Liturgical Worship

What is liturgy and why is worship liturgical? Broadly speaking, liturgy is a fixed agenda of doing things, an order of events in a published sequence. People are naturally "liturgical" in that whenever a group of people gathers for a unified purpose, whether a city council meeting, a voter's assembly, or a sporting event, there is a specified agenda. Sometimes the event is accompanied by much pomp and circumstance, such as homecoming games, graduations, or inaugurations of presidents.

The same is also true of the church. Hymns are sung, readings are read, prayers are prayed at specified times and places, with everyone having a specified task. The church is by divine mandate an "ordered" assembly (1 Cor. 14:40).

The word "liturgy" comes from the secular Greek word leitrugia, which means "official or public service of the people." It was what a public official did for the benefit of the whole people. In church terms, liturgy most properly refers to what God does sacramentally for us through the Gospel and sacraments via the office of the ministry that administers them, and secondarily, what we, the people of God, render back to God sacrificially with our faith, prayers, and praises. Sacrament and sacrifice are the two poles of Christian worship and the Liturgy.

The goal of the Liturgy is neither to provide Christian entertainment, manipulate emotions, nor make one feel "comfortable." The Liturgy is the application of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to the lives of sinners. It is a living encounter with the living Word. It is God's Law and Gospel in action, working repentance and faith, at once discomforting and comforting, but never comfortable. The ultimate goal of the Liturgy is the death of the sinner and the resurrection of the saint, which is the daily life of Holy Baptism.

While there is no prescribed liturgy in the NT, early Christian liturgical practice reflected its history in the synagogue and the temple (Acts 32:42,46). The Lutheran order of Divine Service of Holy Communion has its historic roots in the western catholic Mass, whose origins lie mainly in N. Africa and Rome, with some later developments in northern Europe. Some parts of the Liturgy date back to AD 150.

Luther and the Lutheran Reformers did not discard the historic liturgy of the mass, but reformed it so that the liturgy properly distinguished sacrifice and sacrament, God's activity from man's activity. "We gladly keep the old traditions set up in the church because they are useful and promote tranquility, and we interpret them in an evangelical way, excluding the opinion which holds that they justify" (Apology to the Augsburg Confession 15,38). This distinguishes the Lutheran Reformation from later radical reformations that sought to recover the church of the NT by emulation of NT practices as they understood them. For Lutherans, the Reformation slogan sola Scriptura ("Scripture alone") did not require the sacrifice of historical continuity.

The Liturgy is a living thing, alive with the Word of God, bringing together the best of the past and the present. It is "community property," proven and accepted by all who hold a common confession. It protects us from individualism and congregational parochialism. One of the goals of our Lutheran forefathers was the use of one common hymnal and liturgy among all our churches.

The ancient church had a saying that went: Lex orandi, lex credendi; the rule of praying is the rule of believing. What we pray about God repeatedly, week after week, in the Liturgy, is what we believe most deeply and cling to most strongly.