Lutherans recognize the true church where the Word of God is taught in its purity and where the Sacraments are rightly administered. These marks are objective. They are based on what anyone can read in the Bible. Therefore, there is a biblical explanation for the elements of our worship, and our service is constructed around God's Word. Lutheran services are filled with objective events that bring us to the cross of Christ and give us the forgiveness that He won once, for all. These services are a connection between the Lutheran Church today and the Christian Church in all ages.
The divine service is the one place where all the different aspects of the Church come together. Here is where the Church does its greatest service to the community, by witnessing accurately and boldly to God's truth. Here is where non-members will discover the greatest treasures of all time. Here is where Christians come to receive the eternal gifts of God: forgiveness of sins, and a new birth through Jesus Christ into a life that will never end.
Our worship services are chiefly services of God to us, where He comes to create and sustain faith in our hearts through the means He has given for that purpose. Our worship also contains many times when we return thanksgiving, praise, and prayer in response to God's grace. Finally, some parts do double duty, both teaching us the Word of God and providing an organized response.
We are sensitive in our worship planning both to the spiritual needs of the congregation and to the instruction of our Lord. More than anything else, Christians need to be recharged and refocused on Sunday with the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ. God has promised us the power of this forgiveness in the preaching of His Word (Romans 10:14-15), in the Sacrament of Baptism (1 Peter 3:21, Ephesians 5:26), and in the Sacrament of the Altar (Matthew 26:26-28, 1 Corinthians 10:16). Accordingly, our worship is centered on these events as God's service to us. Our Lord Himself meets our spiritual needs through His Word and the Sacraments. We ensure that these needs are met at each church service through the use of a standard order of worship, or liturgy.
Another important part of our worship is the confession of sin and the absolution. This event should remind each of us of our Baptism, just as the Small Catechism says concerning the Keys and Confession. God has promised to hear us and to forgive us, without limit. And so we bring our burdens of guilt before His altar and bow our hearts in humble submission. The pastor then announces the forgiveness of God as the voice of Christ Himself. We can firmly believe this, because Jesus promised "He who hears you, hears me" (Luke 10:16).
When we use the Means of Grace in our worship, our faith is strengthened by the working of the Holy Spirit. We actually receive the forgiveness of sins that God's Son won on the cross. There are also parts of the service that give us opportunity to respond to these rich blessings.
One response is our confession of faith, in which we recite together one of the three universal (or "ecumenical") Christian creeds: the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and sometimes the Athanasian Creed. These were crafted in the early centuries of the New Testament to summarize briefly the chief parts of what we believe. This is an important part of our service. It brings us together in the unity of our common faith, and it expresses that faith in such a way that we can carry it into our daily lives. The creeds were based on the formula for Baptism that our Lord gave us in Matthew 28:19, so reciting the Creed is an excellent way of reminding ourselves of just what our Baptism means, and the forgiveness and eternal life it gives.
We also include several prayers in the service. They are another special response to God's grace. We thank Him for His gifts, and ask Him to continue His blessings. There are usually two short prayers called "collects" that address specific needs in that church service. One summarizes the main topic of the day, giving thanks and praise, while including a simple petition from the congregation as a whole. The other is usually the closing collect, thanking God for His divine service and asking for the continued presence of His Word in our hearts. Another prayer commonly follows the sermon, and comes before the offering. It's called the "General Prayer" or the "Prayer of the Church." In this prayer, the Church unites in asking God for things such as peace in the land, good weather, and good government. We also pray for orphans, widows, those who are sick or in trouble, and those with special needs. In particular, we ask for unity in the Christian Church based on the pure Word of God.
Finally, what would a church service be without singing? The Lutheran Church has historically been known as the singing church because of our powerful hymns and liturgy. For most of its existence, the Lutheran Church has even sung the Bible readings and the collects in the church service, whenever it was possible. Today, we have a myriad of hymns from lots of sources. The hymns in our Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary were carefully chosen and collected for their beauty and faithfulness to God's truth. Overall, there are two great purposes that these hymns serve in our worship: they teach us the Christian doctrines of the Bible in ways that are easy to grasp and remember, and they aid us in our worshipful response to God's grace: a response of praise, prayer, and thanksgiving. Many churches today have added another purpose to their hymns: entertainment. The confessional Lutheran Church has resisted this trend, because a focus on entertainment detracts from the main purpose of God's service. Besides, there are other, more appropriate settings for musical entertainment, some of which may also take place in the church building.
Not all the hymns in our services are on their own page with a hymn number. There are a handful that have been treasured over the ages so greatly that they have been placed into the liturgy itself. Each serves a special purpose in its liturgical placement, expressing the Church's responses and prayers during the course of the gracious dialogue between God and man. The Gloria in Excelsis ("Glory in the Highest") follows the wonderful Words of the absolution, echoing the song of the angels at the birth of our Lord. The Sanctus ("Holy") expresses the awe and wonder of the church as we anticipate the Sacramental presence of our Savior in the Sacrament of the Altar. It's based on the Words of the angels in Isaiah 6:3. The Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God"), is a special prayer addressed to Christ, identified by John the Baptizer in John 1:29 as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." This is sung after the Words of institution are spoken over the elements of bread and wine, recognizing the real presence of Christ's body and blood under those elements.
There are other standard hymns as well, used at various times in various liturgies. Three that are included in our orders of Matins and Vespers are the Benedictus, the Nunc Dimittis, and the Magnificat. These are based on the songs of Zechariah, Simeon, and Mary, respectively, recorded in the first two chapters of the Gospel according to St. Luke. Another hymn in the order of Matins is the Te Deum Laudamus, a very old hymn of praise and prayer to God for all the spiritual blessings of salvation.
You might wonder where the readings come from that we use each Sunday, or how the pastor chooses the collects or his sermon text. Almost always, these things are determined by the Church year. Like the regular year, it's composed of seasons, beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. You can find a listing of all the seasons and various festival days on page 5 of the Hymnary. Here are those seasons and what they observe:
On pages 199--203 of the Hymnary you will find all the Scripture lessons organized into lectionaries. The Historic Lectionary dates to the first few hundred years after Christ. On pages 142--166 you will find other elements of the liturgy that have come to us from ancient times. You may find the prayers from page 167 through 172 to be useful in your private or family devotions. There are prayers for any morning and evening, as well as prayers for mornings and evenings on each day of the week.