One of the orders of service we use each month from our Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary is Rite 4, The Lutheran Chorale Service. It is hardly a modern invention. It’s origins are traced to the worship reforms of Martin Luther and his coworkers in the great Reformation of the mid 1500s.
Luther recognized that the worship rites of the Roman Catholic Church promoted serious errors. As he set about reforming worship, he sought to preserve those elements that were edifying and doctrinally correct, and to correct or remove those elements in conflict with Scripture.
But Luther’ reforms lead to a truly revolutionary change- the full participation of the congregation. In that day the Roman Catholic liturgy focused largely on the priesthood. Choirs of priests and monks chanted all the liturgy and hymns. The laity were by and large spectators supposedly benefiting from the performance of the clergy. Luther changed all that. He believed that worship should be for the people and by the people. Yes, the laity assembled to hear the Word and to receive the Sacrament, but in grateful return they should join in the prayers, they should jubilantly sing the hymns, they should join in the chanting of the liturgy. In short, the congregation should be a mass choir. At the same time, Luther added the scriptural sermon of law and Gospel for the edification, exhortation, and admonition of the people. In Catholicism there was no sermon such as we are accustomed to today. All those elements of worship which we take for granted today were missing before the Reformation.
That philosophy of worship is the foundation of the Chorale service. The hymns and chants are not a haphazard collection of unconnected bits. They represent an intricate progression incorporating all the necessary features of Christian worship: Invocation, Confession of Sin, Absolution, Kyrie, Gloria, Prayer, Scripture reading, Creed, Sermon, Sacrament, Thanksgiving, Benediction. And all these things are performed exclusively by the minister, but carried through by God’s people in song.
Revolutionary as Luther’s worship reforms were, he utilized as much as possible familiar hymns and chants handed down through the generations. For example, the Kyrie hymn goes back to 800 a.d. The Gloria hymn is dated at 1485. Though the musical settings may be different, Chanting or reciting the Absolution, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Words of Institution, and the Benediction all reach back to the beginning of Christianity.
In recent times we have witnessed a revolution in Christian worship. It is said by some that the ancient elements of the Church’s worship have lost their value and that worship must be reinvented to be relevant to today’s society. For the sake of argument, assume that that notion is true. Then exactly what would you excise from the ancient order of worship? The Invocation? The Confession of Sin? The Creed? The congregation hymns? The Lord’s Prayer? The Holy Communion? The benediction? And realizing these are all lifted from Scripture, what would you replace them with? The necessary elements of Christian worship back then remain the necessary elements of worship today, and forever.