let’s take these songs and use them as a galvanizing force for our singing—that we might declare to all who are present the breathtaking good news of Jesus.
You’ve brought the theme of martyrs into this year’s show. That’s a strange twist for what we usually think of as a happy season. Why?
It began with the 150th anniversary of China Inland Mission (now OMF International). I started to rediscover the wonderful hymns of Frank Houghton (1894–1972), written during times of persecution and martyrdom in China during the mid-20th century. From this, we rewrote “Facing a Task Unfinished” (video performance), which has spearheaded a whole new collection of hymns we’re excited about. This particular hymn was written in 1931 after the expulsion of missionaries by the Chinese government. With hindsight we know that between 1900 and 2000, the number of Christians in China grew from 14,000 to possibly more than 100 million. It’s an incredibly inspiring story.
Houghton’s second-most well-known hymn, which we’ve rearranged, is “Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Splendor,” written after the death of John and Betty Stam in 1934. In trying to encourage the missionaries who were left with all their fear and questions, Houghton turned to Christ’s birth and 2 Corinthians 8:9:
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendor,
All for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendor,
All for love’s sake becomes poor.
Social unrest, religious wars, and the direct persecution of Christians—from Iran to Turkey and from China to Charleston—is a timely reminder that the context in which Christ was born is not much different.
Why do traditional Christmas songs stick and new ones usually don’t? In other words, why is it that the majority of churches still continue to sing old Christmas hymns during December instead of incorporating new ones?
There’s no scientific answer, but here are a few reflections:
(1) By “old” songs, we mean a few classic songs, typically one per generation at best. So by this measurement, most new songs of every age don’t stick.
(2) We’ve held on to Christmas songs more tightly because they reach more broadly into culture—from Dickens’s novels to Hollywood movies to classical choral standards to catchphrases for countless books, brands, and headlines. As I said earlier, they are the masterworks of Western hymnody.
(3) From a general culture point of view, we tend to be more sentimental about older, more festive traditions in the Christmas season. The general culture also has a more eclectic musical palate during the Christmas season—from the worlds of pop singers to the orchestral concert hall to what is sung in churches.
(4) In the more narrow church culture, we’re more willing (than we are the rest of the year) to lean back into the old musical genre that dominated the hymn era of choirs and keyboard-driven music, which opens the door to singing songs that more naturally fit into that style.
Do you ever lose the “Christmas spirit” and get sick of singing the same songs?
I don’t because we sing songs that we really believe in. There’s such a strong conviction that we continue to enjoy it. That said, we’re always most excited about the newest songs in the show and the freshest arrangements, as anyone would be. If you’re not most excited about your most recent song, sermon, book, or project, you should probably seriously consider what you’re doing with your professional life and calling.
Editors’ note: Keith and Kristyn Getty are currently permorming their “Joy—An Irish Christmas” tour. Take a look at their upcoming concerts here. And make sure to check your local listings for their PBS special.