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.

Psalmody Committee

Pastor Paul Prange, Chairman

Our Responsibilities

One of most significant contributions Christian Worship made to worship life in our synod was the introduction of singing psalms as part of every service. An entire generation of worshipers has now grown up expecting to find an appointed psalm inserted between the first and second lessons in the service. Believers of every generation benefit from hearing and learning these divinely-inspired hymns, which sing both of the fallen human condition and its only cure, Jesus Christ.

A generation later, it was assumed that psalms would continue to play an important role in the worship life of our church body. The hymnal project’s Psalmody Committee (PC) has been entrusted with that component of our next hymnal. We hope to continue and even expand the opportunities congregations have to make use of psalms in worship. Our job is to provide musical settings for the psalms appointed for the various Sundays and festivals of the Church Year.

Where We Are Headed

Pew Edition

As is the case with Christian Worship, you can expect to find a selection of psalms printed in the main “pew edition” of the next hymnal. A congregation will have the option of turning to that section and singing those psalms directly from the book.

With the psalms printed in the pew edition, you can expect to find a little more variety of musical style than is currently in Christian Worship. However, for all the psalms printed in the pew edition, it is our intent that most congregations will be able to sing each psalm in its entirety.

Standalone Psalter

The PC also plans to make available a resource that our current line of worship products does not include, namely, a standalone psalter. We envision a softcover book that would be a bit smaller than a regular hymnal. Congregations that have both hymnals and supplements in their pew racks now would find it easy to transition to having a hymnal and a psalter there if they desired to make use of this additional volume.

A standalone psalter will enable us to provide the text and musical settings for all 150 of the Bible’s psalms. In the psalter, the full text of each psalm will be printed. This text will also be pointed so that it can be sung with any psalm tone or simply read aloud. Following this printed text will be the musical setting found in the pew edition, if there is one. Finally, additional musical settings of many of the psalms will also be printed.

Printing a standalone psalter will enable us to offer an even wider variety of musical settings for the psalms. Unlike the pew edition, not every single setting in the psalter will be able to be sung entirely by the congregation but will instead sometimes require the assistance of a choir or cantor.

In addition to its use in public worship, we envision this psalter being a blessing for personal worship. Individuals who want to pray through the psalms for their personal devotions might enjoy using the psalter, since it will contain all 150 psalms and have suggestions for personal devotional use.

Digital Files

In addition to these two printed resources, congregations that print the full order of service each week will be able to obtain necessary digital files (text and music graphics) apart from the pew edition and psalter.

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.