WELS Hymnal Project

Project Blog

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

From May 31 through June 2, the Executive Committee of the hymnal project met at the synod's Center for Mission and Ministry. Highlights from the meeting included reviewing fresh content brought to us by various subcommittees, meeting with the production director from Northwestern Publishing House in order to better understand their production process, and further clarifying the relationship between the printed version and the digital version of the hymnal in a discussion led by the technology committee.

The final day of our meetings began with Professor Keith Wessel of Martin Luther College, chair of our Occasional Services subcommittee, presenting a devotional introduction to Isaiah 40:1-11. In his devotion, Prof. Wessel beautifully captured the purpose and benefit a hymnal serves among a group of believers. Excerpts from that devotion are shared below in the hope that they will be as much of a blessing to you as they were to us.

A hymnal is more than a book that gathers songs into a convenient place. A hymnal is all about voices – united voices speaking together. A hymnal is the voice of God’s people, the voice of the Holy Christian Church, the voice of faith. It is a voice of confession, in that it echoes what is in our troubled hearts, gives voice to what we humbly need to confess before our holy God – that we not just are sinners, but sinful and unclean. Words spoken together with one voice by the body of Christ… and yet so personal at the same time. A hymnal teaches us to sing together with one voice the contrite whisper of the publican: Oh God, be merciful to me. A hymnal teaches us all to cry from depth of woe, and flee for refuge to Thy infinite mercy, seeking and imploring Thy grace for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ.

It also is a hymnal that speaks with God’s voice. Marvel of marvels that our pitiful confession is not met by a wall of silence – deserved silence – from a God who has every right to turn his back on us. But as Adam heard the voice of God in the Garden not only confronting him with his sin but also speaking the first words of the eternal Gospel, so also in our liturgy and song we hear the voice of God speaking to us his word of peace. So much does God want us to hear his voice in the Gospel that he even sends a called personal representative to that very place where we are confessing our sins to speak – not the pastor’s words – but to speak in the place and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to announce the grace of God unto all of you, to each of you: Be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven.

It is from a hymnal that we learn to respond to such grace with a common voice of faith – the Gloria, the hymns, the offering (that too is a way we speak). It is from the hymnal we learn to pray together with one voice, a common voice: Create in me a clean heart, O God… and of course, Our Father, who art in heaven. It is from a hymnal that we learn to kneel side by side as one body and receive in faith the same bread, the same wine… just as we were all baptized with the same water into the name of one Lord. It is in the hymnal we first learn the unified voice of our common faith: I believe… We believe… And this is not a “WELS voice”; it is the voice that has gone out into all lands. It is the lingua franca of the Una Sancta. And it is from a hymnal, from a liturgy that we first learn to listen to the last word of the service – the words that God himself reserves the right to speak – the words of the Benediction.

Brothers, we aren’t really cutting and pasting into a book what we feel, in our sanctified estimation, are the best songs and liturgies for worship. We are shaping a voice – the voice of faith but also the voice of God’s people in the Wisconsin Synod. Not a solo, maverick voice that screams “Me!”, of course – as much of a challenge as it is in a self-absorbed age. But a voice that is clear, distinct, yet blends with the one voice of faith we can hear wafting down on the winds of the ages in one ongoing song; that one can hear echoing even now in all lands: …and from morn till set of sun, through the Church the song goes on... It began with Eve’s simple song: I have gotten a man from the LORD - a statement of thanks and praise spoken in response to God’s mercy and goodness. The song continues today. And it will never end.


Over the course of the next two weeks, this update will be shared at the conventions of the twelve districts of our synod. In addition to the feedback received at those conventions, we welcome any feedback to the information provided in this update using the contact form below.

Note: In early February, a comprehensive report on the work of the WELS Hymnal project was posted to our website and distributed through several synod-wide communication channels. We are also featuring each section of the report here on our website's blog. As each section is featured we invite your feedback using the contact form on the bottom of the page.

Communications Committee

Pastor Jonathan Bauer, Chairman

Our Responsibilities

From the time the hymnal project started, the Communications Committee (CC) has been assisting the members of the project primarily by seeking to gather information and input from the congregations and schools of our church body. This research has taken a variety of forms, including: conducting four major surveys, collecting hymn usage data, and receiving and processing feedback through the project website.

A summary of what has been learned about worship in our church body so far was shared in the summer of 2015. That summary was published in Forward in Christ and in the 2015 Synod Convention’s Book of Reports and Memorials. The feedback we’ve received thus far has been very valuable as the members of the project have begun their work, and we are very grateful for it.

As the hymnal project progresses, the CC’s work will eventually transition away from our current focus on research. We are also responsible for utilizing the natural opportunity that a hymnal project presents to renew people’s awareness and appreciation for Lutheran worship principles. As the publication approaches we will also work in tandem with the marketing department at Northwestern Publishing House to promote the new hymnal and its accompanying resources.

Where We Are Headed

As the hymnal project approaches the halfway point, its members are pleased to be able to share with the synod this comprehensive update on our work. This update is being distributed to the called workers throughout our church body as well as through other official synodical channels. It is available in its entirety on our project website and will also be posted section by section on our website’s blog.

Pastors and teachers are encouraged to share the report with those they serve through whatever channels are available to them. Feel free to use this as an opportunity to invite people to subscribe to have updates delivered to their inbox by registering their email address on our website.

We invite anyone’s feedback on the information being distributed. That feedback is best offered through the contact form on our website.

Field testing period

During the next year and a half, the CC will be busy assisting the other project subcommittees in putting some of their early materials in front of the congregations and schools of our church body for their use and review.

The materials that are distributed for testing will naturally lean heavily toward the components of the new hymnal that could potentially be new or revised. This shouldn’t be construed as an indication of the makeup of the final product, plenty of which will be unchanged from the material found in our current resources.

It is our desire for every congregation and school to have the opportunity to provide ongoing feedback on the various materials being developed. However, for most of the field testing process, we will be seeking the assistance of various random samplings of congregations and schools. In order to receive accurate and helpful feedback, it is necessary to engage sample groups that are representative of the synod as a whole (e.g. from varying locations and of varying sizes). It is also necessary to receive feedback not only from those who would otherwise gladly volunteer it on their own but from those whose feedback needs to be sought.

We look forward to sharing updates and results of this field testing process. As the project continues to progress, we plan to release to the church body as a whole a set of materials representative of each committee’s work to that point.

Note: In early February, a comprehensive report on the work of the WELS Hymnal project was posted to our website and distributed through several synod-wide communication channels. We are also featuring each section of the report here on our website's blog. As each section is featured we invite your feedback using the contact form on the bottom of the page.

Technology Committee

Pastor Caleb Bassett, Chairman

Our Responsibilities

The Technology Committee (TC) of the WELS Hymnal Project is responsible for vision, planning, and oversight of the digital and technical delivery of the next WELS hymnal. More than simply providing tools to generate the hymnal in a digital format, the TC aims to equip congregations to improve the way they produce and distribute worship resources. We work to enhance the content of the hymnal through tasteful and useful design, delivery, and format.

The TC also provides internal assistance to the various individuals and committees that make up the WELS Hymnal Project. We provide technical and organizational expertise and advice to streamline our work processes. The TC also works closely with the Communications Committee (CC) to manage the project’s public website.

Where We Are Headed

The TC is guided by a working philosophy that in, the context of worship, technology must serve a ministerial role. In an introductory blog post, the TC Chairman wrote the following:

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. I want to take the lead on a thorough, scholarly approach to technology as a ministerial tool in service to the worship in our congregations. There’s an assumption out there that all innovation is good innovation, that is, if something is new it is therefore better.

Note the emphasis on a “ministerial” approach to technology. We believe that a ministerial approach is humble, useful, tasteful, and simple. We want what we produce to meet those criteria above all else.

Much of what the TC envisions falls within the realm of “product development,” and as such we are not able to pre-announce any future products. There are two important reasons for this. First, from a business standpoint it is unwise to pre-announce products before they are ready for the public. In some cases, we are actually prohibited by contractual terms from making such announcements. Second, since technical development of future products will begin much later in the project it remains likely that major parts of our plans will change between now and that time. We cannot announce products that may not actually be produced. The TC is still very involved in research and is not yet onto development.

Nevertheless, readers of the WELS Hymnal Project blog and participants in our various surveys will likely be able to discern the general areas of emphasis we are pursuing. We see four major areas to move the state of the art forward in WELS.

  1. Digital databasing of the hymnal content

  2. Tools to aid in worship planning

  3. Mobile applications for laypeople

  4. Formats and protocols to assist worship musicians

Digital databasing of the hymnal content

We see the creation of a digital database of the hymnal primarily as an internal improvement that will bear fruit in other areas. By storing all the data related to a hymnal in a modern, cross-referenced, server-side database we enable the technical possibility for modern applications and services built on top of the hymnal data.

Tools to aid in worship planning

The TC considers worship planning to be a task where tasteful and useful technology can greatly enhance the worship at WELS congregations. The TC believes that if we as a synod are going to teach and encourage pastors to adorn the gospel with beauty and grace through the use of excellent liturgical materials, we should also provide excellent tools to assist them in the often complex and challenging process of worship planning.

To act on that conviction, the TC has been researching options for a system or application that would assist pastors and other worship planners to plan worship by using the aforementioned digital database of rites, hymns, psalms, and lectionary from the upcoming WELS hymnal. We are unable to field test any such application at this time since research is not yet complete. In the case of software development, such testing would start with a limited group of so-called “alpha testers,” after which it may progress to a broader “beta test.”

Mobile applications for laypeople

The TC believes that the WELS Hymnal Project should capitalize on the the widespread use of mobile applications on smartphones and tablets by building a mobile application for laypeople. There is evidence that the widespread use of such handheld screens may actually be increasing the number of people reading and studying the Bible on a regular basis. We see an opportunity to revitalize the use of the hymnal as a private and small group devotional resource by developing an application built to foster such devotional use. By integrating with the foundational digital database of the hymnal’s content, such an application can “repackage” the hymnal, so to speak, in a way better suited for private and small group use. We envision such an application being useful in these common settings:

  • Around the dinner table with family

  • As the focal point of private prayer and devotion

  • In the classroom

  • To open or close meetings

  • In Bible study classes

Up to this point the TC has spent time researching existing hymnal applications to understand their strengths and weaknesses. So far we have determined that existing hymnal applications fail to offer much compelling innovation for the private and small-group use of a hymnal. We believe there is room to create something unique in this space.

So far this process of evaluation and analysis allows us to better understand the design challenge of a devotional hymnal application and write better product specifications to aid in future development, should such development take place.

Formats and protocols to assist worship musicians

Musicians may have noticed that the list of common settings for a hymnal application listed above does not include “on the music stand” or “at the piano bench.” This is not an omission but a conscious decision. While a hymnal application would probably work on the piano bench, we do not envision an application geared for the specific needs of church musicians but for laypeople. That does not mean, however, that the TC does not have the detailed needs of church musicians in mind—our committee includes three church musicians, each of whom is well-versed in digital technology and uses such technology frequently in his ministry and service.

These church musicians have reviewed dozens of existing applications and services and found that many products available today are very strong in terms of functionality and widespread adoption. Where “devotional use of a Lutheran hymnal” is a relatively niche task, “reading, annotating, and working with digital sheet music” is a much more common job. For that reason there are several outstanding applications, including mobile applications, to assist church musicians. The TC has concluded that there is no need to create a “WELS version” of such an application when existing applications do the job just as well or better than anything we could develop on our own.

The TC plans not to provide a specific application for musicians, but to offer formats and protocols to assist worship musicians in their service to the church. This means delivering the content of the hymnal in digital formats that work within the constraints of copyright law but also import nicely into the most common and useful third-party applications for musicians. We consider the generation of such digital assets to be part of the worship planning workflow that we hope to facilitate through a worship planning application (see above).

A new design

The TC includes a design working group which has been working to analyze a wide variety of well-designed hymnals from various traditions and denominations. The analysis of these hymnals has led to some preliminary work in achieving a new design for the look and functionality of the print and digital resources.

Achieving a consistent design across the wide variety of resources to be produced with the next WELS hymnal is a large undertaking. It is our hope that the new design we develop will bring beauty, legibility, and usability to the Christ-centered materials it serves.

Scripture Committee

Pastor Jonathan Schroeder, Chairman

Our Responsibilities

The Scripture Committee (SC) of the Hymnal Project is responsible for developing the Church Year, the three-year, one-year, and daily lectionaries, the appointment of all readings for minor festivals and occasions, the Prayers of the Day, and a commentary on the propers. The SC will also review the texts for the creeds and the Lord’s Prayer, and will oversee the use of Scripture throughout the project.

The SC spent its first two years studying, analyzing, and proposing a new three-year lectionary and revised Church Year. The committee prioritized these projects because much of the hymnal project’s work is defined by the lectionary and the Church Year. Our work on the one-year and daily lectionaries, the calendar of minor festivals and occasions, and the texts for the creeds and various prayers will intensify once the three-year lectionary and Church Year have been finalized.

The SC greatly appreciates the work of the people who have been involved in the three-year review project. They have provided a wealth of information on the use of the CW lectionary in WELS congregations. We look forward to receiving and reviewing continual feedback on our proposed revisions.

Jesus said, “Therefore 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). It is a great privilege for us to dig through the Word of God on behalf of our synod, bringing out treasures new and old for the gathered guests.

Where We Are Headed

The Church Year

The hymnal project cherishes the worship treasures passed down from our Christian forefathers. One gift from history for the worshiping congregation today is the Church Year. This series of seasons and Sundays developed during the first millennium of the New Testament Church and has been used by the Church across the world ever since. The Christian calendar leads Christ’s bride through an annual journey that follows the great events in the life of Christ during the festival half of the year, from Advent to Pentecost. In the Season after Pentecost the Church focuses on the great teachings of Christ.

The SC will propose a Church Year that retains most of the familiar features of the calendar published in Christian Worship. The proposed changes are relatively few. Some changes will be nothing more than new terminology, like calling it the “Season after Pentecost” instead of the “Pentecost Season.” Some alternative Sundays will be designated, such as the Sunday of the Passion (for use on the final Sunday in Lent).

The SC intends to propose a Church Year that reflects the historic practice of the Church, that largely corresponds with other major calendars, and that provides God’s people with the patterns and rhythms, the Sundays and seasons, that form the context for their worship.

The Lectionary

A lectionary is a set of Scripture readings designated to be used on particular days. The blessing of lectionary-based worship lies in balance and breadth. Using a lectionary to determine the content of worship helps ensure that the congregation sees the great events in the life of Christ and hears the great teachings of Christ annually. Following a lectionary brings a wide variety of scriptural teachings before a congregation over the three-year cycle.

The great majority of WELS congregations (95%) currently plan their Sunday worship using the three-year lectionary that was published in Christian Worship. This lectionary appoints three readings and a psalm for every Sunday and festival of the Christian Year. The CW lectionary largely corresponded with the lectionaries used in other major denominations, most notably in the Gospel readings.

The SC will propose a new lectionary with the following features:

  • It will largely retain the Gospels as they exist in the CW Lectionary. When possible, the Gospel will align with other major lectionaries to show our connection to the Holy Christian Church.

  • The Gospel will establish the theme for the Sunday, and all of the readings will match that theme.

  • The First Reading will be balanced between Old Testament prophecy and narrative. During the Easter season the book of Acts will also be used.

  • Old Testament narratives will be used that commend themselves as preaching texts.

  • The Second Reading will be thematic, not continual. Rather than a series of continual readings through an epistle over several Sundays, the Second Reading will match the theme for the Sunday.

  • Three readings and a psalm will be provided for each Sunday. Alternate readings and alternate pericopes could be provided apart from the pew edition.

  • It will provide a revised system for the Sundays after Pentecost (the date of Easter will impact the Sundays at the beginning of that period of the Church Year rather than the end) that will more closely correspond to other Lutheran lectionaries and attendant resources.

Commentary on the Propers

The SC plans to produce a commentary on the lectionary similar to the well-received Planning Christian Worship 2. The proposed commentary would offer an expanded treatment of the Sundays and festivals. It will provide a brief exegesis of the readings, thoughts on context of the Church Year, and hymn and psalm suggestions.