WELS Hymnal Project

Project Blog

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

A dear brother in my congregation (a retired pastor) heard the news that I was going to be chairing the Hymnody Committee for the new hymnal. “Well that should keep you busy!” he replied. He then took the opportunity to give me my first feedback on the new hymnal’s contents: “Get rid of ‘Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old’ (CW 267). We sang it twenty-five years ago at my previous parish and it was a disaster!” (He has since made that request official to Pastor Michael Schultz, our new hymnal’s project director.)

There is no doubt that “Isaiah, Mighty Seer” is a difficult hymn. There is also no doubt in my mind what happened twenty-five years ago when “Isaiah, Mighty Seer” flopped. I’m willing to wager that there was no choir to help, no soloist to lead, and no instruments to introduce. I’m also willing to guess that the organist played the hymn at a glacial pace. If that wasn’t the case twenty-five years ago, it certainly is the case in much of our synod’s current musical practice. Poor “Isaiah, Mighty Seer.” He often sounds mousy instead of mighty!

Fast forward twenty-four years. Last year we celebrated our parish’s 125th anniversary. The Reformation celebration was designed to introduce modern Americans to our German roots. Parts of the service were done auf Deutsch. We offered up a mostly English rendition of Luther’s German Mass. We sang “Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old” for the Sanctus in the communion service. After a brief organ introduction (during which the people could read a paragraph about the hymn’s rich history and biblical basis), we had the choir chant the first two-thirds of the hymn. Then when it was time for the angels around the throne to sing, we pulled out all the organ stops, added the congregation, and threw in a brass quartet for good measure. “Holy is God the Lord of heavenly hosts!” thundered three times in the sanctuary. It still wasn’t “A Mighty Fortress,” but it was a good sing.

What was the difference? Something that is equally important whether you are a large congregation with more resources or a smaller congregation with fewer resources: we took care to introduce people to a new hymn.

At first glance, you might assume this blog’s title suffers from dyslexia. Hmmm…. Pastor Christie probably meant to write “Introducing New Hymns to Your People.” After all, the new hymnal will have hundreds of new hymns that will need introducing.

But think about it for a moment: does a hymn need to be introduced to people or do people need to be introduced to a hymn? A hymn is only a collection of syllables and sounds notated on paper or an iPad. A hymn has no life in and of itself. The work on the hymn’s side of things is done once it reaches the point of publication. It is the people who need our attention. They need to learn how to hum a hymn’s melody. They have the hearts that will be warmed by a hymn’s theology. Their fingers and vocal chords will transform quarter notes and letters into the worship of our Redeemer! Introducing people to hymns is a pastoral task. Whether we are pastors, teachers, directors, or instrumentalists, we must keep in mind that we are dealing with real people, with their worship of the Holy Trinity, with the Holy Gospel. In sum: Lutherans don’t do music for music’s sake. We do music because it carries the good news of Christ to people’s hearts.

I promise that the Hymnody Committee will work long and hard to make certain that only the best hymns “make the cut” for our new hymnal. I ask for your prayers to that end. In the meantime, I ask you to keep on working to introduce your people to good hymnody both old and new. To that end, you will be in my prayers! Finding 600+ hymns among tens of thousands will be hard work. Teaching your people the meaning and melodies of a few hundred hymns? That’s the real work! May the Lord of the Church help you do it.

In 1993 the bar was set pretty high. Within several years of the release of Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal, more than 95% of WELS congregations were using it.

Just eleven at the time, I wasn’t aware of that fact much less how truly remarkable it was. But as I was asked to consider leading the communications committee for our synod’s next hymnal project, you better believe that statistic was on my mind. Ninety-five percent. Is it even possible to repeat that in 2024?

In some ways, we might be at a disadvantage this time around. By 1993 more than five decades had passed since the release of The Lutheran Hymnal in 1941. Many things had changed. I would imagine most people were more than ready for a new hymnal. Will that be the case in 2024, barely three decades since the release of Christian Worship?

In other ways, we might be at an advantage this time around. In 1993 the Internet and email were just emerging as ways to share information. No one even knew what a smartphone, tablet, or Facebook page was. This project’s communication committee can and will make use of some pretty powerful tools to carry out its work.

I suppose more than trying to recreate a remarkable blessing of the past, this hymnal’s communications committee will strive to help the people of the Wisconsin Synod appreciate the gifts that the Holy Spirit continues to pour out on the Church in the realm of music and worship. The other six committees within this project will be carrying out important and exciting work. Those of us on the communications committee will try to give you, the people we serve, as much input and insight into that work as possible. Whatever the next hymnal ends up looking like, it will belong to our entire church body. And that is as true today as it will be when it is released ten years from now. We will strive to make that reality apparent from day one.

During the first few years of this project, the communications committee will focus on research. How are the churches and schools of our synod making use of Christian Worship? What will they be looking for in our next hymnal?

The next few years will focus on education. A hymnal project is a natural opportunity to explore the theology and practice of worship. As the other six committees carry out their work, they will no doubt learn a great deal and be very eager to share it with you.

The final few years will focus on introduction. By that time, many of the decisions determining the content of our next hymnal will have already been made. The communications committee will do all we can to help the churches and schools of our synod grow familiar with what is new or different prior to publication.

Thank you for taking an interest in this important work. Over the course of the coming weeks, the chairmen of the other six committees will introduce themselves and their committee’s work. They, along with all those involved with the project, certainly appreciate your ongoing prayers.

Friends,

Our church body has taken steps to initiate the production of our next hymnal, a successor to the well-received Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal. With the recognition that a hymnal and a supplement are ultimately intended to be combined, and that the members of our synod have expressed a continuing and rising interest in acquiring and using quality worship materials, groundwork on the next set of hymnal resources has now begun.

It should be noted that the previous sentence speaks of a set of resources. Different than the hymnal release in 1993, the next release of materials is planned to be a simultaneous release of a wider array of resources than the pew edition itself. WELS congregations can look forward to ancillary volumes such as handbook materials and concordance and worship planning resources (some in hard copy and some in digital versions and some in both) and digital music resources and the like becoming available at the same time as the new pew edition. This release is roughly targeted for 2023/2024.

There’s a change in the air when a church body begins a new hymnal project. Hypothetical discussions about future resources and worship issues all of a sudden become much more real as current materials actually come up for review and as real openings are made for new materials to be added.

It is our hope that many will be interested in the project, but it is at the same time our intention to make the process as transparent as possible by inviting people to come along for the ride. To a degree, the work of the seven committees (psalmody, hymnody, rites, communications, literature, scripture, technology) will be observable on this site. Visitors will be able to submit materials and offer opinions and feedback. In these ways and more, scriptural worship education will be receiving a shot in the arm.

The project is predominantly about continuing to make more excellent worship resources available to the congregations of our synod. With the expectation in our day and age that these resources will be digital and downloadable and device-ready, the technology aspect of the project will certainly be receiving our attention. We do recognize, however, that before worrying about the method of media delivery, we have a higher concern about the integrity of the materials – that they are faithful to God’s Word and that they proclaim Christ as Savior and King.

As we bear in mind that we want all the materials of the new hymnal to be very accessible to both worship leaders (for corporate worship) and to individuals (for private devotional use), we very much want to open ourselves up to all who have an interest in these resources. To that end, won’t you please register to receive notifications and updates on our progress? We’d be most pleased if you would. We are here not only to produce materials but also and more importantly to be of personal service to you. God bless our efforts to that end and to his glory!

Pastor Michael Schultz, director
WELS Hymnal Project