WELS Hymnal Project

Project Blog

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

We plan to offer a brief update on the work each committee is doing each month. This month we hear from Rev. Paul Prange, chairman of the Psalmody Committee.

The Psalmody Committee (PC) has selected all of the Psalm settings that will be printed in the new WELS hymnal. Those settings have been approved by the executive committee and are being prepared for publication. Some of the settings are responsorial, single-tone, like all of the CW settings, and others are responsorial, double-tone, like some of the CWS settings, or metrical paraphrases, which look like hymns with refrains. Worship planners who like a particular style for any Psalm should be able to find appropriate settings in the new psalter and in the electronic resources accompanying the new hymnal.

Now the Psalmody Committee is working on reviewing and curating thousands of settings for Psalms that are not chosen to go with the readings for each Sunday. All 150 Psalms will have at least two settings in the new WELS psalter, along with prayers, Luther quotes, and notes for personal devotional use. The PC hopes that its work will result in a rich Lutheran resource for generations to come.

From July of 2017 through March of 2018, the WELS Hymnal Project published nine segments of our current body of hymns, indicating which of those hymns were initially designated to be cut from inclusion in our next hymnal. As we did, we invited feedback from WELS members. Anyone interested could cast their vote for up to ten hymns from each segment, indicating that they would prefer to see those hymns kept. Among the nine different segments of the list, more than 8,000 responses were received. The window for submitting feedback closed on May 1.

At its meeting last week, the Hymnal Project’s Executive Committee discussed the results of that feedback. The Executive Committee decided to take the twenty hymns that the most people wanted to see included and put them back into consideration for the final list.

Those twenty hymns are:

  • 13 There's a Voice in the Wilderness Crying
  • 106 Come to Calvary's Holy Mountain
  • 112 There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood
  • 129 Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed
  • 158 I Am Content! My Jesus Lives Again
  • 213 Forever with the Lord
  • 242 Oh, that I Had a Thousand Voices
  • 260 Let All Things Now Living
  • 284 How Precious Is the Book Divine
  • 295 Dearest Jesus, We Are Here
  • 322 On What Has Now Been Sown
  • 345 In the Cross of Christ I Glory
  • 347 Jesus! and Shall It Ever Be
  • 368 O Savior, Precious Savior
  • 433 Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me
  • 473 Savior, I Follow On
  • 488 Savior, Thy Dying Love
  • 505 Love Is the Gracious Gift
  • 566 We All Are One in Mission
  • 571 From Greenland's Icy Mountains

In addition to putting these twenty back into consideration, the feedback we received will be beneficial as we do our final work on the list and things like balance across the various sections of the hymnal comes into play.

We are extremely grateful for the time and effort people took to provide us with feedback.

Last year, one-third of WELS congregations were invited to sample and review service materials for our synod’s next hymnal (the other two-thirds had been previously invited to participate in sampling either hymn or psalms resources).

135 congregations participated in this field testing effort, sampling materials from September through November of 2017. Congregations were first asked to introduce a new service text and progression, using canticles that were already familiar to their congregation. After familiarizing themselves with the text and progression of the service, congregations were asked to introduce a new set of canticles by composer Ricky Manalo. At the conclusion of the testing period, feedback was sought from pastors, musicians, and congregation members.

Feedback on the Service Text

In developing the service materials for the new hymnal, it has been the goal of the Rites Committee to provide both clarity and consistency among the services used for the congregation’s main weekly services. We want people to know the function of each element of the service and for each service element to serve the same function in each service.

In response to sampling this revised service text and progression, congregations expressed appreciation for the consistency and clarity it provided. For example, the canticle “Lord, Have Mercy” (Kyrie) will not be connected with the confession of sins but will be a series of petitions on the basis of God’s mercy following the absolution. The Verse of the Day will now be called the Gospel Acclamation and people will stand prior to it, making it clearer that this service element is not a sung response to the Second Reading but rather serves to prepare us for the hearing of the Gospel. Worship leaders and worshipers responded favorably to these elements of the service.

Perhaps the part of the service where the response was most negative was related to the post-Communion conclusion of the service. The “Song of Simeon” (Nunc Dimittis) was not included as a standard element of the service but was replaced by a note indicating the optional inclusion of a hymn or canticle following distribution. The Rites Committee will revisit this issue as they finalize the services for the new hymnal. While it remains to be seen how many and which specific ones, we can say with certainty that musical settings of the Song of Simeon will be included somewhere in the new hymnal - even if it is in a separate “Canticles” section and not within the services themselves.

Feedback on the Service Music

It has also been the goal of the Rites Committee to provide both familiar and new musical settings for the orders of service. As mentioned above, one of each was provided as part of this testing effort. There were a variety of reactions to the new canticles that were provided. For example, one respondent said, “Excellent tunes. Best available that I've heard,” while another offered, “the canticles remained a struggle to the end of the field test.”

To some extent, this mixed reaction is to be expected any time someone is asked to learn something new. The specific canticles that were provided, while certainly accessible, have elements that take some time to fully master. It should be noted that the same characteristics that cause a canticle to take longer to learn also keep a canticle from becoming stale over the lifetime of a hymnal.

Our current plan is to include three main orders of service in the printed hymnal (besides other services like Morning Praise and Evening Prayer). One of those orders of service will include canticles already familiar to WELS worshipers and two will include new canticles. Additional canticles, including ones already familiar to us, will be made available digitally.

We sincerely thank all the congregations that participated in this field testing effort for their time, effort, and feedback. The feedback we receive from testing efforts like this is very valuable as we finalize the patterns of worship that will assist the next generation as they gather around life-giving Word and Sacrament.

The following article appeared in the February edition of Forward in Christ. It is is the eighth article in a nine-part series on hymns and their use in our churches.

There’s a storage box in my basement that contains my high school and college football jerseys. My dear wife has inquired a number of times about whether or not we are still going to keep that box of old stuff. Each time she has been lovingly informed that we will hold onto the contents of that box as long as I am still breathing air.

There’s a group of hymns that seemingly fall into the same category: (1) been around a long time; (2) not seeing much use; (3) holding onto them may seem rather questionable. They typically come from 16th- or 17th-century Lutheranism. Examples from Christian Worship (CW) would be Luther’s “In the Midst of Earthly Life” (CW 534) or Gerhardt’s “I Will Sing My Maker’s Praises” (CW 253). They are sometimes nicknamed “heritage hymns.” Some have wondered if we should preserve them under that name in a hymn category of their own. Others wonder, “Are we really going to print them, again, in the next book?”

Fact check

Among the things people sometimes say about these “old Lutheran hymns” is that they are “too sad-sounding,” “too strange-sounding,” or just “too hard to sing.” There may be some truth to these statements, but it isn’t necessarily the whole truth.

  • “Sad-sounding”—Of 192 German chorales in Christian Worship, only 45 are in a minor or minor-sounding key. Music in a minor key can certainly be appropriate for serious themes such as contrition and cross-bearing, but it is not sad by definition. “What Child Is This” (CW 67) and “The King of Glory Comes” (CW 363) are both in a minor key, and we probably wouldn’t call them sad.

  • “Strange-sounding”—Our 21st-century American ears sense that something’s different when hearing the music of “Our Father, Who from Heaven Above” (CW 410). Of 192 German chorales in Christian Worship, 24 use what is known as modal music (as do some Star Wars themes and any number of Beatles songs). With its different scale of tones, it’s not what we’re accustomed to listening to, to say nothing of singing. And yet we do! Just not consistently. “What Wondrous Love Is This?” (CW 120) and “In Peace and Joy I Now Depart” (CW 269) are both written in the same musical mode, but WELS congregations sing “Wondrous Love” 12 times more frequently than “Peace and Joy.”

  • “Hard to sing”—In a side-by-side comparison, musicians would conclude that the melody of “Evening and Morning” (CW 430) should be noticeably easier to sing than that of “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying” (CW 206). Yet WELS congregations sing “Wake, Awake” 20 times more often than “Evening and Morning.” You may have never sung or even heard of “Evening and Morning.”


In the hymnal in which I write all my notes, “Wake, Awake” has a note that says, “TT 1599.” That’s shorthand for “this text and tune have been paired together since 1599.” For “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” (CW 38), it says, “TT 1539.” You do the math.

Our next hymnal will include a good number of hymns written and composed in the 21st century, but something has to be said for a melody and a text that have been sung together for more than two centuries before the United States became a nation. If 20, even if 40, of the seldom-sung heritage hymns appeared in the next hymnal, there will still be 600 others to choose from if worship planners wish to bypass the “not easy” ones. What has to be said, though, is that such hymns have demonstrated their worth.

The heart of the matter

Songwriter Harlan Howard is quoted as saying, “All you need to write a country song is three chords and the truth.” That will always be at least half true of these classic Lutheran hymns. They will have the truth of the gospel, but seldom will they be a three-chord song. The composers were craftsmen, well-trained in their musical trade. The authors treated rich biblical themes that were not always in the shallow end of the pool. Stashing these hymns away in their own nostalgic hymn category—perhaps to be used on special occasions, perhaps not—falls short of what they deserve. What W.G. Polack (author of The Handbook to The Lutheran Hymnal) said of one of the more difficult heritage hymns really applies to all of the musically challenging ones: “The congregation that masters this tune possesses a treasure of which it will never grow weary.”

While I’ve enjoyed hearing it on the radio, I’m guessing people may not be singing Blake Shelton’s “I’ll Name the Dogs” three hundred years from now. But something good happens when worship leaders and musicians lay out plans, invest the time, and do the work of teaching the congregation solid Christian hymns that have already lasted that long. And that’s what’s most true of the “not easy” hymns—they need to be taught.

Even the chorale has to be taught to people before they can appreciate the lessons it teaches. A fundamental understanding of the chorale, as the sung Word of God and a confession of faith in music and poetry, can only exist in the realm of theory unless the people are encouraged to learn and sing chorales in practice (“The Chorale: Transcending Time and Culture,” Robin Leaver).

There’s no great benefit in pulling those old football jerseys of mine out of storage, even if I still plan to keep them. There is, however, a boatload of benefit in hearing and singing the gospel-rich heritage hymns of Lutheranism. While more frequent use of them does not make the pastor who selects them or the congregation that sings them any more Lutheran, we encourage leaders to take up the task of teaching them because we have no plans to be the hymnal project that lets them go. They are one slice of many hymn resources we are working to make available.

Introducing Older Hymns

When it’s time to roll one out one of these heritage hymns, remember to: (1) use announcements, articles, and classes to educate people about its upcoming use in worship; (2) let children or adult choirs learn it and teach it to the congregation; (3) sing the same one several weeks in a row to give people a chance to learn it.

Christian Worship: Handbook is one resource for interesting information about these hymns’ backgrounds, authors, and composers. For example, consider the fascinating story behind CW 574. Access the story by going to Christian Worship: Handbook, p. 581, or by visiting welshymnal.com/cw574.

We invite your feedback as we work on finalizing which of the more than 700 hymns from Christian Worship and Christian Worship: Supplement will be included in the new hymnal. Every month we will post a segment of our current hymn list, indicating which hymns are slated to be kept and which are slated to be cut. You can view the monthly list and, if you want, choose up to 10 hymns from the cut list that you would like to see kept in the new hymnal. The deadline for submitting feedback is May 1, 2018.

View Cut Hymns List

The following article appeared in the February edition of Forward in Christ. It is is the eighth article in a nine-part series on hymns and their use in our churches.

“The people barely sing along.” “The congregation sings poorly during the service.” “The pastor complains of low participation by the congregation in singing.”

Have statements like these ever been heard in your congregation? You might even assume that they come from the lips of 21st-century lifelong Lutherans who are saddened by the fact that congregational singing isn’t what it used to be.

But these laments came out of church visitation programs conducted in Germany during the decades following the Reformation. Some of them describe congregational singing well over a century after the Reformation began.
Yes, Luther said, “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 53, p. 323). His efforts to put the gospel back on the lips of the people is one of the reasons the Lutheran church is often referred to as “the singing church.” But for the first hundred-plus years, the Lutheran church’s journey to earning that title apparently got off to a pretty rough start.

Serving new treasures

From the beginning, Luther’s efforts to restore congregational singing included the production of new hymns. In a one-year span from 1523 to 1524, Luther wrote 24 hymns. Some of them found their way into the first Lutheran hymnals, which were published in 1524.

This sudden production of new hymns is understandable. Luther and the other Reformers wanted the theology of Scripture to be implanted deeply into the hearts of the people. But it was not easy. One might wonder why they didn’t stop since it was difficult to get people to sing these hymns.

We can be thankful that they didn’t. Luther and the others continued to write new hymns. As a result, we celebrate the Reformation singing “A mighty fortress is our God, a trusty shield and weapon” (Christian Worship [CW] 200:1, written by Luther in 1528 or 1529).

New songs appeared even after Luther’s death. As a result, we confront our own mortality, singing, “Lord, let at last your angels come; to Abram’s bosom bear me home that I may die unfearing” (CW 434:3, written by Martin Schalling around 1567).

As the years went by, new songs helped Christians sing God’s truth. We remember our Savior’s passion, singing, “A Lamb goes uncomplaining forth, our guilt and evil bearing, and, laden with the sins of earth, none else the burden sharing. Goes patient on, grows weak and faint, to slaughter led without complaint” (CW 100:1, written 100 years after Luther by Paul Gerhardt and first published in 1648). In addition, we approach the Lord’s Table for Holy Communion singing, “He who craves a precious treasure neither cost nor pain will measure, but the priceless gifts of heaven God to us has freely given” (CW 311:3, written by Johann Franck and first published in 1649).

And we have new songs to sing from our own time. We take up the task Jesus has given his church, singing, “Preach you the Word and plant it home to those who like or like it not, the Word that shall endure and stand when flow’rs and mortals are forgot” (CW 544:1, written by Martin Franzmannn and first sung in 1973). We also exit God’s house on Sunday, singing, “Go, my children, sins forgiven, at peace and pure. Here you learned how much I love you, what I can cure” (CW 332:2, written by Jaroslav Vajda in 1983).

Our Lutheran forebears put into practice what Jesus said to his disciples: “Every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matthew 13:52).

Hymns are one way to teach. We have old hymns that teach God’s truths, and we have new melodies and words too. We will use the old hymns, but the Holy Spirit will continue to move God’s people as he has always done to create new hymns to praise God and teach his truth. The musical feast will have such variety.

Serving them well

If the early Lutherans encountered frustration for more than a century as they strove to promote congregational singing, we ought not expect things to be different today. Odds are every person reading this article has experienced the frustration of trying to use a new treasure brought out of the storeroom of Christian hymnody.

Let’s assume that our synod’s next hymnal has two hundred “new” hymns. Those new hymns don’t need to all be served to God’s people within the first year. Our church body’s next hymnal presents us with the opportunity to bring out new treasures to God’s people for an entire generation.

In the last few years I’ve experienced the joy of doing so. More than 20 years after Christian Worship was published, I’ve still been able to give people an opportunity to sing new treasures, not because the treasures themselves are new but because they are new to people. I’ve enjoyed listening to my youngest walk around the house singing, “A mighty fortress is our God, a . . .” (she doesn’t have the second line down quite yet). I’ve enjoyed watching my congregation acquire a taste for treasures like “Lord, When Your Glory I Shall See” (CW 219), which is by no means easy to sing the first time around.

Learning our next hymnal’s new hymns isn’t a race. It’s a feast. Let’s sit back, slow down, and savor every bite.

Respectfully making room

What exactly does it mean that our next hymnal will have two hundred or more new hymns? “New” means a variety of different things. In some cases, it simply means it’s new to us. It might be a hymn that has been around for many years but is finding its way into our hymnody for the first time. It might be a hymn from previously-used resources like The Lutheran Hymnal.

In other cases, new will mean repackaged or repurposed. It might mean that the translation was altered or different stanzas selected. It might mean that the text was paired with a different tune.
In other cases, new will mean new. There will be recently written hymns from today’s batch of talented hymnwriters God has raised up for his church.

A taste for some of these new hymns will come almost immediately. A taste for others will take time to acquire. In both cases, our prayer is that future generations will agree that a great many of them are treasures.

We invite your feedback as we work on finalizing which of the more than 700 hymns from Christian Worship and Christian Worship: Supplement will be included in the new hymnal. Every month we will post a segment of our current hymn list, indicating which hymns are slated to be kept and which are slated to be cut. You can view the monthly list and, if you want, choose up to 10 hymns from the cut list that you would like to see kept in the new hymnal. The deadline for submitting feedback is May 1, 2018.

View Cut Hymns List