PAUL BUTLER: The following podcast is a special presentation of WORLD Radio.
Singer-songwriter Kristyn Getty is synonymous with modern hymns. She and her husband Keith have devoted their careers to encouraging the church to return to the great songs of the faith. But when it came to their own children, the Getty’s realized they needed a different approach.
WORLD’s Emily Whitten recently talked to Kristyn Getty about ways to teach hymns to kids, even if they don’t hear them every Sunday in church.
EMILY WHITTEN, REPORTER: When COVID-19 hit last spring, singer/songwriters Kristyn and Keith Getty ended up quarantined at their home near Nashville, TN. Like other musicians, they quickly moved online to stay connected with their audiences. For the Gettys that included a weekly event they called the Getty Family Hymn Sing.
HYMN SING: Hi, everyone! Welcome to outside at our house and the chaos that is Tuesday night family hymn sing….
Week by week, they welcomed other professional singers and musicians into their home, often streaming live from their back porch. One unpredictable guest choice—they included their daughters.
HYMN SING: [Child squeals] How could this go wrong?
The great thing about the Getty Family Hymn Sing in 2020 is that sometimes it got messy. The kids crawled over one another and pulled Keith’s hair and whined occasionally. That unscripted element—the reality of kids and parents together—made those back porch moments of worship often inspiring.
Here’s a clip from last April.
HYMN SING: …please help the coronavirus to go away. In your name, Amen… Sing our final song, What love could remember no wrongs we have done? Omniscient, all knowing, he counts not their sum…
Preparation for these hymn sings started years ago. When her children were younger, Kristyn didn’t put much effort into teaching them hymns. But then something happened on a tour across the United States. One day their young family showed up at a private school in New Jersey. As part of the event, the school presented one of the hymns Keith is best known for creating: “In Christ Alone.”
Keith and Kristyn and their two children sat in the audience as the school kids prepared to sing.
GETTY: They invited our eldest to come and join them and as she walked up the front Keith and I looked at each other and thought, Does she know In Christ Alone? Did you teach it to her? And she got up and sure enough she sang the first two lines, and then just smiled and waved at us for the rest of the time.
And that moment, seeing their daughter in the spotlight unable to finish the song, something clicked. Maybe they saw their daughter as more than just part of their family, but part of the larger church. Or maybe they realized that as public figures, their children would face more scrutiny. At any rate, their approach to teaching hymns changed.
GETTY: But we realized not only does it need to be part of spaces where life happens, but there are moments when we have to be intentional and actually teach them you know?
So, Keith and Kristyn began to purposely teach hymns to their kids. And they found one particular approach really helpful.
GETTY: So we started doing a hymn a month with our girls. I would play a version of the song over my phone. Just play a version of it over and over and I would sing it and get them to sing it.
Kristyn says some hymns like “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” took more effort to learn. They memorized other songs in a snap.
GETTY: Like “Softly and Tenderly” they loved and got a lot of that early on. We taught them “His Mercy is More.” They just learned it so fast. It’s one of the best songs to teach kids because they just loved it.
Weeks, months, years went by, and last spring, these songs formed some of the repertoire that would become their quarantine version of Getty Family Hymn Sing.
HYMN SING: Oh, sing, Hallelujah! Our hope springs eternal. Oh sing, Hallelujah! Now and ever we confess, Christ our hope in life and death.
Maybe you’re thinking, “That’s great for the Gettys. But it’s too much work for my family.” Believe it or not, learning a hymn a month might be easier than you think.
To start with, you do need a source for hymns. That could be a hymnbook. Or it could be a website like Happy Hymnody dedicated to helping families learn hymns.
HAPPY HYMNODY: Hi, Happy Hymnody friends! It’s April here with you again, and I’m so glad to be back with you learning a new hymn for the month of February…
April Brover, the mom behind Happy Hymnody, offers a lot of resources to help families get started, including videos on Youtube and Instagram. The Gettys themselves offer a Spotify playlist for families, but really, many hymns on Youtube would be fine to start with.
What should you look for in choosing hymns? Kristyn suggests Christian worldview content.
GETTY: God is the creator. He created you and me. And then the narrative of the gospel story. What that means so they really understand that. The hope of heaven, and then songs which connect these things to everyday life.
She also recommends songs that are fun to sing.
GETTY: They love, Hallelujah! Thine the Glory. Hallelujah! Amen. And just wonderful praise songs that cheer up the heart really.
The second crucial step is to find a time of day to play the hymn for your family. Maybe let them hear it on the way to the grocery store. Or play it at the breakfast table.
At one point, Kristyn struggled to find a good routine. They used to read the Bible as a family at night. But as their family grew, that evening Bible study became a chore.
GETTY: Then in the evening we don’t read Bible stories anymore because we found we were fighting with our kids so much getting them to bed. And we didn’t want them to associate Bible study with angry parents.
So, they moved Bible reading to mornings. In the evenings before bed, they sing.
GETTY: And so what we did find is that actually I can play songs on my phone and that will go a very long way to filling them up with the Bible.
As the month goes on, the goal is to get kids to sing along. If you only accomplish this, you’ve done a lot. For one thing, good hymns give kids the vocabulary of Christian faith.
GETTY: And words to pray. We often pray in the language of the songs that we sing. And we often share our faith. You know what we sing is so important to our spiritual development. How we understand the faith and how we share it and speak about it.
Another advantage of studying a hymn for an entire month is that it creates time to talk about the hymns. On nights when they aren’t too tired, Kristyn often asks her daughters questions about the lyrics. One recent hymn of the month was “Abide With Me.”
GETTY: I went through verse 1 again with them and I said Gracie, ‘Remind me again, what does abide really mean? What does it mean to be helpless?’
She sometimes shares her own stories about particular hymns like “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”
GETTY: I love being able to tell him I sang this when I was a little girl. And you know Granny and Granddad had that at their wedding. And now you’re going to sing it, and as you go through your life, you’ll be able to add your stories to that song and remember God’s faithfulness.
Thankfully, you don’t have to script all this out ahead of time. The stories often come naturally when you sing a hymn and talk about it over the course of a month.
But let’s say you didn’t grow up singing. Maybe all this still feels overwhelming. Kristyn advises hesitant families to start small. Really small. Maybe as a mom, listen to a hymn while you cook supper one night. Or she offers another first step.
GETTY: A very simple thing is maybe teach them a song to sing before you eat at night. And that was a fun thing that Keith very much did growing up, and so sometimes we’ll just have our girls sing the grace. You know, sing the doxology before we eat or something like that.
Kristyn says churches can support parents, even in a pandemic. They can publish a list of songs to be sung the next Sunday. Practicing hymns ahead of the service can make the songs more interesting for kids. Or if your church worships virtually, pre-record kids singing hymns for the Sunday service.
Raising kids to be faithful Christians is challenging under any circumstances. But Kristyn envisions singing as low-hanging fruit.
GETTY: I tell you some nights are very difficult, and there was a night a few days ago when I just felt like such a bad mom, and my patience was so thin. And I didn’t even know how I was going to pray with the children because I was in such a… I’m sure you’ve had nights like that. So I just said we’re singing the doxology and we’re calling it a day. So that’s sometimes all I reach for when it’s been a very bad day.
So, even if singing hymns is doable, why bother? What does it do for our kids…for us? Hymns give us words to pray, build Christian worldview, and connect us to other Christians.
Kristyn’s perspective as a hymn writer adds a lot of insight. She talks here about her approach to composing.
GETTY: I think of a Christian worldview first of all and a Biblical one in many ways. Because I’ve been a Christian my whole life pretty much. I became a Christian when I was 4. That’s the place from which I write everything.
Turns out, her songs aren’t just compositions she thinks up in the shower or while doing dishes. When she approaches hymn writing, she often thinks of the specific needs in a church service.
GETTY: What are songs that we open with? What are songs that we close with? Do we have a song for the preaching of the word? A song about communion? Let’s do a song about mission and lean into some of those big topics.
The Gettys also take inspiration from good hymnals. Kristyn says they often cover topics like the attributes of God, Biblical themes and doctrines, and the church calendar year.
Another source for her hymn writing has been J.I. Packer’s Knowing God.
GETTY: If you just look at the first page of that and you just see his little headlines. Titles of all the different aspects of who God is. And…it’s inspired us so many times. God is Father. God is Son. Let’s do the Trinity. Let’s do a song that goes through the actual gospel story. It just sort of inspired us and so much of what we wrote.
Packer, of course, went to be with the Lord in July of 2020. But in this promotional video from several years ago, he explains the needs addressed by his book Knowing God.
J.I. PACKER: We need to know what we believe. We need to be able to defend it when it’s challenged. And we need to have reason for relying on it as basis for our lives.
Adults can really benefit from the book’s content. But young kids won’t be able to access that book for many years. Unless what if your kids could sing some of those truths now?
Going back to the role of daily routines, Kristen recently discovered ancient roots to her practice of singing at night.
GETTY: The whole idea of the word evensong is a traditional service and more liturgical traditions. It’s been done for hundreds of years. It’s basically a short service at the end of the day with prayers songs and Bible reading.
But you don’t have to host a church service to get many of the benefits of evensong.
GETTY: And it’s basically meant to find people wherever they are at the end of the day and lead them to the Lord and his promises knowing the comfort of his truth. And so to help sanctify the night.
So, it seems good hymns often meet us with Biblical truth relevant for a particular time of day, for a particular season, even milestones throughout our lives. The scope of their impact, the times and places they bring God’s word near, is just so broad.
For instance, Kristyn says singing the hymn “Softly and Tenderly” helped her family feel at home in a new house.
GETTY: Then as we moved to a different home here in Ireland, I loved how the songs that we sang together in this one particular space helped create a home environment in a different space. And that music was sort of a glue that brought us together. So no matter where we were it was the sound of home. And of course, “Softly and Tenderly” has beautiful images of home.
As we head into a new year, here’s a final question. How might learning hymns enrich your family life?
MUSIC: Come home, come home, ye who are weary come home
No matter how wonderful our hymns or well-oiled the routine, teaching kids is hard. And the COVID-19 pandemic adds an extra challenge. Many families are cut off from Sunday School and normal fellowship with other believers. In a promotional video released this fall for their Evensong album, Kristen talks about what it was initially like to quarantine together as a family.
GETTY: As soon as we went into lock down, I was in lockdown with four young kids having to continue on with our life yet become homeschool mom. It was a wonderful time, but it became so crazy. So hard to find any space to do the things we needed to do.
For some families, being cut off from corporate worship means not singing hymns. But because of the Getty’s profession, they had to keep singing. They ramped up the Getty Family Hymn Sing, and they built a recording studio in their home.
The Gettys actually face a temptation most of us don’t. Because they sing so often, they might take hymns for granted.
GETTY: I can remember my daughter Grace, who’s five, kindergarten, saying, ‘Mum, all you want to talk about is sing sing sing sing sing sing sing sing sing!’ And I thought, ‘O great…’
But other times, the seeds they’ve planted bear fruit.
GETTY: Just last week I was in my bedroom getting ready and I heard her in the next room and she was singing. She had other dolls out she was pretending to do church with them. I was standing here and I heard her singing, the Christ Our Hope in Life and Death song at the top of her voice.
Children’s emotions are like weather, constantly changing, Kristen says. She perseveres because God calls her to pass on her faith.
GETTY: We’re all struggling. None of us are perfect, and this is an incredibly unusual time. But I think I’d also say don’t be scared to do these things with your kids. You have a right and an opportunity as a mom to do them.
On hard days, Kristen clings to that calling.
GETTY: This is a season that God has placed my kids in my care. They’re here under my roof, and this is what we’re going to do.
For now, Keith and Kristyn have moved on from their back porch Getty Family Hymn Sings. Back in Ireland, closer to family, they are busy planning their annual Sing! Global Conference. In 2020, it drew millions of online viewers. Kristyn is also working on an unusual project for her—an audio version of the Bible.
As the pandemic wears on, the Getty kids still make their presence known in unexpected ways.
GETTY: Go down to your daddy, ok? Ok, wonderful. Ok, I’ll see you in a wee while, all right, darlin? Ok.
But quarantine continues to mean doing more together. The family recently released a Christmas edition of the Getty Family Hymn Sing on their Youtube channel. And Keith and Kristyn play a large role in the girls’ homeschooling.
GETTY: Every Thursday we do a family field trip somewhere. Last week it was forests. So we went to this beautiful big forest and explored and did all sorts of things. It was brilliant.
The Gettys aim to release more projects soon to encourage families to sing good hymns. Some of those families, like mine, won’t be as talented as they are. But we can sing along and make a joyful noise. Thankfully, God’s mercy covers that, too.
I’m Emily Whitten.
HYMN SING:Praise the Lord! His mercy is more! Stronger than darkness, new every morn. Our sins they are many, His mercy is more! Our sins they are many, His mercy is more.