If you're a first-time visitor to Messiah, or a first-time visitor to a church of any kind, you might not know what to expect or what to do. You may have never used a hymnal before; you may not understand what's going on in the different parts of the service ("Why are those words in Latin?" "What's an 'Agnus Dei'?" "Why did the pastor just put on that robe that looks like a poncho?"). That's perfectly fine! All of us learned these things at some point, and some of us are still learning. But here is some helpful information so that if you are new to Lutheran worship, it won't seem quite so alien to you.
WORSHIP: WHAT TO EXPECT
What does that mean? The word "liturgy" comes to us from an ancient Greek word that means "work for the people" or "public work/service." The early church adopted this term to refer to worship services, and it has since come to refer to the particular structure of events that take place during worship. This means that, at Messiah, our worship is structured, following a particular way of doing things each week, and the outline for this structure can be found in the hymnal or in the worship bulletin you will receive upon entering the church. Because we are Lutheran, our worship follows a liturgical structure derived from the Western church tradition, especially those liturgies used in the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. The texts of all the portions of the liturgy are derived from the words of Scripture. As Lutherans, we believe that the liturgy still is "work for the people," but it is not our work - it is God's work for our benefit. God works through the means of His word and the Sacraments to grant us forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life, and we receive these great gifts from God when we come together to worship Him. This is why we often refer to our worship as "the Divine Service."
At Messiah, we have two worship services that use two different liturgies. Our 9:00 service follows a largely spoken liturgy that also makes use of more "modern" musical settings (Divine Service, Setting 4). Our 10:45 service uses a largely sung liturgy (Divine Service, Setting 3). Midweek services often borrow from the various liturgies of the "Hours" (Matins, Evening Prayer, etc.).
If you are curious about what the different parts of the liturgy mean, the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod has put together a nice explanation that can be found here.
A lectionary is a series of scripture readings keyed to different Sundays of the church year, and it assigns significant readings to important occasions in the life of the church. The lectionary also influences the content of the pastor's sermon. At Messiah, we use the three-year lectionary, which cycles through various readings in the Bible over the course of three years. Other churches may use the historic one-year lectionary.
What does this mean? Lutherans believe that the word of God (revealed in the Old and New Testaments) and the sacraments (holy baptism, the Lord's Supper, and holy absolution) are means of grace, which means that they are things through which God imparts His grace and forgiveness to believers. This is why the reading of scripture, preaching, confession and absolution, and the Lord's Supper are so prominent in our worship. God shows us His love through these things, and we receive the benefits of His love through them.
Vestments are the robes and other special clothing that pastors wear during the service. Paraments are all the cloths and banners that adorn various parts of the church during the service. Vestments and paraments are imbued with many different kinds of meaning, but a shorthand way to think about them is that they help us remember that we are in a place where God meets man. Church, especially during the divine service, is a place utterly unlike anywhere else in the world, and so vestments and paraments remind us that we are in a special, sacred place where God gives us His gifts and where we meet Him, physically. (More on that below!)
We believe that Christ is truly and physically present in the Lord's Supper (also called the Sacrament of the Altar, Holy Communion, or the Eucharist), and that in receiving the Lord's Supper, we receiving God's grace, forgiveness of sins, and eternal life. What does this mean? We'll let Martin Luther explain it for us (from the Small Catechism):
What is the Sacrament of the Altar?
It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and to drink, instituted by Christ Himself.
Where is this written?
The holy Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and St. Paul, write thus:
Our Lord Jesus Christ, the same night in which He was betrayed, took bread: and when He had given thanks, He brake it, and gave it to His disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me. After the same manner also He took the cup, when He had supped, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Take, drink ye all of it. This cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins. This do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of Me.
What is the benefit of such eating and drinking?
That is shown us in these words: Given, and shed for you, for the remission of sins; namely, that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.
How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things?
It is not the eating and drinking, indeed, that does them, but the words which stand here, namely: Given, and shed for you, for the remission of sins. Which words are, beside the bodily eating and drinking, as the chief thing in the Sacrament; and he that believes these words has what they say and express, namely, the forgiveness of sins.
Who, then, receives such Sacrament worthily?
Fasting and bodily preparation is, indeed, a fine outward training; but he is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: Given, and shed for you, for the remission of sins. But he that does not believe these words, or doubts, is unworthy and unfit; for the words For you require altogether believing hearts.
As Luther explains above, we believe that Christ is physically present in, with, and under the bread and wine that we receive in the Lord's Supper. We do not teach that the bread and wine become Christ's body and blood - they are His body and blood, and the mechanics by which they are His body and blood remain a mystery to us. Neither do we believe that the Lord's Supper is merely a memorial meal, or a merely "spiritual communion" - we believe that Jesus is truly present among us, bodily, in the Sacrament. When He said "This is my body...this is my blood," He meant it - it is. And we believe, therefore, that by eating His body and drinking His blood, as He commanded us to do, we receive the gifts of forgiveness and eternal life. This is also why we take communion seriously in the Lutheran church, because if we do not trust Jesus' words telling us that it is His body and blood, given for us for the forgiveness of sins, we run the risk of bringing God's judgment upon ourselves. The Apostle Paul warns us in 1 Corinthians 11:27-30 (ESV):
27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
Therefore, because we take discerning body and blood of Christ in the sacrament seriously (as well as believing that they are given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins), if you have any questions about the Lord's Supper or our theology surrounding it, and if you are a first-time visitor and would like to partake of the sacrament, we encourage you to talk to our pastors prior to the service. We want everyone to be able to receive the gifts of God in the Lord's Supper, and we want you to be able to receive these gifts in good conscience, too!
Under normal circumstances, we sing portions of the liturgy. We sing hymns. And we also sing some music that isn't in the hymnal. If you are uncomfortable singing, that's okay - not all of us have been blessed with great vocal chords. And if you can't sing well, but still want to, that's okay, too - all voices are welcome, and God doesn't care about skill level! ("Let us make a joyful noise to Him with psalms of praise!") But we invite you, whether you sing or not, whether you sound like Luciano Pavarotti or Florence Foster Jenkins, to meditate on the words of the hymns during the service. They are a beautiful and ancient way in which we praise God, and they proclaim, in music, the themes of the day's lectionary readings.