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 October edition of Forward in Christ. It is is the third 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

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

I have a confession to make. I’ve stopped feeling guilty about the hymns I don’t pick.

Let me explain. As a pastor who picks the hymns that the congregation sings, there have been plenty of times when I’ve heard comments about a hymn I did pick for a service. It’s much less frequent, however, to hear a comment about a hymn I didn’t pick. I’ve learned to expect, “Pastor, that’s one of my favorites!” as well as, “Pastor, I can’t stand that one!” But I don’t expect, “Pastor, Pentecost 8 of Year A would have been the perfect opportunity to sing this one!” And yet, even though people rarely comment on the hymns left unsung, those are the ones I sometimes think about most.

If you’ve ever been involved in picking hymns, you know that for every hymn that finds a spot in the service there are a dozen you considered that didn’t. It’s not as if those dozen are clunkers. They are Christ-centered, gospel-proclaiming, scripture-teaching hymns. And yet, for one reason or another, they don’t find their way into the service. They are the hymns of omission, if you will. And a while back, I stopped feeling guilty about them.

Picking Practically vs. Pastorally

When I first started picking hymns, there were all kinds of factors I took into account. Some were textual. I would look for hymns that best-captured the specific gospel truth found in the service’s assigned readings. I might pick a hymn based on a single word or phrase that used language from the day’s sermon text.

Other factors were musical. I would pick hymns that people would find easy and enjoyable to sing. I would consider the musical resources we had available so that the hymn might involve a choir or instrumentalists.

More recently, however, my approach has changed. I haven’t stopped thinking about the factors mentioned above. But I’ve started taking more careful stock of the total number of hymns I pick and the frequency with which I pick them. I haven’t stopped asking, “Which hymns work best in this specific service?” But I’ve starting asking more frequently, “What is the overall body of hymnody that the congregation knows well?”

Put differently, I used to view picking hymns as mainly a practical task. Now I view picking hymns as much more of a pastoral task. This subtle change in approach has been most noticeable in one specific way. I find myself intentionally picking fewer hymns more frequently as opposed to more hymns less frequently.

Why sing fewer hymns?

Why the change? I wish I could take a little more credit for it. However, it was much more something that happened to me rather than the other way around. More and more I saw firsthand the profound effect that well-learned and well-loved hymns can have in the lives of God’s people.

If you’re one of the many young people in our congregations, it may seem as though your pastor struggles to communicate the gospel in a way that addresses the specific challenges you face. He’s likely as aware of that struggle as you are. As you face temptation, confront peer pressure, or battle to develop a Christ-centered identity, he’d love it if you remembered everything he ever told you in a children’s sermon or a confirmation class. But even though that’s unlikely, he’d be thrilled to know that the words close at hand as you face the challenges of youth include those of a hymn like “God’s Own Child I Gladly Say It.”

If you’re new to Christianity or Lutheranism specifically, your pastor knows that you may struggle with specific questions about the Bible or carry theological baggage from your past. He would love to think that his twelve-week Bible Information Class will answer every single question and transform you into a dyed-in-the-wool Lutheran. But even though that’s unlikely, he’s thrilled knowing that sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura are planted deeper in your heart every time you sing a hymn like “Salvation Unto Us Has Come.”

If you’re nearing the end of your earthly pilgrimage, your pastor knows that death is called the last enemy for a reason. He would love to think that in those last moments you would cling for comfort to something you heard in one of his sermons. But even though that’s unlikely, he’d be thrilled to know that the words running through your head as you stand at the doorstep of glory are the words of a hymn like “Jesus Your Blood and Righteousness.”

Are we giving our hymns the opportunity to do what they are so uniquely capable of doing? Hymns have a unique ability to take precious gospel truths and smuggle them deep into the human mind and heart. Hymns can take those truths and accomplish two equally-important and seemingly-contradictory goals. They can lock those truths away in a secure, impenetrable vault. At the same time, they can make those truths readily available to be summoned forth when needed most. That is, of course, assuming we allow them to.

Let’s do a little math. If, in a given year, a congregation sings 260 different hymns (only one-third of what’s in our current hymnal and supplement), do you know how many times they’d sing each one? Assuming four hymns per service and sixty-five unique services a year, they’d sing each of those 260 hymns only once.

Is singing a hymn once a year enough? Will the three-year-old who can’t read yet come to know any of them? Will any of their words pop into the teen’s mind as he endures bullying at school? Will any of them occur to the husband who’s being lured by the temptations of pornography? Will any of them be inaudibly mouthed by the ninety-year-old with dementia in hospice care?

If I showed you the list of hymns we don’t sing at my congregation, you might be shocked. There are some good ones on that list. Some classics even. But I’ve stopped feeling guilty about the hymns we don’t sing. Rather, I rejoice in the unique blessings that come from the ones we do sing - and the frequency with which we sing them.

Author’s note: There will be a supplementary blog article for some practical ideas on singing hymns more frequently.

Respectfully Making Room

Like Christian Worship, our church body’s next hymnal will again put 600+ hymns in front of God’s people. Those responsible for selecting those hymns would be the first to admit that not all hymns are created equal. Some have richer gospel imagery than others. Some have more doctrinal content than others. Some elicit more emotion than others.

Valid arguments will be made about why a specific hymn that was included should have been excluded and vice versa. There will be some that you would want sung at your funeral. There will be others that you prefer never to have to hear again. All 600+ hymns won’t equally satisfy the specific standards you set for hymns. The point is that they don’t need to.

Rather, we hope that the 600+ hymns offered in this hymnal provide an opportunity for every congregation to find a rich and full subset that makes up its unique diet of hymnody. We pray that those hymns - learned and loved well - would serve God’s people with the precious gospel both in large, established congregations and new mission starts, both in the rural heartland and on the urban coasts, both in life’s highs and life’s lows, from the early years of their youth all the way to their dying breath.

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

In July we began publishing segments of our current body of published hymnody, indicating which hymns are currently designated to be kept for our next hymnal and which are currently designated to be cut. These list segments are accompanied by monthly articles in Forward in Christ (also published on our website’s blog) that discuss the importance of hymns and their use in our worship.

In addition to the nearly 2,000 responses we have received through the feedback forms, we have also received a number of questions and comments. Below you’ll find several of the most common questions we’ve received, along with responses.

How can we vote on what’s being cut if we don’t know what’s replacing it?

Some have expressed uneasiness about evaluating the hymns designated to be cut without knowing which hymns will replace them. As Pastor Michael Schultz discussed in the first Forward in Christ article, the process for creating a new hymnal starts with making room for new hymns. Then the search for those hymns begins.

Why remove current hymns before finding their replacements? And why ask people to evaluate those hymns without knowing which hymns will take their place? As Pastor Schultz mentioned, “Letting go of approximately 25 to 30 percent of CW/CWS hymns gives us the opportunity to see what new treasures the Lord will provide.”

If every new hymn for the hymnal had to first unseat a current hymn, very few would be up to the task. In a “head-to-head” match up between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the familiar would almost always win. However, in the process, the treasures the Lord continues to provide for his church wouldn’t be given the chance to prove their worth.

In other words, the decision to keep or cut a particular hymn is made not so much in comparison to the hymn that will potentially take its place. Rather, it’s made in comparison to the other hymns in our currently published body of hymnody.

Can we vote to have certain hymns cut?

Some have asked if they can vote to have certain hymns cut. It is understandable that people have strong feelings not only about which hymns ought to be kept but also about which hymns ought to be cut.

However, receiving that type of feedback isn’t the primary purpose of this effort. If a hymn is included in spite of the fact that a good number of people don’t want it to be, it’s not as if those people must make use of it (see also the third article in the Forward in Christ series). On the other hand, if a hymn isn’t included in spite the fact that a good number of people want it to be, it makes it very difficult for people who want to sing it to do continue to do so. That’s why the purpose of this exercise is primarily to give people an opportunity to voice their opinion on which hymns they want to continue to be able to sing.

Can we offer comments along with our vote?

Initially the opportunity to comment along with one’s vote was not built into the feedback form. We assumed that, in most cases, any comment would more or less repeat the message communicated by the vote itself: “I want this hymn included in our hymnal.”

However, since a number of people have expressed the desire to include some comments with their vote, a single comment form has been included on the main Cut Hymns List page. The form can be used to comment on any hymn.

How long will the feedback forms stay open?

The nine segments of the hymns list will stay open through the duration of the process. All forms will be closed on May 1, 2018, two months after the final segment of the list is published.