Turning Worship Rightside Up

For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Mark 10:45

Ask people who confess Christ and still attend Sunday services, “What is worship?” and most likely they’ll tell you about what people do there: sing, listen, pray, have communion and so on. Indeed, their worship activities are really not much different than any other religion that worships. Is Christian worship really no different than Muslim or Hindu worship? I believe it is and totally the opposite.

Not only is Christian worship under the name of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and focused on Christ, Christian worship is primarily about what God has come to do for us. We may sing, listen, pray and commune, but all this is a mere pittance in comparison to the divine service by which God comes to bring us forgiveness, life and salvation. This is worship rightside up!

Worship is indeed a service – God’s service, and this is no better described than as follows:

Our Lord is the Lord who serves. Jesus Christ came into the flesh not to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many. On the cross He offered Himself as a spotless sacrifice for the sin of the whole world. Through His perfect life and death, He accomplished forgiveness and salvation for all before the Father in heaven. By His empty tomb and ascension into heaven, He declared His victory over sin and death to all the world. Seated now at the Father’s right hand, He graciously serves His Church with the gifts of salvation. On the Last Day, He will come again to gather His elect from every nation to celebrate the feast that will have no end.

Our Lord serves us today through His holy Word and Sacraments. Through these means, He comes among us to deliver His forgiveness and salvation, freeing us from our sins and strengthening us for service to one another and to the world. At Holy Baptism, He puts His name upon us, pours His Holy Spirit into our hearts, and rescues us from sin, death, and the devil. Through Holy Absolution, He pronounces His forgiveness again and again. With His holy Word, written in Scripture and preached into our ears, He daily proclaims His abiding love for us through all the joys and sorrows of life in this world. In His Holy Supper, He gives us His own body and blood to eat and drink as a priceless gift to nourish and strengthen us in both body and soul.

The Lord’s service calls forth our service— in sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving to Him and in loving service to one another. Having been called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit, we receive His gifts with thankfulness and praise. With psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, we joyfully confess all that God has done for us, declaring the praises of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. Our song joins with the song of every saint from every age, the new song of Christ’s holy people, declaring: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5: 12).

Lutheran Service Book: Pew Edition (p.viii). Concordia Publishing House

Why does our Lord gather us for worship?

The most precious gifts and treasures our Lord gives us are His forgiveness, life and salvation. Through His innocent life and bitter sufferings and death, Christ has purchased and won us from sin, death and the devil. Through Jesus Christ, all the sins of the world were paid for and the wrath of God was appeased. Christ has reconciled the whole world to God.

Jesus Christ serves us again and again as His Gospel is proclaimed, as His people are baptized and as His Word is read. He serves us as His forgiveness is pronounced and penitents absolved. He serves us as He gives us His body and blood under the bread and wine to eat and to drink. This is how our Lord gives us forgiveness, life, and salvation. What a blessing it is to be called and gathered for worship by our good and gracious God!

What is at the heart and center of Lutheran worship?

Christian worship puts the focus squarely on Jesus Christ, who is present for us and with us through His Word and Sacraments. Christian worship is, therefore, Christ-centered, not man-centered. When we are gathered for worship, we are not contemplating some far-off Christ or meditating on abstract concepts, or pondering various principles for living. Neither are we in church to be amused or entertained. Christ is living and active among us, right where He has promised to be in His Word and Sacraments. Jesus said, “Lo, I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 18:20). When He gathers us around His Word and Sacraments, He fulfills this promise to us once again.

What is the basic pattern or“rhythm” of Christian worship?

Our Lord speaks and we listen. We believe that God’s Word gives what it says. Faith that is born from what is heard acknowledges the gifts received with eager thankfulness and praise. . . .Saying back to Him what He has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure. …The rhythm of our worship is from Him to us, and then from us back to Him. He gives His gifts, and together we receive and extol them. We build one another up as we speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

Worship as “Divine Service.”

Within my Christian tradition, the primary service of the church has historically ben called the “Divine Service.” This phrase helps us understand the rhythm of worship-that it is first and foremost God serving us with His gifts, and then our service to Almighty God in thanksgiving and praise for all He has done.

The Divine Service is a “holy” time, meaning a time “set apart.” It is a time to be set apart from the workaday world-a time to spend with our Lord. Indeed, in the Divine Service we are gathered together in the presence of the holy, almighty, ever-living God, and thus we are part of a time of “heaven on earth,” as our Lord forgives our sins and gives us new life today, and eternal salvation with Him forever. This understanding of the Divine Service explains why many who experience our worship for the first time describe it as dignified, reverent and sacred.

What does Christian worship look and sound like?

If you attended many churches today, you might say that worship looks a lot like a concert with lots of music, and then ending with a motivational speaker. This may offer the unbeliever or illiterate Christian a comfortable feeling, but it also contributes to a lot of confusion. Is Christianity just another good-feeling place?

Christians who practice what the Church has done since its earliest days us use very similar orders of worship. The two main parts of the Divine Service are (1) the proclamation of the Word of God, and (2) the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. There are other orders of service used among Christians that feature a more extended service of the Word as well as times of prayer, such as the services of Morning and Evening Prayer.

In these services, pastors and congregations sing or speak the liturgy back and forth or together. Congregational singing of hymns has always been a hallmark of Christian worship. The style of music embraces both ancient and modern, but rather than being entertained, Christians are participants in the singing.

Although it is not required, many Christian pastors wear special clothing called vestments. These garments cover the individuality of the man and emphasize the sacred duties of the office he has been given to carry out. Throughout the course of the church year, an appointed order of readings and prayers helps the congregation focus on the major events in the life of Christ and how those events affect us today. Preaching, usually based on appointed lessons, and this preaching clearly presents both God’s Law and Gospel.

Christian worship invites people to stand, bow or kneel at various points in the service to express reverence and devotion to the almighty Triune God. Pastors make the sign of the cross over the people, and the people may sign themselves with the cross at various times as well.

Historic Christian church buildings may also be beautifully decorated with various forms of art, such as statues of Jesus, the apostles, and other important figures in the Bible or church history. You will find in many Lutheran churches altars, candles, paintings, statues, crucifixes, symbols, stained-glass windows, processional crosses, banners, and other forms of art and decoration. All of these lend beauty, dignity and reverence to the service. They help us to focus our attention on Christ and His gifts. Some churches are elaborately decorated and richly ornamented. Others are more plainly adorned. We make no fixed rules about such things. We rejoice in our Christian freedom to use all manner of reverent artwork and decoration to glorify and praise God.

How does our worship reflect what we believe?

How a church conducts its worship is a reflection of what it believes, teaches and confesses. It is difficult, therefore, to retain the substance of our Christian faith while at the same time embracing styles of worship that may proclaim a different message. The great reformer Martin Luther sought to reform, not to reinvent the church and its worship. He knew that the Gospel was the heart and center of the Divine Service. He changed only what contradicted or diminished the Gospel. Luther never did away with faithful, Gospel-centered and historic worship practices and ceremonies of the church.

Does every congregation have to worship in the same way?

There are two extremes to be avoided in answering this question. The one extreme would be the view that every congregation can do whatever it wishes, however it wishes, without any regard for the other Christian congregations. The opposite extreme would be the view that everyone in the church must do precisely the same thing every Sunday, without any deviation, variety, change or difference. Neither of these extremes is appropriate or acceptable, and certainly does not reflect the freedom we have been given by Christ.

In my Christian tradition, our church body has always been concerned that for the good of the church-uniformity in liturgical practices be maintained so that we confess a common faith to both non-Christians and other Christians too. Uniformity in doctrine (what God’s Word teaches) is reflected in uniformity in practice. Dr. C. F. W. Walther, an early Lutheran leader, affirmed the value of uniformity in worship practices:

We are not insisting that there be uniformity in perception or feeling or taste among all believing Christians neither dare anyone demand that all be minded as he. Nevertheless, it remains true that the Lutheran liturgy distinguishes Lutheran worship from the worship of other churches to such an extent that the houses of worship of the latter look like lecture halls in which the hearers are merely addressed or instructed, while our churches are in truth houses of prayer in which Christians serve the great God publicly before the world. Someone may ask, “What would be the use of uniformity of ceremonies?” We answer, “What is the use of a flag on the battlefield? Even though a soldier cannot defeat the enemy with it, he nevertheless sees by the flag where he belongs.” We ought not to refuse to walk in the footsteps of our fathers.