An Architectural Manifestation of the Lutheran Liturgical Movement

St. John Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Seward, Nebraska was constructed in 1968. The bell tower is a recent addition.

In 1967, the congregation of St. John Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Seward, Nebraska made a bold move. The congregation was planning a new church building, and rather than making specific architectural requests, the congregation’s Worship Board formulated 27 propositions based on Lutheran beliefs and liturgical practices to submit to the architect as the basis for the church’s design.

The interior of St. John Lutheran Church, as viewed from the choir loft.

St. John’s was in a truly unique situation. Concordia University is located directly across the street from the church and many of the school’s theology professors were (and still are) members of the congregation. Particularly influential in the design of the new church were art faculty members Reinhold Marxhausen, Richard Wiegmann, and William Wolfram. We see this wonderful wedding of theological conciseness and artistic expertise in this proposition:

We believe that the holy Christian Church is a pilgrim band on the move to another place. We have no abiding city. We seek one to come. Therefore a church building should reflect the heavenword view, but without being extravagant in design, or in the use of materials. It should not be cheap, flimsy, or shoddy. Nor should it convey the impression that we are trying to build a house of worship for the generation a hundred or more years hence.

The highly integrated chancel furnishings and artwork at St. John Lutheran Church.

One of the most evident strengths of the space is the harmony between the architecture, furnishings, and artwork. This is no accident. In fact, it relates directly to another proposition set forth by the congregation’s Worship Board:

We believe that works of art in a church building can foster and enhance the devotion of worshippers. Aesthetic experiences can support and minister to religious experience. Therefore a church building should contain appropriate works of art, but these should blend with the total design so that they do not become detached or artificial objects of attraction in themselves.

The prominent free-standing altar is in complete harmony with the overall structure.

Liturgically, we can see that the congregation of St. John intended their new building to be conducive to frequent celebrations of communion, something that was not always the case in American Lutheran congregations. (Keep in mind, it would be another 15 years before Lutheran Worship (“the Blue Hymnal”) would appear in the pews.) Architecturally, this intention was manifested in the large, free-standing altar. Though not original to the design of the church, the communion rail is also free-standing (and removable) to allow congregants to face both the altar and each other while receiving communion; the congregation truly becomes the Body of Christ as it receives the Body of Christ.

The large ambo is marked with the same Tau Cross motif as the altar.

Yet, even with the large central altar, the St. John design did not lose sight of classical Lutheran theology:

We believe that the Means of Grace (The Gospel, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper) are of equal validity in the spiritual life, development, and maturation of a Christian congregation. Therefore, a church building need not provide for a single, strong focus, but the space within may have several foci.

In addition to the altar, the font and ambo serve as additional points of focus in the chancel. Note the inscription on the floor: "I am the door."

Indeed, trio of altar, ambo and baptismal font serve as powerful theological and visual statements.  However, despite their size and artistic quality, these furnishings do not dominate the space. Rather, they contribute to a harmonious, flowing movement of ritual action.

A side view of the chancel area from the nave.

In summary, we see in St. John Church a truly unique building in a truly unique situation. We see a church building literally constructed on theological beliefs, not preconceived notions of how a church should appear. Many of the theological propositions set forth by the congregation’s Worship Board are clearly imbued with the principles of the Liturgical Movement. The influence of Concordia University’s art and theology faculty also cannot be underestimated. The result are concise theological statements carried out in exceptionally high-quality, integrated liturgical art and architecture.

The same request that the Greeks made to Philip is made to the preacher at the ambo "Sir, we would see Jesus."

The congregation at St. John has published a fantastic booklet on the church’s theological and artistic rationale, which is available here.

The full text of the St. John Worship Board’s original 27 building propositions are available here.

The center section of the east window, which symbolizes the Gospel of St. John.

What do you think? Are you aware of any church building projects that involved such an intense look at denominational beliefs and particular congregational practice? Do you know of other non-Catholic examples of Liturgical Movement inspired church buildings?

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8 comments

  1. Although some of the specifics of the design are not completely to my taste, I think the overall effect is extremely successful.

    1. The Tau design linking the ambo and the altar is clever, without having the tedious/trite nature of the laborious “matching” of furniture than one sometimes sees. It also capture well the idea of the ‘table of the word’ and the ‘table of the body’ (although for a Catholic space, I might try to make the altar a little more prominent with a canopy or something, to highlight its nature as a symbol of Christ).

    2. OTOH, I am not a fan of the idea of that era to place the baptismal font is the same hrizontal axis as the altar and ambo. I appreciate the connection people are/were trying to make, but I think it is distracting during the Eucharistic action. My personal preference is for a font somewhere near the entry of the church, with the connection to the Eucharist reinforced by having it in the same vertical axis as the altar.

    3. It is hard to get an idea of the windows since I think the impression is different, especially with abstract subjects, when stained glass is not seen in person. It *seemed* from the pictures that the central cross panels were not clearly visible in all the windows, being ‘crowded out’ by the other dominant colors. While the explanation provided is nice, I think something is lost in one not being able to arrive at the explanation by oneself.

    4. I liked the idea of the communion rail all around the altar. It allows for a for real sense of gathering around the Lord’s Table during Communion. Some sense of unity and community in the act of receiving Communion is (IMO) absent in some way in churches which adopt the modern practice of a Communion line, as opposed to standing or kneeling at a Communion rail.

    5. I wonder what form an iconographic decorative scheme could take to maintain the focus on the central elements of the liturgy as this building very successfully has, or whether such a scheme is even possible…

  2. 4. I liked the idea of the communion rail all around the altar. It allows for a for real sense of gathering around the Lord’s Table during Communion. Some sense of unity and community in the act of receiving Communion is (IMO) absent in some way in churches which adopt the modern practice of a Communion line, as opposed to standing or kneeling at a Communion rail.
    ———————————————–
    Some parishes, Catholic and Lutheran have the practice of inviting those coming forward to holy communion to enter the sanctuary. Where the celebrant(s) and deacons distribute communion directly from the altar to those gathered around the altar rather from the communion rail.
    It helps to break down barriers and puts an end to the distinction between the sanctuary as “the priest’s place” exclusively. With all, men and women, entering the holy of holies. One more nail driven into the coffin of clericalism and the idea only the “high priest”, as in the old dispensation, is given admittance.

  3. … rather than making specific architectural requests, the congregation’s Worship Board formulated 27 propositions based on Lutheran beliefs and liturgical practices to submit to the architect as the basis for the church’s design.

    The booklet — and it is fantastic indeed — offers 13 propositions, perhaps a distillation of the original 27.

    Do you think you could provide the original set of 27? A brilliant idea, offering the architect theological/liturgical guidance rather than detailed specifications. Would love to see more detail on this.

  4. I like the church and enjoyed my time worshipping there while a Concordia student. One idea I would like for the congregation to consider is whether any further embellishment could be added to the slant of the roof above the brick wall behind the altar. Perhaps some sort of 21st century icon-type art would work well. Such panels could be made to change occasionally, perhaps with the liturgical seasons. Especially when wedding, confirmation, and other photos are taken with groups standing in front of the altar, the space above and behind is kind of “blah”. I suggest removable panels because then differnt art work could be tried. After using such decor for awhile, the congregation would undoubtedly have favorites that may then be left in place for longer periods of time or perhaps permanently.
    In Christ, Richard Eyerly, Fairmont, MN

  5. This morning, looking on the interwebs for images of art by Reinhold Marxhausen, I came upon your website. St. John was my ‘adopted’ home church for about 16 years, at the beginning of which I was completely ignorant of art and architecture in sacred spaces. That space fed my soul in many ways and I grew to love it and ended up having deeply personal ties to the building and its people. Thank you for this post and photographs; they’ve washed a wave of nostalgia over me right in the midst of the Triduum but I’m thankful for it.

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