The Less Decoration in Our Churches the Better: This is Most Certainly NOT True
I was reading around on blog sites, as is my wont, [how often do you get to use that phrase? 'as is my wont'], but I digress. I bumped into some conversations about the kind of church art, decoration and ornamentation that American Lutherans learned to associate with the Lutheran Church. For some, perhaps many American Lutherans, a “Lutheran Church” is fairly plain and “stripped down.” But as much as Lutherans think that this is somehow the “gold standard” for Lutheran churches, the fact is, this is most certainly not true. Even those Lutherans who think that their church is “plain” would be surprised by the reaction from many other Reformed and Evangelical Christians. That there is an altar at all in Lutheran churches is absolutely shocking to the classic Calvinist type of American protestant. That tradition, in its more pure forms/strands, regards any image in a church to be a direct violation of the Second Commandment, as they so number the Commandments, “Thou shalt make no graven images.”
And so, if you happen to find yourself in a conservative Presbyterian Church, chances are it will be extremely plain, with no decorations at all. This “minimalism” impacted Lutheranism, already back in the late 1600s and early 1700s, and then to an ever increasing degree under the influence of Pietism, which tended to eschew outward symbolism, and emphasized the “interior life” more. The other influence of history on American Lutheran tastes is the simple fact that most Lutheran immigrants were dirt poor and so when they constructed their places of worship, they did as much as they could, but access to artists and sculptors was limited, and funding was equally limited, so as a result, any number of smaller churches were often very plain. There are many notable exceptions, to be sure. The end results of a combination of factors: the influence of Pietism, the influence of being surrounded by American Protestants of a Calvinist tradition, and simple economics, resulted in several generations of Lutherans becoming used to Lutheran churches that are fairly plain. Consequently, there are any number of Lutherans who recoil in shock when they see a richly decorated Lutheran church interior, such as one finds in spectacular grandeur at the older city churches in both Saint Louis and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Here I’m thinking of Holy Cross here in St. Louis, or St. Paul Lutheran Church or Zion Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne. The same can be found elsewhere, in Detroit, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, and so forth.
The point being that when the people had the will and the way, they decorated their churches as richly and beautifully as possible. The sad thing is that some Lutherans actually believe it is “more Lutheran” to have a church that is plain and stripped of paintings, sculpture and decorations. They think, and sometimes even rudely demand, that there be no fine arts like this in a Lutheran house of worship. The simple reality and fact is that there “minimalism” in church decoration is not the historic Lutheran way. I am always sad when I see new Lutheran churches built that have cavernous interior, but little decoration and art. When the altar and baptismal font become movable pieces of furniture in a Lutheran congregation, this is unfortunate. The dogmatician Francis Pieper said this about visual images, and I’m wondering if we have forgotten that truth. Oh, and again, when you hear somebody opine that a crucifix is not Lutheran. Please, kindly just hand them a copy of this and help them understand how untrue that assumption is.
Now, what can you do with a plain interior? One word: banners. It is amazing how much color, life and vibrant visual images can be added by making use of banners, and the larger the better. That’s just one idea. Do you have other ideas? What’s the most beautiful Lutheran church interior you’ve seen?