Brick and Mortar Proclaim Gospel

Rev. Dr. Robert Holst, President Emeritus of Concordia University St. Paul, expressed his belief that for too long he viewed the church as simply people and not brick and mortar. Holst expressed his thoughts at a Board of Regent Meeting on Thursday, May 12, 2011, as he reminisced over his past twenty years as president of this fine institution prior to his retirement effective June 1st.

As a regent at CUSP these words took me by pleasant surprise as I continue to grieve over the sale of University Lutheran Chapel, Minneapolis. I was captivated by Holst’s insightful words as missional minded individuals in Synod propose and do sell the physical plant of faithful Word and Sacrament ministries for “relational” ones.[1]

The impetus for Holst’s “refinement” came over a course of years as people asked him if CUSP was going to leave the city of St. Paul. Was CUSP going to move to the suburbs following the lead of Northwestern and Bethel to Roseville, and Arden Hills, respectively?

Rev. Holst stated that in addition to the people being the church, the building is also the church. The building also speaks of the Triune God; a God of peace, truth, and mercy. Holst said, “The Word always becomes incarnate,” and by that he was meaning the brick and mortar of the building and its location. In this case the location happened to be in an ethnic, immigrant,minority setting.

The Chapel at Concordia, St. Paul

There is an incarnation in the Word–brick and mortar. Holst went on to say that with a church building, “… there is a safety on these grounds, no gang colors, the church offers something different, noble, heavenly.” And the people look to this. And it is for these reasons that CUSP has not moved under Host’s presidency. The people know that this building speaks of Jesus Christ—the brick and mortar says something, it says a lot.

While Holst spoke I took these notes. During time for Q & A I asked Holst if he could expound on his saying that he has come to view the church as more than people. I asked him to focus on his statement that the brick and mortar and location was a powerful statement to the life-saving Gospel that we are here for you, we have not left you. And he did just that.

Many are aware that the physical piece of artwork called a crucifix or a cross confesses the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost and dying world. Bob Holst helped me understand that the missional work of the Gospel is also confessed by the presence of a church building, or, as in the case of CUSP, a parochial school building. May the church and her missional leaders not lose sight of this truth.

[1] For more on this topic please see the fine article by Rev. Sam Schuldheisz, “Brick and Mortar,” Brothers’ John Steadfast  >><<.


About Pastor Karl Weber

Karl has been serving St. Paul’s Richville LC and St. John’s, Ottertail, MN since Labor Day, 2004. He was raised in the Roman Church receiving his BA from Fordham University. Before going to seminary he was a computer programmer in Minneapolis. He served as a short term missionary in Guatemala and Kenya, East Africa. He spent time as a member of the ELCA and studied two years at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN pursing his M. Div. before transferring to the LCMS for theological reasons and continuing his studies at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne. He was ordained in 1991 and earned his D. Min. in May 2002 from the same institution. He has contributed study notes to The Lutheran Study Bible. He enjoys deer hunting, going to the gym, swimming, and reading. He is married to Mary and has five wonderful children.


Brick and Mortar Proclaim Gospel — 8 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Karl.

    It is interesting to consider that God has always provided a physical way for God’s people to gather around His Word of promise, from the first altar built, to the Tabernacle, to the Temple…as soon as the early Christians were able, they dedicated private homes to worship spaces, such as see in the marvelous example of Dura Europa.

    A place of worship, adorned beautiful, to the Glory of God, is not something to be viewed as unimportant.

    I do find myself wondering/worrying what is being communicated when we see Lutherans casting aside beautiful worship spaces and instead replacing them with prefabricated barn like structures with interiors look like the stark interiors we see in non-sacramental churches.

  2. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says,
    “Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
    What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
    or what is the place of my rest?”
    Acts 7:48-49

  3. @Carl H #2
    Nevertheless, He Himself gave very specific direction for the building of the Temple in the OT, though Solomon gave voice to the theology of Acts 7 you quote in his own “dedicatory” prayer.

  4. While I believe that no expense should be spared in the adornment of our church buildings, God’s Word and God’s Word alone, not brick and mortar, shimmering mosaics, beautiful paintings and statuary, dainty lace and shimmering damask, brings us eternal life.

    The fullness of Deity dwells in the body of Christ. Through His Spirit, Christ dwells in our bodies. Our resurrected bodies will dwell with our Triune God and all the saints forever in the new heaven and new earth. Everything else “shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” 2 Peter 3:10

    Built on the Rock the church doth stand,
    Even when steeples are falling;
    Crumbled have spires in every land,
    Bells still are chiming and calling;
    Calling the young and old to rest,
    But above all the soul distressed,
    Longing for rest everlasting.

    Surely in temples made with hands,
    God, the Most High, is not dwelling;
    High above earth His temple stands,
    All earthly temples excelling;
    Yet He whom heavens cannot contain
    Chose to abide on earth with men,
    Built in our bodies His temple.

    We are God’s house of living stones,
    Builded for His habitation;
    He through baptismal grace us owns,
    Heirs of His wondrous salvation;
    Were we but two His Name to tell,
    Yet He would deign with us to dwell,
    With all His grace and His favor.

    Now we may gather with our King;
    Even in the lowliest dwelling:
    Praises to Him we there may bring,
    His wondrous mercy foretelling;
    Jesus His grace to us accords,
    Spirit and life are all His words,
    His truth doth hallow the temple.

    Still we our earthly temples rear,
    That we may herald His praises;
    They are the homes where He draws near
    And little children embraces,
    Beautiful things in them are said,
    God there with us His covenant made,
    Making us heirs of His Kingdom.

    Here stands the font before our eyes
    Telling how God did receive us;
    The altar recalls Christ’s sacrifice
    And what His table doth give us;
    Here sounds the Word that doth proclaim
    Christ yesterday, today, the same,
    Yea, and for aye our Redeemer.

    Grant then, O God, wherever men roam,
    That, when the church bells are ringing,
    Many in saving faith may come
    Where Christ His message is bringing:
    “I know Mine own, Mine own know Me;
    Ye, not the world, My face shall see.
    My peace I leave with you.”

    Words: Ni­ko­lai F. S. Grundt­vig, in Sang-Vaerk til den Danske Kirk, 1837 (Kirk­en Den Er Gam­melt Hus); trans­lat­ed from Da­nish to Eng­lish by Carl Døv­ing, 1909, and Fred C. M. Han­sen, 1958.

    Source: Accessed June 25, 2012.

  5. Dr. Robert Preus (1924-95)…

    I had a professor once who said, “There is a cathedral, the sign of a dying church.” I think maybe the Pentecostals could teach us something. They make churches out of cement blocks. They look like John Deere implement buildings. I don’t think you have to be that way. But they cut their costs because they’re spending all their money on getting the Word out.

    “Dr. & Mrs. Robert Preus Speaking On Life In the Parsonage”
    Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN

  6. @Rev. Paul T. McCain #1 I believe that what is being communicated by the abandonment of beautiful churches and their replacement by barren, barn-like structures is a collapse of any real understanding of the Sacrament of the Altar and along with that the implications of the Incarnation and Creation. Even in the days when the Sacrament was less frequently celebrated in most of our churches, the presence of the grand altars so characteristic of 19th and early 20th century churches of our Synod bore silent witness to the Sacrament of the Altar as the beating heart of the Church’s life, that Sacrament in which we wonderfully share in the heavenly worship of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven – the Sacrament as our heaven on earth. Although our people may not have been able to put this into words, the beautiful churches they built and furnished reflected this reality and also expressed delight in that beauty which is God’s gift in creation. I suspect that the barenness of most churches built since around 1960 is just another sad evidence of the malign influence of Reformed Protestantism whose iconoclasm is rooted in its Nestorianizing separation of the divine and human natures in Christ, of the Spirit and the water in baptism, of the bread and the Body and the wine and the Blood of Christ in the Sacrament. Such religion becomes a notional thing, “a head trip” having nothing to do with the gathering into one of things earthly and heavenly, God and Man, in the incarnation and in the Sacrament of the Altar. We Lutherans tend to think that as long as we somehow say the correct words nothing else matters, and so people see no incongruity in distributing the precious Blood of Christ in disposable plastic cups! So many Lutherans nowadays are only too happy to dismiss of all of this as adiaphora. To be sure salvation does not (strictly speaking) depend on the use of costly chalices to distribute the Holy Sacrament nor on beautiful churches and splendidly adorned altars, but the absence – or even worse the deliberate rejection – of all this does reflect a theology utterly foreign to the Church’s Confession. The widespread acceptance of the naive notion that form and substance have little to do with one another is amazing: it certainly contradicts everything that psychology and sociology have to tell us about human beings – not to mention Holy Scripture! And if we wish to be “missional” – what an ugly neologism! – the presence of recognizable churches in cities and villages all over the world has always been a silent witness to the presence of Christ and His mystical Body the Church.

  7. No one can doubt what Dr. Walther would have to say about this! Here are the often cited words from his 1871 Western District Convention Address on Adiaphora: “The Lutheran liturgy distinguishes Lutheran worship from the worship of other churches to such an extent that the houses of worship of the latter look like mere lecture halls in which the hearers are only addressed and instructed, while our churches are in truth houses of prayer in which the Christians serve the great God publicly before the world”(Essays for the Church, I, p.194). It is a great pity that our Synod did not retain the provision in its first Constitution that one of its goals as a Synod was the “correction of the barrenness in the externals of worship introduced through the false spirit of the Reformed.” It would be very interesting and enlightening to know why and when this fine provision was changed. One can scarcely question the fact that the problems which have become so acute in the past twenty or thirty years are – sadly – developments rooted deep in our church’s past. And of our course our synodical Fathers (Walther, Lochner, feared that this would happen.

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