WELS Hymnal Project

Project Blog

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

We've been hearing from a lot of people through our surveys over the past two years. We've collected responses from pastors, teachers, church musicians,and lay members, seeking input that will help to set the direction for the work of producing our new hymnal.

Recently, we’ve invited people to share with us their most treasured hymns. We also want to make a special effort to reach the students of our church body with this favorite hymn survey. Anyone who has spent time singing hymns with kids knows that they love singing a variety of hymns from ancient plainsong hymns like "Of the Father's Love Begotten", to Israeli tunes like "The King of Glory Comes", to the modern hymnody of Keith Getty and Stuart Townend. Kids like to sing hymns, and they're always eager to share their favorites. Plus, since the primary users of our next hymnal are still students, we want them to know that we are keeping them in mind during its development.

We're conducting a favorite hymns survey for students. It’s accompanied by a lesson plan that can be used as a year-end activity for Hymnology, Religion, or Catechism class. If you are a Lutheran school teacher, Sunday school teacher, or Catechism instructor, we invite you to use these materials in your classroom.

We hope to cultivate among our youth an interest in this hymnal project and to find out more about their interests regarding hymnody. It should be a treat to find out the results of this survey and to see how our current hymnal and its supplement have influenced this younger generation.

The deadline for completing this survey is May 31.

For more information and all of the necessary resources, visit the survey page in the research section of our website.

Thank you for your assistance in cultivating a love of hymnody among our students!

Our favorite things are normally not hard for us to identify. As a result, asking “what’s a favorite hymn?” might sound a little strange. But when you think about it, this isn't a simple question. “Do I pick my favorite based on the words that proclaim my Savior and touch my heart…or on the melody I want to keep humming through the day…or should I pick one from my favorite season of the church year?” When it comes to hymns, there’s a lot to love.

You might value a hymn because you know it by heart. You might love a hymn because of the meaning it carried at a special occasion, like a funeral for a loved one or your child’s Confirmation Day. Maybe you can think of a precious hymn that takes you back to the candlelight of Christmas Eve or the trumpeted triumph of Easter morning. Maybe you feel drawn to a hymn’s unparalleled poetry. Maybe you cherish the way both melody and message are perfectly tuned and married to each other. (You get the idea…this list could go on forever!)

But even now, we've barely scratched the surface. At the end of the day, consider the many ways the hymns we sing have served your spiritual needs over the years - helping you, guiding you, equipping you and training you through the varied stages and experiences of life. The Word communicated in a hymn brings the comforting embrace of our Father’s forgiveness. Hymns provide the reassuring shoulder to soothe our inner pain and panic. Like personal reminders, hymns review credal truths and rehearse the words and works of our Savior. Like lyrical lips, hymns help our mouths and hearts express our praise and thanksgiving to God.

Picking your favorite hymns may not be so easy after all, but that’s the very thrill of it. In the middle of this hymnal project, we pause to remember the many hymns that have served us so well. That’s what this survey is all about. This is not a vote, where you need to save your favorite hymns from getting cut. We simply want to know the hymns that are close to your heart. Use this survey as an opportunity to celebrate our rich heritage of hymns by sharing with us your personal treasures!

For more information and instructions for completing the survey, head over to the research section of our website.

Having not taken piano lessons till a little bit later in my life, I remember the first hymn I tried to learn to play on my own. We had a big upright piano in the basement, and for whatever the reasons were in those late grade school days of my life, the hymn I was bound and determined to teach myself to play was #172 in The Lutheran Hymnal, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” I still remember dealing with the G#s in the E major chord halfway through the first line. It was sort of neat to land on that chord at the end of the first long measure. But I also remember that I didn’t have an easy time moving to the next chord, where the G# was all of a sudden in the left hand and I came to find out that my right hand was somehow supposed to cover an octave.

There’s still a keyboard in my basement, a small digital instrument (the real piano is upstairs) that is connected to one of two computers (Windows and Mac). There are also four guitars, three amps, three mic stands, a music stand, several dozen hymnals, and two space heaters. But now, when I look at the Gerhardt hymn, there are usually three or four or more hymnals open to that hymn, and I start wondering about a lot of things that go far beyond how to play it.

  • In the A chord at the end of the first line there’s a Picardy third (making it an A major chord instead of A minor). But not every Lutheran hymnal has that Picardy third.

  • I wonder how well Gerhardt’s German represents the original Latin text penned by Bernard of Clairvaux.

  • It’s easy to note across any number of hymnals that some retained the thees and thous, while others did not.

  • Then there’s the fact that Bernard’s text and Gerhardt’s hymn and The Lutheran Hymnal all had ten stanzas. A check of several Lutheran hymnals from the past four decades reveals abridgements resulting in the hymn being printed with seven stanzas, four stanzas, or even only three.

  • One can also note that most Christian hymnals print this hymn with a different rhythm, an equal rhythm of successive quarter notes, along with a harmonization by a Lutheran composer by the name of J.S. Bach. Which rhythm will be in our next hymnal? Or, as some hymnals do, should we include both?

And all of this, of course, is just one case in point. A similar conversation can be had about dozens if not hundreds of hymns.

But what happens when the rubber meets the road and I’m sitting in the pew and Christian Worship #105 appears on the hymn board? What happens if the service folder indicates that we are to sing stanzas 1,3,4, and 7? What happens if the organist plays a harmony for one stanza which is not the harmony that’s printed in the book, and it doesn’t work for me to sing the bass line where I know that G# is supposed to be coming soon? What if the pastor printed the “equal rhythm” version of the hymn in the service folder and that’s how the organist is playing it and now we’re all supposed to sing it in a way we’ve never really sung it before?

I’m not trying to create issues where issues don’t exist, nor do I want people to reply to this article with comments such as, “Yeah, I hate when things like that happen.” What I’m trying to do is to be honest about a temptation with which I have a tough time, one which I’m pretty sure the devil knows is a weakness of mine: being distracted by the details, getting all caught up with and carried away by peripheral matters, with the result that my mind is not on the message.

I am comforted to know that the one whose sacred head was wounded was in fact wounded to pay for all my Third Commandment sins of despising his Word in whichever ways I may ever have despised it. I also recognize more and more all the time that I need his Spirit to work inside me so that when I am sitting in a pew with a hymnal in my hand, I am concentrating on the message rather than on the things that I like or don’t like about the particular way in which this hymn (or psalm or rite) appears on the page.

When the Spirit works to make that happen, there are good results. According to the promise of Jesus, there are bound to be good results. “Blessed are they that hear the Word of God, and keep it” (Luke 11:28 KJV). Look what we get to hear about in just one stanza of this hymn (CW 105:4), and think about how blessed we are to hear it!

Lord, in your passion, the burden that you bore was mine. It was my transgression that filled you with shame as you died on Calvary. That transgression of mine would have crushed me and left me in eternal solitary confinement, forever shackled to a wall in a cell in hell. But you bore it for me, and it is no longer mine to bear. I can say with confidence that I will never find out what hell is like. Lord Jesus, you will never spurn me. You have taken ownership of me. I belong to you now, and that’s never going to change, not today, not tomorrow, not the day that I die, not ever.

We continue to work so that the next hymnal you hold in your hands will allow you to be soaked by the rain shower of God’s grace in Christ. In whatever ways things appear on the page, all of us will always need the Spirit’s work inside us so that we can mute the distractions and instead concentrate on and trust in the message about our Savior. This article goes out with the prayer that your Holy Week and Easter worship will be overflowing with the blessings Jesus promises to all who hear and cling to his message of deliverance, forgiveness, peace, and unstoppable Easter joy.

The WELS Hymnal Project’s Executive Committee recently met at the synod’s Center for Mission and Ministry in Waukesha on February 11 and 12. Each of the project’s seven subcommittees (Hymnody, Rites, Scripture, Psalmody, Literature, Technology, Communications) presented what their committee has been developing over the last few months for the executive committee’s review and approval. At this point that material still consists mainly of plans, philosophy statements, and guiding principles more so than specific hymns, psalms, or orders of service.

During the next few months, some of the key issues that the subcommittees have been wrestling with and that were discussed at this recent meeting will be topics for articles here on our website. We look forward to giving you the opportunity to review what’s been discussed so far and react to it.

What Else Is Next…

In addition to updates here on our website, here’s what else you can look forward to from the WELS Hymnal project during the coming months.

  • A two-part article will appear in Forward in Christ summarizing what we have learned so far as a result of our various research efforts, including the four surveys we conducted in 2014. Among these four surveys, nearly 7,200 responses were received. We want to thank all those who took the time to fill out one or more of these surveys. The content of that summary article will also be shared in segments on our website and will be included in the Book of Reports and Memorials presented at this summer’s synod convention.

  • This spring, the Communications Committee will facilitate an opportunity for anyone interested to let us know what their most dearly-loved hymns are. This opportunity will be open to anyone, and a special effort will be made to reach the students in our synod’s schools and Sunday Schools. The survey will ask about hymns in Christian Worship and Christian Worship Supplement. It will also give people an opportunity to select hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal that they would like to see included as well as a place to suggest songs from outside of these resources for the committee’s consideration.

  • Starting in 2016, you will start to hear about an effort to update people on where we are headed and give them the opportunity to sample and react to specific materials that are being considered for inclusion. Every congregation and school in the synod will have the opportunity to participate.

Thank you for your continued interest in this project and prayers for God’s blessing on it.

Pastor Jonathan Bauer
Communications Committee