About the WLS Annual Symposium

Inaugurated in 2000 as part of the 150th anniversary of the Wisconsin Synod, the annual symposium attracts several hundred pastors who gather together with seminary students and faculty to hear and discuss presentations on important church topics. Held on the Monday and Tuesday following the third Sunday in September, the symposium includes three essays, a festival service, and an evening of relaxation and fellowship. Sessions begin at 1:00 p.m. on Monday and end at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

The essays presented at the symposium can be found on the seminary website shortly after the symposium has concluded. For those who would like to participate in real-time but are not able to join as an in-person participant, an on-line only option for registration will be possible. In this option, a link will be provided for real-time access to the essays, reactions, and comments. As always, a live-streamed feed to the symposium worship service will be provided to the public.

Registration for the annual symposium opens on July 1 and closes on September 1 each year.

This Year’s Symposium: Lutheran Worship Turns 500

September 16–17, 2024

The 2024 WLS Fall Symposium will convene under the theme: Lutheran Worship Turns 500. With the publication of the Achtliederbuch (1524), the first Lutheran hymnal was born. In the five hundred years that have followed, the vital role of worship in the Lutheran church has been evident from generation to generation. The upcoming symposium will provide an opportunity to revisit the foundational principles of Lutheran worship as well as grow in our understanding of and appreciation for what Lutheran worship has to offer in today’s varied contexts of ministry.

Prof. Jacob Behnken, professor at Martin Luther College, will present an essay on the impact that the Reformation had on the formation of Lutheran worship. Rev. Tyler Peil, a parish pastor serving at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Salt Lake City, UT, will offer a survey of different worship practices— and what motivated them—in the centuries following the Reformation. Rev. John Bortulin, a parish pastor serving at St. John Lutheran Church, Mukwonago, WI, will present an essay on the form and function of Lutheran worship in our current context.

The symposium will begin in the WLS campus auditorium at 1:10 p.m. on Monday, September 16, and will conclude on Tuesday, September 17, no later than 12:30 p.m. In addition to the three essays, the agenda will include opportunities for discussion and a closing worship service. As in past years, registration will include both dinner and an opportunity for fellowship on Monday evening. Online registration for the symposium will be available beginning July 1, 2024.

2024 Symposium Essays at a Glance

Essay #1 – Reformation: Rediscovered Worship Principles and Practices that Call for Thanksgiving (Prof. Jacob Behnken)

Luther and his fellow reformers restored to the church the freedom of the gospel. While Rome insisted that hope for salvation could come only through the careful keeping of its sacramental system, Lutherans proclaimed the scriptural truth that it is through faith in Christ alone that sinners are justified and have peace before God. This renewed emphasis on the gospel undergirded all the reformers’ work, including reforms in worship.

At first glance, it might seem like this emphasis would prove insufficient for first-generation Lutherans tasked with navigating critical worship decisions. This essay, however, will argue that it is precisely this gospel focus that successfully guided Luther and those after him as they sought to create a distinctively Lutheran understanding of worship. In the Reformation era we witness our Lutheran forefathers, equipped with pastoral hearts, advocating for bold change when the gospel demanded it and, at the same time, exercising wise restraint when the tender care of souls required it. Indeed, as we reflect on five hundred years of Lutheran worship, we find in Luther, and in faithful Lutherans after him, a model for exercising our freedom in the gospel that is worthy of our admiration and emulation today.

Essay #2 – Reaction: Subsequent Worship Developments that Call for Careful Appraisal (Rev. Tyler Peil)

From the sixteenth to the twenty-first century, questions about the substance and form of worship have hinged on questions about the nature of the gospel—what is it and what is its goal? The Reformed, Pietists, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Revivalists, Pentecostals, and Evangelicals all bring their particular theological understanding of the nature of the gospel to bear on liturgics, preaching and hymnody. This essay will especially trace and consider the development of worship practices among Revivalists and Evangelicals in Europe and America. What peculiar understandings of the Christian faith caused reactions and extremes? What particular outside influences (e.g., the Enlightenment) left their mark on the Church’s worship?

Lex orandi, lex credendi is observable in church history whether faith and practice are orthodox or not. Lutherans constantly evaluate worship forms and do this best when they are clear about the use and telos of both the law and the gospel. A historical analysis of worship practices outside of Lutheranism aims to help us view our own time and practice more clearly and reinforces the truth that how one worships reflects what they believe and vice versa.

Essay #3 – Rededication: Embracing our Lutheran Identity in our Current Context (Rev. John Bortulin)

“These are my people. This is where I am comfortable.” These words came from the lips of a newly confirmed adult in response to the question: “Are you welcomed on a Sunday morning?” There is, of course, much more to this story, just as there is much more to the story of every person who makes their way to worship on a Sunday morning. The first two essayists have navigated us through five hundred years of choppy waters regarding key worship decisions on both style and substance. This final essay seeks to be mindful of the lessons that history has taught us as we consider why we do what we do in the realm of worship today.

It is frequently a long and winding path that leads from the community to our sanctuary doors, and it could be argued that the path is only getting longer and more winding. What do WELS pastors hope people find when they get through those doors? Whom should they find? Is this all just a matter of preference, anyway? Are we slaves to the past? Are we enthralled with the present? What about the order(s) of service, the music, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the preaching? Every generation has landed somewhere on the question: “How shall we worship?” As we consider, and reconsider, some of the most pertinent worship questions and how they apply in our current context, it will be our prayer that the Christ who is ever for us, would shine forth most brightly in our worship. In doing so, we seek to give glory to God even as we remain mindful of the neighbor that we pray will one day, too, join us in bending the knee in the never-ending hymn of praise.


For specific questions, please contact Nola Zemlicka at or 262-242-8141.