WELS Hymnal Project

Project Blog

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

Is hymnology on the decline in our circles?

We wanted to find the answer to that question as part of the survey sent to WELS teachers earlier this year. Even when the answers from respondents in whose classrooms you wouldn’t expect to find hymnology (e.g. preschool, college) were filtered out, it seems as though about 30% of our classrooms don’t include hymnology in the curriculum. Since the question was asked of teachers in a wide variety of settings, those results may be inconclusive or inaccurate. Your personal experience and anecdotal evidence could probably paint a more accurate picture.

Why is hymnology so important? Early Lutherans suffered persecution and even death because they would not stop singing Christ-centered hymns. In our early days, singing Lutheran hymns was often an act of protest against hostile authorities. Even Roman Catholic bishops opined that Luther's hymns had "damned" far more souls than Luther's sermons! If hymnology is becoming less common in our classrooms, we are walking increasingly out of step with this grand tradition. No room in the curriculum for hymnody at a Lutheran school? I would humbly suggest a prayerful reconsideration of this practice.

And this is the key: Luther's church was the singing church, but not because of any feature of Germanic culture. Luther's church was the singing church because early Lutherans taught their children how and what to sing. Music, both theoretical and practical, made up roughly one quarter of the Lutheran curriculum for 200 years of our history. For centuries, it was simply understood that the school choirs would take the lead in singing at church. Singing hymns served as a major bridge between the classroom's desk and the church's pew. It still can today.

If hymnology is in the decline, it would certainly parallel what is happening to music across our land. Children are not taught the "sounds of America" (Yankee Doodle, etc.) any longer in school. Music programs are scrapped when budgetary belts need tightening. With the help of our iPods, we are consuming music like never before. Ironically, we seem to be creating less and less of it. Any serious attempt at teaching hymnody will find a teacher swimming against the cultural stream!

And that's ok. We go against that same cultural stream when we catechize, teach Bible history, teach a Christian worldview, etc. There are some aspects of the Christian life that can’t be "caught." More often than not, the Christian faith - including Christian hymns - needs to be taught. This teaching will become more and more difficult as the world spins toward the day of its judgment.

Until then, I'll offer a bit of advice and an insight. The advice? The lessons we teach students today will accompany our students for a lifetime. The hymns you teach to ten-year-olds will be sung by them in a nursing home when they are ninety-year-olds. Picture the ninety-year-olds in the school desks! Teach them what will last. Teach them what they will need for a lifetime - including sickness and death-time.

The insight? I've found this to be true: Students learn to love what their teachers are passionate about. A good place to start would be to make sure we are well-versed in the raw gospel power found in our hymnody. As we do, faith will flourish and rafters will once again rise in Lutheran churches! That's not the wishful thinking of a pastoral musician. The gospel has always found a way to make it happen!

You might have heard that a hymnology curriculum is currently being developed by our synod’s Commission on Worship. In the meantime, we’d love to hear what you’ve found to work (and what you’ve found to be frustrating). What can our next hymnal include to assist you as you share our gospel-rich heritage of music with the next generation?

I write these words at 33,000 feet over central Wisconsin. I'm on my way to spend some time with the brothers at the Arizona-California District Pastors' Conference. I've packed my essay, plenty of music samples, and my scuffed-up organ shoes for Wednesday evening's hymn festival. Since I have hymns on my mind and in my fingers, I also packed the results of the survey that went out to WELS teachers earlier this year. I have all of Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California to review and react to the results.

Christian Worship is in the pews of over 98% of our churches. Not surprisingly, Christian Worship is also found stashed between math and social studies books in a vast majority of our synod's classrooms. Roughly 80% of WELS classrooms use Christian Worship as their chief source for hymnology and memory work. Even more (94%) use Christian Worship for school worship settings (classroom devotions and chapel services). It seems that the use of Christian Worship in our classrooms is nearly as widespread as in our churches.

But there was one item on the survey that was somewhat surprising: The relatively low use of Christian Worship Supplement (CWS) in our classrooms. When it comes to classroom devotions and chapel services, 63% of teachers are using the Supplement “occasionally” or “seldom/never.” When it comes to hymnology and memorization, that number jumps to 77%.

This is somewhat surprising since CWS has many titles that are made-to-order for students. I can picture the eyes of several junior choir girls tearing up as we sang the Gettys’ "There Is a Higher Throne." The simple refrain of "Blessed Are They Who Are Called" is a favorite of our younger students. "God's Own Child I Gladly Say It" is a beautiful baptismal hymn that children will love. "I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light" served as the theme song for a whole school year. It was extra-special when God's assembled Children of Light sang that same hymn by candlelight at our first Epiphany candlelight service.

In short, the Supplement has much gold for students to mine. Maybe you’ve hesitated to add one more book to buy to an already-long list and to squeeze into an already-full desk. Consider starting by purchasing enough copies for one class or choir to use at a time and storing those copies with the rest of your sacred music files.

Whether you’ve already made extensive use of the Supplement or not, we recognize the challenge in finding hymns that children - especially the younger ones - can understand and learn to sing. We’d love to hear what hymns you’ve found to be well-suited for praise from the lips of the children you teach.

During 2014, the WELS Hymnal Project has conducted three surveys to solicit input about how the current hymnal is being used and how the new hymnal can best serve our church body. The first was for pastors, the second for teachers, and the third for musicians. This fourth survey, intended for all WELS members, asks for feedback on things like chanting psalms, instruments suited for accompany worship, wording for the songs and prayers of worship, and singing hymns and songs of the liturgy in four-part harmony.

We would be very appreciative if you would take a few minutes of your time to give us your input. The deadline to submit your input is Tuesday, November 25, 2014.

Take the survey

On September 10 and 11, the hymnal project’s executive committee met at the synod’s Center for Mission and Ministry in Waukesha, Wisconsin. This was the executive committee’s third face-to-face meeting since first meeting in September of 2013.

Considerable time was spent discussing various issues that will eventually shape the hymnal’s table of contents. Most people would rightly expect a hymnal to include 600+ hymns. But how many orders of service will it include? How many psalms? With many more of today’s congregations printing out an order of service each week, those questions will inevitably be discussed differently than they were two decades ago. We will continue to strive to provide a resource that serves the public worship needs of the various churches of our synod.

The executive committee also spent time discussing issues that will help us shape the hymnal’s contents. For example, how will we make decisions about various language issues? By what criteria will hymns be evaluated? By what process will new submissions from the public be reviewed? Laying a good foundation in these matters will help us make wise decisions in the future.

Looking forward, the executive committee will continue to solicit input about how our current hymnal is being used and how the new hymnal can best serve our church body. The fourth and final major survey will be launched during October. This last survey is intended for any and all worshipers in our church body.

In a little more than a year’s time, the executive committee will be looking for feedback on potential new resources that are being considered for this next hymnal. Congregations will have an opportunity to field test various resources and offer us input about them.

Finally, the executive committee’s meeting served as an opportunity to celebrate twenty-five years in ministry for the project director, Pastor Michael Schultz. Prior to serving as the hymnal project’s director, Pastor Schultz served congregations in Lawrenceville, Georgia, and Flagstaff, Arizona. An afternoon service was held at the Center for Mission and Ministry’s chapel. Pictures from that service can be seen here.

Join us in thanking God for the blessings he has given to Pastor Schultz and to our church body through him. Join us in continuing to pray for God’s richest blessings on the ongoing work of all those involved in the hymnal project.

Ever since our three-year lectionary reset on December 1, 2013, about one hundred congregations a week have been filling out a review form related to their congregation’s worship that week. The review form gives them the opportunity to submit information on hymn, lesson, and order of service usage. It also gives them the opportunity to provide feedback on how well those service elements tied together and served their gospel proclamation for that particular day.

In order that the various project subcommittees can proceed with their work, we plan to review both years B and C simultaneously starting on November 30, 2014, with Advent 1.

We hope to get roughly the same number of congregations participating in each year and therefore are once again extending the invitation for any congregation to participate. Since some congregations may already have plans in place for Year B, we are especially in need of congregations who are able and willing to use and review Year C during the coming year.

If you haven’t been participating, here’s how the process works. On Monday of each week, the contact person from each participating congregation receives an email. That email contains a link to an online form for reviewing the congregation’s worship for the previous Sunday. During Year A, we have also been providing a summary report of the previous week’s data and a brief sermon insight for one of the lessons for the coming week. We are seeking feedback on whether or not there is interest in continuing to receive these last two items.

If you would like to participate, you may register by filling out this online registration form. PLEASE NOTE: Even if your congregation is already participating, we ask that you fill out the form so that we know what year (B or C) you’d like to review. Registrations are due by October 1, 2014.