E and I were talking about the difficulties of explaining to non-Lutheran friends (whether Christians or otherwise) why we’re Lutherans and what is different about Lutheranism – while avoiding the opposite extremes of (a) plunging into a half-hour theological discourse or (b) mumbling something defensive about “not being a sect”.
It struck me that the distinctive flavour of Lutheranism (as contrasted with evangelicalism in particular) lies in its approach to worship, as summarised in Norman Nagel’s introduction to Lutheran Worship:
Our Lord speaks and we listen. His Word bestows what it says. Faith that is born from what is heard acknowledges the gifts received with eager thankfulness and praise…
Our experience in our previous churches – and I want to emphasise I’m talking about how we experienced things, not making a judgment about those or other churches – is that worship was seen as being about our talking to God and our listening to people talk about God. Preaching was being taught what the Bible says; the Lord’s Supper was about our remembering Jesus; baptism was about our declaration of faith (in the case of infant baptism, parents declaring the faith in which they would be raising their children).
What we have found to be different about the Lutheran church is, as E put it, its directness. Worship is (as the quote from Nagel shows) about God speaking to us, not our speaking to or about him. In the absolution, he forgives us; in preaching, he proclaims himself to us and recalls us to the promises he made to us in our baptism; in the Lord’s Supper, he addresses us and gives himself to us in his body and blood.
This is a very different dynamic from anything we’d experienced previously. I’m not saying it is unique to the Lutheran church, but the Lutheran church is distinctive in how conscious it is of this dynamic to worship and the Christian life.
So there is Lutheranism summarised in two sentences: “Our Lord speaks” and “His Word bestows what it says”. And in a word: directness.