Here is something I have been working on for a while. Suggestions are invited.
1. The church uses doctrinally pure hymn books and service books for worship.
It has become a widespread practice of Lutheran congregations and pastors to create their own services each week or to borrow from non-Lutheran sources and to use songs that are not doctrinally rich like those found in our hymnals. Usually, those who do this see very little connection between the doctrine of the Church and the forms of her worship. Churches that abandon the historic Lutheran liturgical rites and ceremonies or try to blend them with songs and ceremonies that resemble those found in non-denominational churches cannot be trusted to provide doctrinally pure worship for the congregation.
2. The pastor conducts the service, reads the lessons, preaches the sermon, and presides at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
All Christians are called to bear witness to Christ in their daily life (1 Peter 2:9; Romans 10:9), but the Scriptures make it clear that God wants only those who have been legitimately called to publicly preach and teach His Word and administer the Sacraments. For example, St. Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:11 show that not every Christian is a minister of the Gospel: “He gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers…” (emphasis mine) The same Apostle writes in Romans 10:15: “How can they preach unless they are sent?” The following words of the Augsburg Confession show that the practice of the Reformers was in line with these Scriptural teachings: “Our churches teach that no one should publicly preach, teach, or administer the sacraments without a regular call” (AC XIV). The Bible is full of examples where God condemns those who “sent themselves” to preach rather than being sent by God. The Lord says through His prophet Jeremiah: “I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied” (Jeremiah 23:21). Unfortunately, the practice of having laymen preach and administer the sacraments has become a widespread practice, especially since 1989 when the Synod at Convention officially approved Lay Ministry for churches that could not support a full time pastor. Congregations that ask laymen to preach or preside at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper are not being faithful to the Bible or the Lutheran Confessions.
3. The church practices closed communion.
Closed communion is a biblical, loving, and God-pleasing practice. However, more and more congregations today are abandoning this practice in favor of a more “open” communion policy. “If you believe in Jesus, then you can receive Holy Communion.” Churches that practice closed communion recognize three important truths: 1) The body and blood of Christ are truly present in the bread and wine after the consecration and are received by the mouth of every communicant, regardless of what one believes (Matthew 26:26-28; 1 Cor. 10:16). 2) The Lord’s Supper can be spiritually harmful to those who receive it unworthily (1 Cor. 11:29). 3) By participating in Holy Communion one publicly declares his agreement with the teaching of that church. For this reason, instruction in the chief articles of the Gospel is necessary before one is admitted to the altar for Holy Communion. A responsible Christian would want to ask the pastor of an unfamiliar congregation whether or not this was practiced faithfully before receiving Holy Communion.
4. All services deal with the problem of man’s sin before God as well as God’s grace and mercy toward sinners in Christ Jesus.
This should be self-evident. However, it is becoming more and more popular for churches to remove language that focuses on the sin of its members in order to make church more inviting to the newcomer. After all, people think, who is going to come back to a church that tells them that they are sinful and unclean? As a result, the preaching of God’s grace and mercy in Jesus is weakened, since there is nothing for which to be forgiven. A healthy and mature Lutheran congregation teaches through word and song both the sinful condition of mankind and the boundless grace of God in the suffering and death of Jesus.
5. The Lord’s Supper is offered every Sunday and on festivals.
The Lutheran Reformers were strong proponents of weekly communion not only because Christ said “Do this” but also because of the example set by the Apostles (Acts 2:42) and because of the many promises and blessings that are attached to it by the Word of God (Matthew 26:28; John 6:54). However, for various reasons later generations of Lutherans saw a decline in the frequency of the Lord’s Supper so that by the mid-20th century the average frequency of Holy Communion in many LC-MS parishes had been reduced to four times/year. In recent years, due to a renewed appreciation for the benefits of the Sacrament, the practice of weekly communion is being renewed by many Lutheran pastors and congregations. Where this is not currently the practice at a Lutheran parish, it certainly could not hurt to encourage the pastor to offer it every Lord’s Day. Lutheran pastors who understand the benefits of Holy Communion will strive to instruct the people in the benefits of the Supper in view of offering it weekly in the future.
6. There is a healthy balance between God’s action in the service and man’s response in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.
One of the beautiful things about the historic Lutheran liturgy is that it maintains the proper balance between the giving of God’s gifts through Word and Sacrament, and the church’s response to these gifts in praise and thanksgiving. This distinction is almost non-existent in most non-denominational churches, where the main focus of the service is praise and man’s feelings about God. The Lutheran service is so ordered that God first speaks to us in His Word, and only then do we respond to His gifts with praise and thanksgiving. God’s self-giving for our benefit is the chief thing in every service. Our response in faith is secondary. As Jesus Himself says, “[…] the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
7. The Pastor does not seek to draw attention to himself or his person.
Pulpits and vestments, while not expressly commanded by Christ in the Scriptures, nevertheless serve to extol the preached Word of God and to hide the preacher as much as possible so that it is clear that the word he is speaking is not his own but Christ’s. Whether they realize it or not, pastors draw attention to themselves when they wander around the chancel or the nave during the sermon rather than preach from the pulpit. Another way that pastors draw undue attention to themselves is when, out of ignorance of the rubrics that govern the conduct of the service or simply out of lack of fore planning, they are sloppy or careless in their movements and actions during the service. Pastors who take the Word of God and their role as messengers of the divine Word seriously will preach from the pulpit and wear suitable vestments. They will also be diligent in learning the rubrics of the Lutheran service so that their words and movements will be deliberate. The words of St. Paul apply here: “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40).
8. The pastor follows a lectionary when preparing sermons and services rather than selecting texts arbitrarily.
Lectionaries keep pastors from beating their theological hobby horses week after week. They also provide the church with a full treatment of the chief doctrines of the Bible year after year so that nothing is left out. The Bible does not dictate to the Church the precise ordering of the lessons or the church year. It does, however, assume that the whole counsel of God will be presented to the Church and not just bits and pieces (Matthew 28:20).
9. Sermons are not just a string of stories tied together around a common theme but actually teach and proclaim God’s Word in its truth and purity.
What often passes for preaching today is not preaching at all, but story-telling. Jesus did not command His disciples to “tell stories” when He sent them out but He commanded them to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to keep everything which I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Likewise, Jesus told His disciples “that repentance and the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all generations” (Luke 24:47). Personal stories, anecdotes, and illustrations should be kept to a minimum.
10. The service is used in its entirety.
Some churches find it convenient to omit parts of the service in order to save time. This practice reflects a weak understanding of the significance of each part of the service. For example, let’s say that in order to shorten the service the Nunc Dimittis (Lord, now you let your servant go in peace…) is omitted after Holy Communion. These words after communion bear witness to the wondrous truth that in Holy Communion, “my own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the face of every people,” namely, Jesus Christ! Take these words out of the mouths of the communicants and you take away a marvelous confession of faith. Churches/pastors who understand the unique significance of each part of the service will not be so quick to omit them.
11. The church is able to use the wide variety of services provided in the hymnal (e.g. Divine Service I & II, Matins, Vespers, Compline).
Most congregations are able to use at least one of the services in the hymnal. Many pastors and congregations, however, are learning to use Matins and Vespers for daily services after the example of the Lutheran Reformers, who regularly prayed Matins (morning prayer) and Vespers (evening prayer) throughout the week. It is a bonus to find a church that makes full use of the historic Lutheran services like this.
12. Private Confession and Absolution is not only taught but offered for the congregation.
There is a section in the Small Catechism on the Office of the Keys and Confession. Although this is taught by every Lutheran pastor, it is rarely practiced. A mature congregation has been taught the benefits of private confession and absolution, and recognizes the centrality of the forgiveness of sins in the life of the Church. This does not mean that everyone in the church makes use of it, but it is at least offered to its members by the Pastor.