WELS Hymnal Project

Project Blog

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

This year, my congregation in Sharpsburg, Georgia, went old-school for the first Sunday of the Church Year: we had hosannas in Advent.

The Christian Worship (CW) lectionary appoints Matthew 24:36-44 as the Gospel for Advent 1: “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” The theme for the Sunday is preparation for Jesus’ return at the end of time. This message is much needed and fits well in the season of Advent. But there are challenges for the worship planner.

“It feels like eight weeks of Advent!” The Scripture Committee fielded many such comments regarding the transition from Christian Worship’s season of End Time to the beginning of Advent. Even though the Church at one point did have an eight week Advent season, for many respondents to our surveys, the themes of these Sundays seemed quite similar.

This year for Advent 1, my congregation tried something different, something old-school. The historic one-year lectionary of the Lutheran Church for many centuries has used Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-9) as the Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent.

Changing the appointed Gospel to this historic selection redefined the focus of Advent 1 from Christ’s second coming to the question of the Palm Sunday crowd, “Who is this?” (Matthew 21:10) Who is this that will be the center of our worship for the next year? Who is this that will be the hub and hinge of our faith?1 The Psalm of the Day answers: “Who is he, this King of glory? The LORD Almighty--he is the King of glory.” (Psalm 24) That the Coming One is both Son of David and Son of God means he is the answer to our cry, “Hosanna (which means, Lord, save us!).”

I wondered how it would feel to have Advent hosannas. Would a Palm Sunday reading feel out of place? As we planned for worship, we noted how well our Advent hymnody fit with this new theme--precisely because many of our Advent hymns were written during the time of the historic lectionary when every First Sunday of the Church Year, God’s people heard this text.

Did you use the following hymns this Advent? Consider how well they fit with the triumphal entry as the Gospel for Advent 1:

  • God’s people see him coming: Your own eternal King! Palm branches strew before him! Spread garments! Shout and sing! God’s promise will not fail you! No more shall doubt assail you! Hosanna to the Lord, for he fulfills God’s Word. (CWS 702 Prepare the Royal Highway)

  • Hosanna to the coming Lord! Hosanna to the incarnate Word! To Christ, Creator, Savior, King Let earth, let heav’n hosanna sing. (CW21 Hosanna to the Coming Lord)

The season of Advent has had hosannas for many centuries, because it is the season when we celebrate three advents of Christ: He came in the flesh; he comes daily in Word and Sacrament; he will come again. Each of those advents leads God’s people to say, “Hosanna! Lord, save us!”

So what do you think? The Scripture Committee is considering appointing the triumphal entry as an alternate Gospel for Advent 1 ABC. Would you like some Advent Hosannas? We would welcome your thoughts.

During the summer of 2014 the Technology Committee conducted a survey among our Twenty-Five-Congregation Focus Group. We asked them seven open-ended questions about the challenges and bottlenecks they encounter when planning and carrying out worship in their congregations. The insights from that focus group will help shape the direction of our work on the Technology Committee.

As I reviewed the results of the survey it became clear that many of the challenges that our focus group identified are not technical in nature. They are human problems—and there are no technical solutions to human problems.
Any problem where the solution requires a change in people’s values, attitudes, habits, or behavior is a human problem. Consider your health, for example. If the doctor diagnoses you with heart disease he may prescribe a medication. This is a technical problem. You need this pill, so you take this pill. Easy. But the doctor may also say that what you really need is more sleep, a healthier diet, and frequent exercise. That’s a human problem. Change your values, alter your habits, and do so faithfully. Hard.

Human problems are difficult to solve, while technical solutions are easy to administer. Because they are easier, we gravitate toward technical solutions for our human problems. In fact, administering a technical solution for a human problem often makes matters worse by refusing to make the necessary changes to the values, habits, or practices that must change for a real solution to emerge. There are no technical solutions to human problems.
Here’s how it might look inside the church: More and more members are dissatisfied with congregational communication. Leaders quickly relaunch the website or set up an email list to solve the problem when in reality the communication problems probably lie much deeper than the delivery mechanism itself.

How does that look in worship? Our focus group identified a wide range of human problems in the area of worship. One of the biggest challenges according to our survey is encouraging congregational participation. We may be tempted to administer a technical solution to this problem. If singing along with the hymns is hard, I suppose we could just print different hymns. Or we could project the words of the hymns with a bouncing red ball to tell us when to sing. Or we could play a professional recording though the speaker system and circumvent the problem entirely.

I hope you can tell I’m being facetious with these suggestions. They won’t actually work because there are no technical solutions to human problems. The biblical principles of worship present difficult human challenges that require diligent human solutions like education, leadership, and training. The Technology Committee can’t offer that, and we’d be foolish to try—it’s not our role.

We can, however, work to alleviate some of the most pressing needs in planning and carrying out worship in WELS congregations. The top challenge identified in our focus group survey was organizing and planning worship. We can work to build tools and frameworks that help worship planners stay ahead of schedule and manage all the details of conducting an excellent worship ministry. Here at the end of 2014 and into the early part of 2015 the Technology Committee is drawing up a description of what that could look like. This is the next important step in making a digital planning resource a reality.

But as we do this work, please remember: what we hope to provide will only solve your technical problems. If advance planning and effective organization is a challenge for you, it may take more than a new piece of software to solve the problem. You may have a human problem on your hand.

I’ll propose this little bargain with the pastors, teachers, and worship leaders of WELS: The Technology Committee will spend the next several years working out a technical solution to some of your most pressing technical problems while you lay the groundwork by tackling the human problems we face in planning and carrying out worship. Learn and practice the necessary values, habits, and attitudes that make an excellent worship ministry and you will have some good solutions to your human problems. Then, who knows, maybe all this technical stuff will end up right where it should be: in the background, in a ministerial role, supporting something bigger and more important.

Earlier this year, WELS teachers took a survey that included questions about psalmody and children. The results of the survey gave remarkable insight into the creativity that individuals have shown in using psalmody in the classroom. On the other hand, some responded that the chanting tones we use to sing the verses of a psalm are not melodic enough to connect with children or are too difficult to sing.

Singing psalms is certainly something children - even young children - can do. Psalms can be sung in several ways: melodic paraphrases, metrical paraphrases, or responsorial settings (like we have in Christian Worship). They can also be spoken. For the very little ones, learning to speak one verse or singing just the refrain may be enough for them. As keen observers and imitators, children will pick up on the value we place on psalmody. They will respond to every attempt we make to expose them to it – spoken or sung.

What is exciting about all this talk about psalmody is that it exists! If the committee that produced Christian Worship in 1993 hadn’t prioritized congregational psalm-singing and formatted the settings so clearly and prominently in the front of the hymnal, we might not be having these discussions about psalmody today. Now the question is, “Where do we go from here?”

The psalmody committee for the WELS Hymnal Project is beginning its examination of nearly every style of psalmody that has been used for worship in the history of the Christian faith. The committee is paying close attention to how psalms are presently being used in WELS classrooms and churches and exploring how we can offer believers of all ages the very best of what is available in psalmody. Within the next couple of years, we will begin offering sample psalms in different styles and will be interested in your evaluations.

Teaching children to sing psalms may indeed present challenges, but let's also remember the blessings. It has been said that the psalms teach us how to speak to God. The psalms have also been called the Catechism of the Bible. Spiritual treasures of great beauty exist in the psalms. They combine the emotion and drama of addressing the Most Holy God with valuable truths for our faith. Children can enjoy this kind of language, too. What's more, the time they spend singing psalms now will equip them with a language for worship they'll be using their whole life long.

Prof. Grace Hennig
Psalmody Committee

Several questions on the survey that went out to WELS teachers back in May asked about the use of Christian Worship (CW) and Christian Worship Supplement (CWS) rites in educational settings. I’m happy to be able to share some of the results from that survey and the way they will impact the work of the Rites Committee of the hymnal project.

First, a little quiz. One of the questions asked this:

“Which version of the Lord’s Prayer do you use most frequently in the classroom?”

Between the traditional version (“Our Father, who art in heaven…”) and the modern version (“Our Father in heaven…”), one is used by 56% of those who responded and the other by 44%. Can you guess which percentage goes with each? You’ll find the answer at the bottom of this article.

Second—and my main point—is an observation about how CW and CWS devotions, meditations, prayers, canticles, etc. are being used in classrooms. In short, they aren’t, at least not often.

Really there’s nothing wrong with this. If you’re content with using the opening devotions in Christ-Light, that’s great. If you’ve found a reliable devotion book for your classroom, excellent. And if Chapel Talks provides you with all you need for Christ-centered chapel services, then why look for other options?

At the same time, I can see some benefits from occasionally making use of the hymnal and supplement in chapel or classroom. One is that there are several devotions and meditations that get Scripture into the ears, minds, and mouths of students. The Scripture passages in the CWS meditations, for instance, can be helpful to all ages. Another benefit of going to CW and CWS is that kids can get familiar with what’s in those books. That familiarity can help them participate when they encounter the same prayers, songs, and rites in church services. And finally, the hymnal and supplement can be sound sources of variety, even if teachers want to stick with devotion books or Christ-Light as their go-to resources.

The comments on the survey showed some of the reasons why teachers don’t often turn to CW and CWS for classroom or chapel devotions. One that I mentioned above is contentment with other devotional materials. Another is brevity. Classroom devotions need to be brief, and some commented that even the short Morning Devotion in CW is too long. Those in primary grade classrooms noted that often the language of CW prayers is too complex for their students.

One other factor I wonder about is this: Are the devotions in the hymnal starting to become old hat? They’ve been around for over twenty years now, and maybe they just feel worn out to many of us. (A related question: Do many people know that there are seven short meditations in CWS?)

Moving ahead with the hymnal project, the rites committee will look into possible ways of making devotional rites and prayers more useful for classroom and chapel services. And when the new hymnal is done, we’ll try to ensure that teachers know about the resources that are available.

In the meantime, at the risk of being presumptuous (I’m not in the classroom every day) could I offer a few suggestions for using what you may have on hand in CW or CWS?

  • Use devotions only occasionally. Use a CW devotion or CWS meditation once in a while, maybe one day a week for a quarter. Then come back after a quarter and try a different meditation. These short rites might “wear” a little better if used sparingly.
  • Modify as needed. You don’t need to use rites exactly as written. Shorten devotional rites if you need to. Skip a part if you’re short on time. Rather than using the personal prayers in CW (pp. 134-139) verbatim, try using them for prayer ideas, if not word for word. (Also check out the “Plan for Intercession” in CWS for help in praying for people you might otherwise forget.)
  • Repeat for young worshipers. With younger students, pick shorter sections and repeat them often. For instance, use the opening dialog of CW’s Morning Devotion for a few weeks. Or teach the kids “O Christ, Lamb of God” from Divine Service I or in CWS and sing it once a week. The general Alleluia Verse from Divine Service II might be a good choice, too.
  • Use electronic resources – See if your church has the electronic version of CWS. Try getting an electronic copy of the short meditations for morning or midday. Instead of using (or having to purchase) the books for your classroom, project a copy of the meditation on your screen or Smart board. Create a desktop shortcut so you can use it easily once in a while.

Finally, the answer I promised. The survey said that 44% of respondents use the traditional version of the Lord’s Prayer in their classrooms. 56% use the more modern wording. Perhaps this indicates that there is not a “one size fits all” solution to rites and prayers for devotions and chapel services. Nevertheless, think about making use of what’s available as we await what will be in the new hymnal. And thanks for taking the time to send us your thoughts!

This past May the Communications Committee conducted a survey of WELS teachers. I’ve taken time to review the results of the survey and consider their influence on the direction of our work as the Technology Committee of the WELS Hymnal Project.

Worship is a part of the daily and weekly schedule at WELS schools. Like academic subjects, the quality of worship in the classroom and in the school is usually proportional to teachers’ effectiveness in planning and implementation. Many of the teachers who participated in the survey clearly put tremendous effort into their plans and practices—God be praised for their faithfulness!

The Technology Committee will consider tools and methods designed to lighten the workload on teachers wishing to include solid worship practices in classroom devotions, hymnology instruction, and chapel services. Useful digital resources will help teachers to be even more effective in their planning and carrying out of worship in WELS schools.

We can offer appropriate technology to assist singing in the classroom

The survey indicated that teachers do not often use digital technology to assist in singing hymns in the classroom. A Technology Committee would be tempted to assume that our goal should be to increase the use of digital technology, but we will resist that temptation. Here’s why: Half of the respondents indicated that they frequently use a keyboard to lead classroom singing. Martin Luther College trains teachers with keyboard skills for good reason. A live musician leading classroom and chapel singing with mechanical technology like the upright piano is a great option for WELS students.

However, for those who do not have keyboard skills, it seems the most frequent alternative is the venerable compact disc player. WELS teachers, however, crave a library of encoded audio files (i.e. MP3, AAC) with high-quality recordings of hymns—both with and without vocal tracks. WELS teachers also envision that such recordings be available for convenient playback on a mobile application.

We can offer additional hymn classification and organization to help teachers find age-appropriate hymnody

As I reviewed the survey data I came across quite a few comments from lower-grade teachers and early childhood directors asking for hymns, rites, and prayers appropriate for little ones. While the matter of simplified English in rites, prayers, and hymns is something other WELS Hymnal Project committees would consider, the Technology Committee certainly envisions the ability to deliver such content, if developed, through a worship planning database.

In our current hymnal, Christian Worship, hymns are categorized under only one set of terms. The hymnal categorizes hymns either by season of the church year (e.g. “Advent”, “Easter”) or topic (e.g. “Trust”, ”Justification”). A paper-based resource can only have one main categorization system. While an index may also provide additional categorization, there is not always room to print multiple indices for specialized needs.

A digital compendium of hymns, on the other hand, can categorize hymns with multiple sets of terms. The more traditional system of church year and topical categorization can function alongside more specialized categorizations. For example, a digital compendium would enable us to categorize age-appropriate hymns for different grade levels, thus giving an early childhood director the ability to generate a list of hymns suitable for preschool-age children.

This is only one example of additional categorization. Themes and scriptural allusions are other categories that the Technology Committee is monitoring as possibilities. We will work with committees like Hymnody, Psalmody, Scripture, and Rites to assist them in building these additional indices of terms and categories. Our vision is to include useful sorting and filtering capabilities in the finished product.

Thank you

As a pastor of a congregation with an elementary school, I enjoyed seeing the wide range of interesting answers and insights into how WELS classrooms integrate Christian worship into their daily and weekly schedules. Thank you for taking the time to share your remarks with us.