What makes worship Lutheran?

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.

A Lutheran Psalmbook painted into the very famous “The Ambassadors,” by Hans Holbein the Younger (1533). Public Domain image from Wikipedia.

#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.”


Cropped image from Wenceslas Hollars’ woodcut illustrating the Articles of the Augsburg Confession. Public Domain image from Wikipedia.

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.

Public Domain image from Wikipedia.

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.

    “Broken for you.” It works on so many levels! Public domain image from WIkipedia.

#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.)

“O day of wrath and dolls impending.” One of the less creepy public domain images, courtesy of Wikipedia.

#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.


22 Replies to “What makes worship Lutheran?”

  1. This is a great list, Victoria! #4 reminds me of a tradition I have seen developing in many Lutheran weddings I’ve been to recently. Many couples have chosen to include an Affirmation of/Thanksgiving for Baptism as the first part of the service – even before the processional. The way I understand it is that these couples want to remember the promise God made them to them in their baptism before they make promises that enter them into the covenant of marriage. Also, it works as a way to say “There’s not way I could be making these promises if it weren’t for the promise God has made to me.” A beautiful new tradition, I think!

    1. Wow, I LOVE that! It works, too, to put a call to married life within the framework of our baptismal vocations to live among the faithful, hear God’s Word, proclaim the good news, and serve all people. So much good stuff!

  2. Victoria…a pretty fine list and well articulated. I guess a few elements that I would consider normative in addition to your list are: Word and Sacrament with the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacraments, primarily led by ordained pastors but with full congregational participation, and usually lectionary based in terms of readings. I would also argue that a formal Thanksgiving for Baptism as a liturgical ritual has only been prevalent in the last ten years with the introduction of Evangelical. Lutheran Worship as a primary worship resource (prior to that the Affirmation of Baptism was mostly used only for confirmations or in the reception of new members).

    1. Thanks, Michael! I did waver on whether to include Thanksgiving for Baptism–I tried to compromise by putting it under a framework of reflecting a theologically high value on baptism in our liturgy with fair consistency. (But that’s not as succinct…)

      The lectionary is another good one I hadn’t given much thought to. Do you happen to know of any resources that speak to the history of the lectionary?

      I also wrestled with the Sacrament of the Altar piece, because historically it has been so variably approached in our liturgy. I’m still giving that one some thought, and would welcome yours.

  3. Sacrament of the Altar is complicated since congregational practice at least in this country has been so varied. Younger persons raised with weekly Eucharist assume that it is has been normative…but that is only true over the last 35 years in the U.S. and still only in 60 to 70% of congregations. Seven times a year was one historic pattern. Age of admittance has also changed from confirmation age up until the 1970’s, then ten years old, and more recently lower.

    Lectionaries go back until before the time of Jesus. In term of the Lutheran ..RCL has been used in ELCA circles for 25 years, but before that and in other Lutheran bodies there were previous Lutheran lectionaries that were similar to other traditions in terms of standardized readings matching the church year. I walked over to my office shelf and pulled down the Lutheran Common Service Book with Hymnal from 1918 which has a lengthly lectionary in the front. (Fun fact is that it listed all the dates for Ash Wednesday and Easter from 1918 through 2005….forward thinking I guess).

  4. Growing up Lutheran I have always appreciated the uniqueness of Lutheran Worship and the variations we have done over the years as well. When I worship in a non-denominational church, I feel like it is missing something. It is the rich Lutheran liturgy that is missing and you don’t realize how much you appreciate it until it is not there.

    1. Thank you for commenting! I’m curious about whether you feel the same sense of disorientation in other mainline Protestant churches–Methodist, UCC, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, etc.?

  5. I think one thing which sums it up for me is intent. The ‘why’ of Lutheran worship. And my focus through-out ministry has been Living Word; God communicating through liturgy, litany, scripture, preaching, music, visuals, etc., etc.. So we try to not do things ‘one darn thing after the other’, but the whole of the service working together to proclaim.

    1. Sounds like some fabulous liturgical ministry! Is there anything specific you do to make sure that the whole of the service is working together?

  6. Hmmm. I know where you’re coming from, but looking at the Confessions I’d say that what makes worship Lutheran is the centrality of Word and Sacrament. Everything else is tradition that has been handed down – how we sing, liturgical forms, etc – but is not doctrinally or ecclesiologically defined or mandated under the banner of Lutheranism.

    I make this point because while what you say may be true of the overwhelming majority of LBW and ELW congregations, particularly congregations with histories reaching back at least to the post-war era, newer starts (both those in predominantly Anglo communities and those in underrepresented communities) are less likely to look or feel like this while being legitimately, deeply Lutheran nonetheless in how they gather around Word and Sacrament.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Chris! These are GREAT points, and exactly the kind of conversation I’m looking for.

      The reason I listed these qualities instead of starting with the centrality of Word and Sacrament is because I don’t think that the centrality of Word and Sacrament sets Lutheran worship apart; instead they are the ecumenical core of Christian worship. Our differing interpretations of the theology behind all them is reflected in some different traditions of liturgical practice, but it doesn’t change their central importance to Christian worship.

      You raise a great point about new and emerging congregations not valuing the same characteristics I listed here. Can you tell me about some of the Lutheran mission starts for whom these haven’t rung true? I ask because I’ve been at some pains trying to take those mission starts into account when making this list, and would welcome a wider pool of examples. 🙂

      You also make a seriously good points about how, for example, the congregational song thing isn’t mandated under the banner of Lutheranism. I think this is perhaps why I’ve gotten the response “Nothing” when I’ve asked what makes Lutheran worship Lutheran. If Word and Sacrament are ecumenical foci, and none of our habits are mandated, then seriously–what does make Lutheran worship Lutheran, and not simply Christian?

      1. Hey! Thanks. Sorry in advance for the long response. 😉

        I am the second pastor in the history of a congregation that was established in a school building in 2002 with a mix of old-time Lutherans, other Christians, and newcomers to the faith. Our worship life has the broad shape of the liturgy (Gathering, Word, Meal, Sending), but we don’t chant or sing chorales or have a regular confession (a “may” rubric even in the LBW), and traditional forms are *mostly* out the window. We don’t own worship books.

        For example, we do the Dakota Road Kyrie, a prayer in the spirit but certainly not the standard textual form or musical forms of the traditional kyrie. And, I write my own eucharistic prayer, but as this congregation hasn’t used much liturgical dialogue in its history, the prayer has a somewhat different feel from the prayers in ELW or LBW (though, in that way it may be not unlike the Hippolytus prayer, which doesn’t employ the dialogue).

        Also, I’ve worshipped in many Spanish-speaking Lutheran congregations (both in the US and in Latin America). Much of my “broad” view of what it means to be Lutheran in worship comes from those experiences, where form and formality and tradition varied much more than I had experienced (up to that point) in Lutheran worship. Yet in these congregations I encountered a profound, sacramentally-rooted worship experience and heard a grace-filled message proclaimed.

        And as a (relatively new) Army chaplain (Indiana Army National Guard), I’m getting an even broader view of what worship and prayer mean, particularly apart from the typical support structures of a traditional worship space (pews, altar, hymn books, organ, musician, etc.). Yet, I would still say that it’s all kosher under the banner of Lutheranism.

        So, there’s my biases and perspectives, after a childhood and early adulthood in mid to higher liturgy churches mostly in southeastern Pennsylvania.

        Perhaps what makes worship Lutheran is the centrality of Word and Sacrament (which not uniquely Lutheran, as you highlight) with a particular emphasis on our Lord’s radical grace that claims us (as in our baptism) and which is freely given “for you” (as in holy communion), but which nonetheless can authentically take on a whole variety of forms.

        (BTW, I see you’re from southeastern PA, too. I grew up in Havertown, and lived in and around Philadelphia for most of my first 32 years, but haven’t lived in the Philadelphia in 8 years now. I miss cheesesteaks and pork roll. 😉 )

  7. Very thought provoking. As for newer congregations, we had an experience at one in Charlotte a few years ago on Easter Sunday. No confession, no Lord’s Prayer, but a play in between hymn singing (of which we did not know a single one!). Didn’t feel like a Lutheran service at all. Funny thing – the word Lutheran was no where to be seen on the road sign nor the bulletin! We returned home and watched a Catholic service in TV.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Nan!

      It’s interesting to me that the denominational boundaries seem to have become a little more porous for both you and the church you visited! You went looking for a particular flavor, and ended up finding it in a Catholic service. They seem to have been seeking to offer a worship space to people who are confused, rather than comforted, by denominational identity. Could it be that we’re all becoming a little less strict about our dividing lines?

  8. Part of what we need to be clear on when we talk about this question is whether we are talking about what makes Lutheran liturgy unique among other styles of worship or what is defining of Lutheran liturgy without regard to other practices. If you want to talk about what makes Lutherans unique, the involvement of lay people in the liturgy (especially at the altar) is something you might add to the list. If I remember correctly, I think LBW makes that pretty explicit. Personally, I think what makes us unique is an interesting thought exercise but reminding ourselves what defines our liturgy is a more worthwhile endeavor. If we’re trying to define what makes liturgy Lutheran, I think it’s crucially important to make sure we see liturgy as a full expression of the church’s mission, not just something we do so that we can go out and do mission somewhere else. One of the benefits – if you can call it that – of the absolution and the real bodily presence in the Eucharist is that they mean that our worship isn’t something that points to something else but that forgiveness, grace, and the kingdom are all present among the assembled people.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I was indeed focusing on what makes Lutheran liturgy unique. Your point about lay involvement is well-taken–a wonderful interpretation of leitourgia as “work of the people”!–but it’s not unique to Lutheran liturgy.

      I’d love to poke a little about why you think it’s more worthwhile to define what makes our liturgy Lutheran. What I’ve found, the more I push at this question, is that I am hard-pressed to come up with any distinctions that are truly unique to Lutheranism. I suspect that there’s a lot of diversity in liturgical theology under the Lutheran
      umbrella, and simultaneously far more ecumenical sharing than many people suspect.

      1. Yea, I think that’s exactly right. I just think the question of what makes Lutherans unique is not useful and somewhat misguided (assuming you make it crucial to your self-understanding). It’s not useful because it has no real benefit to us. Just because Lutherans are the only people who do x, doesn’t mean that x is something worth doing or something we should emphasize. It’s misguided because it suggests that the most important part of our identity is what makes us different from other Christians. It’s runs the risk of falling into a kind of apophatic confessionalism in that regard. Focusing on what defines the “core” of Lutheran liturgy seems to be a much more worthwhile effort because it’s actually a useful question and has an ecumenical upside to it.

  9. What became of Georg and Elsa? Did I somehow miss the happy ending of historical worship? I would have messaged you directly rather than comment, but I could not find a way to do so.

    1. Oh my goodness, poor Georg, poor Elsa! They were absolutely neglected as I scrambled to write the thesis for which all the research was being done. I hope to get back and finish their adventures someday! Thanks for checking in!

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