WELS Hymnal Project

Project Blog

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

If you’ve ever been in a touring choir, do you still remember the songs? When you consider all of the rehearsals, the services, and the concerts, each song a choir sings in a given year is repeated a staggering number of times. Even after many years have passed, it’s amazing how you can listen to an old recording, and every note and syllable is still there. In large part, that’s the beauty and the blessing of God’s gift of music.

For many years now, the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Chorus has sung a setting of “The Church’s One Foundation” (Christian Worship #538) as part of its annual program. It’s also the song in which the children of the local congregation are invited to sing with the choir. Many of us remember fondly how we watched young children from all over the country nervously walk up to the front of the church and take their place in front of the choir. We remember fondly how the pastor of the congregation would sometimes come up to the front, find his old spot, and sing along with us. Many of us now remember fondly how our own sons and daughters have had the chance to walk up to the front when the Seminary Chorus came to town.

But as much as those fond memories are all blessings in their own right, the fact that the words of that great hymn are so deeply ingrained in our memories is a blessing far greater.

Eventually the relatively carefree days of the Seminary were replaced by the sometimes stressful days of the parish. And if your pastor is anything like me, he sometimes thinks, “How can a man like me possibly serve in this role? If only these people knew my weaknesses. If only they knew my sins. What if all of this collapses on my watch?” And when he does, it’s good for him to remember...

The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord;
She is his new creation by water and the Word.
From heav’n he came and sought her to be his holy bride;
With his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.

If your pastor is anything like me, he sometimes thinks, “Is any of this making a difference? In spite of all of our efforts, examples of visible success seem few and far between. Nothing seems to be working.” And when he does, it’s good for him to remember…

Elect from ev’ry nation, yet one o’er all the earth;
Her charter of salvation: One Lord, one faith, one birth.
One holy name she blesses, partakes one holy food,
And to one hope she presses, with ev’ry grace endued.

And if your pastor is anything like me, he sometimes thinks, “How will this tiny group of Christians possibly survive? We face so many challenges and limitations. The enemy seems to be getting stronger every day.” And when he does, it’s good for him to remember…

The Church shall never perish. Her dear Lord, to defend,
To guide, sustain, and cherish, is with her to the end.
Though there be those that hate her and strive to see her fail.
Against both foe and traitor she ever shall prevail.

With everything that can discourage the members of Christ's Church as we await his return, it's truly a blessing that hymns like this one make such essential truths so easy to remember.

Share Your Thoughts

As mentioned in our last update, this is the first of eight hymns that will be highlighted between now and the end of the year. We'd love to hear your thoughts. Comment below on why this hymn is near and dear to your heart. Or, share your appreciation for any hymn by creating a post on your own social media account(s). Feel free to tag your friends or use the hashtag #lovehymns to encourage others to participate. We will collect the responses throughout the week and then share what people have been saying.

Earlier this year, the WELS Hymnal Project asked you to help us celebrate our rich heritage of hymns by sharing with us those that are especially near and dear to your heart.

We are very thankful that more than 3,200 people participated in the survey: 1,720 responded to the synod-wide survey and 1,508 students filled out the survey in their classrooms. The results of those surveys have been shared with the members of the hymnal project. A document listing fifty favorites from each of the surveys is available here.

Between now and the end of the year, we’d like to continue to celebrate the great blessing hymns are to our lives of faith. And we’d like to ask for your help in doing so. On eight Mondays between now and Christmas, we will highlight one specific hymn found on the lists below with a brief article about that hymn. That article will also be posted on Northwestern Publishing House’s Facebook Page.

When that article is published, you’ll be invited to comment - either on our website or on Facebook - about what you personally cherish about that particular hymn. You may also wish to use your own social media accounts to express what you love about any hymn and invite others within your circle to do the same. The goal is start each week by joining together to celebrate how much we love hymns and why.

On the following Monday, we’ll publish a collection of some of the responses that come in so that everyone can see what others from around the synod have been saying.

In addition, we will invite anyone to produce a more creative expression of their personal favorite (a photo, drawing, video, slideshow, etc) and provide details for submitting that work.

Thank you again for helping us celebrate these wonderful hymns. We value and appreciate your input and look forward to hearing more.

Pastor Jonathan Bauer
WELS Communications Committee

Back in May, we published the first half of a written summary of what the WELS Hymnal Project has learned so far about worship in our synod. The first part of that summary had appeared in the May issue of Forward in Christ. The second half appeared in the June issue of Forward in Christ, and the entire summary also appears in the synod convention's Book of Reports and Memorials.

The entire summary is now also published here on our website in the resources section.

At the synod convention in Saginaw this week, Project Director Michael Schultz will share an update on the hymnal project with the convention. Keep him, the rest of our synod's leaders, and all the delegates in your prayers:

Gracious Lord, you have redeemed us with the blood of your Son, brought us to faith by the work of your Spirit, and promised to keep us in faith through your Word and sacraments. Accept our humble thanks for these rich blessings, and help us to rejoice in them and to use them faithfully.

Gracious Lord, you have brought us together in a church body in which your Word is proclaimed in its truth and purity, in which the message of reconciliation through your Son is still the central teaching, and in which the focus of mission is to reach the lost and strengthen the saved. For this gift of your grace, we give you thanks and ask that you would rekindle our zeal for the work you have set before us.

Gracious Lord, you have given us opportunities to share your Word in our country and throughout the world. We thank you for the faithful service of our church leaders. We thank you also for moving the hearts of young people to prepare for the teaching and preaching ministry. Help us view them as your precious gifts, and give us the willingness and the means to put them to work in your vineyard.

You have brought us together as a church body that we may show forth your praises. Help us as individuals, as congregations, and as a synod to let our light shine so that more people may be led to glorify you. When we fall short of living and working together as your holy people, forgive us and renew in all of us a dedication to humble service to you and to one another.

In Jesus' name,

--- From Christian Worship: Altar Book

I remember a little over ten years ago. Our parish was beginning to get serious about building a new church. Architects drew. Committees met. Dollars were counted. Musicians dreamed. Hundreds of people were involved. Thousands of comments and critiques were offered. The most popular comment was this: “Just be sure that we build something that looks like a church!”

Of course we were going to build something that looked like a church! We weren’t building a strip mall or a McDonald’s. I listened to this comment, but didn’t find it particularly helpful at first. After all, what does a church look like? Like Luther’s church in Wittenberg? Like the pope’s church in Rome? Like the big neo-gothic churches of the WELS heartland? Like the steel-construction mission church my brother-in-law served south of Atlanta, Georgia? What does a church look like?

Eventually, the point became clear. A church that “looks like a church” is a church that a person thinks looks churchly. As it turns out, both beauty and ecclesiastical architecture are in the eye of the beholder.

And music is in the ear of the hearer.

I often hear comments like these directed at the Hymnody Committee of the WELS Hymnal Project:

  • Just be sure that we can sing in four parts.

  • Just be sure that it’s easier to play.

  • Just be sure that you don’t have so many hymns that are hard to sing.


“I really like singing in four parts…”
“I love the Lord and his people, but I really hate the organ pedals…”
“I can’t read notes…”

The opposite is also true. As much as some people love singing in parts, not everyone can. For everyone who can’t play the pedals with plenty of sharps or flats, there are other musicians who relish the challenge. For everyone who can’t read notes, there are others who read music like a book. The personal needs and opinions on the hymnal are about as varied as the 400,000 people that sit in our pews!

So what are we going to do with these opinions? The Hymnody Committee is doing its best to be pastoral in approach, musical in craft, and comprehensive in scope.

When we speak of a pastoral approach, we don’t want the new hymnal to be a monument to WELS musicians. Instead, we are working toward a book that will have much for many. Everyone on the Hymnody Committee is a parish musician; some at small churches outside of the heartland. The theological center of the book is Christ and him crucified. The musical center of the book will be accessibility. Music must be a servant of the texts. The music will not be a side-show that competes with texts. A pastoral approach hopes to provide a book with both feet in the Lutheran parish!

As for musical craft, we are doing our best to take a “case by case” approach. WELS singers will be pleased to know that many hymns will be set in a way that supports four-part singing. WELS singers will also be interested to know that we will deliberately avoid four-part singing when the hymn itself doesn’t dictate that practice. “Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel,” for instance, is a chant. Four-part singing only muddies the waters of this haunting melody. We are proposing a rather sparse accompaniment that enables the chant to sing. Musical craft means that music is about more than what I think it should be. Music is also an objective, audio form of art.

Musical craft, by the way, doesn’t mean “for musical purists only.” We are well aware of the modal harmonies that dominate the hymns of Martin Luther. We are also aware that these modal harmonies have not been in the average listener’s ear since the middle 1700s. We are willing to provide some harmonic updates to early Reformation hymns to make them more accessible to American ears. Why? Musical purity is for musicologists. Musical accessibility is for WELS worshipers.

Finally, we come to comprehensive in scope. This means that the hymn book is envisioned as the “baseline” of the resources provided. The book will be supported with layers of supporting material available digitally. We hope that the average WELS keyboardist will be able to play the materials in the book with moderate effort. We also hope to provide enough resources to whet the appetite for a richer presentation of the hymn. Need a descant? A choral stanza? An alternate accompaniment? A transposition to an easier key? How about an instrumental edition? All this is possible. We’re working on it.

In short, we’re producing a hymnal. It will be a hymnal that sounds like a hymnal. Best of all, it will be a hymnal that sings of him!

Will applications on mobile devices help to improve the daily practice of personal devotion and prayer? I believe that two recent examples provide encouraging evidence that the answer may be yes.

First, an article last year in Worship offered an observation on the effectiveness of the liturgical reforms enacted in the Roman Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council. The article itself focused specifically on how liturgical worship had changed in English speaking countries during the intervening 50 years since Vatican II. I read the article as an interested, outside observer. Vatican II sought several worship reforms in the Catholic church, one of which was to renew and restore the use of the Daily Office among Catholic laity. One comment from Paul Turner, the American observer, stood out to me. He wrote:

Fifty years later—a bonus [the reforms of Vatican II] could never have foreseen–the number of people praying the Office is spiking due to its accessibility on electronic devices. People discouraged by purchasing the expensive four volume set, figuring out the week of the year, struggling with ribbons, and inserting and losing cards, have enjoyed the simplicity of praying from a handheld phone or tablet (Turner 2013).

Many Lutherans also pray the Daily Office as an expression of their devotional piety. But, convincing the average parishioner to pray the Office each day is not an easy sell. Even in the Roman Catholic Church, where the Daily Office has a much more prominent position, convincing each successive generation to structure their day around worship, prayer, and the reading of the Word has been difficult. Yet, observers are noticing that American Catholics are praying the Daily Office more than they had in the past because they now have a device in their pocket that can both remind them to pray and guide them through the process.

I don’t cite this example to say that you need to start praying the Daily Office to prove your devotional piety. I’m pointing it out because I think this piece of evidence is important: Mobile devices are increasing the popularity of a system of worship originally conceived for monasteries.

Turn next to a New York Times piece from July 2013 that profiled the popular Bible app from YouVersion.com (O’Leary 2013). This free app appears to be leading millions of people to read the Bible more frequently than they may have otherwise.

When Jen Sears, 37, a human resources manager in Oklahoma City, wants to pray these days, she leaves her Bible behind and grabs her phone instead. “I have my print Bible sitting on my dresser at home, but it hasn’t moved” in the four years since she downloaded YouVersion, Mrs. Sears said.

We are observing similar trends in WELS. The use of daily devotions published via the WELS mobile app, via websites (e.g., wels.net, whataboutjesus.com, parish websites), or RSS-powered email campaigns is common.

Now, the thought of someone launching an app instead of opening a paper Bible gives some of us the creeps. “How cold; how lifeless!” Be aware, however, that there was a time when men criticized printed copies of the Bible, saying that hand-copied versions of the Bible were better for the soul (Levinson 1997). No information technology is truly neutral, and all new information technologies leave change in their wake—the printing press did from the 15th Century on; iPhones are causing similar changes today. While there are certainly characteristics and benefits unique to printed Bibles and hymnals, the changing practices surrounding private, devotional worship may signal new opportunities.

“No one reads the Bible devotionally anymore.” “Private prayer is a dying practice.” These are common laments in the church today. Is it possible, however, that the very habits and practices we think are dying may actually be increasing thanks to the ubiquitous, handheld screen? What if people are reading the Bible more today because it’s on their iPhone? What if more people are building the habit of daily prayer because they get daily reminders from the apps on their devices?

I mention these two examples of longstanding Christian practices finding new expression on mobile devices because the Technology Committee is actively researching how we could encourage similar habits of personal worship and prayer through a hymnal application for those same devices.

Our research has included a survey of the existing hymnal apps. We have discovered that available hymnal apps are useful as digital facsimiles of printed books. For example, they allow faster searching and indexing than a printed book. Some allow on-the-fly key changes in hymns—an impossible task for printed hymnals. Today’s hymnal apps are useful for hymnal “power users” like pastors and musicians as a sort of “Swiss army knife” version of the hymnal. But, they are sorely lacking when it comes to using the hymnal as a tool for personal devotion.

The problem, I believe, is this: Hand someone a hymnal and say, “Use this for your personal devotions,” and most people won’t know what to do next. Replicating the same experience on an iPad isn’t the solution. A hymnal app meant to foster personal devotional use will require that we overcome those conceptual hurdles by thinking differently about how to present the contents of a hymnal.

Take the Bible app from YouVersion for example. When you launch the app the home screen is not a digital representation of a faux, bonded leather cover that says “Holy Bible” on it. Nor is there an in-app purchase that would “emboss” your confirmation date and name on the digital “cover.” Instead of these graphical representations of print media, YouVersion’s app presents a dashboard of options designed to lead users into the text. These features range from a “Continue reading where you left off” button to “Verse of the Day” delivery. Open the app’s menu and you’ll find more ways to interact with the Bible, including a list of your bookmarks, annotations, and access to your daily reading plans. Instead of replicating the experience of using a printed Bible, the app is designed to guide readers into the Scripture in useful, contextual, and relevant ways.

A digital hymnal app would need to do the same. It must provide a different organizational model for the content of the hymnal. For example, arranging the hymns in strict numerical order becomes less important when the app is focused on presenting appropriate hymns in the context of personal devotion. The “cover” of a hymnal app should not be a picture of a printed book cover, but a dashboard of options that guide the worshiper through the hymnal on a path of personal use. A digital hymnal app may also need additional content not found in the print edition—content designed specifically for private, small group, or classroom use.

An app with such a clear focus on devotional use would not be as useful for, say, musicians or other “power users.” Nor would such an app be as useful in congregational worship settings. Words and music printed on paper are tough to beat for their utility, convenience, and (perhaps most important of all) reliability. But a digital hymnal application designed with singular focus on devotional use would open the door for the hymnal’s renewed relevance at home, in the office, and in the classroom. Perhaps we will later observe—as many Catholics and Evangelicals have—greater personal engagement with the Word in private, devotional worship.

There are exciting possibilities. The Technology Committee has been researching this topic for several months and will continue to do so. In the meantime, I would like to ask: What features in a digital hymnal application would help you use the hymnal in your personal devotions? How can we help you use the hymnal around the dinner table, in the classroom, on the road?


Johnson, Clare V, Bill Burke, Paul Inwood, Patrick Jones, and Paul Turner. 2013. “Sacrosanctum Concilium At Fifty: Reports From Five English–Speaking Countries.” Worship 87 (6): 482–516.

Levinson, Paul. 1997. The Soft Edge: a Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution. New York: Routledge.

O’Leary, Amy. 2013. “In the Beginning Was the Word; Now the Word Is on an App.” New York Times, July 26.