What is the Lutheran Liturgy?
Every Sunday we Lutherans join with other Christians around the world and through the centuries to do the "worship of the people," the liturgy. Following a Prelude, the liturgy has four parts: Gathering, Word, Meal, and Sending.
Liturgy — the worship of the people of God
Pick any item from the following outline of the liturgy to get further detail.
- Prelude: Nowadays, we commonly prepare ourselves for worship by recalling the newness of life that is ours as adopted children of God through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus.
- Gathering: we gather with prayers of thanksgiving for God’s greatness and mercy. This is called “the gathering.”
- Word: we hear the word of God’s promise in Scripture and in preaching. This is called “the service of the Word.”
- The Readings
- The Sermon
- The Word in other forms (hymns and creeds)
- Prayers of Intercession
- The Passing of the Peace
Meal: we receive the visible word of pro mise in the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Christ given for each of us. This has been called the “eucharist,” “mass of the faithful,” “service of the table,” or, simply, the “meal.”
The Great Thanksgiving
- Sending: nourished by God’s promise in Word and sacrament, we are sent forth to live out the promise in our own lives and in love for our neighbors everywhere. This is the “Sending.”
We begin either with a communal confession of sin and the hearing of God’s word of forgiveness or with thanksgiving for God’s mercy in the gift of baptism.
As Paul explains in Romans 6, “We [all] have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
And as Martin Luther once noted, we should remind ourselves at the start of each day that we are baptized Children of God, marked with the cross of Christ forever.
Our pastor leads our service and recalls for us the forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ announced in our Baptism and renewed each day as we live as God’s people and Christ’s body in the world. But all of us—pastor and congregation—are equally dependent on God’s merciful gift through Christ Jesus.
We are all holy priests—the assembled priesthood of all believers. Our pastor is called from our midst to exercise the office of Word and sacrament and to preserve good order in the church.
The liturgy that we celebrate, the work of the people that we do, is the work of all of us together.
We begin the Service of the Word with a gathering hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God. We pray the ancient Greek litany—the Kyrie eleison— “God have mercy.”
Sometimes, we follow with “This is the feast,” the hymn of all creation gathered around God’s heavenly throne found in the book of Revelation. Other times, we sing the ancient Gloria in excelsis— “Glory to God”—joining our voices with the angels in a song from Luke’s gospel.
Our gathering concludes with the Prayer of the Day. Led at Holy Trinity by the liturgical deacon as representative of the assembly, the Prayer of the Day gathers all our praise into one and highlights themes from the scripture readings we are about to hear.
The Service of the Word
The service of the word arose from the worship of the Jewish synagogue that was taken over by the early Church [see, e.g., Luke 4:16-28]. It recalls and celebrates what God has done for God’s people as recounted in the Old Testament and in the New. In readings, songs, and prayer the community renews its identity as the heirs and agents of the good news of Christ Jesus.
At Holy Trinity we ask the children to gather for a brief message from the pastor or from the Minister for Family and Youth so they can be prepared for the scripture readings and sermon to come.
The first reading, usually from the Old Testament, is followed by a psalm, sung, chanted, or read.
If there is a second reading, it usually is drawn from a New Testament letter of the early church.
Before the reading of the Gospel, we join in another sung response. The sermon follows.
For Lutherans preaching should always start and return to God’s word of law and gospel found in Scripture, both Old Testament and New, with a thankful understanding that God through Christ Jesus has justified us apart from the law. "For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law." [Romans 3:28]
Above all, the sermon should hold up the word of promise in Christ Jesus: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” [John 3:16]
The Word in Other Forms
We continue now our proclamation of God’s word in hymnody and confession. The Hymn of the Day is our response to the themes of the day. The creed—a medieval addition to the liturgy but of ancient origin—sums up the faith of the church.
The Apostles’ Creed summarizes the faith according to which the early church baptized. The Nicene Creed explores the mystery of the incarnation and the Trinity. They unite us in a common profession with Christians throughout the world and throughout the centuries.
Prayers of Intercession
Having taught, professed, and celebrated the word of God, the community now petitions God for the needs of the world. We pray for the church, for the well-being of creation, for peace among nations, for the poor and all in need, for local needs and special concerns, and for health and healing and comfort for those in distress, near and far.
The Passing of the Peace
We then greet each other in the peace of the risen Christ, the peace in which Jesus greeted his disciples following the resurrection. In this passing of the peace, we enact and bear forth the reconciliation we have in each other in Christ Jesus.
We now pivot into the third part of the liturgy, the liturgy of the meal.
The proclamation of the Word of God in the second part of the liturgy and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the third are connected to each other.
In the Word read and proclaimed, God speaks to us the word of Promise. In the Lord’s Supper—a “visible word” of the “invisible promise” of which Martin Luther speaks—God feeds us with the promise and presence of Christ Jesus.
We begin with our own offerings of material goods, bread and wine, praise and thanksgiving. The choir offers an anthem of praise as the gifts are gathered and presented. The congregation also offers its songs of praise and thanksgiving.
The Great Thanksgiving
Before the Lord’s Supper is shared, the pastor leads us into the Great Thanksgiving for the gifts of creation and redemption. As part of this thanksgiving we join our voices with all of creation and sing the angels’ song, “Holy, Holy, Holy” [Isaiah 6.3], known in Latin as the Sanctus.
In the Prayer of Consecration, the pastor offers thanks; recalls God’s mighty deeds for Israel; recalls God’s revelation in the saving work of Christ Jesus; offers up Jesus’s own words of thanks, command, and promise; and asks the Holy Spirit to be present.
The Great Thanksgiving concludes with the Lord’s Prayer.
In Communion we Lutherans stress that each individual communicant receives both the spoken promise—"this is my body, given for you”; “this is my blood, shed for you”—and the visible sign of Christ’s promise and presence—the bread and the wine.
As the bread is broken and the meal is shared, we sing of the Lamb of God, the Agnus dei, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
Like the disciples, we recognize the risen Christ in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:30). We receive the body of Christ to live as the body of Christ in the world.
The sending brings our worship to a close. We have been gathered, instructed, nourished, and commissioned to be Christ’s body in service to the world.
After announcements, our pastor blesses us in the name of the triune God.
We now are ready to go forth to live as Christ’s body in the world, proclaiming the good news, loving and serving others, and caring for all in need. And soon to assemble once again to celebrate the work of the people of God. Thanks be to God!