WELS Hymnal Project

Project Blog

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

“Technology,” said Alan Kay, “is anything that was invented after you were born.” Kay knows a thing or two about technology. He pioneered a tool that most of us use every day: a computer interface that uses panes, or windows, to display content. For him that’s technology.

Alan Kay is also a classical organist; he plays music on an instrument invented long before he was born. Under his definition, an organ isn’t really technology. But anyone who knows how an organ works intuitively realizes that an organ is a marvel of technology. And that’s how we know that Kay’s definition needs improvement. It’s more cute than useful.

Kevin Kelly, an American author and thinker best known for co-founding Wired, has an exotic definition all his own. In his book, What Technology Wants, Kelly makes the case for his conviction that technology is actually a seventh kingdom of life. Kelly claims that technology plays an integral role in the past and future evolution of life itself. He believes that technology is a guiding force in the universe, a contention that obviously conflicts with our biblical worldview but even rejects common secular consensus about the theory of evolution. If Kay’s definition is too cute, Kelly’s is too provocative.

When I introduced myself and the work of my committee I wrote,

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.

My committee is meeting for the first time this week, so I’ve been thinking about how I’d like to proceed with the careful thinking, detailed research, and philosophical musing that I promised we’d do. We need to define “technology” before we can really explore the topic. We need a definition of technology that reflects the nature of technology, handles its philosophical impact on society, and also fits well into a spiritually enlightened system of thought. In other words, we need a definition of technology that is both empirical and theological. This is more than just finding a “Christian way” to think about iPhones and iPads, this is deciding to have a well-informed conversation about the nature and role of technology in our lives.

So here’s a definition that I think works very well: technology is the collection of tools and media that people use to extend their own senses, bodies, and abilities. This is technology in a broad sense, not the more narrow, specific usage that we’ve grown accustomed to. The tools that formerly whizzed and whirred and bleeped and blooped but now fit in our pockets and connect to wireless networks are technology, yes, but they are from a very specific family of technology called “digital technology.” Other inventions like cars, corkscrews, and calendars are also technology, although each from a different family.

This nuanced understanding means that the average liturgical service is brimming with technology. Audio systems (technology) amplify the pastor's voice while electric bulbs (technology) help worshipers see the book (technology) in their hands as they sit on pews or in chairs (both technology). Experts used needle and thread, and even powered machines to craft the paraments that adorn our sanctuaries. A carpenter once used woodworking technology to convert raw materials into an altar, pulpit, and font. People even travel thousands of miles to admire European church technologies like the flying buttress and the tracker action pipe organ.

In its broad sense, technology is the art, skill, and craft of human minds. Scripture teaches that God serves the world through individual vocations. “We are God’s masks,” says Luther. Indeed, our entire body and life are meant to be a dwelling of the Holy Spirit. Art, skill, and craft—technology, that is—are extensions of ourselves for they are expressions of our own soul.

Technologies enable us to carry out our vocations with greater range and impact. Who could count how many encouraging words have been exchanged between Christians over the telephone? How many hours have been recovered for ministry thanks to the automobile? How many minds have been enlightened because we have the ability to reproduce printed materials on a massive scale?

Of course, in a fallen world, any art, skill, or craft can be put to bad use. Even our own tongues—which are God’s creation and not ours—frequently spew forth evil. Without the covering grace of God’s love everything we make and do is by nature unclean. We need redemption, and we have it through the blood of Christ. Now Jesus can call what we make and do salt and light—a vast improvement. The Spirit now moves us to put art, skill, and craft into the Lord’s service.

There will be plenty of time to discuss the negative effects that come from sinful hands operating human technologies. Today’s world is in a period of turmoil and transition as two major eras of technology converge. As happens when hot and cold air collide, the centuries-old world of print media is mixing with the decades-old system of electronic media and the results have often been stormy. But it’s not all doom and gloom.

With a useful definition of technology, the worshiping Christian can approach this topic with a level head. Understanding that technology is more pervasive than we might think gives us perspective. Realizing that technologies are an extension of human art, craft, and skill unlocks a redemptive, vocational approach to technology.

At the beginning of December, 218 congregations began a three-year collaborative review for the WELS hymnal project. Each week these congregations will be reporting information about their worship and offering input to the hymnal project’s executive committee regarding the resources available in Christian Worship. Having completed one week of review, here is what a sample of the results looks like. We are thankful to all who are talking the time to do these reviews and we value the input greatly.

For those congregations not participating, as well as for the synod at large, there will be additional opportunities to offer feedback and input, including a series of surveys distributed synod-wide during the coming year. For the first several years of the project, gathering information will be the major focus of the communications committee.

As a reminder, you may at any time offer input through our website’s contact submission form. Every submission is reviewed by the communications committee and forwarded to the appropriate subcommittee for its review and action.

“Early in the process of preparing Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal, it became evident that if the resources contained in the hymnal were to be fully utilized, a manual of some kind was necessary. Members of the Joint Hymnal Committee time and again commented that a given suggestion belonged ‘in the manual.’” (Christian Worship: Manual, p. xv) These are words with which the introduction of Christian Worship: Manual begins.

With the hymnal project 2024, the Commission on Worship didn’t wait for the process to begin before appointing a chairman to oversee the production of those additional books that will stand alongside the new hymnal. More than produce a stand-alone hymnal, the hymnal project intends to publish materials that can assist worshipers, musicians, worship assistants (altar guild, elders, acolytes, audio/visual teams, etc.), and pastors in the worship life of the congregation. God willing, these resources will appear at the same time the new hymnal reaches production.

In our electronic age, we recognize that some of the materials we used to find in a book are more suited as digital resources. For instance, what is presently published as the book Christian Worship: Handbook (a well researched and thorough volume) could be made more user friendly in terms of research and “cut and paste” if it were in a digital format. In collaboration with the other committees within the hymnal project, the Literature Committee hopes to produce digital resources that would benefit all the various individuals and groups who participate in worship.

Still, there is something to be said about the publication of a printed and bound volume. Books, as such, tend to carry a weight of authority and the promise of a more thorough and reliable editing process. In addition to the electronic resources, the Literature Committee will oversee the production of a book or books of a more “professional” nature which can serve as a reference volume for those involved in worship.

The very presence of a “Literature Committee” assumes that the 2024 hymnal project intends to produce more than just a hymnal. As the series of books associated with Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal has served us well over the past twenty years, so we hope that the hymnal 2024 and all its associated volumes will be a blessing to the church.

American psychologist Abraham Maslow once said, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” The problem is, of course, not everything is a nail; not everything needs pounding.

Maslow’s law of the instrument is important to remember when we think about how to apply technology to worship in our congregations. We have plenty of technological hammers in our toolbox, but not everything is a nail.

I’m a “technologist,” that is, someone who is generally skilled at technical topics, tools, and methods. The problem with people like me, though, is that everything looks like a nail. To us, everything looks like something to be solved or improved or enhanced with some sort of technical solution. And so we barrage you with new ideas and tools. We think you need a list of the “Ten Best Online Document Editing Tools,” when, my goodness, you only need the best one. We’re holding a hammer and so every problem looks like a nail.

I’m also the chairman of the Technology Committee for the WELS Hymnal Project. I don’t know what you think of when you hear the words “technology” and “hymnal” together; you might think of digital editions of Christian Worship and Christian Worship Supplement. Maybe you start to imagine iPads in the pew guiding worshipers through the liturgy. Perhaps you imagine large screens filling the chancel. Or could it just be that you’re hoping there’s going to be a way to make planning worship faster, easier, and more intuitive?

I can tell you this: people have already suggested all of the above to me when it comes to the technology component of the WELS Hymnal Project. And yes, my committee will take the time to examine all the possibilities that digital technology offers, especially digital distribution and worship planning tools. But as I introduce myself to all of you with this blog post I’d like to take some time to zoom out a bit and think about the big picture.

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. The temptation, therefore, is to convert every problem into a nail to be pounded.

Instead, I’d like to take the time at the front end of this project to seriously consider the long history of how technology has served the Church, particularly in its worship life. How has the history of the book been connected to the theology and worship of the church? What impact will glowing screens have in a world dominated for centuries by the printed page? How will we handle the difference between the book and screen (in our hands or on the wall)? What are the cognitive and emotional effects of digital content and its general lack of sequentiality and its more abstract sense of location? What are our goals in worship, and can we review and revise our worship tools to accomplish those goals?

There are plenty of nails to be pounded. But the work of my committee is more nuanced than that. We have plenty of thinking to do before we start swinging away.

Psalms. They are the hymns of the Bible. We should be able to make good use of them in worship in 2013. But sometimes we struggle. Do we read them? Responsively? Do we sing them? To what tune?

The members of the Christian Worship (CW) hymnal committee wondered if it would be OK to use only select verses of a given psalm. They wondered if it would be OK to add refrains that were not necessarily texts from a given psalm. They wondered whether the psalms fit well between the first two readings on a given Sunday. The decisions they made about these issues have been widely accepted. The psalms in CW have been widely used.

A generation later, we might be able to do even more. All of the psalms in CW are the same style. What else can we do? What about congregations that struggle to sing the verses? Can we make more resources in many more styles available to all of our congregations?

An initial goal of the Psalmody Committee is to provide many more options for congregations who want to use the psalms in worship. With advances in technology, we will be able to make available much more than what we can fit in a single book.

Among many other things, we will be talking about what translation(s) to use, what the refrain for each psalm will be, and what musical styles are available. We will do the same for the appointed verses of the day.

Talk to us about how you want to use the psalms!