How Lutherans Worship – 4: The Liturgy: The Pattern for Our Worship

I would venture to say that many Lutherans use the terms Divine Service (or worship) and liturgy almost interchangeably. Yet this is not the most correct way to speak about the Divine Service or the liturgy. Truth be told, no great harm is done by this lack of discernment or care (while I am sure the liturgical geeks out there may cringe), I even lapse into this less-than-correct usage from time to time. Yet there is a symmetry and beauty in understanding the correct use of the seemingly stodgy terms connected with our worship.


Greek leitourgia a public act performed by a citizen for benefit of the state.
Christianity adopted the term in its wider sense to denote the whole structure of (order) of public worship including the establishment and ordering of texts.

Properly speaking, the LITURGY is the ordered texts for use in worship. The primary consideration of the liturgy is to create the structure that not only moves the worshiper through the service, but also to present texts that reflect on and fulfill the purpose of the service. The liturgy for Divine Service, which is the focus of our attention, is different than the liturgy for Matins or, say, a Good Friday Service of the Cross. The purpose of each service will shape the selection of the liturgy to be used.

The liturgy is also shaped by the sanctoral cycle, that is, the Church Year with its feast, festivals, and commemorations.

The liturgy uses two distinct elements that together create a framework for our worship each Sunday. Those texts of the liturgy that are a part of worship Sunday after Sunday are called the ORDINARY because they are ordinarily there. The Ordinaries reflect the changeless and timeless texts associated with worship. Some of texts of the Divine Service have been in continuous use for over 1,500 years. Examples of the Ordinary are the Invocation, the Pax Domini, the Sancus, and the Words of Institution.

The second element of the liturgy is the changeable texts, known as the PROPER. The Proper brings variety into the worship as they follow the seasons of the Church Year with its associated Scripture readings. The Proper carries the message or theme for the day which is often taken from the appointed Gospel. Besides the Gospel, the Introit, the Collect, and the Gradual are examples of Propers from the Divine Service.

The worship leader and those who are assembled for worship need directions for how things will be done, like when it is appropriate to sit or stand, or who sings or says what at a specific point in the worship. These directions are called RUBRICS. Following the rubrics gives us a better idea of what we are to do next, and they foster a reverent and orderly celebration of the worship. Traditionally, rubrics are printed in our hymnals in red.

Latin “red”, instructions for conducting the worship service, often written in red.

While there are several different rubrics in the Lutheran liturgy, two types should get special attention. The strongest of the rubrics are those that inform us that certain actions and parts of the service should always be done. By following these rubrics a congregation observes the portions of the liturgy that have been part of the Divine Service from generation to generation.

A second type of rubric gives the pastor permission to choose if this direction will be followed. In the selection of the “may” rubrics congregations bring variety to their celebration of the Divine Service.

an act or series of acts performed according to a prescribed form.

When the ordered texts (i.e., liturgy) are printed together with the rubrics the result is properly called the RITE. The rite is “the script” used by the worship leader, or officiant, in conducting the CEREMONY. Simply understood, the ceremony is the actions of the congregation, pastors, choir, etc., in the service. The ceremony of the Divine Service includes the actions of the congregation, such as whether they stand or kneel, sing or speak. It includes the various elements seen in the service, like whether a procession is conducted, or a choir sings, how many assistants will help the Pastor and what they shall wear. The use (or not) of candles, vestments and paraments, organ, piano, or band, are all part of the ceremony of the service.

Every service, whether traditional or contemporary, historic or modern will have these parts. Somebody always makes a decision what will be included, choices will be made, direction will be given, and someone will lead those assembled in the ceremony.

The Lutheran Church has retained a historic pattern of the liturgy, not because we believe that this is the only right way, but because it we believe that this ancient pattern of texts most clearly and beautifully serves the purpose of the Divine Service, which is to deliver the gracious gifts of God.

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