Almost 25 years ago, Lisburn-born Keith Getty started the New Irish choir and orchestra. Today Jonathan Rea leads New Irish. At New Horizon, these two friends chatted about music, songwriting and faith.
What led you into music and into writing hymns?
I grew up in a church in Lisburn. My parents introduced me to life, love, music and faith and into a relationship with Christ. I got into music when I began playing guitar and piano at the age of 10. My parents loved classical music and my father was a church organist. I never heard a pop song in my childhood. I was of a Scotch Irish tradition and church music of all kinds was allowed. When you put all these things together, it is no coincidence that my music sounds the way it does.
Why is what we sing so important?
If you are going to reform the individual, see revival in our nation and build Christian families that comes through teachers who teach the Word of God and people who carry the Word out of church through the songs they sing. Songs that are shallow build believers that are shallow. As parents, pastors and musicians, we need to fill the world around us with beautiful songs. Pastors, I hope you love your church enough to care about the songs you are singing.
The average Christian in the west today knows less about the Bible than your average pagan in the 1950s.
My concern comes when people flood their churches with stupid songs that people can’t sing. It destroys congregational singing and destroys people’s love for church. I became convinced that I needed to write modern hymns.
How does this influence your work?
We have a clear vision of where we want to go. Our organisation seeks to create modern hymns that teach the Bible. We write hymns that help people to internalise and memorise the truths of God’s Word. We want songs and hymns that every generation can sing together and that will last.
Our vision is to write hymns that will build deep believers all over the world.
We have to be so careful not to push out our heritage. J.R. Packer says you need to read two old books for every new one you choose. And when it comes to hymns, it should be three to one.
I get sad when I hear people from this beautiful island trying to sound American or people trained in classical music trying to sound “pop”. Philosophically the more timeless forms of music (e.g. pentatonics like Amazing Grace) allow for greater adaptability.
The disadvantage is that we are not on Christian radio in America or on the cool cutting edge of the youth movement.
You often work collaboratively. What are the pitfalls and joys of collaboration?
95% of artists have a soloist mentality but I’ve never achieved anything without collaboration. The number one collaboration of life is with the person you marry. I still fool myself with what I think about things or about my motives. Kristen is honest with me. She loves me and knows the times when I’m heartbroken. Although it is not easy, praying together in marriage it vitally important.
You need to have a vision for things that are bigger than yourself. That is something I have had to learn. I’ve had a heinous amount of pride down through the years that I’ve had to work through. We have a family of writers who work for our company. Our band has been together for 8½ years and we find joy in doing life together. Eating food together. Learning to talk things through. We have a ceremony on the tour bus of appointing the “man of the day” – we get to encourage each other and delight in each person’s achievements.
How do you balance ministry, business and creativity?
Ministry begins with how you live your life. I am not going to stand before God and answer for my album sales. He is intensely concerned about our character. Someone said, “We don’t tune the orchestra after the event.” Prayer needs to be the centre of everything in Christian ministry and Christian life.
Business is just the organisation of our priorities. A good businessman is one who knows his priorities. It is not about [success] or money or intelligence. It is about putting first things first.
The arts are about passion and emotions. I come from the reformed tradition where there is so little of emotion, art, passion and life. They like hymns that are theologically sound and sing-able.
I want people to like the song because they can’t get [the melody] out of their head or because it teaches them something new about the Lord that they didn’t know. If you are a songwriter here – don’t write mediocre songs! Art is simple and infinitely complex. There is a need for depth.
What about the balance between work and family life?
Some time ago, Kristen had some medical things to deal with and we had to quit touring for a year. I had to show my wife that our marriage is more important than anything we do. That helped us to structure our life around a wholesome marriage and to prioritise our children. We take ten weeks off a year and five of those are digital free.
We don’t always get it right. A few weeks ago, I was supposed to be spending time with my daughter but instead I spent an hour on my iPhone. When I went to put the girls to bed, Charlotte would not settle. I could not work out what was wrong. Suddenly, I realised her hour of alone time with me had been stolen by my stupid iPhone. The phone brings so much damage into homes. It is so crazily addictive.
We’ve also learnt the importance of filling our home with songs of the Lord. When I get home sometimes the last thing I want to do is put on Christian songs and hymns – I want to watch football or listen to a Frank Sinatra big band. But we’ve made to choice to fill our home with songs.
How do you keep from becoming stale?
I remember flying into a city for an event that I did not want to do with leaders I did not like. My attitude was wrong. I asked a mentor, “What do you do when you are feeling stroppy?” He replied, “I get a rental car and while I drive, I sing and sing and sing.”
When we were preparing for the “Sing” conference, I found a 50s edition of George Beverly Shea singing, “All that thrills my soul is Jesus.” I had to go out and sing that 11 times until I could honestly say, “All that thrills my soul is Jesus.”
We speak best about the things we are passionate about. Authentic ministry is about leaning into those things.