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Keith & Kristyn Getty: The Mission Is the Music

Chris Carpenter - Director of Internet Programming

It’s not every day that a song about missions work in China written more than 80 years ago resurfaces on the Billboard music charts.  But that is exactly what happened over the summer to the little-known Frank Houghton penned hymn “Facing a Task Unfinished”.

Recorded and released by Keith & Kristyn Getty as part of their new studio album of the same name, “Facing a Task Unfinished “ climbed to #4 on Top Christian/Gospel Chart at the end of June.  It marked the Gettys’ highest debut ever.

With the Gettys’ songs currently being sung by an estimated 100 million people each year in churches across the globe, it seems only fitting for them to focus on hymns that highlight the missional aspect of music.

I recently sat down with Keith Getty to discuss the new album, how church music can so easily impact missions, and why they assembled a collection of world musicians to record Facing a Task Unfinished.

It’s been more than three years since your last album release. Obvious question … what served as the catalyst for you to record Facing a Task Unfinished?

Keith Getty: Facing a Task Unfinished is actually a song that was written in 1931 by Frank Houghton, a missionary to China. At the time China was in a huge financial downturn.  There was a socialist uprising and the Communists shut off Christianity to the masses.  They invited China to eradicate Christianity.  There were less than 750,000 Christians so they figured they could do that within a generation.  Houghton creates an extraordinary prayer meeting for leaders to come and support his Chinese mission.  They had lost 200 missionaries.  He wanted this hymn that he wrote to be passed around.  In response to the prayer meeting and the request to sing the hymn, 204 missionaries committed to go back into the field.  It’s an incredible story because it is obviously one of the many stories that contributed to the rise of Christianity in China. There are now over 80 million believers in China and it’s because of people like this.  I feel that we are in a time where it is so important to realize 1) the reality of suffering for the Church around the world, and 2) the good news that is the Good News of the Gospel.  Christianity is growing on four and a half continents.  There is too much apologizing for Christianity going on around here right now.  And thirdly, our songs should foster a mission.  For a generation, our worship songs have barely mentioned the fact that we are to witness and tell others. I want to bring a confidence, both in the Gospel and a confidence of what is happening in the world church.  This project is really all about that. 

Why do you think Frank Houghton believed that God’s people singing together fueled missions?

Getty: Because that is how it has always been.  It’s only the last 40 years that worship music has become this kind of self-serving kind of emotional experience.  In the Old Testament it calls people to put God through what they sang.  They learned how He acted, how He worked, and they responded in their humanity.  The early Christians hymns were all creeds about what we understand about Jesus.  The great hymns of the Church fathers, from St. Patrick’s breastplate to the hymns of St. Augustine and St. Francis of Assisi are prayers of our faith.  Martin Luther, shortly after the Reformation, the utter turmoil that Europe was in was far more than the turmoil we have right now, takes time out to create thirty-something chorales, German hymns, that would teach them the faith.  Because without hymns that teach you your faith you can’t go anywhere.  He talked about the Reformation because the reformation of the church is the preaching and singing of the Word.  I think we need to get back to that.  That is what singing is all about.  Not only is there a loss of quality in the songs we sing, there is a loss of theology in what we sing in the first place. 

When you set out to write music are you always crafting it with the intention of it being used for congregational singing or is your intent sometimes more focused on creating something a little less refined?

Getty: For me, most of the time, I am writing for congregations.  That is partly because I feel that is what my job in life is.  I think that is so important because that is what the Church needs right now is solid and deep songs.  It’s also part of my upbringing.  I was brought up in a home where congregational music was the music of the house along with classical music.  I was in Ireland, a Presbyterian, and a theological nerd, so that kind of music naturally comes out of the juicer that way. When I write my songs that is the content you put in and congregational music is what comes out.  This is my life’s work. I live in in Nashville, which adores, lauds, and applauds the world’s greatest songwriters.  Songwriting provides them money, fame, and fortune. I really have no desire to do that.  I think writing a song for God’s people in the 21st Century that teaches the global church is such a critical thing.  We live in the most exciting age in history to be a Christian.  This kind of music is where you learn a lot of your Bible verses when you are young.  That is how you are emotionally stirred.  That is the language that becomes your prayer life.  I can’t imagine a more important time in my lifetime with my limited skills.

On the new album, you have enlisted many of your musical friends including Chris Tomlin, Fernando Ortega, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and John Patitucci.  That is quite a potpourri of musical artistry.  Why this collection of people?  

Getty: I think there were two things we were trying to do.  1) One of the things was to try to help write hymns for the contemporary Church.  We began to realize that we were tired of writing in this hymn style, “In Christ Alone” style that everyone sort of knew.  We wanted to try to create some hybrid hymns with some of the modern worship writers, so that is why we brought in some of those guys.  But the more significant thing was that we wanted to create global songs.  So, there is folk music from all six continents on this project.  There are Chinese folk musicians.  There is the music of Bulgaria, Hungary, the Middle East, India, and Africa.  Fernando Ortega has this beautiful Mexican voice and he performs a wonderful song.  John Patitucci, one of the world’s visionary’s on global jazz education at Berklee College in Boston performs beautifully.  One of the beautiful things about our generation is that we get access to all of this music. Of course, the Ladysmith Black Mambazo thing was too hard to resist.  The pop musicologists talk about Paul Simon’s Graceland album being the first world music album. It was really the first album that put world music on the map.  I guess there is a little part of me that has this secret hope and vision that this project might start a new generation. 

The recording process of this album is a bit different in that you basically recorded it live in a chapel.  Why did you choose to record it this way?

Getty: It’s what we call a live studio album.  Rather than just have Kristyn sing the vocals we had 150 of our friends come down and take part with us.  To be honest, we love that format.  I want to stick to that format because it worked so well.  Our next record will be from our conference in September 2017, our first church music conference.  We are going to do a 5,000 person hymn sing at the Grand Ole Opry as part of that.  We are so excited about this. 

What is the benefit of recording it the way you did versus the traditional in the studio method where you would record each instrument and vocal track by track?

Getty: I  think there are a couple of benefits to it.  One benefit is that it gives you a reality check.  I think that anything that gives you a reality check in your life is important.  Alistair Begg, one of my old pastors, once said that one of the best things he had was that Sunday was coming.  He knew he had to deliver.  When you are in a specialized field this is especially true.  In other words, we had to get it right.  In a regular recording session you know you can go on for six months.  When I am making an album and a congregation is coming to sing I can’t just sit in a room and kid myself that this is a really interesting song.  You know, you can right ten cool songs a day.  On my previous project I got so enamored by Irish music and bluegrass, Alison Krauss, and all of these guests that I don’t think I was focused enough.  So, I had to find something to get focused again.  I actually think that when an average church musician hears this album and hears the group singing, it’s an easier translation to congregational life.

As an artist, after people listen to Facing a Task Unfinished what would you like them to take away from that experience?

Getty: At the end of the day my only skill is to write songs that help God’s people sing.  So, I want the ongoing singing in people’s lives to be singing about missions.  I want people to sing lyrics like:

We bear the torch that flaming
Fell from the hands of those
Who gave their lives proclaiming
That Jesus died and rose
Ours is the same commission
The same glad message ours
Fired by the same ambition
To Thee we yield our powers

I want these songs to get deep into people’s lives and into congregation’s lives.  That’s the main thing I can do.  Secondly, as I listen to the songs and our tour hits the road we want people at these shows asking themselves the question, what is the task left unfinished? Is it that every day I pray to speak to one person about faith?  Is there an organization, a ministry, or a country that I need to be supporting more?  With people asking these questions at the local level about the international level; that is critically important.  I want people to pray that God would give them one chance every day to share Jesus with one person.

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