God created us physical beings. As such we encounter the world through our senses, and as God is revealed in creation, we also experience our God through our varied senses. Certainly, our worship should reflect the fact that we are physical beings. In worship, God comes to us not only through the spoken and sung Word, but also through the taste, touch, and feel of bread, wine, and water in the sacraments. Worship planners do well to follow God’s example as we communicate through a wealth of sensory experiences within the liturgy. Communicating through all our senses is especially important if we want to reach children.
A simple yet powerful nonverbal worship expression is making the sign of the cross, a practice strongly encouraged by Martin Luther and others. In the introduction to his Morning Prayer, Luther said, "In the morning when you rise, you shall make the sign of the holy cross, and say, ‘In the name of the Father....’" In his Sermons on the Gospel of John, Luther said, "Whoever believes in the Son will have eternal life. Cling to his neck or to his garment; that is, believe that he became man and suffered for you. Cross yourself and say, ‘I am a Christian and will conquer.’" In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "To go one’s way under the sign of the cross is not misery and desperation, but peace and refreshment for the soul, it is the highest good." In 1974, the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship wrote, "The sign of the cross marks the Christian as united with the Crucified. Each time the Christian subsequently signs himself or is signed with the cross, he acknowledges that his place in the kingdom has been given him in view of the death of Christ. He rests securely in the faithfulness of God, known by God as God’s very own son or daughter."
Touching the tips of the fingers to the forehead, the breast, and then the shoulders in turn makes the sign of the cross. Crossing oneself is a way of remembering one’s Baptism and expressing confidence in the hope of the resurrection. The sign is normally made when the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is named in an invocation, absolution, or benediction; at the last phrase of the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed ("resurrection of the dead/body, and the life..."); at the "Blessed is he" in the Sanctus; and before and after receiving Holy Communion.
Postures can effectively reinforce words and actions. Many Lutherans kneel as a sign of humility upon entering sacred space to prepare for worship, when confessing sins or offering intercessory prayer, and when receiving Holy Communion. We sit to receive instruction through the reading of Scripture and preaching. We stand to sing– the best posture for breathing well and singing confidently. Standing also speaks of respect and attention, so we stand to hear the reading from the Holy Gospel. Standing enables active participation, so we stand as we recite the Creed and pray together. Many Christians follow St. Augustine’s suggestion to refrain from kneeling during the 50 joyous days of Easter, standing for all prayer, acts of confession, and to receive communion.
"All the nations you have made shall come and bow down before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name" (Psalm 86:9). These words from the psalmist have inspired a simple gesture among worshipers that has remained a part of worship through the Christian era. In many cultures, bowing is an expression of humility, respect and reverence. Christians often physically show this reverence for God by bowing toward the altar upon entering and exiting the worship space, toward the cross as it passes in procession, whenever the name of Jesus is spoken, and at the words, "Glory to the Father...." Bowing (or even kneeling) during the Nicene Creed at the words "For us and for our salvation...he became incarnate..." is a way of expressing the humility Christ endured by becoming human for our sake. As our earthly liturgy is symbolically and musically joined with the heavenly liturgy at the words "Holy, holy, holy ... hosanna in the highest," a profound bow is appropriate.
Colors can help interpret the spirit of a particular season. White, the color of the light and joy of Christ, is used on all festivals of our Lord: Nativity, Epiphany, Transfiguration, Resurrection, Ascension, and Christ the King, as well as celebrations of saints who were not martyred, and All Saints Day. Red, the color of fire and blood, is used on the Day of Pentecost as the power of the Holy Spirit was unleashed; on Reformation Day, a celebration of the renewal of the church; at commemorations of saints who were martyred for their faith; and at ordinations, and church dedications and anniversaries. Deep red or scarlet is sometimes used during Holy Week as the color of the crucifixion. Green represents growth, as seen in nature. It is used during the time when the church focuses on spiritual growth through the teachings of Jesus, rather than the events of his life. Purple usually accompanies the church’s pilgrimage through Lent, reflecting the penitential nature of the season. Blue, the color of the sky, is a sign of hope and is used during Advent. The color heightens our sense of patient expectation as we wait for the coming of our Lord as an infant in Bethlehem, weekly through the Eucharist, and at the end of time. Gold is sometimes used on Easter Day as an extravagant symbol of unbridled joy on this "queen of feasts." Black, the color of ashes, is sometimes used on Ash Wednesday. Just as Jesus was stripped of his garments on the way to the cross, the worship space is stripped of all color on Good Friday.
The furnishings in a worship space can powerfully communicate important truths in worship. In Lutheran liturgy, there should be three areas of focus (Word, Lord’s Supper, and Baptism) and a place for the chairs of the presiding and assisting ministers from which those parts of the liturgy which are not directly related to Word or Sacraments can be led. It is especially appropriate for a baptismal font of substantial size (holding enough water to really drown sin!), perhaps standing within the entrance to the worship space, as a reminder that Baptism is our entrance into the church.
Following the cross of Christ, Christians are a pilgrim people, who are on this earth only for a brief while. Processions (liturgical "parades") are a way of symbolically presenting this truth and marking important moments in the liturgy: entrance, gospel, offertory, communion, sending. They need not be merely ways of getting ministers to their places and should not be the same at all times. For example, an extravagant Easter procession may be balanced by a simple entrance during Lent.
In worship, our most under-used sense is smell. There is the subtle aroma of fragrant oil used in baptismal and healing anointing. The psalms present us with a powerful image that evokes both sight and smell: "Let my prayer rise before you as incense." Incense has long been used as an symbol of our prayers, mingled with the prayers of the saints, ascending before the throne of heaven. Therefore, incense is sometimes used at daily prayer services, especially at evening prayer, when Psalm 141 ("Let my prayer rise before you as incense") is sung. Many cultures have also used incense or similar substances as a way of honoring, preparing, or sanctifying spaces, elements, and people for sacred use. Therefore, in the service of Holy Communion, incense has traditionally been used to set apart the worship space at the entrance, to honor God’s Word at the gospel, and, as preparations are made for Holy Communion, the altar, the bread and wine, the ministers and, most importantly, the entire assembly.
While language and other modes of expression are always evolving and being contextualized, worship planners must resist the temptation simply to make up symbols and actions to suit local tastes and preferences. The nonverbal elements discussed here are gifts from our tradition. By embracing them and making them their own, contemporary worshipers are physically connecting themselves with Christians of all ages.
People experience their world in many ways. Each liturgy should offer a rich variety of expression. Worshipers should be encouraged to explore a variety of possibilities. However, care must be taken to allow worshipers the freedom to choose which expressions they will embrace.