WELS Hymnal Project

Project Blog

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

One of the questions facing the psalmody committee is whether to publish the entire psalter. This would include publishing every verse from all 150 psalms.

Some of the input we have already received encourages us to do just that, or at least to publish more verses from selected psalms.

In his article, Necessary Songs: The Case for Singing the Entire Psalter, Martin Tel makes a nice case for expanding what we do in worship with the Psalms.

One of his main points, that some of the expressions in the psalms do not match the modern American sensibility, is probably a good reason to take his advice. Any time we can point out the difference between the reality of God and modern American sensibilities, people can grow in grace and truth.

The real questions are practical.

Some congregations struggle with the psalms presently printed in Christian Worship. If we expand the number of words that a congregation might speak or sing, how can we put the psalms into a format that makes them accessible to those kinds of congregations? Perhaps appropriate background music for the oral reading of an entire psalm would help them. Perhaps they would sing a hymn based on a psalm, a metrical paraphrase, instead.

Other congregations have used the psalms presently printed in Christian Worship so often that they are getting old. They are appreciating the psalms in Christian Worship: Supplement, but they are looking for more. Perhaps having the text of an entire psalm in a fresh setting would help them.

Near the end of his article, Tel makes the case that abridged psalms might still be very useful in some locations. How much to abridge them is one question. Whether and how to use refrains, both old and new, is another question. But we have become accustomed, sometimes even fondly, to the abridged psalms with refrains in Christian Worship, and they seem to have a good place in WELS worship practices.

What do you think? Publish all the psalms or just selected ones? Publish all the verses or just selected ones?

There is good reason to put a lot of effort into our consideration of psalms in the new hymnal. As Martin Luther wrote, the psalms are words of prophecy, instruction, comfort, prayer, and thanks. He prayed them daily and published how he found Christ in each one.

Do we find Christ in the psalms? That is enough to make them valuable. And as the hymnal of the Scripture, the psalms, whether whole or abridged, will be a valuable part of our synod’s new hymnal.

I’d like to point out that three new resources were posted to the WELS Hymnal Project website recently.

The first is a lengthy work entitled, “Studies in Lutheran Chorales,” by Hilton C. Oswald. From the resource description:

Between the years 1961 and 1997 a series of essays by Hilton Oswald appeared in The Lutheran School Bulletin, the predecessor to The Lutheran Educator. The collection of 47 essays is unique for its contribution in the English language to the understanding of German Lutheran hymns. On the pages of this collection of essays Oswald urges Lutherans to understand and appreciate the treasure of German Lutheran hymnody that we have inherited. The WELS Hymnal Project presents this document, newly formatted and digitized, for useful study in WELS and beyond.

The second is the inaugural issue of Viva Vox, a newsletter published in 1955 by Ralph Gehrke and Kurt Eggert. From the resource description:

In the mid 1950’s Lutheran colleagues Rev. Kurt Eggert and Professor Ralph Gehrke teamed up to circulate a worship newsletter entitled Viva Vox (the Living Voice [of the Gospel]). With Rev. Eggert having served as the project director for Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal, the reproduction of these editions is intended only to illustrate how many of the same worship issues of half a century ago are still facing us today as we humbly take on the daunting task and responsibility of working on our next worship book and its accompanying resources. We will add editions as time allows, and we plan to write a few blog articles referencing topics covered in Viva Vox.

The third is a Scripture index of Christian Worship: Supplement. From the resource description:

An extensive scripture index for the hymns of Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal is included in the final pages of Christian Worship: Handbook (Dr. C.T. Aufdemberge). A number of years ago a similar index was prepared for Christian Worship: Supplement and is now made available in the hopes that it will serve as a helpful resource for hymn selection in any number of settings.

We present these resources to you in the hopes that you find them useful and edifying.

“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.