Lutherans believe that worship isn’t so much about what we do, but about what God does for us. We simply respond in prayer and praise to the God who comes down to our level.
The Lutheran (July 2016) asked two members of the Commission on Worship, Pastor Adrian Kitson (AK) and Pastor Tim Klein (TK), for their responses to some reader questions about worship.
AK: We don’t 'have to go to church' but we do need the mutual encouragement of other Christians to remain faithful and fruitful disciples of Jesus.
We need to gather in Jesus’ name in some place, and this needs to be a regular habit all the way along our journey. We need his word and his holy gifts no matter what, when or where. We can gather in lounge rooms, bars, parks and schools in all shapes and forms, and we do this around the country. We are also free to gather in the buildings we have built for the purpose of worship. In our church buildings, we gladly receive all God does for us there.
We are in fact, privileged to be welcomed and served by our living gracious God as the Spirit gathers us in his presence. Any worship gathering is a miracle. God serves us and we respond in thanks and praise; in listening, proclaiming, singing and praying. The question is, why would any Christian want to miss out on what God does for us when we gather in worship?
TK: Why do I worship in a congregation? For me, at base level, it’s about being part of the body of Christ. Sure, I worship God in many personal ways, from celebrating and giving thanks to the Lord for all good things around me as I go – singing, whistling and writing songs of praise, and serving the Lord in all sorts of ways. But going to church every week to worship is heartland – it’s biblical, it’s body life in the family of faith. I worship with my faith family, into which I am baptised.
AK: For the most effective role modelling of how to be fully human and fully alive with the deepest humility, all we have to do is look to Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. His role modelling is more than a mere example for the world. His words and actions of acceptance, challenge and calling, all said and done in love, are not just for information but for the transformation of the human heart and mind. For all he has done and all he continues to do to resurrect dead sinners and give sight, life and freedom to captive people, there is only one appropriate response – to live a life worthy of the calling we have received from him to follow, love, pray, sing and listen to him above all others and all else. We call that 'worship'.
TK: I’m neither a puppy nor a puppet – it’s neither licking the hand that feeds me nor dancing to the puppeteer's tune. God wants me to worship him so that he can bless, feed, forgive, guide, refresh and restore me for everyday life. God doesn’t need my worship, he loves it! In worship, he has my full attention and that maximises his blessing potential on me and those who are with me. We are built for a relationship with God and with each other. God knows that worship together is good for us all.
AK: The essential element of our worship is the presence of Jesus. Without his promise to be truly present wherever even a few of us gather in his name, we are just a gathering of like-minded people coming together for mutual support; like a community service club or fraternal group of colleagues.
What makes worship divine and spiritually alive is the reality that Jesus is present. What makes what we participate in of truly profound spiritual blessing is that Jesus speaks to us and that his word does what he says and he says what he does, right there in the moment. He is far beyond our understanding and yet, he reveals his character and intention for us by his powerful word, as it is proclaimed in words and in actions of baptism, absolution, the Lord’s supper and blessing.
TK: All of the above. It’s the Lord present with his body – together in one place. Baptism into Christ affirmed; sins confessed and forgiven; God’s word publicly read aloud, taught and proclaimed; feeding at the Lord’s table; blessing and sending out. These are for me the essentials of worship.
There’s one other key for me: to understand that in worship, God is both subject and object. It’s not about me. I can only proclaim Jesus as Lord (and that’s right there in worship) by the working of his Holy Spirit. So he has brought me there, he inspires my worship and there the body of Christ worships God in his entirety.
AK: Our worship has a rhythm to it, which has come down to us from the Scriptures as they have been taught and lived by God’s people across languages and cultures through the centuries.
The point of this rhythm or shape is not to put some legal requirement over us that restricts or dampens our enthusiasm and joy. Rather, it is a gift that helps keep us firmly fixed on Jesus, the centre of the Scriptures and the centre of our worship, from whom all true joy and freedom comes.
We need this rhythm more than we might believe. The problem we humans have is that we have this natural inclination to take our eyes off Jesus and trust other people, ourselves and other things more than the Lord.
So from the Old Testament shape of worship to its reshaping by the cross and empty tomb of Jesus (and what that meant for the first Christians and Christians ever since), we have this worship that keeps the gospel at the centre of what happens when we gather in Jesus’ name.
This rhythm has two high points which truly are encounters with the resurrected Jesus in the here and now. The service begins and leads to the first encounter with Jesus as we hear the gospel proclaimed. We respond to that good news and then prepare for the second encounter with the living Lord, which is the sharing of his holy meal. We then go in the Spirit’s power to fulfil our calling in God’s world.
The words, songs, prayers and actions we do in this rhythm are not set in concrete. Yet, it is good for the people of God to have some common words, songs and prayers that come from the Scriptures so we are continually shaped by the gospel as families and individuals.
God has called some of his people to be pastors in his community. These 'shepherds' are called and ordained, or set apart, for the public ministry of proclaiming God’s word and faithfully administering God’s special gifts of grace. This surely includes the training, support and empowering of others to assist in worship. From the organist or band who support the song of the gathered congregation, to the reading of the Scriptures, praying of prayers, message-making for children, the ministry of ushering, and welcoming of the stranger, to the careful training and support of lay preachers/special ministry pastors and the like, pastors and people work together in God’s church as it gathers for worship.
TK: I like the idea of rhythm that Adrian speaks of. As the body of Christ in worship, we fit into the rhythms laid down for us – shaped around the cross of Christ – with biblical foundations. Was it Frank Sinatra who sang: 'I did it my way'? I dare suggest the underlying desire behind the words of this song speak to a powerful motivation for doing worship ‘my way’. Of course, each one of us is unique and brings to the body of Christ unique gifts, character and style. But I am conscious that my personal ideas, gifts and character should not be the factor that shapes worship away from the biblical models upon which our worship service orders are based. They belong to all of us. We do, however, add to the collective memory and expression of worship, with modern expressions, new songs and ritual appropriate to the context of worship.
AK: All of life in every sphere and at all times is God’s domain. He promises that he is with us in all of it. At any time we can speak with him, hear him speak, ask him for what we need and seek his will for our lives. In this sense, we can and do 'worship' with him anywhere, anytime.
But he has created a special gathering (no matter how big or small) where he promises to be present and to give us special gifts for the journey he is leading us to live. In this more public gathering we call 'worship' or 'going to church', he provides specially called and ordained servants of his word (pastors) to enact the giving of his unique gifts which are unobtainable in any other sphere of life. Through his ordained servants, God gives us his gracious acceptance and love in concrete, tactile means of word and water, bread and wine, in a public and corporate communal way that makes us his body on earth which is visible and tangible.
TK: Of course you can – especially when you are alone. When we are together, we share a common ritual – something that belongs to all of us. We exercise respect for each other as we share in worship together in Jesus’ name. Some people worship with arms and heads raised high, others hands clasped and heads bowed. Some sing loudly, and others sing softly. Some read the word and some listen. Some smile and laugh with joy as they are fed the bread of life, some weep. But in worship, the Lord meets all of our needs. In forgiving each other our differences, God is at work refreshing us with a new sense of being gathered around the cross in the body of Christ.
AK: Liturgy is a strange word in our ears and is only one of several words that the first Christians used to describe what happens when God gathers his people in Jesus’ presence to hear his word and sing his praises.
We say now that liturgy is really the shape or rhythm of what happens when God’s Spirit gathers us in Jesus’ presence. This shape has been handed down to us from the Scriptures and served people of many language groups, cultures, places and times very well because it helps keep the gospel at the centre of what happens in our worship gatherings.
Sure, the liturgy can be done poorly in some dead, rigid, formal, lifeless kind of way, with little regard to those who are gathered and what their languages and cultures are. But when enacted with the gospel at its centre, and the people’s needs and their language taken into account, this 'shape' shapes us in good ways – in the gospel way, with Jesus at the centre, and we receiving him and responding to him in prayer, praise and thanks.
TK: Ditto to Adrian’s comments – but a couple more thoughts ...
The word 'liturgy' comes from a Greek word that means service. It has particular application to public religious service (as well as civil). When I was a boy, our worship was called 'Divine Service'.
For me, liturgy is the framework that makes way for both: God to serve us, and us to respond to him. We need a framework. Without a frame, our worship would in some ways be spineless – like a body without a backbone. It’s the order that frees us into worship in a way that is not cluttered or misshapen by our own ideas and expectations of what worship should or shouldn’t be like. Liturgy, in any shape or form, isn’t ever meant to be something that binds, but rather, something that gives freedom. Healthy liturgy is not static. It moves and flexes, responding to needs and circumstance. It responds to the word of God so that 'serving' happens.
Not too long back I listened to a visiting speaker Nadia Bolz-Weber up in the Barossa Valley, South Australia who said, regarding the shape of worship: 'We should be rooted in tradition before we can innovate with integrity'.
AK: Music is a beautiful gift of God that enhances our worship life because it can engage God’s people in ways the spoken word often cannot. Music engages our emotional side probably more than the architecture of our church buildings, the preaching of preachers, or the prayers of people.
Its purpose in worship is to serve. Martin Luther called it the 'handmaiden to the gospel'. Musicians are assistants to the pastoral ministry in worship. Their role is to support the people (who are the lead singers) in the singing of the word, prayer and praise. Musicians also support the preaching and doing of the word as they work with the pastor to enact all the drama of the liturgy, telling the story of God and his people.
The funny thing, though, is that contrary to what many might believe, music is not that important for people when it comes to worship. In some research done in various places around the world, we have noticed that the style and quality of the music in a worship gathering is not at the top of the list when it comes to the reasons why people 'go to church' or 'get something out of church'. It is interesting that some suggest that the top three reasons why people make the effort to be in worship are to:
- hear someone say something about God or to hear a word from God for their life (sermon)
- experience a 'moment with God' or a 'personal touch of God' (this could be where music comes in a little, but mainly holy communion, the absolution and the blessing are where this happens)
- experience belonging and encouragement from being with other Christians (fellowship).
Music is part of all of these, but not as determining a factor as we seem to often think. A well-played old song played and sung with a faith-filled heart and rhythm led by an old organ, single guitar or no instrument at all can be just as helpful and encouraging as a song played by a cast of thousands with great skill and the same good heart.
TK: Like Pastor Adrian, I’m a musician – primarily a singer. I have a broad range of musical knowledge and taste. On my shelves, and in my computer web favourites, are music books from ancient hymnody to the latest in style. I regularly learn new music – perhaps surprisingly, some of it revitalised ancient music. I am currently intrigued by the number of modern Christian writers reworking old hymns! For me, music suited to church worship needs to be faithful to Scripture and serve some function, for example, teaching, prayer or praise. Music can be liturgy. Music can be prayer. Music can convey truths of God into deep levels of subconsciousness, or simply celebrate moments of grace. Some music is better suited to larger or smaller gatherings, and some music is more personal, reflective or devotional in character. Some music better performed than sung together. Some melody is easier sung by various generations. But church music belongs to all of us. We share a collective memory and need to be very wary of dismissing the heartland of our collective memory.
'Let the message about Christ completely fill your lives, while you use all your wisdom to teach and instruct each other. With thankful hearts, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God' (Colossians 3:16 CEV).
AK: Every time we share the body and blood of Christ we are proclaiming his death and resurrection until he comes again to fulfil all things. So all we do in worship is by its very nature 'outreach'. This is because wherever God speaks his word it achieves the purposes for which he sends it – just like the rain.
If this is true, then all worship services are gospel messages. They are evangelistic in nature and need to be recognised as such. Strangers need to be welcomed. Inclusiveness needs to be the character of the words and actions. The gospel needs to be the main word in everything done and said, from the greeting at the door to the farewell to people at the same door.
The coffee needs to be good and the welcome full. The preaching needs to use the common language and the stories told need to be God’s story intersecting with the story of the everyday people gathered. Love needs to shine and the Spirit’s calling, gathering, enlightening power needs to be welcomed and prayed for all the time.
TK: It seems to me that only a person who knows God can worship God. So worship is perhaps, by definition, meant for the faithful followers of Jesus. But worship is also a place where the Lord feeds, equips, forgives and refreshes us. Good news is proclaimed and done.
His purpose is that we should serve him and be his presence in the world! So, while the primary focus of worship might be for the body of Christ to gather around the cross in worship, it also has dimensions of outreach where the Lord reaches out to us and others in our brokenness, to bring us back to the foot of the cross – worshipping and serving the Lord.
AK: We love life and want to live it. Imagining ourselves sitting on a cloud somewhere playing a harp and dressed in a white loincloth bores the heck out of most of us! Where we get this mind-numbing picture of heaven is anyone’s guess – probably from all those classic paintings from Michelangelo or Raphael we have seen as kids!
But what if heaven was simply enjoying being with our kind and loving Heavenly Father, our gentle and strong older brother, Jesus, and our Counsellor and Advocate, the Holy Spirit, with a billion other holy people of God who have finished the race, won the crown of victory with Jesus, and are forever without tears, pain, loss, grief, sorrow, disease and only ever full of love, joy, peace and the presence of a holy God in their new bodies? The whole world is longing for that.
When the Spirit gathers us in the presence of Jesus, this heaven meets our earth just for a moment and we are given a glimpse of the closeness and the joy of our life in God. We know that this is sometimes hard to catch when the music is tired or the sermon is hollow. It is hard to glimpse the joy and love of God when there is a lack of welcome and love on show or there is trouble between people in the camp. But from God’s point of view, the glimpse is there because his word is there and his gifts are there.
TK: Amen. Will I have a guitar in heaven? Does James Thiele have a pipe organ in heaven? I don’t know. Will I sing and whistle? I expect so. Will we sing together? I expect so. We’ll have every reason to sing and make a new song to the Lord. We’ll have every reason to worship and serve the Lord using all our being – whatever heaven is like. I don’t know about floating around on a cloud strumming a lute and singing … it could be good, but so would planting new trees and beds of roses and pansies, creating new flavours in the kitchen, kicking a ball around, or serving alongside a neighbour. Whatever we are doing, we’ll be giving glory to God!
Other questions we've received about worship
- What do I need to consider when arranging a service for a special occasion?
- Why are hymns retranslated?
- What is a funeral pall and why do some churches have them?
- Should Lutheran pastors wear vestments or not?
- Should grape juice be used instead of wine in holy communion?
- Why has the LCA changed the wording of the Nicene Creed from 'I' to 'we' and 'Christian' to 'catholic'?
- What should people with allergies to alcohol or gluten do about holy communion?
- Why do parents and congregation renounce the devil and confess faith in the Triune God on behalf of a child in baptism?
- Are lead singers worship leaders?
- Can Christians choose cremation instead of burial?