Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Heralding the Gospel: The Evangelical Function of the Church Steeple

NOTE: The following article was originally published in May 2010 on the blog, The Finkelsteinery. It is reproduced here by permission, with only minor revision.

The Steeple and the Cross

The church steeple is that part of the Romanesque and Gothic church architectures which include the tower – often housing bells for announcing
Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-Strasbourg
Strasbourg, France
Strasbourg Cathedral
Located at the center of European commerce, from 1647-1874 the Strasbourg Cathedral was the tallest structure in the world (466 feet). Lutheran during the Reformation, it alternated between Roman and Lutheran control as the Alsace was exchanged by successive military conquest between France and Germany. One can see how high the steeple rose above the city-scape in the this 19th Century color image: 19th Century Strasbourg city-sccape
Liturgical Hours, the Divine Service, and various other aspects of church life to the countryside – atop of which was often mounted the spire. In congregations not suffering from the poison of iconoclasm, the spire would support a large Cross, visible from the ground and all over the countryside. Here is a technical description from one of my favorite authors, Dr. P.E. Kretzmann:
    A tower should never be omitted in building a Lutheran church. And if this is crowned with a spire, the symbolism of which has always been recognized, the effect will be all the greater. There is a certain factor of incompleteness about a mere tower, even if surmounted by slender turrets, which somehow renders it incongruous. The battlemented towers of many churches with Norman characteristics remind one more strongly of a castle or of a fortress than of a church. A graceful spire rising from a strongly-built tower is always a pleasing, and often an inspiring sight. The tower will, of course, be an integral part of the church, although it will not be built flush with the facade, but stand out one-fourth to one-half its width. "The tower, as a sign and summons, stands properly over the chief entrance, at the west..." (Mothes, quoted in Horn, 112). ...In larger churches, two towers of equal height and identical construction are erected at the two western corners. If the work is properly done, the effect is most imposing. The cost, however, is an item which is apt to discourage many congregations, for towers and spires are very expensive. The entire tower must be buttressed very firmly, since in most cases it is intended to include the belfry and must bear the weight of the bells as well as that of the spire. The careful anchoring of the spire in the walls of the tower is an essential point, since the stress to which it is exposed, even in a mild wind, is one whose force is generally underestimated. The belfry of the tower, if it is to serve the purpose well, should be situated above the roof, in order that the sound of the pealing bell or bells may travel without hindrance in every direction. It is hardly necessary to add that the architecture of the tower must harmonize perfectly with that of the rest of the building. It will usually be a strong test of the architect's ability to plan the tower in such a way as to give it the appearance of an integral part of the church and also preserve its solidity and beauty.

The Cross of Christ and the Harvest of Souls

Who is it that Christ has sent us to harvest? Answer: those whom the Holy Spirit has prepared for harvest.
    Behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest. And he that reapeth receiveth wages, and gathereth fruit unto life eternal: that both he that soweth and he that reapeth may rejoice together. And herein is that saying true, One soweth, and another reapeth. I sent you to reap that whereon ye bestowed no labour; other men laboured, and ye are entered into their labours (Jn. 4:35b-38).
Those who have laboured before us, making public use of God’s Word to communicate the Gospel’s message to “gather fruit unto life eternal,” have employed the Means through which the Holy Spirit has also begun the work of drawing the unregenerate unto Himself and into fellowship with other Christians in the Body of Christ – that is, in the Church.
Spring Creek Lutheran Church
Clarkfield, MN
Spring Creek Lutheran Church, Clarkfield, MN
This old Norwegian Lutheran church, like many others on the Minnesota prarie, stood tall against the barren landscape for over a century, announcing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the entire countryside. Symbolic of the times we live in, the building was demolished a few years ago.
“He that reapeth” is merely “entering into the labours” of many Christians who have gone before, some whose use of Law & Gospel has served to plant, others whose use of Scripture has served to tend budding faith, until the soul has been fully prepared by the Holy Spirit for harvest. This does not mean that, in the evangelical task, some go planting, some go tending, and some go harvesting. No one knows, after all, where any given person is at in the Holy Spirit's calling and gathering process. Rather, all go harvesting, as these are the tools with which God has equipped us, but such use of the Means of Grace serves to plant and tend as well.

The Cross is the single perfect heraldic icon for the purpose of evangelism, for in the Cross is simultaneously the message of the Law – symbolizing the punishment of death and separation from God that we deserve on account of our sin – and the message of the Gospel – symbolizing Christ’s innocent suffering and death on our behalf and on behalf of all sinners. Mounted high atop the steeple spire for every eye to see and for every soul to consider – upon the highest point in the local landscape – the Cross is seen to cover all. Such a location is the perfect place from which to herald the cross of Christ. Just as the life and work of Jesus Christ was done on behalf of all, the Cross and its full meaning is for all. The repentant sinner, including the soul ready for harvest, is drawn to the Cross and entrance to the Church of Christ. Those who come to the cross, have been compelled to do so, drawn to it by the work of the Holy Spirit who has worked in them by Means of the Message of Good News. They are His work, through the simple message of Law & Gospel.

Over the years, the steeple and Cross has fallen out of favour, ridiculed for being passe, and it seems to me that the decline of Christianity in America has accompanied these opinions. Perhaps truly evangelical churches should once again consider returning the Cross of Christ to a place of prominence in America’s landscape? Using the building as a herald of the Gospel is good evangelical stewardship.

“Programs” in Place of the Cross: Harvesting Green Tomatoes?

Yet, these days, many people fret that the simple heraldic preaching of the Cross fails to produce a harvest of souls, fails to adequately “build the Church,” in their opinion. Assuming faithful and rightly divided preaching of the pure Word, why would this be the case?
Hohe Domkirche St. Petrus
Cologne, Germany
Cologne Cathedral
The dual spires of the Cathedral in Cologne rise to 515 feet.
The answer has already been provided above, but is worth repeating: the souls to whom the message is preached in these cases are simply not ready for harvest. We are equipped with tools of harvest, to reap that which has been prepared by the working of the Holy Spirit. But, if such preaching fails to reap, then, is this preaching in vain? Hardly! Similar to Christ, in the words of John 3, above, Paul explains in his first letter to the Corinthians:
    Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man? I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase. Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour. For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building. According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon (1 Co. 3:5-10).
At first glance, it may seem that St. Paul is using essentially the same analogy as Jesus, who was talking about the harvest of souls into the Church. But this is not so. Rather than the harvest of souls, rather than the Holy Spirit's work through the Means of Grace to bring the unregenerate into new life in Christ, St. Paul is here, speaking of the Church and her ministers. He does so using two figures: one, a field, and the other, a building. When St. Paul speaks of planting in this reference, he is referring to planting the Church at Corinth; such planting can be considered roughly equivalent to both sowing and reaping in the analogy used by Jesus in John 3, above. When St. Paul speaks of watering, it is referring to keeping the fruit after the harvest Christ spoke of in His analogy. One man plants, another waters, and God uses this labour to grant the increase. Jesus indicates likewise: one man sows, another reaps. The one who realizes numeric increase has no basis for pointing to something he has done – he has entered into the labour of many labourers who have preceded him, and together they rejoice in God’s work of increasing his Church, Who uses such labour merely as an instrument of the Means of Grace, through which God works to give, and keep, increase. The tools for planting and watering in the example of Paul are the same as they are for sowing and reaping in the analogy used by Jesus: faithful and rightly divided preaching of the pure Word. Indeed, recognition is deserved NOT for “success,” but for the “labour:” every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour

In this reference, however, it is interesting to note that St. Paul transitions from the picture of the minister as gardener, to the minister as builder.
Église Saint-Paul de Strasbourg
Strasbourg, France
Church of St. Paul, Strasbourg, France
Originally Lutheran, the Church of St. Paul, was built as a Prussian military church during their last occupation of France. It was finished in 1897. The dual spires rise to 249 feet, and can be seen for quite some distance in the city Strasbourg.
Emphasizing in the first picture that those who come to faith and stay in faith are God’s work not man’s, he shifts in the second picture to give dire warning: how the minister participates in the work of God is no trivial matter. Paul continues:
    For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is in Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. (1 Co. 3:11-13)
When Christians get impatient with the Holy Spirit, lose trust in the Means of Grace, and begin to doubt the efficacy of the Word, they resort to laying a foundation other than that which is laid in the simple preaching of the Cross, other than the foundation laid in Jesus Christ. In their impatience for the Lord to prepare His harvest, and “grant them their wages,” they exclaim:
    – Merely preaching the pure Word does not work!
    – Merely telling the message of Law & Gospel to our neighbors does not work!
    – Articulating and holding dogmatically to true Scripture teaching does not work!
    – Maintaining an orderly, reverent, christocentric liturgy which shows forth the Marks of the Church and elevates the Means of Grace, doesn’t work!
    – We must do something different!
    – We must do something more!
    – We must do something more exciting!
    – We must do something more meaningful!
    – We must do something more real, more relevant, and more relational!
And so these impetuous Christians busy themselves with laying a foundation other than Jesus Christ, as He is found in the faithful preaching of the pure Word in Law and Gospel. They really have no choice: those not prepared by the Holy Spirit for harvest will not be harvested by these reaper’s tools. To harvest souls not yet prepared for harvest, the reaper must use tools not given him by God for this purpose. He must use his own tools. He must lay a foundation other than Jesus Christ, alone. He must rely, not on the “foolishness of God,” but on the “wisdom of Man.” In doing so, he pick’s fruit otherwise not intended for harvest. He’s intent upon plucking Green Tomatoes. These unripened fruit don’t care about the preaching of the Cross or pure doctrine, nor would they respond to it; they respond to programs for the family and children. They are not drawn as a matter of conscience, by the Holy Spirit’s working, to the Church of Christ; they are drawn by titullating Sunday morning entertainment. The foundation laid by such approaches makes use of man’s tools: popular and common devices used by commercial enterprise to stimulate consumer patronage. But the structure built on this foundation does not look like the Church.1

The Place of the Cross in Western Society

In a recent lecture I attended, the Rev. Dr. Frederic Baue (LCMS) commented rather poignantly (and I summarize from memory):
    The monuments erected by man are an indication of his culture’s priorities.
Lecturing from aspects of his book2, The Spiritual Society: What Lurks Beyond Postmodernism?, he was drawing from the recently “rediscovered” writings of Russian-American sociologist Pitirim Sorokin and highlighting the nature of cultural transition as they oscillate from Ideational to Sensate to Ideational modalities.
St. John Lutheran Church
Popple Creek, WI
St. John Lutheran Church, Popple Creek, WI
St. John Lutheran Church (WELS), Popple Creek, WI. Still heralding the Cross of Christ.
According to Sorokin, transitional periods between these modalities are marked by cultural upheaval of various sorts. For example, the First Advent of Christ occurred deep in the sensate Roman Era. As happens in Sensate cultures, over time, they become more sensate as they progress toward their demise, making way for Ideational change. With the fall of Rome, the Roman Era gave way to the Mediaeval Era – the most previous era of Ideational modality, an era dominated by Christian thought. Following this, the Renaissance – a “rebirth” of ancient cultural priorities – was a transitional period back to an era of Sensate modality, an era known as the Modern Era.3

The Rise and Fall of Modernism
Christian influence from the previous era dominating this transition and leaving the distinct mark of Christian thought upon the foundations of Modernism, the Visible church largely oversaw and was an influential participant and contributor to this cultural change; and in nearly every quarter her theology followed suit – with one peculiar exception: the Lutheran Reformation in Germany. While the Roman Church was the primary sponsor of the Renaissance transition, and the forward looking Swiss Reformation under Zwingli, Calvin, Beza and others was responsible for developing distinctly Modern theological systems, the Lutheran Church looked back4. The Lutheran Church preserved the teaching of the apostles, which teaching preceded and prepared for the rise of the Mediaeval Era. Resting in conscience, standing on Confession, embracing the mysteries of the Sacraments, the hypostatic union of natures in Christ, and the Holy Spirit’s work through the Means of Grace, the Lutheran Church, in her theology, remained distinctly Mediaeval, distinctly “Ideational,” and preserved this character over following generations, though in ever diminishing influence as the withering onslaught of heterodoxy and pragmatic political machinations worked against her. By the time of the Prussian Union and Evangelical mergers of the early 19th Century, true confessional Lutheranism, and the mediaeval theological perspectives she preserved, had nearly been extinguished.

The late 19th Century, however marked the beginning of a transition to a New Ideational Era – and the beginning of the end of Modernism. We see this in the dramatic changes that occurred in the arts, and in political ideology beginning at about this time.
St. John Lutheran Church
Hermansfort, WI
St. John Lutheran Church, Hermansfort, WI
The Golden Steeple of St. John Lutheran Church (LCMS), Hermansfort, WI. Drawing all eyes to the Cross of Christ.
We see this in the political and social upheaval that resulted and intensified into the 20th Century, and in the increasing diffusion of academic focus through this time. The Holocost, while horrifying solely for the sake of the peoples involved, was particularly galvanizing for a larger reason, also: it permanently extinguished any optimism for Modernism, and marked the end of the Modern Era.

We see the result of this upheaval in greater Christianity today. As Christian perspectives based on Modernistic, “sensate-oriented” cultural modalities slink into irrelevancy, we witness among them the marks of flailing confusion. Modern Evangelicalism is one example. The pragmatic clarion call of the pop-church Evangelical, “We must be Real, Relevant, and Relational,” is incoherent nonsense when placed next to the clear teachings of Scripture, and is itself a recipe for failure. And fail it has. Barna Research – a Christian research firm formerly dedicated to the theories of the Church Growth Movement (CGM), whose mission it was to provide Evangelicals with marketing data and analysis to assist congregations in their implementation of CGM – declared in 2005, after a string of very shrill warnings regarding the demise of the American Church over previous years, that the theories of the Church Growth Movement are a statistical failure. Having invested over $500 billion dollars implementing the methods of CGM over the course of 30 years, no evidence of growth was discernible in American Christianity. None. Denominational shift is all that can be observed or attributed to these methods. In an effort to understand and pragmatically react to cultural change, Modernistic Christians, still stuck in the previous cultural era, reveal that they are oblivious to the real and monumental changes that have occurred in the past century, and are continuing to occur right now.

Confessional Lutheranism, Liturgical Expression, and the Rise of the New Cultural Era
We see the beginning of the end of Modernism in the late 19th Century in two other respects. One is the collection and emergence of organized efforts among Christian remnants of the previous Ideational Era – that is, the return of a forceful and learned articulation of confessional Lutheranism. The Confessional and Liturgical movements we observe today, which, more and more, we Christians are attaching ourselves to, didn’t just begin a few years ago.
St. Nikolai Kirche
Hamburg, Germany
Church of St. Nikolas, Hamburg, Germany
A 19th Century church of Gothic Revival5 architecture, The Church of St. Nikolas in Hamburg, Germany was destroyed in the bombings of WWII. Yet, the steeple remains as a monument, elevating the Cross of Christ 483 feet above the landscape.
They are an extension of what was renewed by the Henkel’s (Tennessee Synod), Walther’s (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod), Preuses (Norwegian Synod), Krauth’s (General Council), Bading’s and Hoenecke’s (Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod) and the Pieper’s (WELS & LCMS) of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. In point of fact, “relevant” Christianity in our new Ideational cultural era will be informed by and take its direction from the perspectives of the previous such era, of Mediaeval Christianity, while Modernist systems, outside of the most resilient and tenacious of the Reformed confessions, will mostly just go away6. Adopting and incorporating increasingly irrelevant Modernist perspectives into Lutheran teaching and practice is, more than it ever was before, theological suicide.

Cultural Change marked in the Monuments of Man
A second respect in which we can see the beginning of the end of Modernism, is revealed in the increasingly “sensate” nature of the most prominent monuments of Modernism. From the late Mediaeval Era forward until the beginning of the close of the Modern Era, the largest, tallest and most impressive structures built by man were monuments to God: Christian Churches, with steeples reaching as high as 525 ft, atop of which were mounted the Cross of Christ, as a herald of Law & Gospel to the entire countryside, and an announcement that the Word of Peace and Reconciliation with God could be received, along with all of its eternal benefits, in His Church.

But what happened in the late 19th Century? The most impressive of man’s monuments, far from being reserved for the special honor of God, were instead directed to man himself, boasting of his achievements, and proclaiming that his priorities were no longer his faith in God and his acknowledgment of gratitude toward God, but of accumulating wealth and honor for himself.
St. John Lutheran Church
Emerald, WI
St. John Lutheran Church, Emerald, WI
Located along a well traveled highway, the building of St. John Lutheran Church (LCMS), Emerald, WI, though sparsely attended on Sundays, continues to remind sinners of their need for forgiveness, and to point them to Christ.
From A.D. 1311 to 1884, the tallest, most adorned, and most impressive structures in the Western world were churches. In 1884, the Washington Monument became the tallest structure, and then in 1889 the Eiffel Tower was built to kick-off the World’s Fair in Paris, completely dwarfing all other structures in the Western world. From 1930 onward, the worlds tallest and most impressive structures have been office buildings – monuments of man to the priority of commercial enterprise and the accumulation of wealth and power7. Accompanying the dramatic decline of Modernism in the 20th Century, we see that man’s priorities became dramatically more “sensate.”

Today, throwback modernistic Christians consider the church steeple to be passe, impractical, and more expense than it is worth – and then boast of their stewardship. Yet these same Christians will line up to throw away $500 billion dollars over thirty years on worthless entertainments and other human inventions, to build anthropocentric organizations on a foundation of hedonism. They call it “church” but what is it really? Emptied of Scripture teaching, shunting aside the Marks of the Church, rejecting the straightforward preaching of Law & Gospel and reliance on the Means of Grace, removing Christ from His central position and replacing him with the priorities of man, these organizations look and sound nothing like “the Church.” Their work is being tried, and revealed for what sort it is: after a generation of trying to pluck “Green Tomatoes” using tools contrived by man, and succeeding mostly in just robbing “harvest fruit” from other church bodies, while little by little depriving it of preservative preaching of Law & Gospel, Christians find they have indigestion. Thus, these church-like organizations are now in dramatic decline – precipitous decline – as spoiled fruit oozes out from the organizational structures they have built.

And yet the old stone church buildings remain. Even though some are emptied of people, and others are emptied of sound teaching, these monuments to God continue to herald the Cross of Christ, to focus the eyes of all on Him and His Gospel message, and to draw people to Christ and His Church. The people may be mute, but the stones still conspicuously cry out, publicly assigning worth to God.

St. John Lutheran Church
Milwaukee, WI
St. John Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI
An historical landmark listed in the National Registry of Historic Places, Evangelische Luth. St. Johanneskirche in Milwaukee, WI, was a congregation formed in 1848 and led by Rev. Johannes Bading – the second President of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), and the leader responsbile for bringing WELS out of doctrinally ambivilant pietistic ecumenism, into a strong Confessional stance. Symbolic of the times we live in, St. John's now lies dormant, as intrigue and corruption seem to have conspired to dispossess the congregation of its building. Nevertheless, the building itself continues to witness to the city of Milwaukee, lifting the cross of Christ for all to see at almost 200 feet.

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 old and young to rest,
But above all the soul distressed
Longing for rest everlasting.

Grant then, O God, wher’er men roam,
That, when the church bells are ringing
Many in Jesus’ faith may come
Where He 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, Amen”

Built on the Rock, v1&7
TLH 467, ELH 211, CW 529, LSB 645


  1. Indeed, see the following Intrepid Lutheran posts for vivid examples of this: The Catechesis of the Lutheran Worshiper: An antidote to the “itching ears” and “happy feat” of CGM enthusiasts? and Real? Relational?? Relevant??? O THE HORROR OF IT ALL!!!
  2. This book is necessary reading for any Christian who would be a student of culture.
  3. This is, of course, Sociological theory, which, in the end, probably holds about as much water as Psychological theories. There are so many different theories because of the difficulty in testing hypothesis, each theory is found wanting by observation. Nevertheless, the recent “rediscovery” of Sorokin’s writings has generated much interest in his ideas, and given a boost to Social Dynamic theories, which for the most part have been based on demographic rather than cultural/ideological criteria. He is considered a “giant” of 20th Century sociological research.
  4. See the following Intrepid Lutheran posts and resources, for more details on the Differences between Reformed and Lutheran theological systems, and how the past functions as a very real and necessary foundation of Lutheranism
  5. All of the structures featured on this page were constructed either in the late Mediaeval Era, or are structures built in the late 19th Century during the later Gothic Revival, coinciding with “Ideational” influences as they are thought to have been showing their influence.
  6. Once again, indeed. As one example, New Life Church, a Colorado megachurch formerly led by Ted Haggard, recently began their return to historical, Christocentric practice. Read New Life After the Fall of Ted Haggard in Christianity Today, and A New Era in American Evangelicalism? by Martin Noland on Steadfast Lutherans.
  7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World's_tallest_structures#History_of_record_holders_in_each_CTBUH_category

1 comment:


I'm reminded of a story I read once. A group of Papua New Guineans were on a visit to England where they were to perform dances at cultural festivals, illustrating the cultural richness of the British Commonwealth. They were given a tour of the City of London, which included a visit to St Paul's Cathedral, which very much impressed them. Standing outside St Paul's they pointed to a nearby skyscraper, and asked what is was. After being told it was a bank, there was not a little animated discussion among them in their native tongue. The tour guide asked what was the fuss about? Whereupon the interpreter replied, "They are saying it is not good that your money tower is taller than your God tower."

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