“Why do we build churches?” – F. R. Webber on the purpose of church architecture

F. R. Webber - large

As you read the following excerpt from Frederick Roth Webber’s The Small Church: How To Build And Furnish It, remember: this book was written in 1937. As they say, the more things change, the more things stay the same.

Fr. Charles McClean says of F. R. Webber that he was “one of the great men of our synod.” The more I read his work— I own all of his books except his History of Preaching— the more I am convinced that this is true. Webber was indeed one of the great men of our synod, but he has been largely forgotten. I’ve written a short piece, mainly a collection of excerpts from various sources, in order to help people familiarize themselves with this extraordinary man and his work.

In both content and style, Webber’s writing is superb. I think you’ll agree. Moreover, I hope you’ll bookmark this post and pull it out if you ever find yourself on a church building or renovation committee whose plans are beginning to veer in a more Philistine direction. Better yet: get a copy of Webber’s book. It’s no longer in print, but you can still find used copies online.

Related: Beauty, The Churches of Peace, and What We Build Instead

From The Small Church: How To Build And Furnish It, Cleveland: Central Publishing House, 1939; Ch. 1, “Purpose” (pp. 1-10).

Most building committees are concerned with four things: cost, seating capacity, social rooms and wash rooms. These are set down in the order that they are usually considered. “Our little chapel must not cost more than $5,000,” they say, “but it must seat 250 people, it must have a large basement for social affairs, and there must be rest rooms just inside the main doorway.”


These things sound incredible, but those of us who have dealt with building committees for years will testify that such statements are typical. The average building committee, with its inordinate stress upon these four things, has failed to grasp the idea of purpose.


Let such men ask themselves: Why do we build churches? Is our intention to get as much as we can for the irreducible minimum of cost? Are card parties and church suppers the real reason for our existence as a Christian congregation? Is the church basement the logical center of our activities?


The true purpose of a church building was expressed admirably almost 40 years ago in Mr. Ralph Adams Cram’s Church Building, a book which has gone through various revisions and new editions, and yet has always remained the great classic on the subject.


A church building, according to Mr. Cram, is a house erected to the glory of the living God, and not primarily for man’s convenience. People may deny this fact with vigor. Those who have drunk deeply from the muddy streams of contemporary sectarianism may tell us that a church is not a house of God, but purely a place for man’s convenience and comfort. The present-day trend in religion would glorify man at any cost, and make the church the poor man’s club house.


“In the New Testament there is no such thing as a house of God,” thunders the Dedication Day orator. “The Most High dwelleth not in temples reared by human hands. It is just as pleasing in God’s sight to worship Him in a barn. Stained glass windows, a noble altar, splendid wood-carvings, a fine organ and costly chancel furnishings are the merest rubbish. Away with such things! Even a sod hut is holy, if the Everlasting Word is preached in it.”


We have all listened to this extreme type of ranting, and this astonishing exegesis, until it has almost become a test of orthodoxy to believe it. Some extremists believe that there are two temperaments, the theological and the artistic, and that the one excludes the other.


True enough, Word and Sacraments are the only means of grace by which the Holy Ghost can approach the heart of man. In sculpture and stained glass is neither forgiveness of sins, life or salvation. But this fact does not prevent us from rearing a temple to the glory of God, and reserving it solely for this purpose. To say that it cannot be an house of God is merely the opinion of crude minds. Stone columns and an altar richly adorned with lights and paraments are not sacred in themselves, nor can an organ or a rood-screen bring a sinner to repentance. Nevertheless, wherever men worship the Ever-Present Trinity, wherever they sing their Magnificats, their Psalms and their hymns of praise, wherever the Word is proclaimed, and the True Body and Blood of Our Lord received in the Blessed Sacrament, there do we have a house separated from profane uses. Its bricks and stones are not holy, but its purpose certainly is.


Mr. Cram calls attention to the fact that a church is a place whose very interior atmosphere is contrived skilfully to awaken man’s devotion. It must not seem to be on friendly terms with the busy commercial world, nor must it be a cosy, home-like place. Rather must it be a refuge from the worries of our secular life. Throughout the long Christian centuries men have known that such an atmosphere may be created at will by the skilled church architect and craftsman. God Himself revealed the lesson when the Temple was built. One’s spiritual nature cannot be touched in a room whose every detail suggests competitive bargaining, cheapness or pretence; nor yet in a brilliantly lighted “auditorium” whose stage-like platform suggests the lyceum.


Such rooms are purely intellectual. Wide, short, low of ceiling and lacking a true chancel and a dignified altar, they are mere meeting houses and not churches; and he who comes to worship is, by the very atmosphere of the room itself, compelled to settle back comfortably in a cushioned pew and assume the critical attitude of a listener in the lecture hall. Such poverty of spirit is but a reflection of the coarse brutality of Carlstadt in Germany, and the Puritans in England, who believed that any appeal to man’s deeper religious emotions is sinful, and that only through the intellect may man’s religious nature be reached. They were true children of the pagan Renaissance, with its stress upon reason, and a furious individualism. They pulled down organs and altars, burned Psalters and hymnals, shattered sculpture and stained glass, and the intellectually emancipated people were taught that the only form of worship pleasing to God is to sit quietly and listen. Rationalism was but the inevitable result of such a spirit.


Building committees, and sometimes even the clergy, are often of the opinion that a church building is primarily a place where men may sit, stand or kneel as comfortably as possible, protected from the weather outside. While this is important, yet it is not the real purpose of a church. The chancel, with its outward expressions of Word and Sacrament, is the one thing that really matters. The present craze for well-equipped recreational rooms is but the dream of the faddist. The Kingdom of God is neither eating nor drinking, nor is it dependent in the least upon card playing and gymnastics. It is the upper room, not the supper room, that matters. Committees are only too eager to study the relative merits of cushioned pews, the inclination of pew backs, heating and ventilation. The chancel is more important than all these things combined, for without it we are building a club house and not a church. But read Mr. Cram’s discussion of these points, for no man, since the days of William of Volpiano, Lanfranc of Bec, William of Sens, Alen of Walsingham, Prior Bolton and the great Cistercian architects, has exerted so profound an influence upon our church buildings as he. Future generations will acclaim him the greatest architect since the blight of the Renaissance destroyed all architecture and other art.


Concordia Lutheran Church (LCMS), Louisville, KY, designed by Ralph Adams Cram. (Photo credit)


The building of a fine church is not necessarily a matter of extravagance. It means a proper division of available funds. It is actually indecent in God’s sight to appropriate $10,000 for the recreational unit, and but $5,000 for the part of the building in which one worships. We may point to the thousands of English and Continental parish churches, hardly a one of which boasts a parish hall, or even a basement; and yet where people gather on Sundays and holy days, often in great numbers, without the aid of any of the adventitious devices considered by Americans to be so essential. And yet many a building committee has been known to condemn a conscientious architect who has apportioned matters so that $5,000 is spent on the church proper for every $500 spent on the unit set apart for entertainment and recreation. In the next breath they will praise an architect of the cheap, commercial sort, who may have succeeded in saving them a few thousand dollars on the cost of the church itself, only to spend it again on a high basement or a complex of club rooms.


If we intend to build a small frame chapel, or a small church of stone or brick, the typical mission congregation or small self-supporting parish is generally compelled to choose between two things. They can, with the funds usually available in such cases, build a single unit that is of a type of construction sufficiently good to withstand the ravages of our climate. Or, with the same funds they may build three units (church, basement and parish hall), all of which are of a type of construction that would be prohibited by law, were it a residence or a commercial building. Clergymen and church officials have discovered that it is possible to do such disreputable, and in some cases dangerous things, as omitting posts and trusses in their frame chapel, using 2” x 4” studding, omitting sheathing boards and roof boards of proper thickness, reducing the chancel to the merest, crowded recess, employing a patented wall-board instead of lath and plaster, and furnishing their chancel with wood-work whose cheapness might be a scandal even in the nearby beer parlour. By building a church of the same type of construction as a tourist’s cabin or a backyard garage, they are able to stretch their funds sufficiently to have a roomy basement for card parties and suppers. But is it an evidence of a Christian devotion to do that? Is it even common honesty? It is to be regretted that one meets, now and then, with a mission board where such wrongful ideals exist.


“We must have suppers and socials in order to attract the people,” one such mission official was heard to say. “We must have an adequate place for card parties, in order to get them better acquainted. It is well to stress Word and Sacraments, but times have changed, and we must take people as they are, not as we might like to have them.” These statements were made privately at the dedication of a singularly ugly chapel, the basement of which cost $5,000, and the part used for the worship of the Lord but $2,500. Such men are no credit to the Church.


A pastor who has received almost 800 new members, over a term of years, testifies that all of his missionary work that has endured has been the result of Word and Sacrament, and but two members were gained through the activities of the church basement, and even these rarely attend church service.


We are not attempting to fulminate against the popular American idea that the church basement must be the center of activity in the modern parish. We are merely calling attention to the fact that the small congregation is rarely able to afford such things as recreational units. Too often a church basement is obtained by thinning down the walls of the entire church to a point that is really dangerous, and a fine new stove in the kitchen is made possible only because the altar is constructed of cheapest ply-wood, and the Sacramental vessels of the most tawdry britannia metal.


We admire the courage of a small parish in Baltimore where a church of unusually thorough construction, a fine, deep chancel properly equipped with good furnishings, and a peal of twenty or more good bells, were made possible by eliminating entirely all facilities for recreation and amusement. It was rightly stated that these things can wait until some later date, but a lack of thorough construction may never be remedied.


Certain organ builders, stained glass craftsmen and woodcarvers are condemned on the ground that they are high in price. It does not occur to their critics that these men have been teaching us to be satisfied with fewer things, in order that they may be worthy of a place in the house that we offer to the Lord when we consecrate it. A church seating but 250 people, of the best type of construction, is more worthy than a church built for 400, but where every detail is the cheapest and meanest obtainable. A high grade organ with 12 stops is better than a wretchedly-built one of 18 stops, although the price may be identical in each case.


It is not necessary to urge extravagance. We are merely attempting to state that it is better to be content with a fewer things, in order that these may be the best in construction, in quality of materials and in craftsmanship that the market affords. Too long has the Church gone begging from shop to shop, seeking bargains. Too long has she posed as a pensioner in the community, expecting, like the inmates of some pauper asylum, a liberal cash discount. Too long have we insisted that a church or a parochial school be exempt from taxation; that our church bulletins be financed by the advertisements of the neighbouring merchants; and that our clergy ride on railway trains for half-fare. Too long have we sought lowest bidders when we build churches, and too long have we expected the unchurched of the community to support our activities by buying tickets for card parties and ice cream socials. It is a fault in which Catholic and non-Catholic are equally under condemnation.


This wretched spirit, which the man of the street terms “chiseling,” is so thoroughly entrenched in religious circles that it dominates every act of the building committee. If a house costs 50 cents per cubic foot, they insist that their new church cost only 30 cents. If a frame cottage contains 26,000 cubic feet of construction, and costs $7,500, they insist that their new frame church contain twice the number of cubic feet of construction, and cost but half the amount of the cottage.


Our purpose in building is not to demonstrate our skill at bargain hunting. On that half-mile-square area in London, the Caledonian Market, where shabby merchants display their wares on the bare pavement, one may buy gramophone records for a shilling, and chime clocks for two shillings. One may find an Anglican prayer book and a Ratisbon breviary priced at twopence. But such bargains do not exist among builder’s supply men, nor among honest artisans and craftsmen. If we desire a building worthy to dedicate to the Most High, then we must insist that only the best is good enough, and we must make up our minds to pay honest prices, and be content with fewer things. It is better to have one window filled with excellent glass than ten windows filled with a cheap substitute.


The same principles apply to the choice of an architect. Only the best ought to be considered. Fees are regulated by the American Institute of Architects, Washington, D. C., a highly honourable organization of many years’ experience. A cut-rate architect, who violates the Institute’s ethical code, will give cut-rate service. A good architect will save considerably more, by the time the work is finished, than the nominal, 6%, 7% or even 10% that he may charge. And yet, in the hinterland, short-sighted parishes believe that a cheap architect is wise economy. They will not begrudge a church seating salesman his 10% to 20% commission for a two hours’ sales talk. But they will balk at paying a trained architect 8% for perhaps a year’s work. In one notorious case a small parish saved $200 by employing a cut-rate man who charged only five percent. By the time their horribly ugly chapel was dedicated, he had cost just 15% in costly blunders; and the building suggests a motor car lubritorium rather than a place of worship.


If we are serious in our intention to build to the glory of God, these things will be given serious study; even though the clergyman and the architect may have to spend some months in an extended educational campaign before a line of the proposed building is drawn. Unless the right spirit be back of it, even mediocre results are impossible.