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Twenty Years Later, ‘In Christ Alone’ Still Inspires Millions to Sing

By Bob Smietana
Keith Kristyn Getty
For the second annual Sing! event led by Keith and Kristyn Getty, more than 7,000 worship leaders, pastors and other believers gathered in Nashville, Tennessee in September 2018. (Photo: Getty Music) 

The melody that changed Keith Getty’s life was first scratched out on the back of an electric bill in a humble flat in Northern Ireland.

This isn’t great, he thought at the time.

But it was the best he could come up with. So he sent a recording of the melody on a CD to Stuart Townend, an English songwriter he’d met a few months earlier at a church conference, in hopes Townend might be able to turn the melody into a serviceable hymn.

Getty was right.

That melody became the basis for “In Christ Alone,” which was released in 2001 and has become one of the most popular songs in Protestant churches, according to the Christian Copyright Licensing International, which tracks songs sung in churches. The song also launched a new era of modern hymn writing.

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All of which came as a surprise to the tune’s authors.

In a 2016 interview recounting the origins of “In Christ Alone,” Townend said there was nothing memorable about his meeting with Getty.

“We got together, we had a coffee, nothing particularly eventful happened,” Townend recalled. “He said he’d send me a CD with some of his song ideas. … It arrived and I wasn’t expecting anything.”

Then he popped in the CD and immediately changed his mind. He eventually called Getty and the two talked about writing a musical version of a church creed that would recount the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  

The song originally started with the line “My hope is found in Christ alone.” Getty suggested switching the verse around to start with “In Christ alone.” After some hesitation, Townend did so, and the song came to life. Getty has described Townend’s lyrics for the song as “absolutely brilliant,” capturing the story of Christian faith in a powerful and lovely way.

Getty has sometimes called “In Christ Alone” a “rebel song” — a kind of protest against the more contemporary worship songs that sound more like pop music than traditional hymns. It was the first of a series of modern hymns he’s helped write, combining singable melodies with theological reflection. 

Keith and Kristyn Getty

He believes they are the type of songs Christians need in a complicated and ever-changing world.  

“If we’re going to build a generation of people who think deep thoughts about God, who have rich prayer lives, and who are the culture-makers of the next generation, we need to be teaching them songs with theological depth,” he said in a 2016 interview about his approach to hymn writing. 

Getty and his wife, Kristyn, who perform together and tour with their four kids and an Irish-themed band, are back in Nashville, Tennessee, after nine months on lockdown in Northern Island, where they have a home. Being back in Ireland was respite for the Gettys after a decade and a half of touring, recording and building a music publishing business. They spent much of the time walking on beaches, hanging with their kids and hosting weekly hymn sings on Facebook Live.

They returned to Nashville just in time for their annual Sing! conference, which is expected to draw about 5,000 people, with an additional 10,000 streaming online. The event, held this year on Sept. 13-15, has drawn more than 16,000 people in person in the past and has included packed hymn singing events at both the Grand Ole Opry and the Bridgestone Arena in downtown Nashville.

Presbyterian minister Kevin Twit, founder of Indelible Grace, a Nashville music company that sets traditional hymns to new tunes, is a big fan of the Gettys. He sees “In Christ Alone” as a marriage between well written and inspiring lyrics and a hymn tune that’s both compelling and flexible. The song works as well on a pipe organ with a choir as it does in a small church with a guitar and a handful of voices, he said.  

“That’s hard to do,” he said.

Twit, who leads the Reformed University Fellowship at Belmont University in Nashville, said “In Christ Alone” appeared on the scene just as a number of younger evangelicals were looking for songs with more theological depth than the contemporary songs they had learned in church growing up. Getty, Twit said, understands the way songs people sing in churches shape both their theology and the way they live their lives.

“I think he really gets that worship is formative,” he said.

The Rev. Constance Cherry, professor emeritus of worship and pastoral ministry at Indiana Wesleyan University, believes “In Christ Alone” has succeeded by combining the traditional structure of a hymn with the kind of instrumentation used in more contemporary worship settings.

She said the structure of a hymn makes it easier for hymn writers like Getty and Townend to dig deep into a theological topic.

Cherry also appreciates that the Gettys are focused on creating hymns that make it easier for congregations to sing together. That’s a lost art, she said, in a time when many more contemporary worship songs are modeled after what is popular on the radio. While she appreciates contemporary praise songs, she said they are often focused more on the musicians than on the congregation.

“Every worship song in any worship service has one goal — and that is for the people to sing,” she said.

Brian Hehn, director of the Center for Congregational Song, the outreach arm of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, also points to the flexibility and beauty of the melody of “In Christ Alone” for the hymn’s enduring success. The melody falls in a comfortable range for most people and is simple and accessible while still intriguing to listen to. And it works for praise bands and choirs alike — a key to a successful congregational song, he said.  

Townend’s lyrics, Hehn added, are beautifully crafted and full of nuance. They walk the worshipper through the life of Jesus, from the Incarnation — “Fullness of God in helpless babe,” as the hymn puts it — to the death of Jesus and then his resurrection. The song also connects God to the life of worshippers, “from life’s first cry to final death.”

Because of that, the hymn works in a variety of settings, from a Christmas or Easter celebration to a regular Sunday service.

The song also contains surprising theological complexity, said Hehn. It’s perhaps best known for a line about the wrath of God being satisfied in the crucifixion, which reflects a theology known as penal substitutionary atonement that’s commonly accepted in evangelical churches. But that has led other churches to change the lyrics of the hymn — and caused the song to be dropped from a Presbyterian Church (USA) hymnal after a proposed lyric change was rejected.

But “In Christ Alone” also references the Christus Victor view of the atonement, which celebrates Jesus’ victory over the grave, and the ransom view of the atonement, which stresses that God purchased forgiveness of human sin from the devil with the sacrifice of Jesus.

“I find that wonderfully broad,” he said.

While congregational singing may be on decline in American churches, Hehn said it remains vital in many churches around the world. And there will always be a need for songs like “In Christ Alone.”

“No matter how you interpret the Bible, it is impossible to get around the fact that we’re supposed to sing together,” said Hehn.

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service.



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14 Responses

  1. Yes! One of the greatest and richest songs ever written! But Brian Hehn is out to lunch….

    But “In Christ Alone” also references the Christus Victor view of the atonement, which celebrates Jesus’ victory over the grave, and the ransom view of the atonement, which stresses that God purchased forgiveness of human sin from the devil with the sacrifice of Jesus.”

    What? Where? It references Christ’s victory over death, which I guess you could squeeze into Christus Victor, but the ransom theory? Ummmm where? Did the author even consider asking Keith if that theory was referenced in the song? God never paid a ransom to Satan…the Getty’s would firmly reject that view. Incredible song, and incredibly poor writing. I’m less and less impressed with Bob Smietana every time I read him.

    1. That’s pretty harsh. Bob doesn’t work for The Roys Report, but I’ve published many of his articles here. Anyone can make a mistake or miss a nuance. But Bob is a very competent reporter who’s credibly reported thousands of stories. I am sad to see him, and this article, disparaged simply because of one line he may have gotten wrong.

      1. Did Bob ask Keith Getty if the song referred to a deficient view of the atonement? It seems very odd that he would interview someone who would make such a claim about the song being “broad” while also reporting the Getty’s unwillingness to have lyrics changed because they don’t want theological ambiguity. If I did the same thing with one of your articles (quote someone else’s misinterpretation of your statement without getting a statement from you first), at best that would be bad journalism. At worst it would be completely misrepresenting someone’s statements, which is journalistic malpractice. I just don’t see how it was harsh when the opportunity was there to simply confirm the statements with the actual author of the song.

    2. I too am left dissatisfied by Bob’s cheer-leader approach to this song.

      That many take recourse to the song, and find comfort in so doing, gives the song an irrefutable significance and value.
      But, if you stand back and view the lyrics in broad context, then the theological aspect of the song is open to critique.

      Two aspects to that critique. The song is not an outreach resource. Rather its a resource for those who believe they already have the truth in view; and the song fleshes out that grasp, in every theological conclusive line. By the same token, because each and every line is so theologically loaded in a conclusive manner, it leaves itself wide open to myriad theological rejections, and does so in every line.

      The song may exemplify Christian groupings who have momentarily found a basis for communal joyfullness; and that again of great value and significance.

      In an era where we have to work hard to see off conflict between major religions, and conflict between the secular and the religious, and so much more that yields conflict, the songs theme of “in Christ alone”, as the detail of that is spelled out line by line, there is no room made for those outwith the Judeo-Christian hermetic. On that front I would have to reject the theology the song seeks to communicate and inculcate. We do need theology that is way more inclusive of the entire human race, if we are to head off current and impending conflict difficulties.

  2. What a great history lesson today. And what a great song- we use it routinely in worship services and it is one that brings the congregational singing level to 11.

  3. Good thought provoking songs are so important for worship. Good music is such a contrast to what so often goes on in churches today when the music is so annoyingly simplistic that it drives people away.

  4. I love this powerful song. And, as a song leader for our church, I appreciate the songs that can easily be sung by congregations. I have had to avoid some great songs with biblical messages simply because they were meant for performances and not congregational singing.

  5. The lyric line is actually “From life’s first cry to final breath” (not death), which makes more sense.
    This hymn is a great joy to me every time I sing it, whether I sing it as a member of the congregation or in the choir, or with a small group Bible study accompanied by only a guitar or even a capella.

  6. I love In Christ Alone, but pitting hymn style against other forms is incredibly foolish. These critics would think “Holy, holy, holy” around the throne highly innapropriate. We need to sing a mix of old and new songs and styles. I love many classic hymns but have seen many hymns that are terrible too. Not to mention the often droning terrible tunes some have. The same can be said of many more modern songs. What is truly worthwhile tends to rise to the top as decades pass, while plenty of “hit songs” are forgotten. While I dislike the style of most Bethel music, they have a song that says “you delight in showing mercy, mercy triumphs over judgment” that I think is more scriptural and deep than plenty of hymns. And many choruses from the last 40 years are straight scripture that I’ve never heard a hymn address, or psalms set to music which is always a good idea. In my own circles, we often take a good worship song and just add a couple more verses or tweak the words.

    1. “Holy, holy, holy” is simple but it is not simplistic. There is a big difference. It is simplistic hymns that insult people’s intelligence that are the problem, not profound hymns which might be simple.

  7. psalms, hymns & spiritual songs are all appropriate for worship! God is a creative God and He is not limited to any genre… His Spirit continues to pour out new songs along with the classics… HALLELUJAH!

    1. Few are saying that there cannot be different hymn styles as long as the hymn is spiritually sound. The problem comes when a pastor and/or a music leader forces a certain style of music on a congregation against the wishes of the people and drives people away (sometimes for good to a church of questionable theology).

  8. I don’t agree with the statement, “ But “In Christ Alone” also references the Christus Victor view of the atonement, which celebrates Jesus’ victory over the grave, and the ransom view of the atonement, which stresses that God purchased forgiveness of human sin from the devil with the sacrifice of Jesus.” We are saved from God. From His holy wrath. If Bob made a mistake would he clarify?

    Also if you notice Hymns sing about God and worship songs sing to God. “In Christ Alone” actually does both. So it makes sense the diversity the song brings.

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