WELS Hymnal Project

Project Blog

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

The Technology Committee was excited to find that the recent survey of WELS pastors conducted by Northwestern Publishing House and the WELS Hymnal Project revealed several opportunities to serve WELS congregations with worship-related technology. The top three worship-related technology needs according to WELS pastors are 1) worship planning tools and resources; 2) digital assets (e.g., music graphics) for worship folders; and 3) digital sheet music for musicians. I believe that our emerging vision for a digital worship compendium aligns well with the expressed needs of WELS pastors.

Key insights from the survey

The Technology Committee gained several key insights from the results of the survey. We’re glad to have comments and reactions from so many WELS pastors. My committee has reviewed the entire survey and the following insights are among the most important that we learned from the study.

Worship planning remains a challenge

I could already infer that worship planning tools would be a top priority when I saw how much pastors rely on email in the worship planning process. 95% of pastors use email to communicate worship plans. 28% supplement the process with some sort of web-based sharing platform, which leaves almost three-quarters of pastors without the benefits of such web-based tools. Email, although ubiquitous, is ill-suited for the task of managing any complex, centralized process, including worship planning. As organizations discover the limits of email they begin moving to centralized communication systems that simply work better than email. Many congregations are headed that way, too. Even systems based on a hierarchy of files and folders (e.g., Dropbox, Google Drive) struggle to handle complex tasks. It’s no surprise, then, that WELS pastors expressly stated the need for better online tools to help plan and communicate worship.

Not only are WELS pastors looking for a tool to help them manage the complexity of planning and communicating worship, they are also looking for a way to quickly and easily find excellent worship resources to incorporate into their plans. Both survey data and anecdotal evidence seem to indicate that pastors are often unaware of the variety of worship resources that are already available in volumes like Christian Worship: Occasional Services, let alone the other resources available from the Commission on Worship, Northwestern Publishing House, or other liturgical publishers. A tool to help manage the complex job of worship planning should also deliver excellent worship resources to match a congregation’s context, that is, resources that support their journey through the lectionary as well as their individual needs for hymnody, psalmody, rites, and prayers. We should build something that helps good resources to surface when they’re needed instead of staying hidden out of sight.

Worship folders are widely used

A majority of WELS congregations use printed worship folders to assist worshipers. Of that majority, some print the entire liturgy as well as the hymns, while most (75%) direct worshipers to the hymnal for singing the hymns. Only 21% of pastors indicated that their congregations follow the liturgy from the front part of the printed hymnal. This seems to indicate that for the singing of hymns the printed hymnal still rules, but for speaking and singing the liturgy a worship folder is preferred (a small minority, 17%, also project the liturgy on the wall or screen).

WELS congregations will benefit from resources that improve the quality of their printed worship folders. Certainly musical graphics will be a part of that solution. Printable reproductions of hymns with reasonable copyright control will be essential. Options for both melody-only and four-part versions would be nice, too. (Also, we need to accept that gone are the days of delivering such files on a CD-ROM. A web-based, structured, and centralized solution is a must.)

A tougher question about worship folders is, “Do we want to provide a tool to generate the worship folders themselves?” I don’t know the answer to that question yet, but I do think there is potential in providing easy-to-access digital assets for worship folders along with professionally-designed worship folder templates. There is an opportunity here to provide the tools needed to raise the standard of quality for worship folders in WELS parishes.

Digital sheet music is an important niche

I’m glad to have the support of several church musicians on my committee because I don’t know much about digital sheet music. Digital sheet music seems to be changing rapidly as the market settles into the new computing paradigm made popular by the introduction of the iPad in 2010. Some promising products have emerged as companies try to carve out a market for digital sheet music. Still, the situation seems cloudy, at least in my mind. My committee includes a Working Group on Musicians’ Tools to provide in-depth study and review of existing products. They’ve already begun their research. We’ll work to find a solution that delivers to musicians the resources they need to adorn the gospel with their music.

WELS pastors are open to a subscription service

Three-quarters of WELS pastors indicated that their congregations would react favorably to a subscription-based funding model for a digital hymnal. If we wish to provide the resources that WELS pastors want, then we will need to build a business model that supports such technology in the long term. This is a change from the traditional model of producing a printed book.

The business model of a printed book requires a publisher to pour resources into the development upfront. Initial costs are rewarded by a burst of revenue as the book becomes available for purchase. Revenue begins to stream as the development expenses stop, leaving only maintenance and marketing, which are relatively small compared to the initial investment. A publisher can draw revenue from the sales of a book for many years while incurring relatively minimal maintenance and revision costs.


Figure 1: Traditional business model for books. These charts do not represent actual sales figures but illustrate the nature of the market in general terms. Download a high-resolution PDF of this chart.

Web-based resources require a different business model and the subscription model seems to be the most compelling option. A subscription model provides steady revenue to cover the cost of maintenance and improvement. Furthermore, the monthly or annual subscription fee can be structured to recoup the initial development costs over time. The subscription model also has the happy benefit of providing to any new subscribers full access to the entire digital hymnal. A quick glance at the market for software tools today reveals that the low-priced monthly subscription model is replacing the high-priced upfront purchase model. Even software giants like Adobe and Microsoft, which made billions of dollars in profit from selling packaged software, are moving to a subscription model in their core businesses.


Figure 2: Subscription business model for resources and tools. These charts do not represent actual sales figures but illustrate the nature of the market in general terms. Download a high-resolution PDF of this chart.

A hymnal is a long-term resource. The digital component of the hymnal is more of a service than a single product and therefore requires the sort of funding that enables it to last the lifespan of the hymnal. Subscriptions may be the solution, and three-quarters of WELS pastors responded favorably to the idea. That’s good to know.

Opportunity knocks

Beyond just the technology needs we discovered in the survey, I also noticed how the survey revealed the high level of confidence that WELS pastors place in the hymnal. 90% of pastors reported that their congregation sings Christian Worship psalmody. 75% of pastors reported that they rarely, if ever, use rites from a source other than Christian Worship or Christian Worship: Supplement. And a minuscule 2% report that they regularly look beyond Christian Worship or Christian Worship: Supplement for hymnody. Other committees will dig into the insights we can learn from how congregations are using hymnody, psalmody, and rites, including what sort of changes and improvements may be needed, but for now it’s clear that pastors believe that they can trust what is published in our hymnal.

That level of trust not only compels me to be as faithful as I can in helping to build the next hymnal, it also reminds me that opportunity is knocking—maybe even pounding—at the door. Great trust combined with excellent, curated resources delivered in a modern, useful, and efficient way will be the foundation for excellence in worship. The data indicates that a digital hymnal has great potential to serve WELS congregations. We can meet real needs to support and assist worshipers throughout our synod.

In January, a survey was sent out to all active WELS pastors in order to gather information about how the Christian Worship line of resources is being used and input about the direction of the new hymnal project. 807 pastors completed the survey. We are thankful for the information that has been provided.

At its February meeting, the project’s executive committee spent time discussing the results. Over the next few weeks, each of the project’s subcommittees will be sharing some of the information that was gathered as well as insights as to how it will help them in their work.

Three more surveys are planned during 2014: one for teachers, one for musicians, and one directed at any and all congregation members (“the people in the pew”).

Thank you for continuing to share your input and ideas with us. We are eager to continue to listen!

In the early days of this hymnal project website, it was noted that one of the leading purposes of writing blog articles is to “take people along for the ride,” to share with readers a healthy cross-section of all the different aspects of our work. We also knew that one of our early work items would be reviewing all the existing materials in our hymnal and its supplement. By early 2015 we will have reviewed all of the lectionary selections, psalms, hymns, and rites across all of the published Christian Worship editions, including Christian Worship: Occasional Services. The first group to dive into this review has been the executive committee, since the other subcommittees will be bringing to the executive committee batches of recommendations and resolutions regarding all of the review items, complete with detailed notes, transcribed committee discussions, and rationale statements for all their recommendations.

Reviewing hymns has been slow going for me. It’s not uncommon for me to spend more than an hour reviewing a single hymn, sometimes much more than that. I have about a hundred done, and I plan to go back through them all once more (especially the earliest reviews), now that I have landed on a review process which seems to work. Front and center is an open copy of Christian Worship. When it’s time to start reviewing the next hymn, I’ll typically open two new review items in the online database where all our reviews reside — one review for the text and another for the music. The other open volume which I consult for every hymn is Dr. C.T. Aufdemberge’s Christian Worship: Handbook. And then the chase is on.

Regarding the text, the non-exhaustive list of questions includes:

  • How many original stanzas were there and in what language were they?
  • Are there any original dropped stanzas we should think about bringing back in?
  • Are there any currently included stanzas we should think about dropping?
  • Are there enough unused original stanzas that we might consider carving out two separate hymns from the complete number of stanzas?
  • If the hymn is a translation into English, who translated it and when?
  • How many translations are there?
  • Would we want to think about retranslating a text?
  • Should we definitely not retranslate a text because of its long-standing use or because of how many may have already memorized it as it is?
  • If the text is public domain, how has it been altered?
  • Are there phrases, rhymes, or terms that really need to be fixed?
  • Was it wise to go from “thee” to “you” or should we return to “thee” with a particular text (case by case basis)?
  • What are the differences (down to the shortest single words or even punctuation) in how the text appears in the many different hymnals in which it has been published?
  • Is the language intelligible?
  • Is the poetry rich or weak?
  • Does the text contribute something significant to the body of hymns we have, or do the same themes already appear in five similar hymns?

There is an almost inexhaustible array of hard copy and online resources in which can be explored these sample questions and many more. And the questions above are really only the mechanical questions. I haven’t even delved into the more important matters of the message of the text, its law/gospel clarity, its gospel content, its doctrinal integrity - all of which are up for review.

Then there’s the music.

  • Are the key signature and range too high or too low?
  • If it was new to our church body in Christian Worship, has the tune caught on or do people still struggle with it?
  • Is it time to let this tune go or are there good arguments for keeping it?
  • Is the musical setting (the harmony parts) too challenging?
  • Which of a number of different settings is the best one for this hymn?
  • Are there descants or instrumental parts for the hymn or would we need to or should we think about producing them?
  • Do the words/syllables of the text match up well with the beat or pulse (or syncopation or rhythm) of the music?
  • How and by whom has this tune been used in the history of the church?
  • Do we have the best tune with this text?
  • In the hymnals of other Lutheran and Christian church bodies, which tunes and settings appear with this text?
  • Do the melody line and rhythm which we have in our hymnal line up with how the melody line and rhythm appear in a broad cross section of the larger church throughout the world?
  • Which musical genres are under-represented or over-represented in our current hymnody, and where does this tune fit into that question?

And then we would have to say “ditto” as far as the comment made above regarding texts — online resources covering only the existing music of our hymns are practically endless, to say nothing of the hundreds of hymns we’ll be reviewing which would be either new since our last major publication or new to us as a church body. And these musical questions are again mostly only the mechanical ones. Not treated in the sampling of questions above are the more important matters, such as: Does the tune highlight and emphasize the text it is carrying or is the music itself the focus or actually a distraction to the text? Whatever its style or genre, does the tune have the dignity and decorum we would want it to have, realizing that it will be utilized in God’s house? How well has the tune worn or will it wear with continued and repeated use in our worship services?

Considering these questions and many more, along with the research which such considerations trigger, has made my own review of hymns slow going. I thought I might possibly gain some ground when I came to the musical review of CW 92, “Brightest and Best.” In the handful of hard copy hymnals I checked, the key signature was regularly G major, and there wasn’t much if any variation to the harmony parts. Then I glanced down to my left, toward the open copy of the LC-MS’s Lutheran Service Book, and thought to myself, “What’s that?” The melody line in the second last measure sure looked strange - its first three notes going straight up the scale from D to E to F. All my forty-plus years of singing that hymn in TLH and CW, I have sung that phrase D to G to F. So much for a quick musical review of CW 92. I quickly found out that both the current and previous Lutheran hymnals of the Missouri Synod and the ELCA have that phrase going straight up the scale from D to E to F. The website hymnary.org revealed that right around 20 hymnals have it that way, too — hymnals dating back to 1899 (not to mention a host of 19th century hymnals which have this text set to six other tunes, composed or arranged by the likes of Samuel Wesley, John B. Dykes, J. S. Bach and Johann C. W. A. Mozart). Without having burned too many research hours, it appears that The Lutheran Hymnal, Christian Worship, and Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (ELS) are possibly the only hymnals that have that last line the way I have always sung it.

When it comes to things that call for one’s attention in a hymn review, sometimes it’s just one note. Will we make that tiny melodic change in “Brightest and Best” and align the next printing of that hymn with what is common in the vast majority of hymnals that have published it? I honestly don’t know (yet). If we were to do so, I imagine I might sing it incorrectly the first few times, as I probably did when a similar three note change (2X) was made in the case of CW 234, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” to align the melody of that hymn with its much more common and broader use in Christian churches and hymnals. All I can say at this point is that, along with everything else, it will be up for review.

And I can assure you that our thinking with every conceivable question concerning the review of hymns has one underlying principle which is guiding not only our review of hymns but all that we are doing across all our committees: How will every one of our decisions serve for the glory of God and the edification of all those who will, God-willing, make use of the next WELS hymnal? Brothers and sisters, we benefit from your prayers and your involvement as we seek to serve both you and our Savior. Thank you for your interest and your prayers.

One of the goals for the WELS Hymnal Project’s September 2013 executive committee meeting was to nominate members for each of the project’s seven subcommittees (hymnody, psalmody, rites, scripture, literature, technology, and communications).

During the ensuing months, the chairmen of those committees have been extending invitations to the nominated individuals. We are pleased to announce that, in advance of our second executive committee meeting (February 26,27, 2014), each of the seven subcommittees has been filled.

Work has already begun to get all of the subcommittee members familiar with the tools and resources the members of the project will be using to complete their work. Several subcommittees have been further divided into working groups and have begun to tackle the work that is in front of them. One of the goals for the upcoming executive committee meeting will be to develop an overall timeline for the completion of the various aspects of this project.

We are thankful both to the Lord of the Church who continues to pour out great and diverse gifts on our church body and to these individuals for their willingness to serve. Please continue to keep the members of the WELS Hymnal Project in your prayers.

A list of the members of each of the seven subcommittees can be found on the project website.

There is more than one way to slice up the pie that is the Christian church year, our annual calendar that serves to focus God’s people on Christ’s saving work and word.

The simplest way to slice it would be to view the church year as two equal parts: one that focuses on the life of Christ (also known as the festival half of the year), the other that focuses on the teachings of Christ (the non-festival half). On the other end of the spectrum, the church year can be viewed as 60+ specific Sundays and festivals (plus any number of minor festivals and commemorations), each of which highlights a unique facet of Christ’s work and teaching. In between, the church year consists of six seasons (seven with End Time) with unique sights, sounds, and Scriptural themes that take us from one Advent to the next.

One of the other ways in which the church year can be organized is around the three great festivals that punctuate the Christian year: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. It’s often been said that those three festivals highlight the saving work of our Triune God. Christmas celebrates the love of the God the Father in sending his Son. Easter celebrates the saving work of God the Son. Pentecost celebrates the work of God the Spirit, who breathes life into the Church on earth.

When organized in this way, the church year is viewed from the perspective of three periods of time. The time of Christmas includes the seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. The time of Easter includes the seasons of Lent and Easter along with Holy Week. The time of the Church includes the day of Pentecost and all of the Sundays that come after it. This is the way the church year is organized in Christian Worship on pages 157-159 and explained in Christian Worship: Manual on pages 369-384.

Regardless of how you slice it, the Christian church year has and will continue to serve as an invaluable tool for uniting Christ’s church on earth around the gospel as it gathers for worship at the start of each week.

As we continue on that journey together and with Christians all over the world, the next period of time that looms on the horizon is the time of Easter. As that time approaches, we share this resource as one way to help God’s people see the connection and progression from Ash Wednesday through Ascension as we remember Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection.

God’s blessings as you continue your annual remembrance of what our Savior has done!

This post was also published by the Institute for Worship and Outreach and included accompanying resources. Please visit the website of the Institute for Worship and Outreach for copies of those resources.