Christian Worship - Built on Tradition, Ready for Today

Caleb Bassett (Fallbrook, California, USA)

Archived discussion

About the presenter

Rev. Caleb R. Bassett is the pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fallbrook, California and chairs the Technology Committee of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod Hymnal Project. He is also a Fellow of the International Academy of Apologetics, Evangelism, and Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

The New Christian Worship

The Challenge

Seven years ago I became the newly appointed chair of the Technology Committee of the WELS Hymnal Project, a project commissioned by the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod to produce a successor hymnal to the much-loved 1993 Christian Worship. My first task was to assess the challenge of producing a hymnal that was built on the solid tradition of Lutheran worship we enjoy while also designing something that was ready for the world in which it would be released.

Early on, the most frequently cited challenges were the kind of things that get technologists and futurists excited: Can we make an e-ink hymnal that every worshiper holds? What about a buffet-style hymnal where every congregation downloads just what it wants? Will people even use books by the time this work is published? And do we need to think about Google Glass? But once the initial flurry of excitement was over, we settled back into the reality that work like this is almost always iterative, that is, it builds on what came before in useful and productive ways. We set aside the whizbang ideas that had no real chance of coming to fruition and instead got to work on what a real hymnal could look like in a real world of iterative technological change.

So, if you were hoping to hear of iPads in every pew and robotic musicians able to play any instrument with the mastery of a human virtuoso, I’m sorry to disappoint. The real challenge, we found, was in preserving and protecting what makes embodied, sacramental, Lutheran worship just what it is. It seems that it is becoming increasingly difficult to actually reduce our tendency to adopt the patterns and paradigms of our inventions. Fewer and fewer people, it seems, consider the criticism famously voiced by Dr. Ian Malcom in the 1993 blockbuster, “Jurassic Park.” They often get so preoccupied with the question of whether they could that they fail to ask whether they should.

So we worked to get our heads out of the clouds and into the simple reality of the average worshiper in a Lutheran congregation. We sought to make thoughtful, tasteful, and functional use of technology to maximize the effectiveness of the hymnal project.

The Work

The work of the Technology Committee of the WELS Hymnal Project centered on providing valuable tools to help make the work of planning and preparing worship faster, easier, and more effective. We reasoned that a well-designed solution would have two happy results:

First, a well-designed solution would make it even easier for congregations to plan and prepare the kind of services that deliver the rich gospel to people in beautifully engaging ways. We have been generally convinced that worship and outreach go hand-in-hand, that good worship is part of good outreach.

Second, a well-designed solution would save significant amounts of time for the pastors who are usually involved in worship planning and preparation. We realized that if we could save pastors several hours of time per week, they could use that time for the real work that they are called to do, that is, to preach, teach, and evangelize with the Word of God. We also focused on efforts that would bring the hymnal to as broad an audience as possible. For one thing, we devoted serious development time to crafting a 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 print product.

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.

Not only that, we have been working to develop plans for a mobile application that would bring the hymnal’s material onto mobile devices. While the mobile application is still in the research phase, it is safe to say that we are focusing on using the strengths of mobile technology to bring the hymnal material to people in a way that is relevant to the daily practice of the Lutheran faith, that is, daily prayer, devotion, and singing. We want to make more than just an electronic facsimile of a pew edition hymnal; we want to make something that Lutheran Christians find is a vital part of their evangelical spirituality.

The Result

The result is, really, quite conservative. We have not tried to disrupt existing patterns of worship. We don’t want to move fast and break things. 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. What has been handed down to us is not arbitrary – no, it has been refined by years of wisdom and care.

At the same time, there is much that is new, improved, and updated in what’s coming in the new edition of Christian Worship. The software platform called Christian Worship: Service Builder is by far the most significant technological tool in the upcoming release. Christian Worship: Service Builder will give congregations the ability to quickly plan worship, access the full library of hymnal materials, rapidly generate worship folders and screen presentations, automatically handle copyright usage reporting, and build and develop an entire library of useful customizations for the local setting. It’s not a platform to turn individual congregations into media ministries because that was never the goal. It is a platform, however, that gives congregations even more 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 coming down the line from Christian Worship that will get technologists and futurists excited, but there is a lot 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.


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Philip Wels 2020-10-20 2:11:02pm
Thank you for sharing all of this. I really love hearing about all the thought that goes into the different hymnals. (I may or may not have a small collection of hymnals in my library.)

In many ways, this is the work of designing a User Interface. Did you develop your own set of interface guidelines for this? And along those lines, do you have any guidelines or best practices that churches should consider when creating bulletins or other materials that worshipers use to follow along? (Or maybe do you see common "mistakes" which could be easily avoided?)
Caleb Bassett (WELS Hymnal Project) 2020-10-20 9:25:56pm
Thanks for your questions. I must say that I have enjoyed seeing how much planning, researching, deciding, and designing goes into a hymnal. It has been no small task and I am convinced now that a church body that takes up the task is participating in a long and healthy tradition. My committee still has a lot of work on its plate as we are much more busy with production and development.

Throughout the project we have been working on a lot of design guidelines for the hymnal. Whether they are formal interface guidelines or not, I can't really say. I do think that my committee and I envisioned doing a lot more of that kind of work in a formal way, but once things got busy with development and production we realized that kind of work would take most of our time. Nevertheless, I would say there is a high degree of likelihood that the main designer on our committee and I will take time once the project is out the door to document for public consumption the kind of design principles we developed in the project. We did, in fact, do quite a bit of study of other hymnals and also practical hymnal usage issues and worked to find what we hope are good solutions to those challenges. We share your desire to put such guidelines in the hands of congregations to enhance their ability to use visually excellent materials in the Sunday service. It is part of the plan, but it will take time to get it done.

So, I am kind of deferring an answer to your question in a way. The topic of how to apply these principles in a congregation setting is probably a full presentation of its own. However, the Christian Worship: Service Builder will have default layout settings that represent best practices. We will also be providing resources on how congregations can license the same typefaces used in the hymnal in case they want to match. And we will share what open source fonts would be good substitutes for our production fonts while still looking to fit the same visual language. Those default nudges together with additional resources are aimed at helping to improve the state of the art in local congregations.
Abigayle Koch (Martin Luther College) 2020-11-04 3:25:17am
Pastor Bassett,

I am eager to be apart of a smooth sailing service as a future called worker. It seems like this will be a great outreach opportunity and will include many types of people that will feel even more welcome into our church services! Especially during the times of COVID-19, proceeding with this type of outreach will include many people who feel more comfortable in their own homes during worship. A few years ago, I was approached with the opportunity to attend a church outside of the Wisconsin Lutheran Synod. Engaging in this opportunity with my friend seemed nothing but harmless. As I entered the church's doors, I realized that what I was walking into did not consist of my comfortable, conservative worship style. The service was well laid out, and the message was clearly communicated. However, the outreach focus seemed to be mostly geared toward the younger generation.

Although, throughout the service that I had attended, there were no songs sang from the well known Lutheran Hymnal. I was distracted by the casual church attire, large flat screens, and flashing lights. Is this project geared to reach out to all types of people throughout the community, including the older generation? I am asking out of genuine concern due to my grandparents' technical inability.

Thank you for your dedication and hard work in moving forward with this enhanced worship process.
Caleb Bassett (WELS Hymnal Project) 2020-11-09 7:14:50pm
Thanks for your question, Abigayle.

The situation you describe in your comment is probably more dependent on local church leadership than on the particular hymnal or other worship resource used in such a setting. So, the hymnal project and the new hymnal it is producing may not necessarily address the topics you have identified.

Nevertheless, a hymnal does help shape a church. As a shared resource that is consistently and broadly used, its forms can create habits and practices over time. With that in mind, I think it's safe to say that the new Christian Worship has been developed with a multi-generational church in mind.

Speaking for myself and not the project, I tend to discourage church practices that fracture the body of Christ by marketing and demographic distinctions. I think it's fair to say that the WELS Hymnal Project never sought to do such a thing either.

Serving in Christ,

Pastor Caleb Bassett
Al Dickenson (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2020-11-04 6:29:31pm
Reading about the inner workings of this project was fascinating, but it led me to a rather timely question, I think. When you and the rest of the team are working on this project, have you given thought to how COVID-19 will affect the way people worship? I know that here in Milwaukee, in the Catholic Archdiocese, they've gone back to in-person services, but without the hymnals or other books, as they are afraid of contamination and spreading the disease. How will the new Christian Worship be distributed then to all of the parishioners of the WELS? Certainly the possibility of a mobile format will help, but as you said, that's just in the beginning stages of development. Is there a more expedient way to get these resources to people in the heat of the pandemic?

Thanks again,
Caleb Bassett (WELS Hymnal Project) 2020-11-09 7:25:47pm
Thanks for your question, Al.

Certainly no one could foresee that a pandemic would befall our country at this particular time, so it was not really possible for us to specifically consider a pandemic in our hymnal planning. However, a couple things can be said about the pandemic and its impact on worship practices.

First, the historical record of pandemics seems to suggest that the most noticeable effects of widespread infectious disease will dissipate after a period of time, perhaps over two to four years. My admittedly light reading on the history of pandemics seems to suggest that pandemics like this one occur every several decades or so. I think it's reasonable to assume that most of the useful lifespan of the new Christian Worship will be in a world where pandemic mitigation isn't a current concern.

Second, we do have flexibility built into the design of the new hymnal. As in-person services resume more frequently the matter of shared books will be mitigated by the use of Christian Worship: Service Builder to generate printed worship folders (which by their nature can be used once and then discarded). It does seem that the more we learn about Covid-19 the less it seems that the disease is transmitted via surfaces. Respiratory aerosols and droplets seem to be the area of concern. Congregational leaders who respond to this emerging knowledge may find that it is perfectly fine to handle hymnals again. This doesn't change the fact, though, that the use of service folders was on the rise anyway. I think it's reasonable to assume that the trajectory will continue — and we had accounted for that in our planning.

Now, as for providing ways to help facilitate at-home devotions in lieu of public worship, I'm afraid that was never really within the scope of the hymnal project. I think that congregations will still need to rely on their local expertise to provide systems that work in their individual settings, which vary significantly already. I foresee a significant task ahead for pastors of Lutheran churches as they seek to teach and re-teach the particular reasons why we gather in person at all. It may be some time before many people come back to worship, even after the pandemic recedes. But that is a human problem, not a technical one.
Grant Gawrisch (Martin Luther College) 2020-11-05 4:49:46pm
Pastor Bassett,

I am excited about the new hymnal and I also look forward to how it will enhance worship. One concept I particularly keyed in on was about outreach and worship going hand in hand. At my home congregation, we have used worship as a fantastic means for showing visitors what we are all about, including them in our church family and giving them God’s Word. A well-crafted worship service goes miles with visitors and members alike. They see the labor of love that the Pastor gives on a weekly basis and it makes an impact. As you said, good worship is part of good outreach. When it comes to the worship folders themselves, having a clear order of service and sometimes even a “why we do what we do” note enhances worship as well. Another aspect of my congregation's worship is the use of worship notes in the margins of the worship folder. It gives some history of hymns, reasons and background on the order of worship, and comments on different parts of the liturgy. Those notes have given me a great appreciation for worship in various forms, which is why I am excited to use the Service Builder software someday. I do have one question for you. When using the service builder software, will it be geared towards the common service? Or will it be more applicable when crafting a special service or a festival service? Thank you for your work on this project, I am excited to use it in the ministry!
Caleb Bassett (WELS Hymnal Project) 2020-11-09 7:29:33pm
Thanks for your question, Grant.

I will say that I am quite excited about Christian Worship: Service Builder. While I don't want to overstate the usefulness of the software, I do think it is geared for everything you asked about. It is designed to support the main Sunday service every week as well as for the planning and production of smaller services (e.g. chapel, evening services, midweek services, small group devotions). The software has liturgical sensibilities and practices embedded into the design from first principles, which I think will make it even more natural and intuitive for churches who value liturgical tradition to continue in that tradition in a way that is excellent, practical, beautiful, and edifying.
Aaron Bode (Martin Luther College) 2020-11-05 5:35:33pm
At first, when I heard of this project a couple years back, I thought it was just a group picking their favorite hymns to put in a new hymnal. I am glad to know that it is a whole lot more than that. I think that the most important thing that comes into play when we are talking about a new hymnal is keeping up with the world around us. Obviously we want to keep the same members we have now and the next generations of those families, but if we want to grow we need to be able to draw them in somehow. We need to keep the traditional music we hear in most churches now, but we also need to add a little more contemporary music. Some people enjoy that music more and can connect with it, and if that music has the same message centering around Christ that is a great thing. The second thing is since we are in the middle of a pandemic that we don’t know when it will end, I think going online is very important in case we aren’t able to attend in-person services.

I have a relative also on the board of this committee, I haven’t really asked him about it. I was wondering what the most difficult part of creating the new hymnal?

Thank you for the work you have done on this important project!
Caleb Bassett (WELS Hymnal Project) 2020-11-09 7:38:40pm
Thanks for your question, Adam. It's a really thought-provoking question. I suspect you'd get different answers from different members of the committee, but I'll try to offer my own perspective as broadly as I can. I'll also take a cue from my kids who, if asked what their favorite something is will reply with a list of several favorites. In this case I'll list three things that were most difficult.

1. Setting and maintaining useful constraints.

We recognized that we had the technical ability to put just about as many hymns into the hymnal as we wanted on the grounds that we could have an online repository of hundreds of hymns. But early on we recognized that many things in life benefit from useful constraints. We therefore decided to abide by limits like page count, etc. to ensure that we didn't simply punt hard decisions about what should be included in the hymnal or not. I think this increased the quality of the product in the long run, but it certainly made for a lot of difficult decision-making.

2. Working with contemporary hymnody

It was difficult to work with contemporary hymnody, but not for a reason I think most Lutherans would expect. Pastor Jon Bauer's extensive and expert research into contemporary hymnody revealed that much of the hymnody created in the contemporary Christian music industry is, by design, meant to be short-lived. In many ways the goal of a hymnal (to have songs that resonate across generations) is simply not aligned with those who are writing Christian songs today. There are notable exceptions, of course, but in general we had to accept the fact that a great deal of contemporary Christian hymnody is seen as ephemeral even by those who write the songs. Nevertheless, there are a number of new songs in the new hymnal that I would say are quite enjoyable to sing and, because we placed a high value on textual integrity, have words that proclaim the gospel clearly and beautifully. Whether we picked the ones that resonate for decades or not remains to be seen, but that's alright.
Sarah Kramer (Martin Luther College) 2020-11-05 5:48:53pm
Pastor Bassett,

Thank you for all the hard work you have put in to make our future hymnal a success. I am an accompanist in my local church, so the ease of access to all the hymnal materials will benefit me, as you mentioned in your article. I am looking forward to seeing the mixture of song selections from both Christian Worship and the Supplement all in one book. I am looking forward to using it in my future ministry!

I also participate in our church’s Worship Band, and more often than not, our leader has to come up and write in the chord progressions for guitar in most hymns. In the new hymnal, is there a bigger number of hymns where the chords are listed?
Another thing that I look forward to is access through technology for the hymnal. Is there a possibility of more than one location to the hymnal and its resources, such as a website plus the app itself?

Thank you again for your work and dedication to the publication of our new worship resources.

Sarah Kramer
Caleb Bassett (WELS Hymnal Project) 2020-11-09 7:42:40pm
Thanks for your question, Sarah.

I am going to ask another member of the project to comment about the use of guitar in hymnody because I don't recall exactly where the project landed on that subject.

As for the locations of the hymnal in a digital format, the primary way to access the hymnal digitally will be Christian Worship: Service Builder. Each church that subscribes to the program will be able to give multiple users access to Christian Worship: Service Builder. It will be possible to work collaboratively on service plans within the software.

Digital versions of accompaniment editions may also become available, but the timing and scope of it will depend on an issue still in progress: clearing copyright permissions. We studied the matter of technology for musicians and directors and discovered that musicians almost universally used existing products (like ForScore) with PDF files. Thus we recommended to Northwestern Publishing House that PDF versions of the accompaniment editions be offered whenever possible.
Caleb Bassett (WELS Hymnal Project) 2020-11-09 9:44:45pm
Sarah, here is an answer about guitar accompaniment:

Guitar chords will appear primarily in the scores which reside in the Musician's Resource, an online repository of additional settings of psalms, hymns, and ritual music. Our goal will be to cover all of the hymns, lyrical psalms, and metrical psalms with arrangements that integrate the keyboard score and guitar chords (as well as the parts for other instruments). We plan to have a good share of those kinds of arrangements ready when the new hymnal launches. The nice thing about the Musician's Resource is that it is a living resource, i.e, we will be able to keep adding arrangements to it over the years. This makes the goal of eventually having keyboard/guitar arrangements for all the hymns and psalms much more real rather than simply hoped-for.