Common Question: What’s up with Lutheran worship?

March 12, 2012 at 5:15 am 2 comments


One of the highlights of my week is weekend worship at Concordia.  It is very moving for me to gather with the people of God and sing praises to God, hear God’s Word, witness a baptism, and receive Christ’s body and blood in Communion.  Lutherans worship in a unique, yet thoroughly theological, way.  In fact, more than one person has asked me, “Why do Lutherans worship the way in which they do?”  It is with this question in mind that I write today’s blog.

First, it is important to understand there are two definitions of worship – one that is broad and one that is narrow.  Worship in the broad sense includes any way which we hail something or someone as god, either implicitly or explicitly.  This definition of worship is part and parcel of the First Commandment:   “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exodus 20:3-5).  According to this definition of worship, we are all worshipers, whether or not we worship the true God, for we all worship a god.  Everyone has something or someone which holds prime place in their life and, as such, they worship this something or someone, for they hail it as god.

Worship in the narrow sense describes an activity that is distinctly Christian.  Perhaps my favorite definition of worship in this sense comes via the introduction to the hymnal, Lutheran Worship:

Our Lord speaks and we listen.  His Word bestows what it says.  Faith that is born from what is heard acknowledges the gifts received with eager thankfulness and praise…The rhythm of our worship is from Him to us, and then from us back to Him.  He gifts His gifts, and together we receive and extol them.[1]

With this definition of worship, we learn three important things.  First, we learn that worship begins with what God gives to us and not with what we bring to God.  This is why, for instance, the highest holy day of worship in Israel was the Day of Atonement – a day not about what Israel brought to God, but about the forgiveness God gave to Israel (cf. Leviticus 16).  Second, we learn that after and only after God gives to us His gifts, can we respond to God with thankfulness and praise.  This is why, for instance, psalm after psalm celebrates and extols what God has done for His people (e.g., Psalms  107, 118, 136).  Third, we come to realize that worship can happen anywhere and at any time.  For God continuously bestows His gifts of grace and, as such, we can continuously say, “Thank you.”  Martin Luther colorfully quips:

The worship of God is the praise of God.  This should be free at the table, in private rooms, downstairs, upstairs, at home, abroad, in all places, by all people, at all times.  Whoever tells you anything else is lying as badly as the pope and the devil himself.[2]

The heart and soul of worship, then, is this:  God meets us with His gifts at all times and places and we respond in turn with thanksgiving at all times and places.

The above theology of worship is what guides and informs weekend worship at Concordia Lutheran Church.  It is worth it to briefly outline the shape and scope of a worship service at Concordia and consider how each element in one of our services reflects this broader theology of worship.

Invocation

Each service opens with the name of God:  “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  This Invocation is meant to orient us around the reality that worship does not begin with us, but with God.  Indeed, our whole life in Christ begins with God, for the same name that marks the beginning of worship also marked us in our baptisms.  This is why we baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Further, this name reminds us that we are bound together in Christ, for we call upon “one Lord” and share together “one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:5-6).  Luther Reed sums up the beauty of the Invocation nicely when he writes:

[With the Invocation], we formally express our “awareness” of the Presence of God, we place ourselves in that Presence, and invoke the Divine blessing upon the service which is to follow.  We confess our faith in the Holy Trinity, for whose worship we are assembled.  We solemnly call God to witness that we are “gathered together” in His name (Matthew 18:20) and in that name offer all our prayer, praise, and thanksgiving (John 16:23).[3]

Confession and Absolution

Part of the reason worship must begin with God is because we would be hopelessly lost if worship began with us, for we are sinners, completely unworthy to somehow storm the gates of God’s presence.  Confession reminds us of this.  It calls us to believe that, in light of the sin which we admit to in Confession, if we are to be in God’s presence in worship, God must come to us!  We cannot go to God.  Absolution, then, provides us with the assurance that God has indeed come to us in the person and work of Christ and still dwells with us according to His promise: “Surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Music

Luther famously says of music:

I am not satisfied with him who despised music, as all fanatics do; for music is an endowment and a gift of God, not a gift of men.  It also drives away the devil and makes people cheerful; one forgets all anger, unchasteness, pride, and other vices.  I place music next to theology and give it the highest praise.[4]

Throughout a worship service, we sing.  We sing because we believe music is a gift from God.  We sing because many fine hymns and songs have been written which confess the gospel of God and express our praise and thanksgiving.  In these ways, God gives to us through music.

Scripture Reading

As the Introduction to Lutheran Worship says, “Our Lord speaks and we listen.”  Worship would be void and tragic if we did not hear from God!  Because Scripture is God’s Word, we can be fully assured that when we hear Scripture, we hear God.  This is why, at Concordia, we place such an emphasis on being in God’s Word.  From our Word for Today Bible reading program to our Memorize His Word Bible memory program, we want people to listen to the Lord!  And we know people can and will hear from God wherever and whenever Scripture is read.

Apostles’ Creed

The Introduction to Lutheran Worship says, “Saying back to God what He has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure.”  The recitation of the Apostles’ Creed allows us an opportunity to do just this.  Because this creed is thoroughly biblical, we can be assured that we are confessing what God has first said to us.  Because this creed is blessedly universal and historical, we can revel in the fact that we join a chorus of Christians all over the world and throughout the ages who confess this same true, holy Christian and apostolic faith.

Children’s Message

The Scriptures are clear on the responsibility we have to share with the next generation the works of the Lord: “We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, His power, and the wonders He has done” (Psalm 78:4).  In one of Israel’s creedal biblical chapters, we read, “These commandments…are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).  The goal of a children’s message is to take seriously Scripture’s call to share the gospel with all – old and young alike.  The children’s message, then, is catechetical in nature, teaching children the basic tenets of the Christian faith.

Offering

One of my favorite hymns declares:

We give Thee but Thine own,
Whate’er the gift may be;
All that we have is Thine alone,
A trust, O Lord, from Thee.[5]

This is a wonderfully succinct synopsis of the Christian doctrine of stewardship.  God is the owner of everything, even as the Psalmist declares, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1).  Out of His grace, however, God graciously shares what is His with us.  The Offering, therefore, is a time to give thanks to God for what He has given us by offering it to Him, for it belongs to Him in the first place.

Prayers and Lord’s Prayer

From the earliest days of the Church, Christians prayed.  Talking to God is part and parcel of being a Christian.  At Concordia, we include with our prayers the Lord’s Prayer because we believe it to be the perfect prayer.  After all, it was taught by our perfect Lord!  One of the beauties of the Lord’s Prayer is that it is a prayer God is guaranteed to answer with a “Yes!” for the prayer is based on God’s promises.  For instance, when we pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” we know that Scripture promises, “God does not tempt anyone” (James 1:13).  Thus, we know God will gladly not lead us into temptation, for this is His very promise!

Communion

The Lord’s Supper is a weighty moment.  Indeed, it is so weighty that Paul rails against the Church at Corinth when they misuse and abuse this precious meal from God (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34).  Communion calls for both repentance and faith.  As Scripture directs, we are to “examine ourselves” (1 Corinthians 11:28) before partaking of the Lord’s Supper and repent of our sins.  We are also to believe that, in the Supper, Christ offers the remedy for our sins as He gives to us His own body and blood in, with, and under the bread and wine for the forgiveness of our sins (cf. Matthew 26:26-28).  Christ’s presence in this meal is His simple, yet profound, promise.

Sermon

The sermon serves four main functions:  to convict, to comfort, to call, and to catechize.  In a sermon, first and foremost, we ought to be convicted of our sins and comforted by the gospel.  The sermon also ought to call us to walk according to God’s way of righteousness as well as catechize us in, or teach to us, Christian doctrine and biblical theology.  In this way, we can “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

Benediction

Just as the service begins with the name of God, the service ends with the blessing of God.  After all, after being forgiven for our sins, hearing God’s Word in Scripture and sermon, approaching God through prayer, thanking God for what He has given us, and receiving Christ’s body and blood in Communion, how could we not be blessed?  The Benediction, then, is an affirmation of everything that has taken place in the worship service.  We have been blessed by the Lord, and as we go forth from weekend worship, we will continue to be blessed by the Lord.  At Concordia, we include with the Benediction a Commissioning, drawn from Philippians 2:15-16, where we exhort worshipers to “shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life.”  As we have been blessed in worship by God’s gifts, our call is to be a blessing to others by sharing with them these same gifts.  As God says to Abraham:  “I will bless you…and you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2).

So there it is.  This is the shape and scope of a worship service at Concordia.  As the service moves from element to element, two things are clear.  First, it is clear that God is meeting His people with His gifts.  Second, the only appropriate response to such a monumental meeting is, “Thank you!”  May you offer God a “thank you” today – and every day – in worship!


[1] Lutheran Worship, Prepared by the Commission on Worship of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 1982) 6.

[2] What Luther Says, Ewald Plass, ed. (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 1959) 1546.

[3] Luther Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy (Philadelphia:  Muhlenberg Press, 1947) 241.

[4] What Luther Says, 980.

[5] Lutheran Service Book, Prepared by the Commission on Worship of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 2006) 781.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Don Novian  |  March 12, 2012 at 10:16 am

    Pastor Zac, Great piece of writing; it truly depicts what we believe and share with Christ and other Christians. Keep up the good work you do, so we may all continue to be in the Word and be instructed in Our Lords teachings. Yes this is what worship is all about. Thanks again for sharing this with us………

    Reply
  • 2. John Molitor  |  March 12, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    Pastor,

    Are there any plans for Concordia to use a more “complete” historical liturgy, such as one of the five settings of the Divine Service in the LSB? Please correct me if I’m wrong, for most services I attended (2006-2010), this basic structure was there, but I remember the content being somewhat abbreviated in comparison. A lot of the beautiful and theologically rich material was absent, even during the 8 AM “Traditional” service. Thank you for sharing this on your blog.

    Take Care,

    John

    Reply

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