I was recently visiting with some family friends who told me their congregation will soon be building their first church building. The congregation was a mission plant over a decade ago and by God’s grace, His people are planning to build a what I hope will be a Churchly Church. The counsel below about “Churchly Churches” was published in a little book by CPH in 1932 called Pastor and People. The advice sticks well eight decades on. I think the people of New Gehlenbeck (Hamel), IL got it right when they dedicated the edifice above in 1931. I hope the people who are planning on building new edifices get it right too, because “the distinctively Lutheran features of our worship…ought to find expression in, or at least ought not to be contradicted by, the style in which we build our churches.” Just like what you pray confesses what you believe, so also does what you build confess the God you worship, what He does, and what you believe about Him.
It is true, of course, that one can worship God as well in an edifice built in violation of good architecture as in a church which conforms to this principle. And still, not absolutely. There is some real justification, aside from historical regards and the principles of good taste, for a churchly-church building. In worship the mind is directed to things above, and it is possible by the builder’s art to remind the worshiper as he enters the house of God and as he permits his eye to rest upon the furnishings and even on its lines and proportions, of the purpose of his presence there and to aid him towards setting his mind in tune for communion with God in prayer and song.
In our Lutheran Church the message of the Word in pulpit and Sacrament is the heart of our services; and it is possible so to repress this chief part of the service by means of unsuited architecture and design that the worshipper will fail to receive the impression of the solemnity of the place and the occasion which is so great a help to intelligent worship. It is difficult in the absense of illustration and without detailed discussion of the elements of church art, to explain how mind and spirit are affected by architecture. Yet so much ought to be plain, that, even as in the erection of buildings for secular uses, certain principles of design have become accepted as best suited for the spirit or purpose of the building, so the appearance of a church, both as to general design and interior trim and furnishings, should correspond to the purpose which it serves. Nay, the distinctively Lutheran features of our worship, as above alluded, to, ought to find expression in, or at least ought not be contradicted by, the style in which we build our churches.
It will not do to say in defense of haphazard church-building plans that it “does not matter how we build so long as we have the true Gospel.” The congregation that hires an incompetent architect and finds that a tower must be taken down because the footings were only two feet wide will refuse to be comforted by this reflection; nor will it console the congregation which is offended every Sunday by the abominable acoustics of the building or which will, so long as the structure stands, suffer from the architect’s inexperience because of misplaced pillars, lack of coordination between organ loft and altar space, or insufficient exits, not to speak of the faults of heating and lighting.
Art is not a matter of size; a small church can be made to express the very highest ideals of churchly architecture. Some of the noblest examples of Gothic in Europe are small structures. Nor, let it be said, is Gothic the only style by which an effect of reverene, nobility, and beauty can be attained. Some of our congregations in Southern California are building churches in Spanish Mission style, which are not only suited to climate and surroundings, but very beautiful. More recently we have churches built in the Byzantine Style (in Washington D.C. in St. Louis, and elsewhere) which satisfy the sense of beauty as well as the needs of the congregation. Theodore Graebner, Pastor and People. CPH, 1932, pp. 146-147.