Visiting a Lutheran Service
I recently attended Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American (ELCA) denomination, in Bridgeton, New Jersey. While I had never attended a service there, I have certainly been aware of the church as it rests adjacent to the church I grew up at and has been attended by a childhood friend. Upon entering the sanctuary, it is impossible to not feel welcome as at the front, directly behind the communion table, is a large painting of Christ, His arms outstretched towards the congregation. The altar area is designed in a way which directs the eye towards the painting. The very architecture of the space indicates the focus of the service: being welcomed by Christ.
In the bulletin, several Scripture passages and prayers were included at the head of the page for congregants to utilize in preparing for the service as the organist plays a prelude. It was reminiscent of Luther’s emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. Each individual Christian is able to prepare his or her own heart for worship and come to the Father without any other mediator before the service even begins.
The service itself began with a time of confession. The Augsburg Confession is clear that Christians certainly do sin after baptism (Article 12) and those sins are to be repented of. The service created a space to do so at its very outset. The minister then declared the forgiveness Christ won for us in His death. The absolution was focused on Christ, since forgiveness is only found in Him, not the Church or our own works. As a church which affirms the ecumenical creeds, the absolution was declared in the name of the Trinity. Following this was a congregational prayer for God’s mercy to be shown to the world (Kyrie).
The next item in the service was the Word. Scripture is central in the Lutheran tradition, so it was not a surprise that four Scripture passages were read. What was surprising for me was that an Old Testament reading was included as Luther had omitted Old Testament readings in his own liturgy because of the distinction he drew between the Law and the Gospel. The short sermon which followed these readings drew heavily on them, and most heavily on the Gospel reading. It was short and focused on the good news of Jesus.
After the preaching of the Word, the congregation responded by reciting the Apostles’ Creed. Another item which surprised me was they omitted the Eucharist. The Lutheran tradition holds the sacraments in a central position, so the omission of it here was an oddity.
Then followed the offering and a series of prayers, during which the pastor and the congregation offered prayers for the world, the nation, the community, and the congregation. The congregation’s inclusion in representing the world to God in prayer through the refrain, “Hear our prayer” was another reminder of the priesthood of all believers. Also, the pastor turned around and faced the painting of Christ. The pastor stood with the congregation, not over the congregation, as we approached our Savior. Not only did the pastor represent the needs of the people to God, but the entire congregation joined together in representing the needs of the world to the Father.
At the conclusion of the service, the pastor blessed the congregation and the congregation responded in song with their own benediction. The pastor then sent them off in peace to serve the Lord. The service was not merely for the congregants but served to shape the people by the Gospel story to be people who represent the very presence of Jesus to their community.