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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?