Listening In: Keith Getty and Elli Oswald

WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith and today you’ll be listening in on conversations that I’ve had recently with Keith Getty and Elli Oswald. 

OSWALD: When we think orphan care, usually orphan care equals orphanage. But I think we need to expand our idea of orphan care to include anything that would allow a family to be strengthened to care well for their children.

That was Elli Oswald, who leads a ministry committed to the care of orphans. And we’ll hear more from her later in the program. 

But I want to begin today with Keith Getty. Keith Getty is no stranger to this program. The co-writer of the hymn In Christ Alone and many others, he’s been doing interesting work for more than two decades. And because of that interesting work, he’s been a regular guest here on this program over the years. We’ve usually talked about his big events—the Christmas tour that he does every year with his wife, Kristyn, and a large Irish band and choir. We’ve also discussed his Sing conferences—conferences that incorporate music and teaching to bring home the importance of intergenerational hymn singing, singing hymns that are musically excellent and theologically sound. 

But today we aren’t talking about big events at all, but rather small events. During this time of COVID quarantine, Keith, Kristyn, and his family have been doing weekly online singalongs that have captivated thousands of people. And during this time of uncertainty and, for some, fear, Keith and his team have continued to write and produce hymns. One hymn in particular, Christ Our Hope in Life and Death has perhaps unintentionally but nonetheless powerfully spoken to our current situation. 

Let’s listen to a portion of that hymn before we begin our conversation with Keith Getty. Singing lead vocals is the co-writer of this hymn, Matt Papa.

MUSIC: [Christ Our Hope In Life and Death]

Well, Keith, welcome back to the program. It’s great to chat with you again. How are you doing?

KEITH GETTY, GUEST: Warren, we’re really, really good. We’re actually enjoying quarantine. It’s not dream season for people who are own two live event companies, but it’s been a season of enormous opportunity in the other aspects of our company and our work and our mission. But even more than that, I think just being home, just having in our faces every day the sense of eternity and life and death, to be with my wife and daughters and be learning some ways that I thought I was a good husband and dad, but realizing that it was actually just a bluffer and when pressures on then as bad as the next guy has been a good thing to do. And so it’s been a sweet time. My wife and I, we lost four very special events that we had looked forward to for years, not months. And we lost four of those in 24 hours when this happened and we looked at each other on Sunday night and said I wouldn’t want them back. Because it’s just been an important season.I think that’s true for many.

SMITH: Well, you know, I don’t feel the pain in the same way that you felt it because those events that you guys were a part of, I mean, they’re huge events, but I tend to agree with you. There’s been some beautiful things that have come out of this and, you know, one of the beautiful things in my life, Keith, and I’m just going to go ahead, it’s not really what I’ve called originally talked to you about, but since we’re having this conversation, one of the beautiful things in my life is what you’re doing with your family on these online sings that you’re doing on—when I was a kid, we used to call them singings, but you’re calling them hymn sings. And it was really great to see you and Kristyn and your kids gathered around the piano week after week. You’ve been doing this for several weeks now. Where did that idea come from? Did you just think, well, we’ve got to do something, so we’re going to try this?

GETTY: Well, it was, I mean, it’s a couple of things. First of all, I grew up doing hymn sings. So my grandma, my parents, grandparents all did that kind of thing. Secondly, we do a song with our girls every night. We sing one song. It’s the same song every night. Some days are deep conversations. Other days are just kind of, you know, throw some toothpaste in their mouth, throw them into bed, sing the song, turn the lights off and tell them to be quiet. You know, some nights it’s better than others, but we just decided, I think four or five years ago, just to do a new hymn every month and we do the same hymn every night. And it’s a way that they’ve got to learn about the Bible and learn about the Lord. And we’ve done that. 

So, it came to St. Patrick’s day. And as you know, Warren, I like St. Patrick’s Day. I’m an Irish guy. We like to celebrate. We like to be out with people. It’s not a day for introverts. So, the idea that I was quarantined seemed like some sick joke. So to put it politely, you know, I wasn’t great company around the house. Some men are just a model of godliness, you know, every day. And I certainly wasn’t that day. And probably not any day, but I certainly wasn’t that day. And Kristyn says, well, you know, Keith let’s make a memory of it. Let’s just embrace it. And let’s sing our favorite Irish hymns tonight around the piano and I went, okay. So instead of doing one song—the hymn we’re teaching the girls is Christ Our Hope in Life and Death. Well, no it’s All Things Bright and Beautiful, actually. But we thought instead of doing one Irish hymn, let’s do five Irish hymns for St. Patrick’s Day. And then Kristyn at dinner time goes, Keith, I want to live stream this. And I said, you must be out of your mind, sweetie. We’ve only got an iPhone. She goes, no people do that. I said, nobody does that. And of course, I didn’t realize you could just turn your iPhone on. I didn’t even know you could do that with FaceTime live. So she called Josh. Josh puts an email out and then an hour later we’re online doing this and people loved it. They responded. I think people were bored and people give you a part—we get a fool’s pardon on St. Patrick’s Day. And then Lauren Green, our mutual friend, you know, who works for Fox News, she grabbed it and she started putting it on Fox News, national television all through the Friday. So by week two, between the trailer and the episode it ran 1.1 million viewers. 1.1 million views, which somebody told me that actually means the viewers was more like 1.7 times that, so it might have been close to 3 million, but either way, it just went crazy after that. And I don’t know. It’s definitely, musically, the worst thing I’ve ever done in my whole life.

SMITH: Well, let me ask you about that just for a second, because, you know, I’ve probably been with you on every single night so far. I think I’ll watch them—Mostly I watch them live. I think I might’ve had to pick one of them up in the—and they’re just a blast. I mean, I could see maybe that first one—St. Patrick’s Day—you said everybody was bored. But after that, those of us that have been tuning in we’ve been tuning in because they’re just a lot of fun. One of the things that make them a lot of fun, and this is what I want to ask you about is the fact that your kids were there and they’re just crawling all over you. You’ve already answered one of the questions. I’m just astonished at how well your kids know those hymns and know those songs, but you’ve already answered that. You teach the hymns to them every night when they go to bed. 

But the other question that I had, number one, how do you keep from making a mistake when you got kids grabbing your hands and grabbing your arms and crawling all, sort of, I don’t want to say slapping you, but clapping your head. And then secondly, this last one with the bluegrass night, you had guest musicians and you guys were perfectly synchronized. I mean, it was really great. How do you do that?

GETTY: Well, I think it was—that one was pre-recorded. So what we did is we just did the episode. We did the episode, like we did every other episode, but we did it the previous Friday. So we recorded that Friday morning. We all just got up and just recorded it. And we sent it to the guys. And, of course, Zach and Maggie the main two, you know them, they’re married. So they’ve got a little studio in their house, so they just jammed along and they swung it across to Peter on the Saturday and he recorded the bass parts in his house. And then he swung it back to Daniel and Daniel mixed it.

SMITH: Well, I’m sorry for asking the question, because I got to tell you if you hadn’t told me—I’m not sorry for asking the question, but I gotta tell you it came off seamlessly. It really looked live. It really looked like you guys were all there together having a great time and it just came off beautiful. 

GETTY: That’s good. That’s good. And honestly, those guys, I don’t know if you’ve been to the jam sessions at our house, Warren, but those guys have been playing bluegrass and Irish reels and jigs at our house until two in the morning, many times. So they’ve all—Peter’s been in the band with me, Peter’s in his like 11th year in the band with me. Zach and Maggie have been there, I think, eight and seven respectively. So they’re all been there a long time. I’ve been trying to get rid of them to be honest, but I can’t seem to manage it. 

SMITH: Well, so, that answers two of my three questions. But you still haven’t answered that third one. How do you keep your fingers on the keyboard when you’ve got kids crawling all over you? 

GETTY: I didn’t know, I mean, here’s the thing, you know, we’ve raised our girls, you know, with many imperfections and I’m sure later in life we’ll hear all about them. But growing up they always knew that the main half of their year or six months of their year, maybe eight months of the year or so was lived in Nashville. But then they did two months every year in Ireland. And then we did it two months on the road. So I think we’ve had a great team around us. I mean, you know, you’ve been in the bus enough times, Warren, to know that the personnel doesn’t change a lot. It’s been the same gang pretty much all for the last decade. That’s where they’ve all got to know each other’s families. The kids all get up in the morning and as soon as they hit a new city, they burst and they go. So there’s an energy and a comradery and I think just the flexibility to go with stuff. But you’re used to operating in chaos, you know what I mean? So, that’s good. And I think if you listen carefully, I’m making a bunch of mistakes.

SMITH: Well, maybe but you’re pulling it off with aplomb, shall we say? And they’re just really a lot of fun to watch and have become a real highlight for me because there’s a lot of stuff, a lot of musicians have gone online to the point where, I mean, I’m glad, and I watch as many as I can, but not all of them, but I have continued to tune into yours because they’re just so much fun. It’s just such a joy about them. I love the hymns. I love the family interaction and it’s just really great stuff. Thanks. 

GETTY: Thanks. Well, I mean, I do think it does raise a more serious issue, Warren, and that is that, you know, some moments, I think it was primarily, it was something that came from charismatic theology, but it was also a hangover of actually ironically of high church theology. And that is that Sunday worship or the singing in a church and a Sunday as a transcendental experience all of its own. And in some ways it’s a unique, beautiful thing that, you know, is an extraordinary experience. And rightly so and how we all miss it. I mean, how we all miss it, but the other side of the coin is that singing was never meant to be restricted to that. Do you know what I mean? Martin Luther’s vision for building up strong Christian homes and catechizing them with all these chorales or John Calvin’s vision for Geneva, bringing the Genevan psalter where every family would learn the Psalms in their homes in the morning through the psalter. Or even Charles Wesley’s vision, or even—if you come from a Christian background—thinking about your grandparents and the hymnbook they have by their bedside. Singing was never meant to just be in church and, you know, frankly, the best way to improve your church’s congregational singing is have the people singing the other six days of the week, too.

And so I actually think that’s why the Sing conference this year is the most important one we’ve ever done. And that’s why Tuesday night as musically simplistic as it is and sometimes parentally questionable, sometimes when we get our kids away with craziness and embarrassing, it provides a vital function because it’s saying wherever you are, get together and sing to the Lord, it’s our Holy privilege. You know, it’s our Holy obedience and, man, it sure is a delight.


SMITH: You know, Keith, I’d like to pivot in our conversation and talk to you about what I originally wanted to talk to you about, and that is the hymn Christ Our Hope In Life and Death. You’ve already mentioned it. You were talking about teaching it to your kids. Back when you and I scheduled this conversation weeks and weeks ago the hymn was still kind of new. It’s been out a while now, but I still want to back up to the beginning there and just ask you about the genesis of it. And also about the guys that you wrote it with. Tell me that story.

GETTY: Well, that’s a whole new chapter that has been really exciting. You met me, I think, originally it was an Oregon we met or at NRB or something all those years ago. 

SMITH: Yeah. It was NRB, I think.

GETTY: We were just starting to work to try and introduce these hymns that we’d written in Ireland to bring them to America. And that was kind of the start of the movement. And really, I suppose, from about the year before the Sing conference, starting with conversations in 2015, we began to wonder about publishing, becoming a publisher. And so there’s this group of brilliant writers that I think I’m their biggest fan, to be honest. And we decided to try to create this collective of hymn writers and it’s been just an extraordinary season. It’s just been an extraordinary season for all of us to work together, to write together, and to be part of our sort of hymn writing family. And so that’s very exciting.

SMITH: Well, Keith, I had a chance to see a little piece of that because before we kind of had the shutdown I was in Nashville and went over to your house and those guys were there and so I got to meet them all. And I was really pleasantly surprised. I don’t know if that’s exactly the right way to describe it, but just impressed by the fact that you guys are very disciplined about getting together on a regular basis, face-to-face in writing these songs and hymns and mutually supporting each other and almost a little mini community that you’ve got just among yourselves. Is that fair? Is that a good way to describe that?

GETTY: It’s exciting. We’re hoping to—Luther started the Reformation and the reintroduction of hymn writing, as you know, in 1517, and then he released the first hymnbook in 1524. So we—like our hero—are trying—we started at the Sing conference in 2017 and in 2024 we’re releasing globally this new hymn book and psalter for the 21st century, which we’re curating and we’re writing a good lot of it, but a lot of it is curating great, old hymns as well. And I think that’s really the excitement of the team to be doing that. And so for us that’s a big deal. 

SMITH: So, specifically Christ Our Hope In Life and Death, I know the video that y’all released I think Matt Papa takes most of the lead singing on it, but all of you guys are involved. You were all involved in the writing of it. It’s based more or less on the first question of the Heidelberg catechism. Do I have that right?

GETTY: That’s correct. That’s correct. 1633 Heidelberg catechism. What is our only hope in life and death?

SMITH: Well, when you wrote that song you know, I don’t know what you had in mind exactly, but now that we’re in the midst of the lockdown and COVID-19 crisis, that song kind of takes on a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?

GETTY: That’s right. And I think one of the great things about the psalms, one of the great things about the Christological theology, or Pauline theology, one of the great things about the classic hymns, at least the majority, I would say probably 80 percent plus is that they allow us to sing—singing is the language of eternity. And it’s what we do in eternity that we have a microcosm of here on earth and they sing about eternity. So, they sing about God, eternal, heaven, hell, when I die, when I stand in judgment, when I come up at rest and at peace with God, you know, all these kinds of images, almost every great hymn or the majority of them, the last verse tends to be able to heaven. And that was one of the massive cultural shifts that happened with the praise and worship movement, because most periods of the praise and worship movement, or most movements within it, won’t mention the eternal more than about 10 percent of their songs. So, that’s already a massive sociological shift in a Christian culture that you’ve moved from singing about having 80 percent of the time to 10 percent of the time. And that’s being generous with the stats. And we see it wider in our churches. We see it from the very symbolic like the fact that almost no churches build cemeteries around them now through to evangelism where we’re evangelizing because we want somebody to have a better time right now and get their life sorted out rather than talking about heaven and hell and being right with God. And I see why people are doing that, and I know many people have abused the other but, you know, frankly Oprah does a pretty good job of fixing your life up and life consultants do a pretty good job of fixing your life up. And Buddhism and Mormonism offer you pretty good life alternatives as well that can give you a fresh start. And that’s not what Christianity is. Christianity is talking about life and death. You know, I don’t know when COVID is going to end. I know some people in our country think they do, but none of us do. I don’t know how good my kids—I don’t know how they’re going to do in life. I hope and pray every day that they honor the Lord and find husbands that honor the Lord. But I don’t know. I don’t know how long I’m going to live, but I do know that I’m going to die. So, it defies human logic and common sense and basic integrity if we’re not living our lives in light of death. And for somebody listening to the program, if you don’t believe yet, it defies human integrity if you’re not asking the fundamental question and studying it with the same determination that you study, you know, health or your profession or whatever personal or emotional things you look at.

SMITH: Well, Keith, that is certainly a good word. And I really appreciate it. And again, let me just say thanks for these online events with your family. Thank you for this new hymn Christ Our Hope In Life and Death. Particularly timely for this COVID-19 era, but timeless as well. One of the things that I’ve always loved about your music is that it feels very relevant and really in the moment and in the age that we’re in, but it also, you know, kind of feels like something that was written a hundred years ago, too. And I’m just really grateful for that. Thank you for your gift and for sharing it with the church.

GETTY: Warren, thank you very much. You’re always an encouragement and inspiration and thank you for all your writing.

SMITH: Oh, I appreciate that, Keith. Bless you.

GETTY: Thanks, man. See ya.


SMITH: Welcome back. I’m Warren Smith. And up next today is Elli Oswald. Elli Oswald leads the Faith to Action Initiative, a collaborative effort of international organizations attempting to change the model for orphan care around the world. She says that many children in orphanages are not truly orphans, but have been given up by their parents because of economic distress. She believes that the church should not be building more orphanages, but attempting to support families to stay together and raise their own children. 

Elli Oswald, welcome to the program. And I was fascinated by kind of a counter cultural take on adoption. You’re actually telling Christians don’t build orphanages. Why are you saying that?

ELLI OSWALD, GUEST: Well, we really are not trying to tell people what not to do. We’re trying to help people understand new ways to care for kids that have shown over time and lots of research and studies that are best for kids. And so it’s not so much about ending something, it’s about bringing more attention and energy around how we can support families, both families of kids, but also alternative families like foster families to be able to care well for children. Instead of investing in things that might make them be separated from their family, actually investing in families so they can care well for children.

SMITH: Well, you know, Elli, I got interested in this topic a couple of years ago when my wife and I went through the foster care licensing process here in the state of North Carolina, where we’re from. And I got further interested in the topic when I saw a movie, a documentary called Poverty Incorporated by the Acton Institute which focused on orphanages in Haiti. And one of the things that the producers of that documentary found out was that the vast majority of the kids who were in orphanages that were presenting themselves for adoption actually had intact families in Haiti, but the families couldn’t afford to care for the kids anymore.

OSWALD: Yeah. That’s something that we call the orphan myth. So if you look at the statistics, UNICEF has said there’s about 140 million orphans and vulnerable children around the world. So that’s a large number. And you can see that on websites all over the world, right? That’s a huge number of orphans, but what we also know through information all over the world, different regions, continents, 98 percent of those children are actually being cared for by family members. So it changes your idea of what you think of as an orphan. So if 98 percent of orphans are actually currently living with family members who are in orphanages or who are on the streets and that information we know from data from countries all over the world is about, on average, about 80 percent of children who are in orphanages have a living parent. So that’s a bit of a shocker for some of us. But it leads to some really important questions regarding why children are in orphanages in the first place.

SMITH: Well, so given those numbers, which I think will be shocking to a lot of people, you know, what are we going to? You know, what should we do? I mean, I get what you said that you’re not trying to tell people what not to do, but try to tell people what to do. But I do think it is also fair to ask the question, are we contributing to the problem? Are there things that we should stop doing in addition to some of the things that you’re recommending that we should start doing?

OSWALD: Yeah. I think it’s really helpful to talk about the reason kids are in orphanages as two categories. There’s push factors and there’s pull factors. So push factors are kind of the negative things that a family or community is experiencing including poverty, deaths, disease, loss of jobs, these really negative pieces. That might be one of the reasons why a family might consider placing a child into an orphanage. The other is what we call pull factors. And this is what I think you’re talking about. Some of the responsibility us who might consider ourselves more the donor supporter can  take responsibility for. So they’re pull factors. So the positive things that an orphanage provides in a community that pull children towards the orphanage. So this is access to education, three meals a day, shelter. The privileges that they might experience inside an orphanage. We talk about something called the impossible choice and it’s helping to put ourselves in the shoes of maybe a mother. I often kind of use the example of a mother who’s just had her fifth child. Her husband works out of the country to send money back to them. She’s struggling to get by and down the street this new building is being built and they see Westerners coming in and out of it and they hear, you know, there’s going to be access to free education here. They’re going to take care of your kids. So that puts the mother in the situation of kind of making this impossible choice between being able to give their child opportunity and to meet their basic needs and not be able to care for them or care for them and potentially not be able to meet their needs and especially not be able to meet their full capacity.

And so what we hope to do is to kind of take—we want to get rid of that impossible choice, and that means bringing support not through the orphanages, but directly to families in programs that support families that utilize the current kind of existing assets in the community, like the church, like the schools, different things that exist to be able to come around families so they can care well for children. We call it family-based care instead of residential orphanage based care. This is still caring for kids, but they’re based in the context of family.

SMITH: Well, can you say a little bit more, Elli, about what that would look like, because what I’m hearing from you I really like, especially having traveled to places like India and Haiti and Brazil and seen, you know, very tough situations there and know that some of the solutions that we have tried to provide for those situations are just not working. We need to do something different, but on the other hand, I’m also aware just how dangerous it can be to send money into those countries or to send new programs and projects into those countries where if you don’t know the lay of the land, you might not actually produce the result that you’re trying to produce.

OSWALD: Yeah, it is tough. The cross cultural engagement is so hard. And part of the reason the organization I work with—Faith to Action—did this work is because we realized it’s challenging to know what’s going on the ground. And sometimes we’re forced to go off of some assumptions that we will even admit are ill-founded. Like, I think this is a need. I experienced it on my trip or I hear the statistics and I want to respond, but we try to be a bridge to what evidence is shown is best practice and help people. We don’t expect—I can’t read all the—try to but the detailed kind of data and research, but we can help that be accessible in a way. So we can make informed decisions about who we partner with on the ground. There’s tools that have been created to help to, of course, look at what kind of partnerships you want to create in general, but also partnerships that will support children and families. How can we do our due diligence to ask the right questions to ensure that we’re investing in programs that are good? One quick tip is I think we often want to respond to the need and maybe during a mission trip or something, you see an orphanage that is really struggling and it’s heartbreaking, of course, but part of—we challenge that a little bit. So you go home, you fundraise, I’m gonna buy mattresses, because those mattresses were old or I’m going to get shoes on those kids. Part of what we say is that that’s actually a big warning flag. Do we want to invest in something that is struggling to care for kids? Or do we want to invest in something that potentially is really showing great results and come alongside to be able to support them to reach more kids so potentially they could engage with kids who are in those settings that are really struggling. So that’s just one of the things to consider, but in general, there’s—I often say, when we think orphan care, our biblical call to care for the orphan and widow, we have a pretty limited idea of what that means. Usually orphan care equals orphanage, but I think we need to expand our idea of orphan care, to include anything that would allow a family to be strengthened to care well for their children. And that might be access to education. That might be access to water. It also might mean stronger child protection mechanisms. So we make sure kids are safe in the homes. But it can mean so much more than what we’ve traditionally thought it means.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

Like this story?

To hear a lot more like it, subscribe to The World and Everything in It via iTunes, Overcast, Stitcher, or Pocket Casts.







Pocket Casts

(Requires a fee)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.