What makes worship Lutheran?
By this, I don’t mean what makes worship Christian. That’s a broad and deep question with incredible and life-giving answers, but it ain’t the one I’m asking.
What makes worship Lutheran? What is it about Lutheran worship that sets it apart from, say, Methodist/Catholic/Mennonite/Moravian/Catholic/etc. worship?
And what is it about Lutheran worship that has always been true about Lutheran worship for as long as there have been Lutherans to worship, no matter when or where they are when they worship…Lutheran-ly?
Over the course of the past several months, I’ve asked this question of several different people, people who spend a lot of time thinking about Lutheran worship. I’ve gotten answers that range from a resolute and immediate “Nothing,” to a thoughtful and rather academic list of attributes.
I’ve also come up with a few answers of my own, and I’m a-gonna share them with you, in the hope that you, too, will share your thoughts. Therefore, without further ado…
What makes worship Lutheran?
#6: The way we think about singing.
Don’t get me wrong; other denominations, traditions, and churches have impressive, rich, beautiful hymnodies. But Lutherans take it to a special level. It was Luther himself who said, “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.” One of the first things to set the Lutheran worshipers apart from their Catholic counterparts was the insistence on singing being done by the congregation, not a special choir.
The other indicator of music’s importance to Lutherans is the fuss we make when anyone tries to change it. In an interview with Eugene Brand last fall, he told me about putting together the Lutheran Book of Worship during the 1970s. Early in the process, a not-final draft of the list of hymns somehow got into public hands. In one month, in an age when you still had to write letters by hand and spend money on postage, Brand and his team got 14,000 angry letters from people who were offended by what was missing as well as what was included.
Lutherans and music. We go together like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong.
#5: Our use of confession
Right now I’m planning a Eucharistic liturgy for an ecumenical chapel service. My planning buddy comes from an evangelical background, and the service we’re planning is inspired by an Episcopal congregation in San Francisco. As we were picking service elements to include in the Word portion, I looked at my buddy and said, “You know what I want to do right there, after that reading?”
Looking at my shining Lutheran face, he said tiredly, “Include a confession and absolution.”
I haven’t done an extensive comparison of denominational liturgies, but Lutherans have almost always included an opportunity to profess sins, in an extended corporate act, near the beginning of the liturgy. Many denominations de-emphasize this part of the service, out of deference to the fact that people who have been burned by the Church don’t do well when hit with the “sinner” stick.
Even Lutherans make room for this possibility: Evangelical Lutheran Worship now included an option for “Thanksgiving for Baptism” instead of “Confession of Sin.”
Which leads me to…
#4: Remembering our baptisms.
So much remembering. When I needed to run home through the rain during seminary, rare was the instance that someone would fail to shout: “Remember your baptism!” as I dashed through the drops.
It did actually make things better.
Working as a worship planner for this afore-mentioned ecumenical chapel, I planned an All Saints/All Souls service including a Thanksgiving for Baptism. My boss, a very experienced Anglican, wanted to know why on earth I would do such a thing. I was baffled. It seemed like a really obvious connection to me—baptism is what ushers all of us into community with the Body of Christ, a cloud of witness including all saints and souls. My boss was (rightfully) dissatisfied with my bumbling explanation, but let me do it anyway. It worked, but I remained deeply confused about my boss’s confusion.
I later learned that every time my boss had let Lutherans plan services in the past, they always wanted to do a Thanksgiving for Baptism. As surely as my dog seeks out the smelliest patch of grass to roll in, so do Lutherans look out for opportunities to remember our baptism.
We just really love those holy waters.
#3: Proclamation is at the center of our worship
Ok, this is different than saying that our worship is based on scripture. Everyone’s worship is based on scripture. You will not find a single worship planner of any denomination who’s like, “Scripture and worship, pfffft. Whatever.” No, God’s Word is universally central. (If you do want to see Lutherans explain this very slickly, though, check out the back pages of the ELW, because there’s an awesome section back there about the scriptural basis for worship.)
What I’m saying here is that Lutherans focus on proclamation in two ways that, when combined, are distinctively Lutheran:
- Just about all of our services include a preaching element of some kind. The proclamation of the word is pretty important to us. In Lutheran worship of yore, sermons were regularly several hours long, and preaching services were waaaaaaaaay more common than Eucharistic celebrations.
- Lutherans see the Words of Institution (“In the night in which he was handed over, Jesus Christ took bread, gave thanks… [etc.]”) as a proclamation of the gospel. This is why Luther took the Words out of the silent priestly prayer they were embedded into and set them, stark naked, before the people. In his Deutsche Messe, he makes clear that he wants these words sung on the same pitch as the Lord’s Prayer, which did two things: first, it made sure everyone could hear them, and second, it made it so that the musical pitch of the Words sounded like Jesus’ voice to the listening congregation. (In a tradition where the scripture readings were sung, Jesus’ words got their own special pitch.) For Luther, the power of the Words of Institution lay not in their magic ability to transform the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood, but instead in the fact that this was the gospel in a nutshell: God coming among us, offering forgiveness and salvation.
#2: Liturgy lovin’
Lutherans love liturgy. We have a very high regard for liturgical forms that are in continuity with historical practice, reasoning 1) that they keep us in communion with the church throughout the centuries and in different places, and 2) that tradition’s got some good stuff.
Liturgical tradition is like the attic in your ancestral home. So many things have been shoved into it that over time, the junky stuff like your grandfather’s collection of plaid shirts that smell like moose sweat have been chucked, and the nice stuff like the family silver is still there.
(I think this metaphor has some legs: I would liken the “Dies Irae” to a collection of really creepy dolls. Some people love it, and it’s definitely worth something, but I am never bringing it out for public viewing, ever.)
#1: Liturgical flexibility
At the same time that Lutherans love liturgy and value tradition, we are also firmly rooted in liturgical flexibility: we can, have, and do alter the form and content of our worship to meet contextual needs.
Sometimes these attempts crash and burn. Example: during the Enlightenment period, just 30 years after Luther died, Lutherans in Magdeburg heard these words when they were handed the communion bread and wine: “Taste this bread: may the spirit of devotion rest upon you with its fullest blessing! Taste a little wine: the power of virtue resides not in this wine but rather in you, in divine doctrine, and in God!”
WHAT THE FREAK. That, friends, is horribly warped Lutheran theology. Where is the proclamation that this is Christ’s body and blood? Anything about the forgiveness of sins? Would someone like to take a shot of the no-good-very-bad contradiction of Luther’s basic tenets about the bondage of the human will?!
Oooookay. So, on the other hand, we do make up for it by creating beautiful prayers, rituals of profound meaning, and quality hymns that all become part of our liturgical repertoire.
Basically, creativity and tradition both need each other. Creativity keeps worship from ossifying into traditionalism, allowing it to be relevant, contextual, and vernacular. Tradition keeps worship from venturing into creative deep space, where there be dragons, Martians, and deflated footballs.
- Do you think there’s anything missing from this list?
- Do you think there’s something on this list that shouldn’t be?
- What do you love about Lutheran worship? What do you not-love?
Please leave comments and questions!
Comment policy: The comments section is for our mutual edification. I learn a lot from you all, and I’m grateful whenever you take the time to offer your thoughts. To make sure people feel that they can continue to do that without getting eaten alive, I screen comments, and do not post those that are nonconstructive, derogatory, or disrespectful.