September 21, 2020

A Remarkable Sanctuary

St Paul Lutheran QC

St. Paul Lutheran Church Quad Cities

This weekend, Gail and I traveled to Davenport, Iowa to visit St. Paul Lutheran Church. The Rev. Dr. Peter W. Marty is the senior pastor there, and they have a wonderful ministry in their community, to those entering the ordained life, and in needy places around the world.

I encourage you to visit their website and learn about this congregation. Get to know Pastor Marty as well. He is the former voice of Grace Matters, the ELCA’s fine radio program that was unfortunately discontinued in 2009. You can still go to their website and download archived programs. Follow the link above and you can access his writings as well.

I had many reasons for wanting to visit St. Paul during this month when I am between assignments in my practical work toward ordination. One of those reasons is that I wanted to see and participate in worship in St. Paul’s remarkable sanctuary.

Here is what the church website says about the space, built in 2007:

St Paul 7Local artisans crafted furnishings specially designed to communicate a faith grounded in the Word of God.

Step into the Sanctuary through the large wooden processional doors. The weighty 10-foot doors are crafted with 95 simulated “pegs” to mimic the 95 Theses that Martin Luther posted on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1546.

The eternal light hangs in the Sanctuary threshold. It signals that this is a place where the Lord dwells. The constancy of the flame represents the ever-present nature of Christ.

The central bronze cross is accented with blood-red squares of art glass. The Sanctuary aisles and seating are oriented to the cross – signifying its centrality for our lives.

The communion table invites all people to share in the goodness of the Lord’s Supper.

The baptismal font flows with the lifelong gift of baptism. The design echoes the prow of a ship (or navis in Latin) – a good “naval” image for people who splash daily in the baptismal promises of God.

Ten stained glass windows – in the south exposure of the St. Paul Sanctuary – dazzle with light. They tell the story of the life of Jesus – born to live among us, crucified on a cross, resurrected, and still working through us. A much larger window, depicting Christ’s ascension, is mounted within the tall east window.

These Gospel-narrative windows were originally commissioned for the 1952 Sanctuary. Glass artisans restored the windows for their 21st-century home.

The service we attended early on Sunday morning followed the pattern of Lutheran worship and its elements were simple and focused on God’s grace. We participated in the liturgical prayers and responses, the pipe organ was thrilling, words to the substantial yet tuneful hymns we sang were displayed on a projection screen but hymnals were also available in the pews, a quartet of young people sang and helped lead the hymn singing, and four different pastors and lay people took part in speaking and chanting the service. The message was from the day’s Gospel and the Epistle readings, encouraging us to serve together as Christ’s Body by participating in his ministry as described in the “Jubilee” message from Luke 4. We went forward for communion before being sent into the world to love and serve the Lord.

The sanctuary was open, filled with light and color and simple design, and everything pointed to the cross toward which all the pews in the sanctuary are directed. The design of the building is intriguing. I heard an interview with Dr. Marty in which he described why they constructed it as they did. Though the shape of the building’s shell is traditional and straightforward, the chancel has been intentionally placed off-center, and the internal walls, aisles, seating, and other design features all turn one’s attention directly to the cross and the communion table in front of it. A sense of both transcendence and hospitality, tradition and contemporariness is achieved through the combination of soaring ceilings, windows, wood, and stained glass. And Jesus is at the center of it all.

I could go on, but I think I’ll just post some pictures so you can see for yourself. We are grateful to Pastor Marty and the people of St. Paul for their hospitality as they welcomed us to worship with them.

St Paul 1

St Paul 2

St Paul 3

St Paul 4

SPQC Chancel Close

St Paul 5

St Paul 6



  1. Wow. Beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Margaret Catherine says

    Gorgeous – especially that pipe organ! Also a good reminder of how accustomed I’ve gotten to my little 350-person-capacity milltown parish…large churches do still exist!

    • The sanctuary holds 750, but actually feels more intimate than that.

      It’s also interesting that, even though the pipe organ is most impressive, the design of the building actually focuses one’s attention on the cross, not the organ. That’s an amazing feat, given the size of the organ. It doesn’t dominate the space at all.

      • Margaret Catherine says

        Yes – you see that a bit more in the website pictures, the way the side aisles curve in towards the cross and altar. I read a comment by a magician to the effect that a straight-line motion does not hold one’s attention the way an arc does; it looks like that principle is at work in the architecture to draw attention away from the organ.

  3. WOW! I am very pleased you discovered St. Paul Lutheran. I am a regular IM reader and before I went down the megachurch path I had a very solid foundation in the Lutheran church, including St Paul.

    I have had the pleasure of being a camp counselor at St Paul’s church camp, Camp Shalom ( , the site appears to be designed by Pastor Marty’s kid who was a wee tot when I counselled there) and have lots of great history with folks from the congregation. It is a gem in the middle of the cornfields of Iowa and I’m so happy that you’ve featured the church.

    I knew Pastor Marty for a short bit while I counselled there and he is a man to be respected. Amazing manner that makes you feel at ease immediately. I know several of the previous pastors very well.

  4. Well, since we’re critiquing the architecture and its symbolism/relation to worship, I find the neoclassical columns and friezes to be both unnecessary and poorly proportioned. What was the design rationale for those? Nostalgia?

    • P.S. I was primarily referring to the building exterior, on the link to their website.

    • I don’t know, Steve, but I would say the purpose here is not to critique all the design elements. We all have our artistic tastes and great freedom before God with regard to decorations. I could find things to critique too.

      Still, lets keep the main points clear: (1) we must be thoughtful about our worship spaces and never say the setting doesn’t matter (if we have a choice); (2) the purpose of the setting and its elements is to point us to Christ.

      • Amen. The Masses that I have expereinced on the hood of jeep, in the middle of the desert, with the priest in camo-patterned vestments fed my soul, but I think I prefer to be inside, regardless of buidling styles!

      • But Mike, you are reinforcing my point. What you call decoration, I call symbolism. The columns are part of the setting, so yes, it matters. They are part of the statement as to what the place is about.
        It’s hard to cherry-pick and say the altar says something important, but the nonstructural neo-classical columns are inherently neutral in their symbolism.
        P.S. I’m just fine with having a church service on the hood of a Jeep.

        • No, you are right, Steve, all these things matter in various degrees. Honestly, I don’t know much about the exterior of their building. I’m sure, since this was an expansion project there was a desire to add in a way that complemented the building that was already there. I did read something on the website where Pastor Marty commented on the significance of the cross, but other than that, I don’t know. At any rate, the focus of these posts is primarily on the worship space where the congregation gathers, and that’s what was behind my remarks, not a dismissal of your point.

  5. David Cornwell says

    The setting always matters. We live in a chaotic world in so many ways. Our culture celebrates its trash so often, rather than its goodness. When we can step into a setting that immediately informs us of the peace and order that God offers us through Christ, then we have received a gift.

    This can be a challenge in older churches sometimes. There isn’t a perfect answer, but lots can be done to make them better. But when one steps into some of the utilitarian auditoriums that are built for audiences and entertainment, worship becomes problematic, at least for me.

    One of the things I think about when visiting a church is this: Is this a place where if I arrive early and want to sit in quietness for a bit, are my thoughts, attitude, and even my body turned toward God? For me it makes a huge difference.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  6. This one is a great example of symmetry not always being a necessity. Great work whoever designed it!

    Being in my backyard, wish I was involved as I bet it was a blast!

  7. Wow. That is beautiful. Thanks for sharing, CM.

  8. As an aside, Peter Marty’s 2005 article in Christian Century, “Community as a Way Of Life”, is excellent.