Keith, congratulations on this new album release! It looks to be a mixture of traditional and modern hymns chosen for the album. Please tell us about the selection of hymns and what made you choose these particular ones.
It was a great opportunity to work with the Gospel Coalition event and with pastors from 40 different countries. We wanted to choose hymns that were rich in theological truth, but were also hymns that people would carry with them. We chose a number of traditional hymns — “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty,” “Power of the Cross,” “When I Survey,” — big hymns that everyone would recognize. We also chose some more contemporary songs that have come out in recent years — songs that are rich in truth and that everyone could sing along with.
You and Kristyn are considered hymn writers. What’s the major difference between writing hymns over worship songs? Is there a difference in preparing the music for a hymn?
There’s no scientific term for what’s an actual “hymn” and what’s a “song.” But when people listen to it, they will refer to a song and say “that song is more hymnlike,” or “that one is more worship song like.” I think for us, we’ve ended up being called hymn writers because we script our priorities. We tend towards singing and writing our songs that are about teaching and learning our faith. The songs are all about the context of rich, passionate, relevant worship (we hope). Secondly, we try to write melodies that are a traditional form that every generation can recognize and sing along with.
Talk about the importance of a good melody.
Well melody is what carries the song. The vast majority of the songs that are our favorites and the favorites of others are popular due to melody of the song. Of course, there’s always the words that go with the song, but I think it has to be a combination of both, especially melody, because that’s what is carrying the song. Being Irish, I think, has always helped me with getting the congregation involved. I think the Irish melody is very catchy, and people like to sing. Irish music is a very ‘shared’ type of music, where people are expected and want to sing along. There’s always a group of people singing Irish songs; it’s rare to be individual.
When writing a hymn, how do you get inspiration? Do you read through Scripture only, or do you read through old hymns or something more modern?
I think for us, we try to be very intentional in the form of cradled hymns, like the style of Charles Wesley or even Martin Luther. Martin Luther tried to teach the European church that there are certain songs we should sing. Charles Wesley made it his goal to teach the entire European church the songs he sang. He traveled across the European countryside teaching the church his songs so everyone could know the faith. I think we have a similar goal with material that we would call church-filled music. But in terms of the inspiration, Kristyn and Stewart are the wordsmiths, and they are keenly aware of what’s going on in our culture today, so they’re always looking for fresh and relevant ideas in the lyrics.
What advice could you give to a worship leader who’s struggling to get his congregation involved and to worship?
I think, first of all, your question is the right question. Recently I spoke with a group of quite accomplished worship leaders, and I asked them, “What do you guys discuss after the worship session?” And they quickly answered whether the congregation was involved and participated. So I think that’s the right question to be asking: Did the church worship? So if we begin at that place and ask how we get the congregation to sing, I think it starts with the pastor. If the pastor is teaching about worship and encouraging the congregation to worship, then we as worship leaders need to be the very best musicians we can be and constantly searching for the right songs that connect with the people and help them worship God. For instance if we walk into a room that has 30 people and we start singing “Amazing Grace,” everyone will likely sing along because that song is ingrained in us. So I think it starts with the pastor, and it’s our duty to find the right songs and to encourage everyone to learn to sing, to sing well and passionately, and even to go home and practice harmony. That’s the key — for everyone to want to sing.
You can get a copy of Keith and Kristyn’s new album today:“Modern and Traditional Hymns: Live at the Gospel Coalition”