Lutherans are known for traditional, liturgical worship. But what does that mean?
What is Liturgical? The word "liturgical" comes from the Greek word for the works of worship that people would do to serve their God. It was the work of the people in a community, gathered together for the single purpose of preserving their community by following the commandments of God. Liturgical Worship is therefore worship that reminds and enacts the Words and Promises of God. This means that we place the Word of God from the Bible as the main thing in our worship. The songs we sing are from the Bible, the words we say are from the Bible, and we read from the Bible to hear what God has to say. That is liturgical worship.
What is Worship? There are two parts to worship: What God does to serve man, and What man does to serve God. In Lutheran Worship the dominate theme is what God has done and is still doing to serve man. We are reminded every Sunday that God has not saved us because of something we have done but because of His great love and mercy in Christ. Our songs aren't simply our acts of praising God, but they serve to remind us of what God has done for us in Christ. We recall our Baptisms, where God chose us and gave us His Holy Spirit to create and sustain faith in Christ's forgiveness won for us at the cross. We celebrate Communion, where Christ comes from heaven to earth to be bodily present in the bread and wine to forgive the sins of those who eat and believe His words, "given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins." These great gifts of God, both recalled and received, in turn lead us to offer Him our worship and praise. That's why Lutheran Worship is typically called Divine Service.
Why does Lutheran Worship stress the Sacraments? Because worship is primarily about receiving the gifts of God, Lutheran worship is primarily Sacramental. The Sacraments are those gifts of God which have been commanded and instituted by Christ for the Church to use physical and temporal elements to distribute His grace: the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. These are the reading, preaching, and singing of His Word, Baptism, and Communion. In these ways God has promised to be in His Church to give us His gifts. So we emphasize and stress these in our worship because God has promised and commanded us to do so.
What about the Music? Liturgical music in the Church is the combination of melody and text. Nowhere in Scripture do we have a specific melody set down for us. But, we have the Word. The Word of God in Scripture is the most important thing. We have the Psalms and we have Canticles of the Saints throughout the Bible and we have the songs sung by the heavenly choir recorded in places like the Book of Revelation. Because of that, Liturgical music needed to find a way to keep the words of Scripture and add music to those words. They needed a form of music that didn't rely on meter and syllables, but could change to fit different texts (because Hebrew and Greek poetry in the Bible wasn't written according to modern rhyme or meter). That's how chanting developed. It's a musical form all about letting God's Word be clearly and plainly proclaimed in its simplest form. Later forms of music were variations of chanting, called "Through-Compositions," that gave every word a new note - yet even this insisted that the music be subject to the text so that God's Word would have first place among His people.
It wasn't until much later that musicians began to write a single piece of metered music and then made the words of Scripture fit that music by paraphrase. With this form of music, musicians could write a simple tune to be learned by the congregation and repeated throughout many different verses. Because this music consisted of repeatable measures, known as bars, this became known as "Bar Music." (Not music sung in a bar or tavern, but songs that repeated bars or measures through verses). We call these songs "Hymns" or "Chorales." Martin Luther was a master of this form of music and wrote numerous Psalm and Bible verse paraphrases to be easily learned by his congregations so that they could keep the Word of God in their minds with simple tunes that could be sung by all. These were originally written to be sung a capella, and so needed to be simple yet fun. In later years, the accompaniment of instruments was added to these hymns to help people sing together.
So we chant or sing the songs of Scripture during worship. Especially, we sing the songs of the angel choirs in heaven and of the saints that have gone before us. For example, the Hymn of the Angels at the birth of Jesus was "Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people on earth" and we sing this hymn as the first New Testament hymn in our service.
What about Contemporary Music? To most, Contemporary Music is about accompaniment - a capella or organ versus guitars and keyboards. While that is one way to talk about Contemporary Music, that's not the best way. It's better to talk about whether we're singing the words of Scripture (God's Words given to us) or the words of man's experience (our words given to God). Much in Contemporary Christian "Praise and Worship" music is about man declaring his experiences and perspectives to God. While there is some place for this in the Christian life, this is not the focus of liturgical worship. We focus on what God has done for us, and even our music takes the words of Holy Scripture and sings those words back to God because we know that such words are pleasing and acceptable to Him. So traditional, liturgical Lutheran churches aren't specifically against guitars and drums, etc... but most will reject the use of the majority of these Contemporary songs because they approach worship from a different direction, of man's gifts to God rather than God's gifts to man.
At St. Paul's Lutheran Church we primarily use the Lutheran Service Book, the most updated collection of ancient and modern hymns and chants and spiritual songs and, for the sake of accompanying large groups, we use a pipe organ.