WELS Hymnal Project

Project Blog

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

With what variety and freedom the Lord has blessed his Church! The Musicians’ Resource Group (MRG) of the WELS Hymnal Project has been tasked with making that variety readily accessible to the congregations of our church body. Members of the MRG are hard at work, curating and creating resources to complement the new hymnal.

A range of talent, training levels, and available instrumentalists exists across the nearly 1300 churches in WELS. To encourage and enable use of this vast array in worship, the MRG is gathering and creating resources that support, enhance, and add variety to congregational singing.

In other words, the specific focus of these resources is to support the congregation as they sing hymns from the new hymnal. But this is not a resource for musicians only! Although the resources will be used primarily by musicians and worship planners, the benefactors are every individual in the congregation—every person sitting in the pew singing the promises and praises of Jesus! The goal is never to elevate the musician; the goal is always to elevate the hymn text and further engage the worshiper, all while utilizing the richness of God’s gift of music.

WHAT can I get? Planned resources include:
• short hymn introductions
• alternate harmonizations and accompaniments
• final stanza modulations
• vocal and instrumental descants
• alternate choral stanzas in a variety of voicings and styles
• arrangements for liturgical ensembles
• handbell resources
• extractions of chorale voices for instruments in a variety of transpositions

Not all resource types will be appropriate for every hymn. But where possible, as many as can be curated or created will be available for any given hymn.

WHERE can I get all this? That is coming into better focus every day. The resources will be available via your WELS publisher, Northwestern Publishing House (nph.net). The working model is a dedicated area of the NPH website with ala carte purchase options. Not everyone will be able to use or interested in using everything available for each hymn, so an ala carte model is highly appropriate—you buy only what fits your worship situation.

WHEN can I get all this? The release of these resources will begin with the release of the new hymnal in 2021. Likely, the resources will be released in phases—it’s a daunting task to curate a dozen or more resources for each of 600+ hymns! But as the MRG work progresses, the prioritization of hymns will become clearer, as will the schedule of release. God-willing, a substantial nucleus of materials will be ready when the hymnal is released in fall 2021, with more to come in the following months.

WELS is thankful for the willing and able individuals serving on the committee. They have served at WELS worship conferences. Many have advanced degrees in music. They represent a variety of church sizes and worship situations. They are active keyboardists, conductors, instrumentalists, vocalists and worship planners. Please keep these individuals and their work in your prayers: Kevin Becker, Gillian and Luther Curia, Ryan Friske, Sarah Henrich, Lydia Metzger, Linda Moeller, Kate Tiefel, and Kathy Thompson.

The MRG works with the encouragement of Psalm 150 in front of them. This psalm lists eight unique instruments. God-willing, the MRG’s work will better enable WELS congregations to praise God in his sanctuary with all the variety he has so richly blessed us!

You see them so often that you might not even notice that they’re there: the well-worn hymnals neatly racked beneath or behind each pew. For many people, those hymnals that we use each weekend are part of our congregation’s rhythm of life. They serve as a pathway into our church’s culture. Their hymns and prayers speak to the heart of our theology and have a way of connecting our synod’s congregations around the country to one another. Hymnals have a way of teaching our members, even across generations. It is rewarding to realize that there is more to a hymnal than the pages between its covers.

An exciting part of our hymnal project is meant to help God’s people see a fuller picture of all those things that we often see in our hymnal and in our worship, but still more often overlook. The services that we use, the seasons that we follow, the and the roles that we play in worship are familiar to us, but how might we better appreciate them?

A book of sixty devotions will accompany the new hymnal, written specifically to help people understand and answer many of the questions that come to mind in our worship world:

Why do we confess our sins?
What are seasons like Advent and Lent all about?
What is my pastor’s role in worship?
What is my role as a singer or someone who serves?
What does Sunday morning mean for my children?
What guidance does God’s Word give as I plan my wedding or my funeral?

The devotions are designed for worshipers of all ages, together with study questions and prayers for each topic. Our goal in this volume is to open people’s eyes to the rich feast that awaits them in worship, so that they appreciate those things that they perhaps didn’t even notice were there.

The WELS Hymnal Project has established an ambitious goal of declaring the grace of God to a generation yet unborn. The project has identified a number of valuable tools to reach that goal. Among those tools, we are excited to find 1) a well-organized lectionary, 2) an excellent corpus of hymnody, 3) diverse settings of the psalms, 4) well-established and up-to-date liturgical rites, 5) well-designed technological tools, and 6) a rich repository of accompaniment resources.

Anything else? What about a user’s manual?

Most hymnal projects have recognized the important role of supporting volumes. Since the mid-1970s, each major hymnal project has been accompanied by other volumes of literature. The basic book that everyone calls their “hymnal” is usually supported by other books called “manuals”, “guides”, “companions”, “commentaries”, “handbooks”, or “sourcebooks”... the list goes on. Titles such as these don’t always lend a clear understanding to the particular function of each book. But among all their titles, these literature volumes tend to serve one or several of the following functions: theological instruction, historical information, practical insights, and devotional study.

Hymnal projects of a generation past (Lutheran Book of Worship, Lutheran Worship, and Christian Worship) tended to achieve these four functions with two basic volumes. One volume would provide all the information for hymnody, the other would provide all the information for everything else. In this way, Christian Worship (1993) relied on two volumes, Christian Worship: Manual (Baumler, 1993) and Christian Worship: Handbook (Aufdemberge, 1996).

In our project, four volumes are being produced to accompany the new hymnal instead of two. We are designing the books with the worshiping audience in mind, by providing support for the people who play particular roles in a congregation’s worship life, and who will be learning to using the new hymnal in unique ways:
- In one volume, pastors will find the theological, historical, and practical insights they need to shepherd their congregations in worship life.
- In another volume, people serving on committees and worship teams will find practical guidance in carrying out their tasks.
- In a third volume, musicians will find professional resources which allow them to improve their playing and artistry.
- In a fourth volume, those who worship will find devotions written to help them to grow in their faith and understanding.

Each of the volumes will be designed to interact with the others, and will take into consideration the other forthcoming worship education resources being produced by the WELS. We hope that the research and recommendations that go into these books will inform, instruct, and inspire the worship of God’s people for generations yet to come.

"The pastor-elect presents himself before the altar…"

The Agenda is a book of details. An example of such is the sentence above, what we call a rubric. Rubrics are worded to be clear and designed to provide a dignified, logical flow to a given rite. Some freer spirits may roll their eyes at such details, or even openly chuckle that there is an entire page in the Agenda devoted to guidelines for ringing church bells. To some, such details are sometimes disparagingly dismissed as "high church." Still, many others greatly appreciate the fact that they can pick up a rite that someone has carefully thought through and use it as is without alteration, knowing that it will accurately reflect our synod's doctrine and practice.

Granted, such things as rubrics and guidelines are hardly the meat and potatoes of the gospel ministry. Yet some of us, I'm inclined to bet, have sat through a rite (such as, for example, the reception of new members) where the language is overly casual or where (worse yet) the worship leader is making it up as he goes along, getting the "general idea of the thing." Usually, poor planning leads to redundancy, repetition, omission of essential words and concepts, and may well take twice as long as it needs to. In contrast, rites that have been thoughtfully constructed are both accurate and efficient in their wording and presentation.

The type of language that the Agenda committee is striving to use is language that strikes a balance between the overly casual and the excessively formal. We want to speak in the language that people use and understand, avoiding erudite and ecclesiastical sesquipedalianisms that leave the congregational members saying, "Huh?" and tuning out when they hear what they perceive as "church language." On the other hand, there is such a language as "church language" that is—and should be—used for formal, serious occasions such as those requiring the use of a rite.

Also, as mentioned above, the content of the language needs to be clear as well so that it accurately reflects doctrine and practice among us. In our work on the Agenda, the committee did, for example, consult with the Conference of Presidents concerning the best way to publicly speak about the ministry. Should we use "Holy Ministry," "holy ministry," "ministry of the Word and Sacraments," "minister of the Word," "minister of the gospel"—all of the above, some of the above? Are there terms that, for confessional reasons, we should avoid using in public rites? Or, as another example, in the rite entitled Installation of a Vicar, should we say the vicar is "assigned" or "called"? Is a vicar "assigned" to a supervising pastor (yes), or is he "called" to a congregation (yes)? How do we word the rite in the right way so that it clearly expresses both concepts? After all, words mean things!

In summary, the work on Agenda indicates that standards for public rites in the church exist and they need to be found somewhere. We desire our rites to communicate clearly in a dignified, orderly way that also articulates what we believe, teach, and confess. It is our prayer that all the work of updating and adding to the public rites of the church may be a blessing to both worship leaders and worshippers for years to come.

One aspect of the WELS Hymnal Project that has not received much public attention is the revision of that book which contains various rites for use in congregational life. That's natural, in a sense. To illustrate: I have a small air compressor at home that is an excellent tool for all kinds of home projects – nailing, sanding, texturing, painting. Truth be told, I don't use my air compressor every day, and it's easy to forget that I even own one. But when I do need it, it's there, and I'm thankful it is.

In the worship life of God's people, we don't use the rites of a church regularly. In fact, there are rites in our new book that some congregations will never use, such as “Dedication of a Church Bell.” Yet, if and when a congregation ever needs such a rite, it will be there, ready for use.

The new book of congregational rites will be called the Agenda. A small committee of pastors has been working over the past three years to review, revise, update, and add to those rites of the church that are currently found in Christian Worship: Occasional Services. At the onset of the task, the committee quickly realized that the current Occasional Services was a mixed bag of both rites and special liturgical services, such as the Good Friday Tenebrae service. The committee felt that it would be beneficial to separate such as liturgical elements from what is properly called "rites." This has a historical precedent since for many years Lutheran pastors turned to the Lutheran Agenda to find rites for such things as installation of a pastor, teacher, or vicar; dedication of an organ or church building; laying of a cornerstone; reception of new members; installation of synod or district officers, etc. etc. All in all, there will be over fifty rites found in the new Agenda.

Moreover, the current title Occasional Services is, in a sense, a bit misleading—but not deliberately so. While there indeed are complete "services" in this present book, a rite in and of itself is not a complete service; it is a small portion of a service or devotion. This reality also led the committee to return to the historical name Agenda. Special liturgical services that are complete in and of themselves (such as the Tenebrae mentioned above) will find a new home in the electronic resources available as part of the new hymnal resources.

"Agenda" is a Latin term that means, "things that need to be done." There are things in the public worship life of a congregation and synod that, simply put, need to be done. They need to be done in a "fitting and orderly way (1 Co 14:4)" that is respectful of God's Word and house. They need to be done in a clear and confessional way since many of the rites articulate doctrinal positions we hold. They need to be done in a public way before God and people as a clear testimony. And, above all, these things need to be done to the glory of God and for the edification of his holy people.