Visiting a Lutheran Church

Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran Church

A while back I wrote about how to be an outsider in church, but that was pretty generic. Today, I bring you some advice on the etiquette when visiting a Lutheran church, or at least a fairly traditional one.

What is Lutheran?

The definition of a Lutheran is one who follows the teachings of Martin Luther, not to be confused with Martin Luther King Jr. although he had some pretty good ideas too. Martin Luther was a Roman Catholic clergyman who objected to a number of the church’s doctrines. While Lutherans are the original Protestants, our service are more like Catholic services than those of many other Protestants. 

The Pastor

Lutheran services are typically led by the pastor. Some Lutheran churches have female pastors but most are still men, especially in more traditional churches. Lutheran pastors typically dress similarly to Catholic priests, but are often husbands and fathers as well. The pastor is the most elaborately dressed of those in conspicuous attire. The other common people to dress conspicuously are vicars, who are student pastors, and acolytes, teenagers and young adults that help with the service. 

Liturgy

The most traditional form of Lutheran service is the liturgy, a structured and prewritten service. The exact form of the liturgy varies between synods, churches, and even weeks. The liturgy may be projected on a screen, printed in the bulletin, or in the hymnal. If it’s in the hymnal then the pastor will most like direct you to the correct page. There’s quite a bit of call and response in a typical liturgy but if you pay attention you should have no difficulty figuring out what you should be saying. Usually the liturgy begins with the pastor entering the sanctuary and ends with him leaving. 

Music

Music is a central component of many Lutheran services. Portions of the liturgy are often sung or chanted but there’s more music than that, most notably during communion and immediately before the sermon. The hymn before the sermon is known as the sermon hymn or the hymn of the day and is thematically related to the sermon. Lutherans view music as an important teaching tool so the choices of songs is usually quite significant. Traditional hymns are quite common in Lutheran churches, but more contemporary songs are also far from unheard of. 

Communion

Communion is a central element in most Lutheran services. If any of this advice is useful, then you shouldn’t be taking communion. 

Lutheran communion typically involves going up to the front of the church where they kneel at a railing, and eat a wafer and drink a sip of wine. While they’re waiting, everyone else sings. Ushers move down the aisles and direct people to go up. The people will usually wait at the front of the pews until directed to go up to the rail by another usher. They stand at the rail until the pastor holds out his hands and they kneel. After taking communion the pastor will dismiss them and they return to their seats.

Most people stay in their seats when not taking communion but some go up to the rail and cross their arms in front of them. If you go up to the rail, the pastor pray a blessing for you instead. Lutheran children don’t take communion, so all young children that go up for communion receive a blessing. 

Where to Sit

It’s a common joke that to be a good Lutheran one must always sit at the back. It’s a joke but it does have a grain of truth so sitting at the front is likely to draw attention to you as an outsider. There are two unspoken rules but they hardly even need to be mentioned; sit in the congregation and don’t sit anywhere that isn’t facing the altar, these are reserved for people with formal roles in the service.

Special Events

There are two main events that happen during Lutheran services and warrant inviting others to; baptisms and confirmations. Lutheran baptisms mark a person initially joining the church, so it’s usually infants that are baptized, but adults and older children are also baptized on occasion and all are equally celebrated. Confirmation is essentially the graduation into full membership in the church, and typically follows a period of instruction.  It’s usually teenagers that get confirmed, but adults do on occasion as well, as was my case. 

Act Like a Visitor

The most important thing to remember when visiting a Lutheran church is the same as when you visit anywhere; act like a visitor. Most Lutheran churches are very welcoming so long as you show the appropriate respect. You’ve entered their space so it isn’t the place to oppose their beliefs or question their motivations. Be respectful and open minded, and you’ll be welcomed with open arms.

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