WELS Hymnal Project

Project Blog

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

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.

Hymnody Committee

Pastor Aaron Christie, Chairman

Our Responsibilities

The Hymnody Committee (HC) is responsible for what one would expect: the roughly 650 hymns found between the covers of the new hymnal. Our work, supervised by the Executive Committee, includes both the texts and music of the hymns. We are working hard to provide a body of hymnody for our synod that is centered in Christ, rooted in the means of grace, decidedly Lutheran in tradition, yet providing ample room for the best that the Church at-large has to offer.

One would expect the HC to work on the hymns of the so-called “pew edition” hymnal. However, the scope of the HC’s task is wider than that. The HC also has its sights set on providing a vast array of musical resources for each hymn, available apart from the pew edition. The HC will play a major role in producing resources that could include alternate accompaniments, settings in lower keys, descants, and other instrumental parts not included in the pew edition. In short, the HC is responsible for all things textual and musical in relation to hymns in our next hymnal. We are working hard to make the Church’s hymnic treasures as usable as possible by as many of our parishes and schools as possible.

Where We Are Headed

Some Old, Some New

We envision a book of approximately 650 hymns. Our new book will follow CW’s lead in bringing forward about two-thirds of the hymns from CW and CWS into the new book. This leaves about one-third of the book for new hymns. Some of these “new” hymns will be from centuries or decades past. Others of these hymns will be brand new - gleaned from materials which authors and composers have more recently released. When it comes to what’s new in this hymnal, our concern is not chronology, but quality.

How does a hymn earn a place in the new hymnal? What criteria is the HC using to determine if a hymn is worthy of inclusion? One of the first documents the HC produced was a list of hymn criteria. That document states:

Hymns considered for inclusion should…

  1. be Christocentric.

  2. be in harmony with the scriptural faith as confessed in the Lutheran Book of Concord.

  3. be rooted in the Church year with its emphases on the life of Christ and the Christian’s life in Christ.

  4. be drawn from classic Lutheran sources and deliberately inclusive of the Church’s broader song (including so-called International or Global music).

  5. be superlative examples of their genre in regards to both textual content and musical craft.

  6. be accessible and meaningful for God’s people at worship in both public and private settings.

  7. be useful for those who preach and teach the faith.

  8. be parts of a corpus that will find wide acceptance by the vast majority of our fellowship.

These principles are easy enough to articulate. Using them to evaluate each hymn is a little more difficult. What if, for example, a hymn is deep theologically and excellent musically (criterion #5), but is genuinely difficult to sing (criterion #6)? The HC is dedicated to taking each hymn on a case by case basis. The HC is also dedicated to making sure that the hymnal as a whole meets these criteria even if every hymn does not meet all of them equally.

Reviewing and Revising

In addition to searching for the best of what isn’t currently in CW and CWS, the HC is also responsible for reviewing the hymns currently in those volumes that will carry over to the next hymnal. The HC has some developed some philosophical guidelines pertaining to that part of its work.

We are generally content to keep the number of stanzas found in Christian Worship. However, when excellent content leads us to consider including additional stanzas, we will be open to doing so.

One frequent request has been that hymn keys be further lowered to aid singing. The HC is willing to consider lowering keys on occasion, especially if the upper range of the melody is deemed consistently too high.

That being said, we are cautious about lowering keys too frequently. A hymn’s key is part of what creates its overall “feel.” Think of a home builder. When putting in molding, he knows that oak and maple are two very different materials. When putting in flooring, he knows that laminate tile is very different from ceramic. We want to make sure that a hymn’s trim and flooring fit well with what the hymn is trying to communicate. For example, some have commented that CW uses the key of F-major rather frequently, resulting in a less-than-desirable “sameness” throughout the hymnal. We want to be sensitive to such issues when working with the key of each hymn.

Where the range of certain hymns is a bit of a challenge to some, we hope singers will be willing to continue to challenge their vocal range (a healthy exercise), and that congregations and schools will continue to be committed to supplying the instruction, instruments, and acoustics that help them do so.

One area where the HC is a little more minded to make some changes is in simplifying the harmonic language of the new hymnal. Some have stated it this way: “The pew edition should be a singer’s book more than a keyboardist’s book.” We envision the pew edition containing harmonies that are more rudimentary. We plan on supplying alternate, richer harmonies apart from the pew edition.

Other revisions will make this new hymnal more of a singer’s book. Instead of many alto and tenor notes being held while the melody and bass parts move, alto and tenor notes will generally be repeated. This should support four-part singing where it makes musical sense. We are also doing our best to align melody shapes and rhythms with usage in the wider Church so that alternate musical resources become more readily available and better match what our people have before them.

Note: As the WELS Hymnal begins to approach its halfway point, the members of the project are pleased to share this comprehensive update on our work. Over the course of the next several weeks, we will feature each individual section of this report here on our website's blog. As each individual section is featured we invite your feedback using the contact form on the bottom of the page.

Introduction and Background

A hymnal project is a synod-wide effort, and that makes it beneficial on a number of levels. This is a time for us as a synod to review our current hymnal and to give thanks for the gifts we have. It’s a time to think about future generations and the heritage we will pass along to them. It’s a time to work together and talk together about the most important thing we do together in the name of Jesus our Savior: worship. We recognize that a synod’s hymnal isn’t the only resource for worship that a local congregation has at its disposal, but it is a resource that carries the weight of synod-wide dialog, committee discussion, and careful study in light of God’s Word. That promises to make this new hymnal a unique and valuable resource for God’s people gathered around God’s means of grace.

When the Joint Hymnal Committee was finishing its work on our 1993 hymnal Christian Worship (CW), its members generally agreed that the fifty-two-year lifespan of our previous hymnal, The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH), had been too long. Thirty years seemed closer to the desirable lifespan of a hymnal, and the idea was to publish a hymnal supplement when we were halfway there. In 2008 WELS congregations welcomed the release of Christian Worship Supplement (CWS). Already then, the Commission on Worship was promoting the supplement as a bridge to the next hymnal. As congregations around the synod made use of CWS’s lectionary, psalms, rites and hymns in worship, they would be helping the next hymnal committee know which of those elements deserved a more permanent place in the worship life of the church.

In 2011, the synod in convention adopted a long range plan which included this goal under strategies for congregation and district ministry: “establish a committee to publish a new hymnal by the 500th anniversary of the first Lutheran hymnal (1524).” The Commission on Worship began preliminary work on the project’s aim, scope, and timeline, and in 2012 the Conference of Presidents called Rev. Michael Schultz to serve as project director. Soon afterward, the administrative structure for the project began taking shape.

Committee Membership

Names of committee members are listed here, with an asterisk (*) marking the chair of each committee.

Bryan Gerlach, Michael Marquardt, Michael Schultz, Daniel Sims, James Tiefel, and Jon Zabell* have been appointed as at-large members of the Executive Committee (XC).

Seven subcommittees are in place, with the chairman of each serving on the XC:

Psalms Committee

Samuel Hacker, Amy Hansel, Grace Hennig, Paul Prange*, Adrian Smith, Bill Tackmier, Dale Witte, Daniel Witte

Hymns Committee

Jeremy Bakken, Kevin Bode, Sara Buelow, Aaron Christie*, Mark Davidson, Brian Doebler, Benj Lawrenz, Holly Ledvina, Jeremy Mattek, Ruth Mattek, Phil Moldenhauer, Joel Otto

Rites Committee

John Bortulin, Timothy Buelow, Joel Gawrisch, James Hoogervorst, Wayne Laitinen, Jon Micheel*, Johnold Strey, James Tiefel    

Communications Committee

Jonathan Bauer*, Steve Bauer, Daniel Bondow, Linnea Koeppel, Amanda Kohlmetz, Mike Marquardt, Sarah Mayer, Jonathan Niemi, Mark Schutz

Occasional Services Committee

Phil Arnold, Steve Bode, Aaron Glaeske, Keith Wessel*

Scripture Committee

Steven Lange, Daniel Leyrer, Tyler Piel, Jonathan Scharf, Jonathan Schroeder*, Earle Treptow, John Vieths,

Technology Committee

Caleb Bassett*, Dave Gruen, Paul Lemke, Jonathan Pasbrig, Martin Spriggs, Don Vossler, Ian Welch, Matt Weseloh

In addition to the members of these seven subcommittees, the Executive Committee is assisted by a group of people who are responsible for producing the supplementary material currently found in Christian Worship: Handbook and Christian Worship: Manual. They include Mark Tiefel, Philip Casmer, Justin Cloute, Noah Headrick, Johann Caauwe, and Benjamin Tomczak.

Project Mission Statement

Early on in the project’s development, the members of the Executive Committee developed and adopted a project mission statement. That mission statement is as follows:

  1. This hymnal will confess Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, who comes to us in the means of grace.

  2. This hymnal will provide materials that enable believers to use the means of grace in public worship and other devotional settings.

  3. This hymnal will be faithful to the scriptures and to the witness of the scriptures in the Lutheran Confessions.

  4. This hymnal will respect and draw from the historic worship voice of the Christian Church and from our Lutheran heritage.

  5. This hymnal will include texts and music of excellent quality from past and present sources.

  6. This hymnal will be produced with thorough study of the character of worship in WELS and the prayer that it may be used joyfully by the people and congregations of our synod.

  7. This hymnal will be accompanied by print and electronic resources intended to meet the needs of various worship settings in WELS.

Projection technology has, for the most part, become ubiquitous in the world of business, academic, and scientific communication. Managers make pitches with clicker in hand. Professors deliver lectures from projected outlines. Engineers present findings to the team via PowerPoint. Projection technology has made its way into the church’s activities of preaching and worship too.

Those of us working on the WELS Hymnal Project have sensed that projection is an area where digital technology can exert a pronounced effect on the worship practices in our church body. Once installed, the projection system usually becomes the single most prominent digital technology in the sanctuary. For that reason alone the technology deserves careful consideration. Furthermore, the Technology Committee and the Executive Committee have recently taken up the task of deciding what sort of digital products to introduce with the new hymnal. Since our decisions about such technologies will shape worship practices for thousands of people we want to give this topic the careful thought it deserves. To assist us in our decision-making we are engaging congregations in a dialogue on the topic of projection in worship.

I believe that the time is right for such a dialogue. Digital technology has fully diffused into our culture and society. Everyone and their mother, as the idiom goes, uses such technology on a daily basis. The sort of communication, creativity, and efficiency that digital technology delivers is breathtaking. But we are also beginning to notice how the bright possibility of digital technology casts a shadow of its own.

Together we are learning that technology is a transaction. We gain certain benefits—sometimes amazing benefits, but we also relinquish something in exchange. The trick, of course, is to accurately assess the transactional cost of a technology and then to deliberate whether what we give up is worth what we receive.

We want to better understand what that transaction looks like as congregations adopt more prominent digital technologies in their worship life, particularly the large-format projection screen. Our dialogue will identify the benefits that congregations seek to gain from projection, while also increasing our understanding of what congregations may give up in exchange.

The dialogue began recently when we sent a follow-up survey to all the congregations who previously indicated to us that they regularly used projection in worship. We noted at the time that 17% of congregations reported the practice of projecting some or all of the service onto a large-format screen. Our first survey only asked some basic questions about what congregations projected, now we want to gather more information about how projection is used in worship. We also hope to gain some insights into the attitudes, emotions, and philosophies that surround the practice.

The survey is just the first step in the dialogue. We will publish more blog posts on the topic in the future and announce further opportunities to participate in the dialogue. In a year’s time we will have a wide range of insights to offer based on the dialogue. Our hope and goal is that through this conversation our church body be well-equipped to make wise decisions about projection in worship.

During the past few months we've been drawing attention to a handful of hymns that many people would count among their favorites. Of course, not every hymn worthy of our reflection shows up near the top of a list of people's favorites. One such hymn is Martin Franzmann's, "O God, O Lord of Heaven and Earth" (Christian Worship #400).

We are pleased to be able to post here a devotional article about that hymn, written by Professor Emeritus Theodore Hartwig. In the author's own words, this hymn is like "a treasure hidden in a field." It may not be sung nearly as often as "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" or "Jerusalem the Golden." However, as the author puts it, it beautifully succeeds in "capturing the plight in today’s world while also enunciating the essence of the imperishable Gospel of Jesus Christ."

We thank Professor Hartwig for his article. If it succeeds in leading you to read and reflect on the words of the hymn it highlights, it will be well worth your time.

Dear friends in Christ,

I often have to remind myself that not everyone is as familiar with what’s going on with the hymnal project as I am. As I write this winter update in December 2015, I have been doing the full time work of a project director for three years. And yet, even our own hymnal project subcommittees have not been “at it” for all that long. An Executive Committee first met face to face in September 2013. Thereafter, other project committees began to meet online or in person (Scripture Committee – November 2013; Psalmody, Rites, Communication, and Technology Committees – January 2014; Hymnody Committee first face to face meeting – May 2014). While the hymnal project website launched in July 2013, it didn’t contain a great deal of information in those early days before the committees had even met for the first time.

So, while I have been fully engaged in this work for three years, the hymnal project subcommittees have only been fully functional themselves for approximately eighteen to twenty-four months. It took a while for the committees to become orientated to the work and to lay the groundwork for all that they would be doing.

Now, however, all the subcommittees are fully engaged. We have been mapping out a timeline which will allow them to cover all the work necessary to release a new hymnal and its attendant resources somewhere in the early 2020s. (We’re not yet at the point of knowing a firm release date.)

Thus, with the committees just beginning to churn out tangible materials, we readily recognize that not everyone in our church body has a clear grasp of where things stand. At this point we wouldn’t expect that to be the case for a hymnal which is projected to be released more than half a decade from now. On the other hand, we do want to bring people along as best we can in providing information relative to the status of the work that’s being done.

The Communications Committee completed four national surveys in calendar year 2014. Those surveyed were pastors, teachers and Sunday School teachers, musicians, and all WELS members. The results have been processed and consulted repeatedly as the project subcommittees have set about their work. A review of each week’s appointed scripture lessons, hymn and psalm choices, and other worship information, slated to be covered over three years and accelerated to be wrapped up in two years, has also now been completed. This brings the Communication Committee to the point of working with focus groups around the country to field test individual items on which the other subcommittees wish to receive feedback. Thanks to all who have (and who yet will) provide this very important and helpful information.

Active since the summer of 2013, the project website has brought us over 700 submissions of individual items, the majority of which have been hymns. Individual comments received through the website now number over a thousand. All comments and submissions have been reviewed and archived. Many comments and submissions also make their way into a pipeline which has been set up as a way for subcommittees to treat and potentially act on the materials and comments received.

The Scripture Committee has spent countless hours creating first drafts of a church year calendar and a revised lectionary (three-year set of scripture readings for use in public worship; cf. Christian Worship, pp. 162-166). This committee has responded to the preference of our church body’s pastors by providing a lectionary draft which has a unified theme across all three lessons appointed for the Sundays and festivals. The lectionary is being and will continue to be reviewed and critiqued on a number of different levels over the next several years.

On a regular and frequent basis, the Psalmody Committee now reviews upwards of twenty to thirty musical settings of a particular psalm. The committee is on a path toward providing not only approximately seventy psalm settings for the front pages of the next hymnal (similar to Christian Worship, pp. 64-122) but also textual and musical presentations of all 150 psalms in an additional, self-standing volume (called a Psalter). As the Christian Worship psalmody format has in so many cases brought back to our congregations regular singing of the psalms, the work of the Psalmody Committee will make many more psalms available for singing (and for personal devotion) in both regular public worship settings and other settings as well (school chapel services; congregational meetings; group devotions; etc.).

The Hymnody Committee has completed a first pass of reviewing all the existing hymns in Christian Worship and Christian Worship Supplement. It will be a few years yet before a “final hymn list” is identified. For now, rankings of hymns give an initial indication of which hymns are slated for inclusion in the next hymnal and which are not. In this regard there will be a fair amount of individual hymns shifting back and forth (inclusion/exclusion) as consideration is given to existing hymns and “new” hymns (new to us as far as being in our hymnal, but both ancient and recent in regard to when they were written). The text and music subcommittees of the Hymnody Committee meet monthly to treat approximately 20 existing hymns a month, and the committee is in the process of compiling a list of hundreds of new hymns for consideration.

The Rites Committee has spent well over a year working on the text and flow of what might most easily be called a “main communion service.” This historic service is very similar to Christian Worship’s Common Service (p. 15) and Christian Worship Supplement’s Divine Service 1 (p. 15). Envisioned for this service are both a new musical setting for the songs of the liturgy (printed in the hymnal), and alternate musical settings for the same service, available electronically. Various services from the current hymnal and supplement which are familiar to WELS worshipers will continue to be available in some form, to insure that when our next hymnal is released, congregations will have continuing access to familiar materials, while also being able to learn (at their own desired pace) musical service settings which are new. The committee will also be working on a service similar to The Service of the Word (Christian Worship, p. 38), and other services such as Morning Praise, Evening Prayer, etc.

We recently added one more committee to work on additional rites, referred to as “Occasional Services.” Pastors especially will be familiar with the current volume, Christian Worship: Occasional Services, which includes rites such as installations, dedications, reception of new members, and the like. We don’t anticipate that all of the services in the current book will need major overhauls, but this work will also allow for a review of language in the book and will allow us to add services that were not included in the current volume (e.g., anniversary of a congregation).

The Technology Committee continues to concentrate on three main areas or resources. A worship service planning application is being pursued. This program will take virtually all of the hymnal materials and make them digitally available for both planning worship services (church calendar based; hymn selection; service selection) and printing service folders. It is too early to promise what such an application might be able to do, but such a software program is a high priority for the committee. Additionally, the research work continues toward making available a personal digital hymnal (as an application for a tablet or phone) and developing a digital framework for musicians (an array of additional musical resources in support of what appears in the hymnal and psalter).

Work on an updated Handbook is in its initial stages. The Handbook provides background information on all of the hymns. An existing single volume called Christian Worship: Manual will most likely become four separate volumes, presenting a broad treatment of all of the hymnal resources, with target audiences of 1) pastors and worship leaders; 2) congregational groups and worship committees; 3) musicians and choirs; and 4) all congregation members.

On a regular sheet of paper, this winter update approaches three pages in length. It reaches all those - but only those - who subscribe to or visit the project website. In connection with field testing materials with focus groups, the Communication Committee also plans to soon release a more detailed report of the specific work of all of the committees. This report will go out through WELS Communications to all congregations. It is our hope that this update and that report will provide fairly comprehensive coverage of the hymnal project work. We remain committed to providing the best public worship resources we can compile, so that Jesus Christ might be proclaimed, believed, and honored.

On behalf of the WELS hymnal project,
Rev. Michael Schultz, director