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Digital resources: Hymnal tools for the modern world

In a digital age, Lutherans can embrace new tools for worship.

Much of the work of making a hymnal has remained the same over the years. You need a team to cover hymnody, a team to cover psalmody, designers, musicians, editors, and many others. But in the work of fulfilling our synod’s commission to produce a successor to the much-loved 1993 hymnal, Christian Worship, there was a notable new addition to the process: a subcommittee on technology. I’ve been sitting in the chairman’s seat of the Technology Committee since its beginning more than seven years ago.

In those early days we fielded a wide variety of futuristic questions. Can we make an e-ink hymnal that all worshipers hold in their hands? What about a buffet-style resource where every congregation basically builds its own hymnal? Will people even use books by the time this new work is published?

These kinds of questions get futurists excited about revolutionary possibilities, but we settled into a far more mundane reality: Technological work is almost always iterative, that is, change is usually incremental instead of revolutionary.

So, if anyone was hoping to hear of iPads in every pew or robotic musicians capable of playing any instrument with human virtuosity, I’m sorry to disappoint.

We set aside the unlikely—and probably unnecessary—whiz-bang ideas and instead got to work on what a real hymnal could look like in a real world of iterative technological change. The task was to produce a hymnal built on the rich tradition of Lutheran worship while also designing something that was ready for the world in which it would be released.

Well-designed solutions

To do this work, we got our heads out of the clouds and into the simple reality of the average worshiper in the typical Lutheran congregation. We sought to make thoughtful, tasteful, and functional use of technology to maximize the effectiveness of the whole hymnal project. A lot of our ideas were false starts, but I’m happy to report that some of our best ideas are coming to your congregation soon.

Our work centered largely on providing valuable tools to make planning and preparing worship faster, easier, and more effective. We reasoned that a well-designed solution would have at least two happy results:

  • First, a well-designed solution would make it easier for congregations to plan and prepare the kind of services that deliver the gospel in rich, beautifully engaging ways. We understood that helping the overall process would deliver tangible improvements in quality to the individual worshiper. We have also been generally convinced that such excellence in worship puts our best foot forward in the community.
  • Second, a well-designed solution would save significant amounts of time for the pastors and other church workers involved in worship planning and preparation. We realized that if we could save them several hours each week, they could use the time for the vital work they are called to do, that is, to preach, teach, evangelize, or further enrich their congregation’s worship ministry.

We devoted serious development time and expertise to crafting a publication design that would support both digital and print applications. We studied the most common problems encountered when using a print hymnal and produced thoughtful design solutions for the pew edition.

We also integrated a system for producing excellent worship folders. The system is flexible and modular so that the work done in planning and preparing worship can be exported in a variety of useful formats for broad use in the congregation.

The main digital product, Christian Worship: Service Builder, has an impressive list of features on its own. But the real power of the software is that every single aspect of the program has been designed specifically for Lutheran worship. If you’ve ever tried to shoehorn an ill-fitting technical tool into a specialized workflow you know how powerful it is to have something custom-made for exactly the task at hand. Service Builder is just such a tool.

We also have laid the groundwork for an upcoming, digital marketplace at Northwestern Publishing House—a rich repository of musical support materials we have been calling the Musician’s Resource. The Musician’s Resource will be a centralized source of additional accompaniments, musical settings, and other works produced to give congregations many more ways to adorn the proclamation of the gospel with beautiful variety.

Finally, we are in the research phase of an ambitious but difficult task: to develop a mobile application that would bring the hymnal’s material to mobile devices for individual, family, and small-group use. The goal is to make more than just an electronic facsimile of a pew edition hymnal; we want to make something that Lutheran Christians will discover as a vital part of their evangelical spirituality.

Functional technology tools

In a way, the result of our work is quite conservative. We have not tried to disrupt existing patterns of worship. We never wanted to “move fast and break things,” as was the motto at Facebook for many years. The body of Christ includes every generation of believer—from the very young to the very old and everyone in between. We owe it to one another to preserve and protect the intergenerational character of our worship, especially as it embodies the unity in diversity that the Christian gospel produces.

At the same time, there is much that is new, improved, and updated. Service Builder is a significant step forward in the state of the art in WELS congregations. Service Builder will give congregations the ability to plan worship quickly, offer access to the full library of hymnal materials in digital formats, rapidly generate worship folders and screen presentations, as well as automatically handle copyright usage reporting. All the features that apply to the main Christian Worship: Hymnal material will also be available for each congregation’s custom library of local resources that it can import into Service Builder. Collaboration is also a core feature in Service Builder. Teams within the congregation can access the same, centralized worship plans. Not only that, entire worship plans can be quickly shared between congregations. I envision healthy collaboration between pastors and worship planners happening more often with Service Builder.

Service Builder is a comprehensive platform that gives congregations powerful tools to be what God has called them to be: the embodied outpost of Christ’s kingdom on earth in their local community.

There’s not much here that will get futurists excited, but there is plenty that will get pastors, teachers, organists, planners, administrative assistants, and parishioners excited. We’ve developed thoughtful, tasteful, and functional technology that focuses on the real work of the church: bringing people to the place where they taste and see that the Lord is good, where they speak to one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, where they do not give up meeting together but instead encourage one another all the more as they see the day approaching.

Learn more about Christian Worship: Service Builder at The software is planned for release in November, both for purchase and for free test driving. 

Author: Caleb R. Bassett
Volume 108, Number 11
Issue: November 2021

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