WELS Hymnal Project

Project Blog

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

One aspect of the WELS Hymnal Project that has not received much public attention is the revision of that book which contains various rites for use in congregational life. That's natural, in a sense. To illustrate: I have a small air compressor at home that is an excellent tool for all kinds of home projects – nailing, sanding, texturing, painting. Truth be told, I don't use my air compressor every day, and it's easy to forget that I even own one. But when I do need it, it's there, and I'm thankful it is.

In the worship life of God's people, we don't use the rites of a church regularly. In fact, there are rites in our new book that some congregations will never use, such as “Dedication of a Church Bell.” Yet, if and when a congregation ever needs such a rite, it will be there, ready for use.

The new book of congregational rites will be called the Agenda. A small committee of pastors has been working over the past three years to review, revise, update, and add to those rites of the church that are currently found in Christian Worship: Occasional Services. At the onset of the task, the committee quickly realized that the current Occasional Services was a mixed bag of both rites and special liturgical services, such as the Good Friday Tenebrae service. The committee felt that it would be beneficial to separate such as liturgical elements from what is properly called "rites." This has a historical precedent since for many years Lutheran pastors turned to the Lutheran Agenda to find rites for such things as installation of a pastor, teacher, or vicar; dedication of an organ or church building; laying of a cornerstone; reception of new members; installation of synod or district officers, etc. etc. All in all, there will be over fifty rites found in the new Agenda.

Moreover, the current title Occasional Services is, in a sense, a bit misleading—but not deliberately so. While there indeed are complete "services" in this present book, a rite in and of itself is not a complete service; it is a small portion of a service or devotion. This reality also led the committee to return to the historical name Agenda. Special liturgical services that are complete in and of themselves (such as the Tenebrae mentioned above) will find a new home in the electronic resources available as part of the new hymnal resources.

"Agenda" is a Latin term that means, "things that need to be done." There are things in the public worship life of a congregation and synod that, simply put, need to be done. They need to be done in a "fitting and orderly way (1 Co 14:4)" that is respectful of God's Word and house. They need to be done in a clear and confessional way since many of the rites articulate doctrinal positions we hold. They need to be done in a public way before God and people as a clear testimony. And, above all, these things need to be done to the glory of God and for the edification of his holy people.

The new hymnal will aid your devotional life by providing a daily reading plan for Scripture. This tool will get you into God’s word and provide a pattern for piety.

A lectionary appoints scripture readings for use on certain days. Your Sunday worship follows the Three Year Lectionary for Sundays and Festivals. But the hymnal will offer another set of readings appointed for every day of the year: the daily lectionary.

The daily lectionary provides two readings for each day, about 20 verses from the Old Testament and 20 from the New Testament. It doesn’t require a large time commitment but still enables you to read through almost the entire New Testament and over a third of the Old Testament each year.

The Scripture Committee proposes that we use the excellent daily lectionary developed by Pastor Rick Stuckwisch. The readings will not be connected to your Sunday worship specifically but will relate in a broad way to the liturgical season. For example, during the days of Advent, readings are appointed from Isaiah, an advent prophet.

Here’s an example from the daily lectionary that begins on Ash Wednesday:

March 6, 2019
Gen 1:1-19
Mark 1:1-13

March 7, 2019
Gen 1:20-2:3
Mark 1:14-28

March 8, 2019
Gen 2:4-25
Mark 1:29-45

March 9, 2019
Gen 3:1-24
Mark 2:1-17

March 10, 2019
Gen 4:1-26
Mark 2:18-28

March 11, 2019
Gen 6:1--7:5
Mark 3:1-19

March 12, 2019
Gen 7:11-8:12
Mark 3:20-35

We hope that the new hymnal will enhance your daily devotional life.

Thematic Sundays are a chief feature of the new lectionary. For example, rather than a series of continual readings through an epistle, the second reading will fit the theme for each Sunday. But what about all the other appointments? In the lectionary published in 1993, the appointments for the Prayer of the Day, the Verse of the Day, the Psalm of the Day, and the Hymn of the Day often lacked any connection to the appointed readings.

In the new lectionary and accompanying resources, the Scripture Committee will provide new appointments that match the Sunday theme. Consider this example:

Proper 15, Year A (The Sunday that falls between Aug 14-18)
Matthew 15:21-28 The Faith of the Canaanite Woman; even the dogs get the crumbs
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 God will bring foreigners to his holy mountain; a house of prayer for all nations
Ephesians 2:13-22 Gentiles are fellow citizens with God’s people in the Church

The readings proclaim, “The Church is for all people.”

Our past lectionary (PEN 13A) offered a psalm, Verse of the Day, and Prayer of the Day that had no connection to the thrust of the Gospel. It appointed as Hymn of the Day, "When in the Hour of Utmost Need," which certainly speaks of the woman’s plight, but fails to capture the theme of the Sunday.

The new appointments seek to stay on theme:

Prayer of the Day
Gracious God, in Christ you bring people from near and far into the fellowship of your Church. Open our eyes to your saving plan and move us to embrace all who seek your salvation so that we may rejoice together at the banquet of your love; through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Psalm of the Day
Psalm 67. May your ways be known on earth; your salvation among all nations.

Gospel Acclamation (Verse of the Day)
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

Hymn of the Day
The Church’s One Foundation. This hymn offers clear ties to all three readings.

We hope that thematic appointments of these resources will encourage their frequent use.

The Executive Committee of the WELS Hymnal Project comes into 2019 with four regular face-to-face meetings remaining before most of the content of the core products of the new hymnal is due to turn over to Northwestern Publishing House for the publishing process. The various subcommittees of the project are meeting monthly, and in some cases weekly, to complete the content so it can be reviewed and approved by the Executive Committee by the end of this year. Here’s a snapshot of where we stand with the project.

  • The Hymnody Committee continues to evaluate new hymns and bring them to the Executive Committee for approval. For the past few years, the Executive Committee has been reviewing the texts and musical settings of anywhere between 30-60 new and old hymns at each quarterly meeting that have been previously vetted by the Hymnody Committee.
  • The pew edition of the new hymnal is intended to be a “singer’s book”. The harmonizations included in its pages are intended for part-singing as well as keyboard accompaniment. Some of the hymns that are not intended to be sung in 4-part harmony may appear in a melody-only format, but this will be the case in as few instances as possible. The accompaniment for all hymns will be found in the Accompaniment Edition.
  • A two-volume Accompaniment Edition, which will be in a spiral bound 8.5”x11” format, will hold the accompaniment for everything in the Pew Edition. This set will also hold alternate settings of many of the hymns, along with performance guidelines like tempo markings.
  • Three settings of the main service will be in the Pew Edition of the hymnal. Additionally, for those looking for further variety, as many as six other settings of the main service will be available in electronic format for production in service folders.
  • The Musicians Resource Group has been hunting down music for instruments and singers to support our project’s body of hymns. The group met recently to discuss their findings and to map out the team’s work going forward. The next 5-6 months will be spent looking for more existing resources. Eventually, newly composed music is likely also to be included. The end goal is to provide excellent, practical, curated music resources for every hymn in the new hymnal.
  • A set of Gospel Acclamations with proper verses of the day, similar in concept to the GIA Cantor’s Book of Gospel Acclamations, is in the works.
  • The Scripture Committee is wrapping up work on the lectionary and moving on to Commentary on the Propers.
  • The committee working on the pastor’s Agenda Book has been working on rites such as Installation of a Teacher, Farewell to a Ministerial Candidate, Dedication of a Church Building, and Commissioning of a Missionary, among others.
  • Background information on each hymn that would be found in a handbook will now be accessible in an online database rather than a printed volume.
  • We are now under contract with an artist who will produce a logo and various icons for use across the hymnal resources.
  • The Technology Committee is continuing to work with a technology vendor to produce a digital worship planning tool which will streamline service folder production.
  • A 64-page preview edition of the new hymnal will highlight various features of a new liturgical rite, as well as several new hymns and psalm settings. The preview will be produced and made available at the 2020 District Conventions, the 2021 Leadership Conference and Worship Conference, and the 2021 Synod Convention. Each congregation in the Synod will receive copies for perusal as well.
  • Release of the new hymnal is scheduled for Advent 2021.

The Executive Committee continues to oversee and facilitate the work of over 75 volunteers who are putting these important worship resources together for our Synod. Please pray for the people working on this project, as well as their families and the congregations and schools that they serve. Please pray for the success of this project so that these resources confess the name of Jesus Christ and provide tools to enable believers to use the means of grace in public worship and other devotional settings.

Singing certain hymns merges us together with a long line of Christians who have sung these hymns before us. Puer natus in Bethlehem is one such hymn.

In addition to being the word for ministers proceeding into the sanctuary in ceremonial fashion, a “processional” is also the name for a book, in which were contained songs that were chanted during these church processions. The text Puer natus in Bethlehem first appeared in a Benedictine processional in the early 14th century. When the text was later standardized, the first Latin stanza read:

Puer natus in Bethlehem, Bethlehem
unde gaudet Jerusalem, Alleluia, alleluia.

A boy is born in Bethlehem (echo: Bethlehem),
wherefore Jerusalem rejoices: Alleluia, alleluia.

In 1439, Heinrich von Laufenberg translated the Latin verses into German:

Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem
Des freuet sich Jerusalem, Alleluja.

A tune of the same name (PUER NATUS IN BETHLEHEM) was associated with the text since the 14th century. By the early 17th century, the tune had all but become the same as it appears today.

The last hymnal for which Martin Luther authored prefatory remarks and what he would have regarded as his own hymnal for personal use was the 1545 edition of Geistliche Lieder, published in Leipzig by Valentin Babst (later known as the “Babst hymnal”). It was in this hymnal that the ten stanzas of Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem settled into what would be the authorized German version of the text.

Sixty years later, in the first decade of the 17th century, Michael Praetorius’ nine-volume work Musae Sioniae included 1,200 chorale settings, some with elaborate eight or twelve voice arrangements. One of the four-part chorale settings was the setting for Puer Natus in Bethlehem, a setting which still finds use today.

Since this hymn text also had verses that made reference to the Wise Men and their gifts, Johann Sebastian Bach used the text and tune early in the 18th century for his church Cantata #65. He composed this cantata and it was first performed on the Festival of the Epiphany of our Lord, January 6, 1724. 179 years after the hymn was published in the Babst hymnal in Leipizig, in that same city, the wondrous tones of a Bach cantata raised up that same song once again, proclaiming the message of how Wisemen from the East came to worship the boy who was born in Bethlehem.

The German text of this hymn was first translated into English by Hamilton Montgomerie MacGill. MacGill was educated and served as a minister in Glasgow, Scotland. He was a member of the Hymnal Committee of the United Presbyterian Church, contributing to the Presbyterian Hymnal of 1876.

God-willing, three short years from now, a newly published hymnal will be in the hands of WELS Christians scattered throughout this country and beyond. In the Christmas section of that new hymnal will appear a text that has made its way from a 14th century Latin processional to a 16th century German hymnal to a 17th century book of chorales to an 18th century church cantata to a 19th century Scottish hymnal to a 21st century English hymn (public domain translation by Chris Neuendorf, alt.) published by a small Lutheran church body based in Wisconsin, USA. The music of that hymn was set in SATB chorale form in the early 17th century by a truly Lutheran musician and choir director. Space permitting, the Epiphany section of the new hymnal will additionally include an Epiphany version of the hymn, allowing worshipers to echo the harmonies of Praetorius from his 1607 book of chorales, and to re-echo the harmonies of Bach from that Epiphany celebration in 1724 (Bach BWV 65, movement 2 [chorale] here from 3:35 to 4:17). I will be looking forward to a lead sheet version of the hymn that will allow for piano/guitar ensemble performance, sung at a lively pace.

And the best thing about standing in this long line of Christians who have made use of this one, particular hymn? We will be singing of Jesus, who became flesh to become our sin, that we again like him might be, set free from sin to serve and honor our God.

1 A child is born in Bethlehem, Bethlehem,
the joy of all Jerusalem. Alleluia, Alleluia!

5 Our feeble flesh and his the same, his the same,
our sinless brother he became, Alleluia, Alleluia!

6 from all our sin to set us free, set us free,
that we again like him might be. Alleluia, Alleluia!

7 Rejoicing in the holy birth, holy birth,
we praise our God who came to earth. Alleluia, Alleluia!

Peace in Jesus to you and yours this Christmas season!

Michael D. Schultz, director
WELS Hymnal Project