WELS Hymnal Project

Project Blog

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

As the hymns committee began its search for the 200 or so new hymns that will be included in the next hymnal, that search included scouring dozens of published hymnals from all corners of English-speaking Christianity. As a result, when we speak about the “new” hymns that will appear in our next hymnal, we mean hymns that will be new to us. In some cases they are also new in the sense of having been written rather recently. In some cases they have been around for decades or more.

In addition to searching these published hymn collections, we also searched the music that has been produced in recent years within wider English-speaking Christianity, including what is often referred to as Christian contemporary music. We searched artists’ and publishers’ websites. We asked for song lists and recommendations from congregations who regularly use this type of music. Hundreds of songs were looked at, and eventually about 150 were presented to the hymns committee for their review. Of that 150, roughly 50 were presented to the project’s executive committee for their review.

A variety of different reasons could be given for making such a search. But the most important one starts with a very simple assumption, the same assumption that lies at the heart of our church body’s decision to publish a new hymnal in the first place. That assumption is that the Holy Spirit continues to give good gifts to Christ’s Church for the carrying out of its mission. Those gifts didn’t stop in 1524 with the publishing of the first Lutheran hymnal. They didn’t stop in 1993 with the publishing of Christian Worship. They aren’t restricted to any specific generation or denomination. Until Christ comes back, we should expect the Holy Spirit to continue to bless us with gifted poets and composers who put the beautiful truths of the gospel to poetry and music. And if that’s the case, it’s only natural that we would try to identify all of the gifts that could be of benefit to the gospel ministry of our church body’s congregations and schools.

So what did we find? Having been heavily involved in the search described above, I’d like to offer a few reflections.

Observation 1: Much modern music is produced with different priorities than those of a hymnal project.
It’s easy for any evaluation of modern Christian music to be carried out on a pass/fail basis. In other words, the goal is simply to determine whether a song is acceptable for use in our worship or not. Under such a pass/fail approach, the primary focus would naturally be on the words of the song in question.

While this is certainly the place to start and while there are certainly songs that we would conclude are unacceptable for use in our church body, a helpful evaluation goes much further than this. The contents of a generational, denominational resource like a hymnal are selected on the basis of specific priorities. In contrast, much of so-called contemporary music, while not unacceptable for worship, is nonetheless created with very different priorities.

In some cases, the difference in priorities is textual. Our hymnal project is looking for songs whose words proclaim biblical truth in general and gospel comfort in particular. In contrast, many songs are written not primarily to proclaim biblical truth but to give expression to the Christian’s response to that truth.

In some cases the difference in priorities relates to congregational participation. A hymnal is a worship resource designed to be put in the hands of an assembly and used together by that assembly. Words and music are placed side by side so that the collective assembly has everything it needs to be able to proclaim the gospel in song together. In contrast, many songs are written to be performed for an assembly rather than produced by an assembly. Even though the assembly may be able to participate, this ability would come only after hearing the song a good number of times so that the melody is known by heart. If the musical notes of the song were to be displayed to the people at all, they would be more of a hindrance than a help.

Finally, in some cases, the difference in priorities relates to intended shelf life. A hymnal is a curated set of songs meant to serve an entire generation of worshipers. Its inherent expectation is that most of the hymns included have a shelf life of at least a generation. Additionally, a hymnal passes on to future generations a good number of hymns that centuries of worshipers have found worthy of use and adds our assessment to theirs. In contrast, many songs are written to catch on quickly but wear out just as quickly in order to make way for a new set of songs that will do the same. During our search among Christian contemporary music, it occurred to me that if we were to tell one of these artists that we were going to take one of their songs, publish it in a hymnal, and twenty-five years from now plan to still be teaching it to people who have never heard it before, their response might be, “Now why would you go and do something like that?” For comparison’s sake, imagine if our current hymnal were full of Christian songs that were popular back in 1991. As much as those Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith albums were well-loved back then, I’m not sure they’d be getting much use today. For many songs, publication in a generational, denominational resource isn’t in keeping with their purpose.

Observation 2: Observation 1 is not without exception.
All of that said, even when a song is evaluated on the basis of the various priorities inherent with a hymnal project, it’s still impossible to evaluate each song on a pass/fail basis. Rather, songs meet these priorities in varying degrees. This is true even of songs written in a rather traditional hymnic style. Some hymns proclaim gospel comfort better than others. Some include more of the believer’s heartfelt response to that gospel. Some hymns are readily singable by almost any assembly. Others are more difficult to sing or almost require vocal leadership. Some hymns are sturdy enough to last for generations. Others catch on quickly but likely will not be sung fifty years from now.

Even though much of the Christian music being produced for popular consumption today has different priorities than those of a hymnal project, that rule is not without exception. As I searched through list after list and website after website, it was great to see how many artists today are committed to producing music whose priorities match ours: music that clearly proclaims the gospel, music designed to encourage participation by the assembly, and music designed to have some staying power.

As a result, our next hymnal will include some songs that we believe worshipers will find lively and upbeat. It will include songs whose sound and poetry are fresh and relevant to today’s generation of Christians. However, there won’t be a batch of songs that is clearly different from all the rest. They won’t be relegated to their own section with their own heading, “Contemporary,” if such a thing were even possible. If you didn’t look at the bottom of the page to see when the hymn was written and by whom, you might not even realize that a particular song is considered “contemporary,” just like a person might listen to Koine’s setting of “Salvation Unto Us Has Come,” and have no idea that it was part of that first Lutheran hymnal published in 1524.

It’s not as if there’s this clearly defined line where one leaves the world of hymnody and enters the world of Christian contemporary music. Instead, most songs meet the criteria that differentiate those two genres in a wide variety of degrees.

Observation 3: The search will always be worth the effort.
As a result, while the search may have been tedious and while a great deal of the music we considered doesn’t fit with the priorities of a hymnal project, the search was worth the effort.

Our hymnal project has the priorities it has not simply because it happens to be a hymnal project. Rather, we have those priorities because we are convinced they are beneficial for God’s people as they gather for worship. Songs that focus on the believer’s response to God’s love have their place. But it’s good to have an overall diet of hymnody that puts the focus on gospel truth so that our confidence continues to be grounded in God’s work for us rather than on how that work happens to make us feel in the moment. Songs that catch on and wear out quickly can be valuable. But something just as valuable might be lost if a believer spends their entire lifetime learning a completely new set of songs every decade rather than having some that have the ability to last from cradle to grave. Songs that are designed to be performed for worshipers rather than produced collectively by them can serve a purpose. But in a society that’s already saturated with consumerism, it’s good to help believers see that they are part of a royal priesthood chosen and equipped to proclaim God’s praises rather than simply consume the praises that are produced by a select group with the talent to do so. In other words, we’re producing the specific type of worship resource we’re producing for a reason. It’s because we are convinced that these priorities best serve Christ’s church as it carries out its work.

That also means that it’s worth looking for, and finding, and including songs that fit those priorities and at the same time are accessible and enjoyable to sing and whose sound is fresh and relevant to today’s worshipers. Some of these modern songs might not last for generations or centuries. But by including songs that will catch on very quickly, we hopefully allow worshipers to discover the one on the very next page that has the ability to last for generations. By including songs that are easier to sing, we hopefully make it easier for worshipers to put in the worthwhile effort to learn the ones that are more difficult. By including songs whose sound is already relatively at home in the ear of newer worshipers, we hopefully make it easier for them to see that they can make a joyful noise to the Lord just as well as they can make a joyful noise to their pickup truck (sorry, country music fans) and that they can cry out in anguish to the Lord just as well as they can cry out in anguish over a recent breakup (sorry, Emo fans).

Finally, including modern music in a hymnal is very much in keeping with another priority inherent in producing a generational, denominational resource like a hymnal. It’s a reflection of one of the most beautiful and miraculous characteristics of Christ’s Church: our unity. Rather than the Church being one more group whose existence is determined by the shared interests of all the members, Christ’s Church brings together people from every tribe and every tongue, every nation and every generation, every political bent and every musical preference. Rather than being one more organization where everyone insists that every individual preference is met, the Church is an organization where everyone insists on setting aside those preferences for the good of the whole body. We hope our church body’s next hymnal will be a valuable tool for realizing that priority as well.

It’s the home stretch. It’s really exciting.

We have chosen all of the Psalm settings for the hymnal. We have chosen all of the alternate settings for those Psalms as well. Congregations that like the current hymnal’s Psalm style will be able to find something for every service. Congregations that prefer metrical paraphrases or more lyrical settings will be able to find something as well. All of those settings can be found either in the hymnal or the Psalter. The electronic worship planning tool will aid in incorporating those in worship folders.

And we are 90% done with choosing all of the settings for the new WELS psalter. We are providing accessible settings for individuals, choirs, and congregations to chant or sing all 150 Psalms. It has been genuinely delightful to pore over thousands of settings, looking for things that the vast majority of people will be able to use.

The basic pattern of the psalter has come together. Each Psalm is printed in its entirety, and pointed to be chanted in the current CW style with familiar chant tones provided. A Psalm prayer is followed by an explanation of how the Church has used that Psalm through the ages, and then commentary on that particular Psalm from Martin Luther in a fresh translation. The settings follow, representing treasures old and new.

We have discovered well over 100 tunes for the metrical paraphrases. Many of them are new to WELS. Some of them are from previous WELS hymnals but are not in the current hymnal. Almost all of them will be printed in singable and playable four-part harmony.

We are aware of new settings being published even this year, and we are reviewing them as we have the opportunity. But the date is fast approaching when we are finished, and then the comprehensive new WELS psalter will be in your hands. We can hardly wait!

I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God.
Psalm 43:4b

One value in repeated use of familiar worship material is that certain phrases become embedded in one’s memory. One of my favorites: “Better than life is your love” (Morning Devotion, CW page 152; Psalm 63:3). God’s love is better than life itself because he rescues us from sin and death and promises eternal life.

Easter is God’s stamp of approval on Christ’s victory. St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

In the death and resurrection of Jesus, death for the believer dies. What a powerful image! “Holy Scripture plainly says that death is swallowed up by death; its sting is lost forever. Hallelujah!” (161:2, 720:4). A new hymn by Keith and Kristyn Getty puts it this way: “Death is dead, love has won, Christ has conquered” (See, What a Morning).

Not all familiar and memorable lines are pleasant. Martin Luther’s great Easter hymn doesn’t mince words about the cause for Jesus’ death: “Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands for our offenses given” (161, 720). But though our offenses are great, his love is greater. “He died on the accursèd tree—so strong his love—to save us” (161:3, 720:5).

Some days we revel in Easter confidence. Other days we’re tempted to minimize the serious risks in our spiritual battles. So we do well to remember: “The ancient dragon is their foe” (195:4). On our own, we’d be quickly defeated. But with God’s promise to support us, we are bold to say: “Dragon of old and jaws of death, I sneer at the fear you bring!” (from a new hymn under consideration).

A favorite line for many is from “I Know that My Redeemer Lives”: “He lives to silence all my fears; He lives to wipe away my tears” (152:5). And so we pray in a hymn not from the Easter section:

Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me! (588:7)

This year Easter worship will include familiar images and memorable poetic phrases. In years to come a new hymnal will bring new expressions of Easter victory and confidence.

God bless your Easter worship with spiritual truth embedded in your heart by both new and familiar words!

So let us keep the festival
To which the Lord invites us;
Christ is himself the joy of all,
The sun that warms and lights us.
Now his grace to us imparts
Eternal sunshine to our hearts;
The night of sin is ended. Hallelujah! (161:4, 720:6)

Until you’re faced with the cold, chilling reality that your days are actually numbered, you might not notice it so much. But ask the hiker stranded for four days in sub-zero temperatures, ask the patient in the oncology ward who has just heard the words “stage 4,” ask the pinned down, bleeding accident victim who fears that the EMT’s and the jaws of life are not going to arrive in time—ask any of them what they think about seeing another sunrise. I didn’t think much about the fact that the sun rose this morning, but there are those who treasure each new morning because they know that they don’t have too many grains of sand left in the top half of the hourglass. So when they rejoice to see the dawn of another day, they also reflect on the God who is giving them that day. They might even reflect on the fact that every day they are given is based on a promise from God, that cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease until the God who created the seasons brings them to an end and fashions for his redeemed people a new heavens and a new earth— the home of righteousness.

Always more than we realize, we depend on the promises of God.

One promise, in particular, has been operating in stealth mode throughout all of our days. It is the promise that the Triune God is always with us, that he will never leave us or forsake us. We have never seen our Savior, but our Savior has never taken his eye off us. More than we realize, we depend on God not abandoning us, for that would truly be hell.

When he took on a servant’s form and was found in appearance as a man, Jesus depended on the promises of God. Unlike ours, his dependence on the promises of God was complete and perfect in every way. He relied on God for food and drink, for clothing and shoes, for help in trouble, for deliverance from evil, for everything. Jesus found great solace and peace in the fact that the Father who sent him to earth would never leave him to fend for himself, would never turn a deaf ear to his prayers, would never slumber or sleep, would always watch over him and protect him, would never leave him or forsake him.

Sainted Lutheran pastor and hymn writer Herman Stuempfle wrote a Lenten hymn with a mind-boggling title: “Son of God, by God Forsaken.” That title calls to mind the quandary in which Luther found himself when pondering Good Friday: “God forsaken by God—who can understand it?” In terms of the doctrine of the Trinity, how such a thing can have happened is inexplicable. In terms of being truly human, the peaceful solace Jesus had in his soul from leaning on the promise that his Father would never leave him or forsake him was the rug that was pulled out from under his feet in the cruelest of fashion. Suddenly, while nailed to a tree in supernatural midday darkness, that essential, pivotal promise was gone. The giver of the promise, Jesus’ eternal Father, was gone. Jesus was more incomprehensibly alone than you or I have ever felt. He was simultaneously drowning in the crushing ocean depths of God-forsakenness and burning in the raging inferno of God’s wrath, with his heavenly Father nowhere to be found. When he cried out, “Why!” the silence only continued, the solitude only deepened, the suffering went on unabated.

Forsaken. For us. To remove all our sin. This was the incomprehensible cost of our rescue, willingly paid by the one who suffered incomprehensible loss in our place.

When Jesus breathed his last, he was no longer forsaken. Our redemption price, the redemption price of the entire world, had been paid. The Father who had forsaken his Son received the soul of his Son into his loving hands.

There is not, nor shall there ever be, a hymn entitled, “Child of God, by God Forsaken.” That is an impossibility. Your heavenly Father will never, not even for a split second through all the endless moments of eternity, suspend or remove his promise to never leave you or forsake you. That happened to Jesus in your place; it’s not going to happen to you. The Lord God Almighty has purchased you and he possesses you as his own and he will not let go of you. As he keeps his promise and causes the sun to rise each morning, he will never forsake you through all of the tomorrows on earth that he has yet to give you. And when the day comes when days and seasons end and he keeps his promise to forever dwell among his people in the new heavens and the new earth, he will never forsake you through the endless today that he provides for you in heaven.

Can something be beautiful and ominous at the same time?

Think of billowing storm clouds. The sun glints brilliantly off their contours and edges. Their majestic beauty can be breathtaking.

Unless you’re in flood-ravaged Nebraska, where water has devastated property and drowned livestock. Or unless you’re hiking in the rocky ravines and slot canyons of the Southwest, where flash floods can kill. Some things can be both beautiful and ominous.

It seems to me that “love” is one such thing.

Love—what could be more beautiful? Yet my sinful self paints “love,” the command from my Creator, in dark hues. First there’s the stubborn resistance: “Why should I love? People don’t love me the way I deserve, so why should I bend over backward to love them?” Then there’s the sad reality that the people closest to me, the people I should find easiest to love, are often the ones I find most frustrating and difficult to love. Finally there’s the guilt, the realization to which the command to love brings me: so often I simply fail to love. And it’s not only people that I fail to love, but God himself.

But this evening we see love in a new light. “It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). Here we see Jesus, our righteousness, loving and serving those close to him. He washes their feet—the same feet that will run away from him. Here we see Jesus giving his body and blood in a simple but breathtaking meal. In this meal is pure love that forgives sin and rebellion. Here we see Jesus’ love in his active obedience, as he fulfills the command to love. On this same night we see Jesus’ love in the passive obedience of letting himself be betrayed, arrested, convicted, and sent to crucifixion.

This love from Jesus will come yet again tonight in the word of his grace and in the saving gift of his Supper. This love will cover us with his righteousness. This love will forgive us all our lovelessness. Let’s receive this love with thankful hearts.

And why not let this love lead us? Why not let it move us to reconcile with the people we’ve failed to love or with those who have been loveless toward us? Why not let this love move us to love and live for the one who lived and died and lives again for us? “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12,13).

Things both beautiful and ominous—I suppose Holy Thursday falls into that category. Jesus leaving the Upper Room to go to his betrayal. The altar solemnly being stripped. But there’s love on this night, too. See it’s breathtaking beauty.