Lutherans often talk of their worship as being “liturgical” worship, as in “Lutherans worship in a liturgical style.” Here’s a flash message for you: nearly everyone who goes to church worships in a “liturgical style,” even if they don’t call it that. If you follow a general outline of what happens when, you’re following a liturgy. In my experience, even the freest of free-church traditions follow a liturgy. Even if you don’t have a bulletin.
Often, though, the word “liturgical” denotes a particular style of worship. The churches described as “liturgical” tend to be Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians. [There can be a few “liturgical” Methodists, Presbyterians – and, yes, even Baptists – but for the sake of our conversation, they tend to be fewer and far-between.] If you’ve ever popped into a Catholic or Episcopal worship service, you’ve probably noticed that they do a lot of the things Lutherans do. The order feels familiar and the words sound similar. That is because we share a similar foundation for our worship.
Traditional forms of worship in Roman Catholicism formed the foundation for Lutheran and Episcopal [or, Church of England] worship. Both Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer [the bishop who wrote most of the first Book of Common Prayer – the worship book for the Church of England as it broke away from Roman Catholicism] were very conservative when it came to things that took place at Sunday morning worship. They changed, at least outwardly, very little of the traditional Roman worship service. [They did change the meaning and explanation – most notably in what happens to the bread and wine in Holy Communion – of a number of things, even when they didn’t change the words.] The most visible change was Luther rewrote the service, or Mass, into German and Cranmer into English.
For Lutherans, weekly worship has been the central act of a congregation’s life together. Worship prepares us to live as God’s people in the week that unrolls itself before us. Living in the world for the past week draws us back into worship. Worship is intended to be the central act in our Christian lives. It is to orient us both toward God and toward the world and the people around us. Please note that being “liturgical” does not necessarily describe a particular style of music or a particular formality in worship.
Fun Fact: The word “liturgy” is derived from a Greek word which means, literally, “work of the people.” It was a word to describe the public service of wealthy Greeks toward their community.