How Lutherans Worship
The words and actions through which Lutherans worship God are many and varied. Representing a variety of ethnic groups and patterns of piety, Lutheran congregations are seldom identical in the way they worship. Still, for most Lutherans, certain facts hold true:
- Lutheran worship is liturgical, following a common order of service adopted by the Church.
- Lutheran worship is biblical. It has roots in the life of the Old Testament people and of the New Testament Church. It uses the language of Scripture and celebrates the biblical message.
- Lutheran worship employs the historic heritage of Christian worship common to major branches of the Church, as it has developed over 20 centuries.
- In the spirit of the Reformation, Lutherans worship in the contemporary language of the people. Lay persons, as well as the clergy, participate actively in appropriate leadership roles.
- Lutheran worship employs the arts—musical and visual—as gifts from God to be used to God’s glory and for the instruction of God’s people.
A musical prelude begins the worship. This is not just to establish a “mood,” but is itself an offering–a creation of artistic talent for God’s glory. During this time, worshippers may listen, offer personal prayers in silence, or meditate on appropriate literature, including the psalms and lessons for the day.
Confession and Forgiveness
A brief order of spiritual preparation frequently precedes the Service proper so that with “clean hands and a pure heart” we may “stand in the holy place” of the Lord (Psalm 24). We remember our Baptism by invoking the Name of the Triune God, and perhaps by making the sign of the cross which was first given us in the baptismal rite. In response to a scriptural invitation, we confess our sin and ask for pardon. The presiding minister reminds us of divine mercy and declares us forgiven in the name of God who made us children in Holy Baptism.
The Ministry of the Word
The Entrance Rite
We begin the Service with a Hymn. Then the presiding minister greets the assembled congregation in words similar to those used by the apostles in addressing early Christian churches (see Romans 1:7). Because worship is not a solo performance by the minister, but an activity of the people, here and elsewhere in the liturgy, the congregation responds to the greeting.
Kyrie: In the Kyrie, we greet our Lord as people of old greeted a king when he came to their city. In a series of petitions, a minister asks for peace and salvation for ourselves and the world, the people joining in the response, “Lord, have mercy”.
Hymn of Praise: The Hymn of Praise which follows expresses our joy for the gifts which our Lord brings. “Glory to God in the highest” is an ancient song which begins with the angels’ Christmas carol (Luke 2:14) and swells into a profound adoration of the Holy Trinity. An alternative is “This is the feast,” a modern song based on phrases from the Book of Revelation.
Prayer of the Day: The Prayer of the Day marks the conclusion of the entrance rite. It is brief, focusing on a central theme for a particular Sunday or holy day. Like several other prayers in the liturgy, it is introduced by a greeting and response in which minister and people ask the Lord’s presence upon each other. We make this prayer our own by responding “Amen.”
The Scripture Readings
The Word of God in Holy Scripture has always been a major element of Christian worship. Several Christian bodies, Lutherans [and Episcopalians] among them, use a three-year lectionary. Three Scripture lessons are usually read at each service, interspersed with other biblical passages. The First Lesson is usually a selection from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. This is followed by a Psalm, one of the hymns of the Old Testament.
The Second Lesson is usually a portion of one of the New Testament epistles or letters to the churches. It is followed by the Verse, a brief poetic excerpt from either Old or New Testament.
The climax of the readings is the Gospel, a section of the books that record the words and deeds of Jesus. Each of the first three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) is primarily associated with one year of the three-year cycle of lessons, while the Fourth Gospel (John) is found among the readings during all three years. We stand to hear the Gospel, for our Lord’s own words are spoken. An acclamation of praise to Christ precedes and follows it.
Sermon, Hymn, Creed
The Church’s response to and interpretation of the Word of God follows the Scripture readings. The Sermon, usually based on one or more of the lessons, is a living witness of the Gospel, expounding the Word and applying it to our own times and conditions.
The Hymn of the Day, which may be sung before or after the Sermon, fits the theme of the lessons and sermon. It is taken from the Church’s rich treasury of poetry and music by which many generations of believers have offered praise to God and witness to their faith.
The Creed embodies the Church’s ancient and universal confession of faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed may be used, depending upon the season of the church year.
Prayers of thanksgiving and intercession for the needs of the Church, of society, and a wide variety of individuals form a fitting conclusion to the Ministry of the Word. These prayers vary from service to service according to circumstances of time and place. The people enter into the petitions through the frequent reponse: “Hear our prayer,” or “Lord, have mercy.”
The Ministry of the Sacrament
Peace, Offering, Offertory
In an upper room in Jerusalem, Jesus ate the Passover meal with his disciples and instituted the Lord’s Supper, saying “Do this for the remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:24) After Easter, the risen Christ “was known to them in the breaking of bread” (Luke 24:35). We are brought together by our obedience to Christ’s command and our need for Christ’s continuing presence in the Sacrament.
As we begin the communion rite, ministers and people share the Peace with one another through words and gestures. The Book of Worship notes, “The peace which enables people to live in unity and the spirit of mutual forgiveness comes only from Christ whose Word has been proclaimed. Without the intention to live in such unity, participation in the sacramental celebration is a mockery.”
The Offering of the people is gathered as the altar table is made ready for the Lord’s Supper. Offerings of money are given as an expression of love and gratitude for God’s blessings. Along with these gifts, bread and wine for Holy Communion are frequently brought forward and presented. An Offertory canticle, hymn, or psalm is sung by congregation or choir. Ministers and people join in a brief prayer of offering.
The Great Thanksgiving
Just as Jesus at table with his disciples offered thanks in accordance with Jewish practice, so we embody in our celebration of Christ’s Supper a great prayer of thanksgiving.
- It begins with a Preface in which the presiding minister bids us lift our hearts to God and give thanks.
- Then a Proper Preface states the particular reason for thanksgiving appropriate to the day or season.
- This leads to a climax in which we join in the canticle “Holy, holy, holy.” Here we unite with the heavenly hosts (Isaiah 6:3) and with the Church on earth (Matthew 21:9) to adore God and to welcome the Savior who came for our redemption and who now comes to us in the Sacrament.
The Great Thanksgiving may continue with the Eucharistic Prayer in which the history of God’s salvation is recounted. The scriptural words which tell of Jesus’ institution of the Sacrament are recited, in order to consecrate the Bread and the Cup. We pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit that we might be prepared rightly to receive the Body and Blood of Christ which, according to his promise, are now truly present in Holy Communion. Then we say our distinctive prayer of fellowship in Christ, the Lord’s Prayer, which is here also our table prayer.
All is now ready for our Holy Communion with Christ and the members of Christ’s Body the Church. As the consecrated elements are distributed to the communicants, we sing a hymn, “Lamb of God” (John 1:29) as a confession of who it is we are receiving and as a prayer for the blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation which Christ has promised to give us. Other hymns may also mark our communion devotion. “The Body of Christ, given for you; the Blood of Christ, shed for you,” the ministers say as they give the Sacrament to the people.
The Post Communion
As the Lord’s table is cleared, we sing a song of rejoicing. This may be the biblical “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace” (Luke 2:29-32), in which Simeon rejoiced that he had seen Christ, a joy we share because we have received Christ in the Sacrament. A final Prayer asks that we may carry out in our lives the implications of Holy Communion. The presiding minister pronounces a Blessing using either a formula similar to the one that began the Service or the Aaronic benediction from the Old Testament (Numbers 6:24-26). The Closing Hymn celebrates the presence of the Lord in our lives and sends us out into the world to serve him. A minister speaks words of Dismissal, telling us to “Go in peace. Serve the Lord.” in daily life, which is also a worship of God. We respond with a shout: “Thanks be to God.”
This, very briefly, is how Lutherans worship. The Service points us consistently to the saving work and resurrection presence of Jesus Christ. In it God speaks and gives to us; we respond with thanks and praise. Such worship links us in the fellowship of the saints through the centuries. We use forms developed by believers in various periods of history, all of them growing out of the saving ministry of Jesus Christ and designed to be appropriate vehicles of Christ’s Word and Sacrament.