WELS Hymnal Project

February 2016 Report, Part 6

Note: In early February, a comprehensive report on the work of the WELS Hymnal project was posted to our website and distributed through several synod-wide communication channels. We are also featuring each section of the report here on our website's blog. As each section is featured we invite your feedback using the contact form on the bottom of the page.

Technology Committee

Pastor Caleb Bassett, Chairman

Our Responsibilities

The Technology Committee (TC) of the WELS Hymnal Project is responsible for vision, planning, and oversight of the digital and technical delivery of the next WELS hymnal. More than simply providing tools to generate the hymnal in a digital format, the TC aims to equip congregations to improve the way they produce and distribute worship resources. We work to enhance the content of the hymnal through tasteful and useful design, delivery, and format.

The TC also provides internal assistance to the various individuals and committees that make up the WELS Hymnal Project. We provide technical and organizational expertise and advice to streamline our work processes. The TC also works closely with the Communications Committee (CC) to manage the project’s public website.

Where We Are Headed

The TC is guided by a working philosophy that in, the context of worship, technology must serve a ministerial role. In an introductory blog post, the TC Chairman wrote the following:

I’d like this project to be an opportunity to do some careful thinking, some detailed research, and even some philosophical musing about how we want to use technology to accomplish our goals. I want to take the lead on a thorough, scholarly approach to technology as a ministerial tool in service to the worship in our congregations. There’s an assumption out there that all innovation is good innovation, that is, if something is new it is therefore better.

Note the emphasis on a “ministerial” approach to technology. We believe that a ministerial approach is humble, useful, tasteful, and simple. We want what we produce to meet those criteria above all else.

Much of what the TC envisions falls within the realm of “product development,” and as such we are not able to pre-announce any future products. There are two important reasons for this. First, from a business standpoint it is unwise to pre-announce products before they are ready for the public. In some cases, we are actually prohibited by contractual terms from making such announcements. Second, since technical development of future products will begin much later in the project it remains likely that major parts of our plans will change between now and that time. We cannot announce products that may not actually be produced. The TC is still very involved in research and is not yet onto development.

Nevertheless, readers of the WELS Hymnal Project blog and participants in our various surveys will likely be able to discern the general areas of emphasis we are pursuing. We see four major areas to move the state of the art forward in WELS.

  1. Digital databasing of the hymnal content

  2. Tools to aid in worship planning

  3. Mobile applications for laypeople

  4. Formats and protocols to assist worship musicians

Digital databasing of the hymnal content

We see the creation of a digital database of the hymnal primarily as an internal improvement that will bear fruit in other areas. By storing all the data related to a hymnal in a modern, cross-referenced, server-side database we enable the technical possibility for modern applications and services built on top of the hymnal data.

Tools to aid in worship planning

The TC considers worship planning to be a task where tasteful and useful technology can greatly enhance the worship at WELS congregations. The TC believes that if we as a synod are going to teach and encourage pastors to adorn the gospel with beauty and grace through the use of excellent liturgical materials, we should also provide excellent tools to assist them in the often complex and challenging process of worship planning.

To act on that conviction, the TC has been researching options for a system or application that would assist pastors and other worship planners to plan worship by using the aforementioned digital database of rites, hymns, psalms, and lectionary from the upcoming WELS hymnal. We are unable to field test any such application at this time since research is not yet complete. In the case of software development, such testing would start with a limited group of so-called “alpha testers,” after which it may progress to a broader “beta test.”

Mobile applications for laypeople

The TC believes that the WELS Hymnal Project should capitalize on the the widespread use of mobile applications on smartphones and tablets by building a mobile application for laypeople. There is evidence that the widespread use of such handheld screens may actually be increasing the number of people reading and studying the Bible on a regular basis. We see an opportunity to revitalize the use of the hymnal as a private and small group devotional resource by developing an application built to foster such devotional use. By integrating with the foundational digital database of the hymnal’s content, such an application can “repackage” the hymnal, so to speak, in a way better suited for private and small group use. We envision such an application being useful in these common settings:

  • Around the dinner table with family

  • As the focal point of private prayer and devotion

  • In the classroom

  • To open or close meetings

  • In Bible study classes

Up to this point the TC has spent time researching existing hymnal applications to understand their strengths and weaknesses. So far we have determined that existing hymnal applications fail to offer much compelling innovation for the private and small-group use of a hymnal. We believe there is room to create something unique in this space.

So far this process of evaluation and analysis allows us to better understand the design challenge of a devotional hymnal application and write better product specifications to aid in future development, should such development take place.

Formats and protocols to assist worship musicians

Musicians may have noticed that the list of common settings for a hymnal application listed above does not include “on the music stand” or “at the piano bench.” This is not an omission but a conscious decision. While a hymnal application would probably work on the piano bench, we do not envision an application geared for the specific needs of church musicians but for laypeople. That does not mean, however, that the TC does not have the detailed needs of church musicians in mind—our committee includes three church musicians, each of whom is well-versed in digital technology and uses such technology frequently in his ministry and service.

These church musicians have reviewed dozens of existing applications and services and found that many products available today are very strong in terms of functionality and widespread adoption. Where “devotional use of a Lutheran hymnal” is a relatively niche task, “reading, annotating, and working with digital sheet music” is a much more common job. For that reason there are several outstanding applications, including mobile applications, to assist church musicians. The TC has concluded that there is no need to create a “WELS version” of such an application when existing applications do the job just as well or better than anything we could develop on our own.

The TC plans not to provide a specific application for musicians, but to offer formats and protocols to assist worship musicians in their service to the church. This means delivering the content of the hymnal in digital formats that work within the constraints of copyright law but also import nicely into the most common and useful third-party applications for musicians. We consider the generation of such digital assets to be part of the worship planning workflow that we hope to facilitate through a worship planning application (see above).

A new design

The TC includes a design working group which has been working to analyze a wide variety of well-designed hymnals from various traditions and denominations. The analysis of these hymnals has led to some preliminary work in achieving a new design for the look and functionality of the print and digital resources.

Achieving a consistent design across the wide variety of resources to be produced with the next WELS hymnal is a large undertaking. It is our hope that the new design we develop will bring beauty, legibility, and usability to the Christ-centered materials it serves.

About Caleb Bassett

Rev. Caleb Bassett is the Technology Committee Chairman for the WELS Hymnal Project. Bassett serves at St. Stephen in Fallbrook, CA. Bassett has presented at the WELS National Worship Conference and served as an essayist for the Institute for Worship and Outreach. Bassett and his wife, Audra, live with their four children in the avocado country of Southern California.

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