WELS Hymnal Project

Shaping the Voice of Worship

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.

About Jonathan Bauer

Rev. Jonathan Bauer is a member of the Executive Committee and has served on the Communications Committee for the WELS Hymnal Project. He serves as pastor of Good News Lutheran Church in Mount Horeb, WI. He is a member of the Institute for Worship and Outreach and has been a presenter for Schools of Worship Enrichment and at the WELS National Worship Conference.


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