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Much more than hymns

The new hymnal will help us plan worship, sing, and grow in our Christian faith.

The phrase “just the tip of the iceberg” existed long before 1912, but the sinking of the Titanic popularized it. The expression “more than meets the eye” was in our vocabulary before magnifying glasses or electron microscopes. Both of those ideas apply to the new hymnal—there’s more to it than what you see on the surface.

By the end of next year, all the planning, discussion, and hard work will result in a new hymnal. What’s inside? Of course, there are hymns, but there’s so much more! Our new book of worship is far more elaborate. Here’s a look at some of the exciting things that will come out of the WELS Hymnal Project’s hours and hours of planning:


LITURGY: The main service will bear a resemblance to the Trinity—three in one. Inside the new hymnal will be one service—a single liturgical text—which will help facilitate familiarity. But that single text will be presented in three different musical settings to suit the tastes of different audiences and instrumentation. Those who have worshiped in churches across the country or served in senior ministry will immediately recognize the value of this approach. The overall flow of the service will be similar to what you’ve used before to unite Christians of every generation. It will make it easier for everyone to participate.

Perhaps you have heard stories from grandparents or great-grandparents who remember going to church when men sat on one side and women the other! Some worship practices that we now take for granted were not always that way. Change does happen, even in worship. In the new hymnal, the changes are gentle modifications. For example, we’ll now stand for the Gospel Acclamation (previously called the Verse of the Day) and sit for the Prayer of the Church. The creed will always be after the sermon, and just before Communion we’ll speak a prayer of thanksgiving. Maybe someday you’ll tell your grandchildren, “I remember when we stood for the entire Prayer of the Church!”

Nearly 500 years ago, the first Lutheran hymnal was published with just eight hymns. In a little more than a year, we’ll publish our latest hymnal with more than 600 hymns.

PSALMS: The book of Psalms has long stood as the de facto hymnal of the Bible. People have been singing the psalms for millennia with good reason. The deep theology, the rich poetic expression of sin and grace, the prophecies of Christ, the depth and breadth of personal emotions—all lend themselves to setting these poems and prayers to song.

Beginning with our 1993 red hymnal, we have grown familiar with chanted and responsorial psalm singing. That style of music allows worship leaders to incorporate a great deal of variety into worship by involving choirs, cantors, children, and an array of different groups. That style of psalm singing will still be available, but so will many other styles. Some psalm settings will sing just like hymns. More elaborate settings will initially be suitable for choirs but over time will become congregational favorites. The stylistic and instrumental variety is something to anticipate eagerly!

PEOPLE’S HYMNAL: Much thought went into making our hymnal user-friendly. Our current book has one set of page numbers for services, prayers, and psalms, but then restarts the numbering system for hymns. That occasionally trips up worshipers who wonder whether they are turning to a page in the front part or hymn part of the book. Look forward to just one set of page numbers in the new hymnal. You’ll always know what page to be on!

Choirs and cantors can be wonderful enhancements to worship, but the main choir of worship is still the congregation. We designed the new hymnal specifically to enhance congregational singing. It will be a singers’ book. Unlike some of the organ settings that favored unison singing, most hymns will work for singing in harmony. Some hymns will be printed with the melody line only so that parishioners can more easily join in praise.

Finally, this hymnal will be visually appealing. Careful attention has been given to fonts, layout, and design. It will be printed in two colors to help with navigation and to differentiate between psalms and hymns. Specially commissioned artwork that communicates the gospel will enhance the hymnal’s artistry. It will be beautiful to look at!


LECTIONARY: Has your pastor ever made a comment so insightful in his sermon that you wondered if he had bugged your house? How does he know what part of the Bible to talk about each week? How does he know what sins to identify or where to apply grace?

Sermons are not designed to be orations of a pastor’s pet peeves. The pulpit is not a place for ax-grinding about last week’s counseling session or advocating political change. Sermons unfold a Bible text to the heart of the listener, and those texts are part of an interconnected and wonderfully harmonized, thematic pattern of lessons that trace the life of Christ from birth to death to resurrection to ascension.

That pattern of lessons, more commonly called the lectionary, has been reworked so that all three readings support a common theme. We will still continue to grow in our faith as we hear the gospel again and again. That never changes, but the texts from God’s Word will have a slightly different and refreshing pattern.


SERVICE BUILDER: Doing worship well takes careful planning and effective communication. It’s common for pastors and secretaries to spend many hours a week selecting music, planning worship variety, and producing service folders that encourage participation. That does not include the hours that musicians invest to beautify worship. Making even a slight adjustment can mean changing printed and digital resources.

Modern technology provides planning and collaboration tools that will transform the way we plan and communicate worship. Part of our hymnal release next year will include a subscription-based online tool called Service Builder, a centralized worship database. Tasks like producing service folders, which used to take hours, will now take minutes, freeing up valuable time. The software will even report usage of copyrighted hymnal content to licensing agencies.

MUSICIANS’ RESOURCES: Have you ever watched an organist go to work, propping her hymnal open with copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica on either side so it would not flap shut in the middle of stanza 2? The hymnal may be a singers’ book, but resources will help make it a musicians’ book as well. Both the hymnal and the psalter will have their own accompaniment volumes. Plus, they’ll be oversized and spiral bound so that they’ll never flap shut in the middle of the second stanza!

What if a musician is looking for an older setting of a hymn or wonders how to add other instrumentation to worship? An online, digitally available musicians’ resource will contain all kinds of alternate settings, liturgical variations, and arrangements for guitar, brass, and other instrumentation so that we can offer God our very best.

Nearly 500 years ago, the first Lutheran hymnal was published with just eight hymns. In a little more than a year, we’ll publish our latest hymnal with more than 600 hymns. That’s just the tip of the iceberg! Inside your new hymnal will be a titanic amount of useful worship resources that will enhance praise of God both in your church and in your home. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait!

This is the third article in a three-part series on the new hymnal being released in Advent of 2021. 

The new website will provide a more in-depth preview of our upcoming hymnal. You will also find a downloadable purchase planning worksheet as well as a list of frequently asked questions. Congregations will be receiving copies of a hymnal preview booklet this month that will share more about what’s coming in the new hymnal. The new hymnal will be featured on this month’s edition of WELS Connection.


More than a hymnal

Did you know that we’re publishing a stand-alone psalter? The new psalter will include all 150 psalms and will feature at least two (and in some cases up to six or seven) different musical settings of a psalm in various styles. These approximately 450 psalm settings will provide an excellent way for congregations to incorporate musical variety into worship. Choirs will find many settings both beautiful and accessible. The psalter is a natural candidate to join the hymnal in the local music rack.

The psalter is just one of at least 16 different products we’re developing to support the worship and praise of God. Others include three accompaniment volumes, four manuals to support the work of altar guilds and musicians, and five professional books for pastors. Several digital tools round out the family of products. We pray these resources will support a heartier “hallelujah!” from the hearts of his people.

Not just for church anymore

Built into your new hymnal is a wealth of resources that will support personal devotions wherever you may be. A daily devotion guide, sets of daily readings, Luther’s Small Catechism, and a variety of personal prayers make the hymnal a perfect choice for home use. The psalter and a separate volume dedicated to devotions will serve those looking for greater depth.

Schools will also find multiple uses for the new hymnal and other resources as well. Sunday school and Lutheran elementary school children will love learning new hymns and psalms. The new hymnology curriculum, Hymns for Life, has been closely coordinated with the WELS Hymnal Project to ensure a smooth transition to the new hymnal in our schools. Children who are just learning to play piano or guitar, as well as more accomplished musicians in high school band, will discover a place in worship for their praise. And if you played an instrument when you were younger, dust it off! Support resources will enable you to put your musical gifts to godly use.

Author: Adam R. Mueller
Volume 107, Number 02
Issue: February 2020

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