WELS Hymnal Project

Project Blog

Insights, analysis, techniques, opinions, and experiences from the team behind the WELS Hymnal Project.

The following article appeared in the December edition of Forward in Christ. It is is the sixth article in a nine-part series on hymns and their use in our churches.

Thinking I’m not the most charming conversationalist to begin with, it was doubly challenging for me to visit Betty at her home once a month. A stroke had taken away a fair amount of her ability to speak, but then a subsequent series of mini-strokes robbed her of what little speech she had left. Delivering the devotion and saying the prayer were easy; it was the small talk that was challenging. It wasn’t like having a conversation with myself; it actually was.

Until, one December, I sang a Christmas hymn with Betty. There was no doubt that she had learned the one about the herald angels singing. Her face lit up; she knew every word. I could hear her singing the words of the hymn far more clearly than any spoken response she had made in recent years. “God and sinners reconciled! Glory to the newborn King!”

As surprising to me as that particular case was, I know it’s not all that uncommon. Hundreds of pastors tell dozens of similar anecdotes of elderly Christians clearly recalling hymns they learned decades earlier. But will there continue to be those kinds of stories, and if so, what will be the hymn lines that those aging Christians recall?

Hymns tell the story

From the home of an elderly shut-in, the scene changes to a large body of water in Egypt. What if you had just stepped onto the other side of the Red Sea without getting your feet wet? If Egyptians who were intent on killing you were instead washing up dead on the shore and God was fully responsible for your deliverance, what might you say? What might you sing? “I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea” (Exodus 15:1). You might sing about what God had just done for you. You might sing it over and over again until you know it by heart.

Good hymn texts tell that story, the story of God’s deliverance through Christ. Like Christ-centered, law-gospel sermons that are fresh and energetic, good hymn texts tell the story of God’s love for the unlovable, and they come at it from every scriptural angle imaginable. They speak of how the Father sent his only Son to take our place, how Christ suffered indescribable agony to purchase us, how Christ rose to take the sting out of our death. They tell of how the Spirit preaches forgiveness and faith in Christ into our hearts through Bible truth, how he pours those blessings over us in Baptism, how he feeds those blessings to us with our Savior’s body and blood.

Hymns that do that are going to last. They are going to be published in one Lutheran hymnal after another. And, with God being gracious to us, over and over again we and our descendants are going to sing about “the wonders God has done, How his right arm the vict’ry won. How dearly it has cost him!” (Christian Worship [CW] 377:1).

In a memorable way

Christian recording artist Fernando Ortega wrote: “It’s easy to write a chorus that says, ‘God, you are a holy God. I need your grace to see me through. I need your mercy to make me new. Let me live each day for you.’ I just made that up in 2 minutes and there’s nothing wrong with it. It would fit easily and competitively among the hundreds of worship songs that are available to choose from.”

Ortega went on to compare his quickly written chorus to a well-crafted, Christian hymn (“Come Down, O Love Divine”), which he described as “timeless.”

But how does the hymnal committee determine which hymns will become timeless? We try to do that through comparative evaluations—thousands of comparative evaluations.

There’s a reason Betty still knew that Christmas hymn. I can remember the comfortable smile on her face when I read her the Luke 2 Christmas account. The Christmas hymn, however, also included rhyme and meter and music. The combination made the truths of the incarnation all the more memorable for her. Hearing and singing that hymn in her childhood home and in the Lutheran congregation of her youth had anchored it in her heart.

With the long-lasting impact hymns can have, throwing some lines together or using “any old text” just won’t do. Which lines would you want, would I want, would we want to usher us into old age, to remain in our brains when our brains may be losing track of other less memorable, less important things?

Out of hundreds, here are a couple that have made a deep impression on me:

“When he shall come with trumpet sound, Oh, may I then in him be found, Clothed in His righteousness alone, Faultless to stand before the throne” (TLH 370:4; CW 382:4; ________).

“And then from death awaken me That these mine eyes with joy may see, O Son of God, Thy glorious face, My Savior and my Fount of grace” (TLH 429:3; CW 434:3; ________).

I’ve quoted the texts as I first learned them in The Lutheran Hymnal, but also with their Christian Worship citations. The blank space represents our next hymnal. There are, of course, plenty of things to sing about other than death and resurrection and judgment day, but none more important. Betty never had her eyes set on living in an oceanside mansion with an infinity pool that looked out over a dazzling sunset every evening. Her eyes were aimed at the mansions in the house of her heavenly Father, where she is today, free from the limitations of a stroke-riddled body and brimming with joy. She is, in fact, standing on the shore that’s far better than the far shore of the Red Sea, the shore where the saints in heaven raise the hymn of how God has delivered them from every enemy. She’s singing the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb (Revelation 15:3).

The examples above are the kinds of texts that are worth singing, worth learning, worth preserving. In many cases, they are hymns from centuries past and have already appeared in hundreds of hymnals. In some cases, they are from this century and are just starting to show up in a handful of hymnals. In every case, we are taking a close look at the words, making sure that they faithfully and accurately reference God’s gracious deliverance in Christ and that they do so in a well-crafted way. We want such texts to make a lifelong impression in the hearts and minds of God’s people, right down to our own youngest children and a generation yet unborn.

We invite your feedback as we work on finalizing which of the more than 700 hymns from Christian Worship and Christian Worship: Supplement will be included in the new hymnal. Every month we will post a segment of our current hymn list, indicating which hymns are slated to be kept and which are slated to be cut. You can view the monthly list and, if you want, choose up to 10 hymns from the cut list that you would like to see kept in the new hymnal.

View Cut Hymns List

The following article appeared in the November edition of Forward in Christ. It is is the fifth article in a nine-part series on hymns and their use in our churches.

A man walked into a Target store demanding to speak with the manager. He wasn’t happy. In his hand he clutched an ad that had recently arrived at his mailbox. It was full of pictures of smiling babies and included coupons maternity clothes, cribs, and newborn onesies. “My daughter got this in the mail!” he said. “She’s still in high school! Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”

The store manager apologized profusely. A few days later, he called the man to apologize again. This time, however, the man owed the manager the apology. “I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “It turns out she’s due in August.”

How did Target know that the young girl was pregnant before her dad did? For that matter, why is the ad delivered to your mailbox different from the one delivered to your neighbor’s? It’s simple. Data from every purchase a person makes at Target is added to his or her customer profile. Target is able to use that profile to predict what the customer is most likely to purchase, not just in the present but even in the future. They then tailor their advertising to that customer accordingly.

I hope that little story doesn’t dissuade you from shopping at Target (or upset anyone who works there!). Rather than this sort of thing being unique to Target, it is just one of many examples of targeted marketing. Companies don’t just advertise to customers in general. They advertise specific things to specific people. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Companies don’t need every customer to buy the same thing. They just want every customer to buy something.

Compare your relationship with a big box retailer to your relationship to Christ’s Church. When it comes to the Church, you are not the customer of a company. Rather, you are a member of a body (see Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4, for example). Christians have an important relationship not only to Christ but also to other Christians. In the Church, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, even dead and alive, are joined as one.

Celebrating unity in our worship

One of the primary places where this wonderful unity can be seen is in public worship. Christian Worship: Manual puts it this way: “At public worship believers of all ages, shapes and sizes join to offer God their mutual response of faith.”

In the church in Corinth we find a New Testament example of public worship dividing the body of Christ rather than uniting it. In response, Paul wrote, “When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up” (1 Corinthians 14:26, NIV).

The church is a body. Public worship celebrates that. And yet, consumerism is the air we breathe. As a result, it’s easy to bring with us the assumptions of our consumer-driven culture as we seek carry out our mission as churches. The same kind of targeted marketing practiced by Target can easily drive our decisions about worship. It might sound something like this: “In order to (insert any number of noble goals), we need more (insert any number of different types of hymns).”

The noble goals being pursued could include: articulation of the truth, preservation of Lutheran heritage, retention of the youth, or connection with the lost. The types of hymns we think will help us accomplish those goals could include: new hymns or old hymns, hymns with fresh, upbeat tunes or hymns with sturdy, time-tested tunes, hymns that come out of our primarily Western European roots or hymns that come from cultures around the globe, hymns that have distinctly Lutheran origins or hymns from broader Christianity, hymns that are chock-full of doctrine or hymns that are chock-full of emotion.

Since the start of the hymnal project, the concern people have expressed most often is whether or not a specific type of hymn will have adequate representation in the hymnal. But perhaps the fact that the Church is a body of which Christians are members (rather than a company of which we are customers) leads us to approach the issue from a different perspective.

As stated in last month’s article, our top priority is to publish hymns that are “centered in Christ” and “in harmony with the scriptural faith as confessed in the Lutheran Book of Concord” (from the adopted list of criteria for hymns). If the Church really is a body of members that spans centuries, continents, and cultures, then an appropriate corresponding variety in our hymnody will sort of take care of itself.

Capitalizing on unity in our mission

But what about those noble goals that I mentioned above? One can certainly argue that specific types of hymns can help (or hinder) a specific facet of our mission as churches. However, none of those noble goals can be accomplished by hymnody alone. Every facet of our mission as Christians takes diligent, ongoing work. A specific type of hymn is not the silver bullet for any of them.

And so whatever might be gained by the predominant use of a specific type of hymn in service to a specific goal, we must also consider what stands to be lost. If different demographic groups in the Church have a body of hymnody tailored specifically to whatever characteristics define them, we lose the visible display of the unity that is so important to the body of Christ.

In fact, the case can be made that displays of unity serve every facet of our mission as well as anything else. Unity is one of the things that makes the Christian Church distinct and identifies it to the world as something divine. On the night before he died, Jesus prayed to his Father that all believers “may be one as we are one - I in them and you in me - so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22,23, NIV).

A proper approach to variety in our hymnody will assuredly mean that none of us has a set of hymns that is exactly what suits us best at all times. Instead, it means that all of us will have something far better.

A Body of Hymnody for the Body of Christ

Pastor Kurt Eggert, the project director for Christian Worship, wrote: The Lutheran church is ecumenical in its selection of hymns and other worship materials. Whatever is scripturally sound and true, poetically and musically worthy, and edifying for the faith of worshipers may be drawn on for use in our hymnal. For this principle we can thank Luther himself.”

So how much variety is there in our current body of hymnody? Christian Worship contains 340 hymns from various English sources and 283 translations: German, 208; Latin, 36; Danish, 18; Norwegian, 8; Swedish, 5, Greek, 2; Italian, 2; French, Czech, Bohemian, and Welsh, 1 each. Anyone familiar with Christian Worship: Supplement knows that it (intentionally) expanded that variety even more. How our synod’s next hymnal will compare remains to be seen. But the goal - providing a body of hymnody that serves the whole body of Christ - remains the same.

We invite your feedback as we work on finalizing which of the more than 700 hymns from Christian Worship and Christian Worship: Supplement will be included in the new hymnal. Every month we will post a segment of our current hymn list, indicating which hymns are slated to be kept and which are slated to be cut. You can view the monthly list and, if you want, choose up to 10 hymns from the cut list that you would like to see kept in the new hymnal.

View Cut Hymns List

The following article appeared in the October edition of Forward in Christ. It is is the fourth article in a nine-part series on hymns and their use in our churches.

Luther’s Small Catechism is a witness to the fact that the Lutheran Reformation was primarily a reform of the church’s teaching. Millions of illiterate people were in desperate need of Scripture’s teaching. Luther’s solution was the Small Catechism—careful summaries of biblical truth that could be easily memorized. Lutheran boys and girls have been asking “What does this mean?” ever since.

In his Large Catechism, Luther provides us with a window into the purpose of his hymns: “When these parts have been well learned, one may assign them also some psalms or hymns, based on these subjects, to supplement and confirm their knowledge. Thus young people will be led into the Scriptures and make progress every day” (Preface, 25). In short, the songs were to be intimately connected with the student’s biblical learning. Based upon Luther’s advice, Lutheran pastors and teachers have been assigning their students memory work from the hymnal ever since.

A little over a year after Luther’s catechisms came off the presses, the Lutheran territories of Germany presented a confession of their faith before the emperor in the city of Augsburg on June 25, 1530. This confession opens the same window on a Lutheran view of the hymn’s role in worship: “Moreover, no noticeable changes have been made in the public celebration of the Mass, except that in certain places German hymns are sung alongside the Latin responses for the instruction and exercise of the people” (Augsburg Confession XXIV:2,3, emphasis added).

This is most certainly true: Luther and our early Lutheran fathers firmly believed in teaching hymnody.

Practically speaking, how did this play out in the Reformation of worship? For a man who grew up dreading the fire of purgatory and praying to saints, it is simply astounding how conservative Luther was in the reform of the church’s worship. Luther didn’t opt for an ax to hack down everything; instead he picked up the surgeon’s scalpel. He used a steady theological hand in reforming the service. Most of his changes removed praying to the saints and references that made the Lord’s Supper a sacrifice for sins.

Another significant reform was the people’s role in worship. For the average worshiper in the Middle Ages, worship was a “spectator’s sport”—something that the priest did at the altar rather than something engaged in from the pew. If the common people sang, the songs usually retold the legends of the saints rather of the story of the Savior. Luther’s key musical reform of the church was that his hymns literally put the words and teaching of the gospel on people’s lips.

Luther’s key musical insight for the church also happens to be the Scripture’s key insight. In many Scripture references, we can easily find the saints praising God by proclaiming the gospel in song. This leads us to another key Lutheran emphasis: The truths of the gospel are more than a body of facts we can recite. The truths of the gospel are God’s saving power (Romans 1:16)! Through their hymns, Lutheran Christians proclaim the saving power of Christ!

Now take a moment to peruse Luther’s hymns in our hymnal. Luther’s poetry may be vigorous and engaging, but rarely, if ever, does Luther get personal, expressing what he thinks, feels, or does. Instead, Luther’s hymns teach the Scriptures. They were deliberately penned to place the words and doctrines of Scripture on people’s lips and hearts. That’s why anti-reform voices in Luther’s day would often quip that Luther’s hymns had damned more souls than all his sermons combined!

Some of Luther’s hymns simply put the psalms into verse and rhyme: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (Christian Worship [CW] 200/01); “If God Had Not Been on Our Side” (CW 202); “O Lord, Look Down from Heaven” (CW 205); and “May God Bestow on Us His Grace” (CW 574). Through them, the songs of Israel’s temple became the songs of Wittenberg’s shopkeepers.

Several of Luther’s hymns were based on the songs of the liturgy or Scripture’s canticles: “Kyrie, God Father in Heaven Above” (CW 266); “All Glory Be to God Alone” (CW 262); “Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old” (CW 267); and “In Peace and Joy I Now Depart” (CW 269). Through them, the ancient songs of the church became the song of peasants and maids.

An important group of hymns show us that Luther knew how to take his own advice to “assign them also some psalms or hymns.” Luther’s so-called “Catechism Hymns” serve as a musical supplement to the catechism: “The Ten Commandments Are the Law” (CW 285); “We All Believe in One True God” (CW 271); “Our Father, Who from Heaven Above” (CW 410); “To Jordan Came the Christ, Our Lord” (CW 88); “From Depths of Woe I Cry to You” (CW 305); “Jesus Christ, Our Blessed Savior” (CW 313); and “O Lord, We Praise You” (CW 317). Through these hymns the doctrines of Scripture became the song of school boys and girls. They serve as a musical answer to “What does this mean?”

A final group of many other hymns brings the saving story of Christ to the people. “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice” (CW 377) and “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” (CW 38) are two prime examples. Through these hymns the eternal gospel goes to work in time and space, converting human hearts to faith and confirming the faith of the converted.

The Reformation of the church was born of an academic debate over the role of indulgences in repentance. The Reformation not only survived, but it grew and thrived because it deliberately placed the preaching, teaching, and singing of the gospel of Jesus Christ at the center of the home, the classroom, the pulpit, and the hymnal. Our Lutheran fathers learned these scriptural lessons with care. And we well have fared!

Hymns that teaches us the gospel: It is pure privilege to sing them. We need to sing them. The world needs us to sing them.

We invite your feedback as we work on finalizing which of the more than 700 hymns from Christian Worship and Christian Worship: Supplement will be included in the new hymnal. Every month we will post a segment of our current hymn list, indicating which hymns are slated to be kept and which are slated to be cut. You can view the monthly list and, if you want, choose up to 10 hymns from the cut list that you would like to see kept in the new hymnal.

View Cut Hymns List

Author’s Note: A previous blog article, also published in the September edition of Forward in Christ, was about scheduling hymns. Specifically, it made the case for scheduling fewer hymns more frequently rather than more hymns less frequently. The following article supplements that one, offering a few practical suggestions along those same lines.

How to schedule fewer hymns

If you’re in a position where you pick congregational hymns, you know your congregation better than anyone. Perhaps the place to start is simply realizing that they might be thirsting for less variety in their hymns than you think they are. (If you’re not in that position, consider saying as much to the person who is!)

Here are a few specific suggestions for scheduling hymns frequently enough to allow them to do what they do best:

Sing the hymns of the day.

This list of hymns does more than match up specific hymns with specific seasonal and Sunday emphases. It also ensures that a specific group of hymns - chosen for their especially rich content and distinctly Lutheran character - are sung frequently. As an added bonus, following this schedule instantly accomplishes 25% of your hymn-picking task!

Sing seasonal hymns.

The natural rhythm of the church year provides opportunities for singing specific hymns frequently. For example, there are three seasons of the Church Year when the Gloria in Excelsis may be omitted or replaced (Advent, Lent, and Easter). Alternate canticles might be used (for example, “This Is the Feast,” CW 265, during the Easter season). You might also consider selecting a seasonal hymn instead. After singing a hymn half a dozen or more weeks in a row, the congregation will likely be ready to put it away for awhile. But when you come back to it later, you’ll find they know it well and are excited to sing it once again.

Sing situational hymns.

Each hymn has a place not only within the context of the Church Year but also within the context of the service. Consider developing a small repertoire of hymns for various spots in the service. Hymns that highlight the work of the Holy Spirit or the blessings of baptism make great opening hymns. Hymns that focus on the blessings of hearing the Word often make great closing hymns. For distribution hymns, you might rethink your goal of making use of the entire Holy Communion section and instead make use of a subset of it frequently enough that you notice people singing the words as they approach the altar.

During the Middle Ages, churches used what were known as sequence hymns. These were seasonal hymns sung before the reading of the Gospel. “All Praise to You, Eternal God” (CW 33), “Christ is Arisen” (CW 144), and “We Now Implore God the Holy Ghost” (CW 190) are three examples that were used during Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, respectively. Situational use of hymns in this way doesn’t have to be limited to these choices. Consider singing one stanza before the gospel and one stanza after the gospel as a way of highlighting the works and words of Jesus as the apex of the service of the Word.

Sing well-wearing hymns.

As a general rule, the faster a hymn catches on, the faster it wears out. As counter-intuitive as it might sound, if you’re going to make an effort to sing specific hymns more frequently, consider picking ones that aren’t instant favorites. They might not be humming them in the car on the way home from church the first time they hear it, but they also won’t be wishing they could get it unstuck from their head. Eventually they will catch on and people will grow to love them without tiring of them as quickly.

Create more opportunities to sing.

Of course, the objective of having hymns that people know and love well can also be achieved by people singing those hymns more often in more situations. We would love for our rich treasury of hymns to be used in people’s homes around the breakfast table and during bedtime prayers. Our Lutheran schools offer nearly limitless opportunities for our young people to have our hymns on their lips. Encourage families to sing. Continue to teach hymns in our schools - including our Sunday Schools. Whatever effort is put forth, it’s more than worth it.

Hopefully those suggestions spark a few ideas for how you can let hymns do what they do best. God bless your efforts to get these wonderful gospel-proclaiming treasures into people’s ears - and deep into their hearts!

The Technology Committee of the WELS Hymnal Project is seeking names of individual artists or design studios who may be considered for the artwork needs of the new hymnal.

In general we are seeking candidate artists or studios with skill and technique in producing clear, iconic, Christian images and illustrations.

We have prepared a brief, online form where suggested artists and studios may be submitted for consideration. Names will be gathered via this online form until the end of October 2017.

Submission Form