Introduction to Devotional Stained Glass

Robert Koester (Rapid City, South Dakota USA)

Archived discussion

About the presenter

Robert Koester is a retired Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod pastor living in Rapid City, South Dakota. He and his wife Cathy have five children. After graduating from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, he tutored at Northwestern College, then served churches in Modesto, California; Missoula, Montana; Moorhead, Minnesota; and Carstairs, Alberta. For twenty years he served as Bible Study editor at Northwestern Publishing House, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where a number of his books were published. In recent years he has self-published several more. His website,, which describes many of his books and Bible Studies, is intended to make these resources freely available, including the stained glass resources noted in the following presentation.

In this presentation I intend to discuss the use of stained glass windows in a congregation's ministry.

A. The Purpose of Stained Glass

Stained glass helps worshippers focus on Jesus and prepare them to worship him. Stained glass windows help us think about Scripture. Some churches have a relatively simple assortment of windows. Others are more elaborate. Christian symbols in glass are very popular. Some church members can review God's entire plan of salvation as it is laid out in their church's windows.

B. Photographing stained glass.

My personal web site features a section dedicated to stained glass windows. Click there on the "Stained Glass" tab at the top of the page. The first image contains a link to a web site that features the stained glass in about 130 Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) churches. This site can also be accessed directly. [Conference host's note: check this site — it is a real treasure. Check also this presenter's stained glass page.]

We were member of a large WELS church that had two huge windows on the sides of the building. I wondered if I could photograph them and capture a hint of their brilliance. This was in the early days of digital photography. I first tried medium and large format film cameras. A large format bellows camera held the most promise because it could control the perspective. But after some experimentation, I found it too difficult and too expensive to use film.

Digital cameras were starting to yield respectable results. I started with a 6 megapixel Nikon D70. Over the years I developed ways in Photoshop to merge smaller images into a single large one. The next generations of cameras that could capture more pixels helped to reduce the number of images that had to be merged in Photoshop.

The stained glass page also contains a PDF document that gives tips on how to photograph stained glass.

C. Stained glass and the Gospel

The Reformation was a time of change. The worship of Mary and prayers to the saints were replaced by the worship of Christ and an emphasis on the gospel of his gracious forgiveness and on the sacraments. Over time, stained glass underwent a major change in the churches that switched from Catholic to Lutheran.

Some years ago the Wisconsin Synod purchased a former Catholic school to use as one of its preparatory schools. The campus was very useful. Two of our children attended there, and we visited them as often as we could. On Sunday mornings we worshiped with our children in the large and beautiful church on campus. However, it was always rather jarring to stand up to leave and be staring at the large rose window in the balcony featuring Mary in all her heavenly glory. This was in addition to the images of the saints in the side walls.

That scenario was repeated many times during the Reformation. People were forced to be surrounded by scenes depicting teachings they had rejected. But as was characteristic of the conservative Reformation in general, Lutherans did not immediately destroy those windows. In time, as churches could afford it, they replaced them with images that focused on the Gospel—on Christ's life, suffering, death, resurrection, ascension, and on the sacraments he instituted. They also retained much of the symbolism of the ancient church, just as the reformers retained God-pleasing parts of the ancient liturgies.

D. Using Stained Glass in Worship and Evangelism

Services of the Word in Stained Glass and Song Over the years I've developed four services I call "A Service of the Word in Stained Glass and Song." These services contain the traditional parts of a worship service: confession of sins, congregational hymns, Scripture readings, and prayers. The services feature songs that combine stained glass images, Scripture verses, and songs sung by three WELS groups: Luther Prep Singers, the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary choir, and the contemporary WELS song group Koine.

The stained glass page contains samples of these songs (thanks to Tom Kuster from the Christ in Media Institute and Amanda Quist at Bethany Lutheran College for converting them to accessible formats). PDFs of the bulletins used in those services can also be found there.

Technical note: The services are all written using Flash. This program was in widespread use when I started working on these services. Since HTML 5, Flash is no longer supported. Adobe has replaced Adobe Flash with a somewhat similar program, Adobe Animate. For me, it would be too much work to rewrite all my files in Animate. Amanda Quist converted the .swf files into the .mp4 files you can view on my web site. Other components of the service have to be advanced with mouse clicks generated by Flash, so there are no samples of those parts of the service. The service is run off an opening menu on screen. I use a projector and a large screen to display the images as large as possible.

Outreach in nursing homes

I've used the worship services noted above in nursing homes. They are aimed at the general nursing home population. I was about to start these in Rapid City when we retired here, but COVID threw a wrinkle in those plans. I hope I will be able to resume soon. For nursing homes, I don't use the entire worship service. Rather, I use the songs with brief introductions.

A future project: introductions to church services

Many churches use large viewing screens. My plan is to create 2 to 3 minute seasonal service introductions for each Sunday of the church year. These would be PowerPoint presentations using piano or organ hymns from worship resources CDs, along with appropriate stained glass images fading in and out as the music plays. Scripture verses will be included. They would be two to three minutes long. If anyone would be interested in working on this project with me, we could divide up the tasks.

Refrigerator Magnets

I've developed a set of refrigerator magnets each featuring a stained glass image and a Bible passage. In my last church we distributed door hanger bags with an introduction to our church along with two or three magnets. The magnets contain no church advertising, just a stained glass image and Scripture. People may not be interested in our church, but they might put these on their refrigerator and in the process God's Word finds a presence in their homes. Over the years we handed out thousands of these. Sometimes I would meet someone who would say they use them. In bulk, we got the price of a magnet down to about 20¢.

Hi-res PDF files suitable for printing are linked on the stained glass page.

Use in WELS publications

Over the years, Northwestern Publishing House has used stained glass images in Meditations, in the Forward magazine, and on numerous book covers.

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Judy Kuster 2021-10-18 1:50:55pm
I love this article, your sharing attitude, and your site and admire your perseverance in dealing successfully with all the changes in software. You said, “Lutherans did not immediately destroy those windows. In time, as churches could afford it, they replaced them with images that focused on the Gospel.” Were most of the old windows ultimately destroyed, sold, or given to a Catholic church? Or were sections saved and still used that “also retained much of the symbolism of the ancient church”? I also know that after the Reformation, many of the paintings on the walls of former Catholic churches were destroyed (painted over). One of those former Catholic churches was served by a priest who brought his church in Feudingen, Germany, into a Protestant congregation in the late 1500’s, married and became the ancestor of many LCMS Wunderlich descendants, one of which was my husband’s great grandfather and another who taught at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. The church in Feudingen is working to uncover those paintings now.
Robert Koester (Retired pastor) 2021-10-19 3:03:04pm
Thanks for the observations. I about this post-Reformation challenge, but I can't remember where. And it certainly makes sense. As to what happened to the windows, I have the same questions. This would be a great topic for a masters thesis in art or in German history--to poke around in Germany in churches like the one you mentioned and see what anecdotes could be uncovered. This is certainly one of those hidden aspects of life in the Reformation. There must have been many discussions about what do to with the windows, wood and stone carvings, and paintings in formerly Catholic Churches. I hesitate to think how the confessional booths might have been repurposed. "Wunderlich" descendants?
Jonathan Mayer 2021-10-26 10:26:11pm
If I may shed a little more light on that question, Carl Christiansen's "Art and the Reformation in Germany" talks a good deal about the result of various wars and iconoclasms. The Peasant's Revolt, and many other bloody conflicts, up to and including the Thirty Years' War, resulted in widespread destruction of churches and articles of worship. Germany was less iconoclastic, however, than the reformed areas, and while some art was removed, covered over, or sold, you would be surprised to find that much "Catholic" art remained. The areas that were most heavily Lutheran have more surviving pre-Reformation art today than in the surrounding areas. Most often, modifying an inscription (to Mary, for instance) to address Christ satisfied the early Lutherans.
Robert Koester (retired WELS pastor) 2021-11-06 4:04:47pm
Jonathan, Thanks for that! I guess it makes sense that the Catholic windows remained. It was no different for the WELS when they purchased the Prairie du Chein campus and left the church windows as they were. I'll be on the lookout for Christiansen's book.
Morgan McLain (Bethany Lutheran) 2021-10-18 8:20:59pm
It was interesting to hear about the reasoning behind stained glass in churches. I am a tour guide at Bethany and when I show people our chapel, people always comment how beautiful our paintings and stained glass is, now I can give some information on stained glass when they mention it! I love that stained glass is a way of using imagery for the gospel, truly amazing. Also, as a photographer myself, I can imagine it being quite difficult to capture the brilliance of stained glass, as you stated in the article. Now I might have to go and try to capture some stained glass myself in the chapel at Bethany after reading some of those tips. Really good article and very interesting read.
Robert Koester (Retired WELS pastor) 2021-10-19 1:51:56pm
Morgan, I've been to the chapel at Bethany a few times and saw the stained glass there. I'm not sure I saw the new one described here in another session. Why not photograph them and let me put them up on my stained glass web site? If I remember correctly, the side windows offered some challenges. Also, I had enough to do with photographing the windows in WELS churches, but always intended to research ELS churches. Besides the Bethany chapel, if you know of any churches that have nice glass, I would be interested. Perhaps on a trip I could visit them and photograph their glass.
Judy Kuster 2021-10-19 4:32:13pm
Thank you for your responses! If you scroll down to near the bottom of an article I wrote for the 2017 GOWM conference (URL is ) you’ll find pictures of 3 ELS windows that I featured in a my article along with Ted Hartwig’s wonderful windows at St. John’s in New Ulm and a not very clear picture I took in Norway with Luther in it. There are amazing windows at the old LCMS church in Frankenmuth, Michigan. I used to collect pictures of St. George slaying the dragon when I’d find them in church windows because of my professional interest in stuttering.
Robert Koester (Retired WELS pastor) 2021-10-21 1:31:37pm
Judy, Wonderful presentation! I wasn't aware of the amount of stained glass at Bethany. Is Our Savior's Church in Madison still there? I agree, Hartwig's windows at St. John's WELS in New Ulm are unique. In my stained glass services I use his windows in the Scripture readings. As I read the text, I click and lighten up the appropriate part of the window. In fact, the window you picture is one of the ones I use.
Judy Kuster 2021-10-21 5:18:00pm
Our Saviour's (that is the way it is spelled) has relocated and the old church is currently vacant after it was converted to a restaurant and then a Sport's Bar. I've never been in it. The window that was behind the altar at the old church is now in the back wall. It has light behind it but I don't know how often they turn the lights on. It isn't sunlight. What an excellent way to use Hartwig's windows.
Morgan Campbell (Wisconsin Luthern College) 2021-10-20 4:49:04am
I loved this article and your expaination of how stained glass picutres are used for worship, but I would like to know more about that, like did people feel more enclined to worship when they were around stained glass than not? I know you mentioned that people can see the story of Christ better when represented in stained glass, but it would be great if I could maybe now more about why the glass paintings would prepare people for worship. Did people like the colors used and the light shinning through? Why did they feel that they could see the story line better than say just looking at a normal picture? Thanks!
Robert Koester (Retired WELS pastor) 2021-10-21 1:10:33pm
Morgan, My statement about stained glass enhancing worship was quite general. Your question asks for specifics, so thanks. First, I think stained glass in churches functions as any piece of art, it evokes a response that goes beyond "just the facts." This is not a religious truth, but a general truth put into practice in all areas of society. Good art is beauty. Good art in church enhances the fact that God's work in Christ is just that, beautiful. As such it stand next to paintings, carvings, altar cloths, music, and any other form of art that helps us think about the beauty of God's work centered in our salvation. Second, I think stained glass, for some reason, evokes a mood. Or better, it help a person reflect. When I photograph stained glass, the church lights have to be off. And the church is usually empty. Sometimes I just sit in the dim church and reflect on things related to what I'm seeing around me, or sometimes on nothing much in particular. For me, stained glass evokes that response. Third, there is the content of the stained glass. It provides a focus, and its focus is on the reasons why I'm there in the first place. Even the simple symbols found in many churches, if understood, provide something to reflect on before the worship service begins. Creating stained glass worship services has been as much a devotion for me as reading a printed devotion or listening to a Christian hymn or song. I'm no expert on the technical side of stained glass production and history. I approach it as a person in the pew. I don't know which church you attend in Milwaukee. Grace downtown and Mount Lebanon on the north side are good places to visit, especially Mount Lebanon on account of how much is packed into its stained glass. And there are others. My stained glass web site contains others with fine stained glass.
Ruthann Mickelson 2021-10-20 6:33:40pm
I really enjoyed reading your presentation. The pictures of the stained glass windows at all those churches were stunning. Thank you for sharing those. If you get the opportunity to visit, there are two ELS churches with equally beautiful windows: Western Koshkonong Lutheran Church, rural Cottage Grove, WI (near Madison) and Christ the King Lutheran Church, Green Bay, WI.
Robert Koester (Retired WELS pastor) 2021-10-21 1:15:32pm
Ruthann, this is the kind of information I'm interested in. We get back to Wisconsin to visit relatives and I have a few other churches I want to visit. I took photos of three WELS churches in Green Bay. Now I wish I had looked into Green Bay ELS churches at the same time.
Renée Johnson (Martin Luther College) 2021-11-01 7:27:14pm
Dear Pastor Koester,
When I was a wee child of four or five, I remember sitting in the front pew of my LCMS home church in Ottawa, Ontario, and looking up at the wall of glass that splashed hues of blue and gold upon my Sunday best. On my left side was a stained glass triptych of Christ and two angels, each with a lamb, and a glorious golden crown lifted above Jesus’ head. Your essay on the purpose of stained glass and its use in evangelism and outreach has reminded me of the utility of stained glass in outreach and sharing God’s Word. I’ve often thought the role of art should be emphasized to allow for fruitful discussion on all aspects of what makes a church: people, doctrine, architecture, community, art, and music.
With all this said, your essay has still left a question on my mind; how can we push for a rise in stained glass in newer churches within the Lutheran church? Your article discussed how Lutherans during the Reformation were forced to worship in churches that included stained glass that, doctrinally, they had rejected, but what about having no such art at all? To me, it seems such a rudimentary part of the Christian church to be shown biblical tales tattooed along the backs of pews on a bright Sunday morning, yet we see less and less of it as the years pass by.
Thank you for the brilliant essay on stained glass and its role in ministry, and I sincerely hope you can continue your stained glass outreach for many years to come.
Robert Koester (retired WELS pastor) 2021-11-03 9:47:27pm
Thanks for your comments. My opinion is that cost is the major issue. When building a church sanctuary, most churches are strapped for money and stained glass is the first to go. I would guess that some churches plan to add it later as they can afford it. I'm going post some questions to Jonathan Mayer. I'll do that later today. You might want to check my questions and his answers. Or perhaps you might want to post your questions to him. He works directly with churches interested in stained glass, so he may have more insights that I. Of course, that does not rule out a church's making their own. Check out the following churches on my stained glass site: Georgetown, TX: Cross and Crown (art and stained glass work by the pastor); Dowagiac, Mi: St.Johns (made by many in the congregation with the help of an artist); Gillette, WY: Christ, our Redeemer (made by a member.)
Regarding your church in Ottawa. Is that the church that is now in the WELS? My son-in-law is pastor of another WELS church in Ottawa. If so, I will keep it in mind to add to my web site when we visit.
Judy Kuster 2021-11-04 6:50:57pm
I'm AMAZED!! I checked the stained glass windows that you mentioned in your recent post of WELS churches that made their own windows - "Georgetown, TX: Cross and Crown (art and stained glass work by the pastor); Dowagiac, Mi: St.Johns (made by many in the congregation with the help of an artist); Gillette, WY: Christ, our Redeemer (made by a member.)" Did they actually make ALL of the windows you photographed? They are wonderful! I'm sure there was expense involved for materials and probably advice, but those churches apparently found a way to add beautiful stained glass windows to their churches! Maybe you could mention that in the page about the windows! What a gift!
Robert Koester (retired WELS pastor) 2021-11-06 4:18:34pm
Yes, they made them all. The members of St. John's Dowagiac were guided by an artist (not sure if it was a member) who helped them designed the windows and then how to create the stained glass. As I understand it, quite a few members took part in the project. Pastor Eric Hartzel designed and created the windows in Georgetown, TX. He is a very talented person. Very artistic and skilled with his hands (a fine car mechanic, as I understand). He has a little shop in his backyard where he does all his stained glass work. He did one or two of the windows each year. His goal was to finish them before he took a call, which is did. He is now served at the WELS Apache mission in Arizona, where he grew up. Another one came to mind. Pastor Phil Hoyer did the windows at Mountain View in Calgary when he was a pastor there. Some churches start out with plain glass windows, and at some point ask for donations and then do their windows one at a time as the funds come in. Perhaps a comment on on the windows at St. John's in New Ulm. They are unique. Professor Hartwig designed them all, as you know. I hear that he hired a stained glass artist to create the windows, which he did for $75 each! I nearly killed myself photographing their rear window as it's buried in the organ pipes. That's the one used for the first stanza of "Oh, Church Arise," one of the samples of the songs posted on my web site.
Renee Johnson (Martin Luther College) 2021-11-06 3:13:19am
Yes, I go to St Paul, but Divine Word is another church within city limits.
Lukas LaGalo (MLC ) 2021-11-01 7:55:18pm
Pastor Koester,

I always love looking at the stained glass images that churches display. They give you a different point of view about the history the story is telling. I rejoiced to hear that you are trying to spread God’s Word through the way of art. This is a way that tends to be lost in our teaching today.

After reading your article, one question screamed at me: How can we produce more stained glass stories for all congregations? You have proven that art is a great way to connect people to the word of God, yet how can we have one for every story? How could we create a virtual collection of all the resources in stained glass different churches already have? Would this be possible? If this was done it could change how pastors would preach their sermons in a good way helping the people listening comprehend the words that are spoken.

Thank you for not just all the hard work you are putting in day in and day out, but for changing the view of learning for generations to come. My God bless your future in this program!
Robert Koester (retired WELS pastor) 2021-11-03 9:55:36pm
Hi Lukas,
I appreciated your comments. I hope that my stained glass web site will help demonstrate how stained glass has been used in our churches. One thing I have learned is that stained glass resonates with many people. It's hard to put into words why this is the case. But it's true. If you haven't posted to Jonathan Mayer's presentation, consider doing so. He works with stained glass every day. Perhaps he has some anecdotes to share. I do know that Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary has been concentrating on using art in churches, and I would guess stained glass is one of the art forms they study. But as I noted in my post to the previous comment, cost is likely a big hindrance.
Eli Slangor (Martin Luther College) 2021-11-04 11:45:59pm
Pastor Koester,

I think stained glass windows are amazing and are usually the first thing I notice when I walk into a church. My home church has two big stained glass windows. The one in the front shows Jesus carrying a lamb on its shoulders. The one in the back is more abstract and for a long time I didn’t know what it was. I was then informed that it is a depiction of the Days of Creation. After being shown the connections I was able to appreciate the art more and more. I really like how in general you are trying to expand the roles of stained glass windows. The magnets seem like a great way for people to have reminders of the Gospel in their home. I also think it would be a great way to evangelize.

I am also fascinated about your idea of incorporating the stained glass windows with song into services. Music and art are both different ways that could keep churchgoers engaged and could just beautify the services. I am a little confused as to how this is specifically being done. I’m sure it is a great idea and it is my own fault that I am not understanding. Could you please explain this to me?

Thank you very much for your work in this field. Stained glass windows can be a great blessing and the combination of them with technology is an amazing advancement.
Robert Koester (retired WELS pastor) 2021-11-08 4:58:58am
Hi Eli,
We were having a little trouble with replying to your post. Hence the delay.
Regarding using stained glass and song in a worship service: I set up a very large screen, speakers and a stand for my computer. I work through the service from a main menu that's on the screen for all to see. There are seven or eight songs in the service. I introduce each with a brief message. The songs and introductions are in place of the sermon. The service also contains the traditional parts of the liturgy, congregational hymns, confession of sins, confession of faith, sometimes a short devotion, and Scripture readings. The congregation views the words on the screen. Appropriate stained glass images are shown in each part. So it's sort of like a traditional worship service, only different. I hope this helps. Perhaps, someday, you can attend one of them. Otherwise, view the samples of songs and look at the bulleting supplied to the congregation. They are all on my web site. Oh, because of the logistics, the congregation does not celebrate the Lord's Supper in the service.
Jonathan Mayer 2021-11-06 9:00:28pm
Pr. Koester, thank you for your efforts to increase the literacy in stained glass among our fellowship. Cataloguing stained glass in the synod is huge undertaking, and one that deserves more attention and more exposure.

I have a thought I wish to share with you. On the page that includes your Services in Stained Glass and Song, you ask, "But could stained glass be used as part of the worship service itself?" I find this question a bit paradoxical, and I think it merits some discussion. The reason I see a paradox is that (granted we are talking about a church that has stained glass) the stained glass is already a part of worship. The architecture and layout of the church, the placement of the furnishings, seasonal banners, the direction the pastor faces as he reads the prayers or sings the liturgy—these we can all readily see as actively or passively shaping our worship. It all has meaning, even if it is not forefront in our mind at every moment. Likewise, the stained glass has a message—or series of messages—that is always relevant to worship. From simple symbols to complex scenes and narratives, there is always a connection to worship. What I love about stained glass is that a series presents a profound opportunity to proclaim the gospel—not just in one image, but in many images—in a procession of images. Many churches have thematic emphases: perhaps eucharistic imagery near the altar, baptismal imagery near the narthex (where fonts were often located), or windows that show the changing seasons of the church year, or perhaps that create a kind of movement toward the altar—sometimes even in parallel (Old Testament typology on the one side, New Testament fulfillment on the other). Good designs will have layers of meaning, for adults and children, that perhaps will reveal itself only after years of contemplation, or in the context of certain scripture readings. In nearly every case, providing there is some subject matter to be seen, I think it can be said that the windows at least passively participate in worship.

The other thing that seems paradoxical, though, is that in order to make stained glass actively participate in worship, you've had to translate it into a different medium. I grant that a good stained glass design can still communicate the gospel in other (printed or digital) formats, but can we still call it stained glass? I did designs for a WELS church that intended to use large flat screens in the front of church as a kind of modern substitute for stained glass. I know the people were well-meaning, but we often don't realize that those mediums are not equivalent. Screens are a pale substitute for stained glass. Stained glass is by nature permanent, fixed, immovable. And yet with changing daylight, it is never the same twice. Light is transmitted through it, and it continually transforms the space. A digital presentation made of pixels is by nature impermanent, intangible, existing only in the present. Without our intending to, the message is shifted when the art is converted into a different medium. Are there unintended consequences? Will having readily available stained glass imagery make people crave the real thing, or will it lull them into thinking they've already got the essence of it? These are questions I don't have the answer to, but I think they're worth asking.

I am probably sounding like a wounded animal defending his territory, but this is not written from a defensive heart. I think this question has more to do with a healthy discernment towards new media (i.e., the "technological imperative," as Pr. Wolfmeuller put it) than it does my rather newly discovered love for stained glass. Looking forward to your response.
Robert Koester (retired WELS pastor) 2021-11-07 8:36:22pm
Hi Jonathan,

Your depth of insight into the stained glass is interesting and helpful. In my "Services of the Word in Stained Glass and Song," my purpose is to help others focus on Christ by sharing the stained glass windows in other churches. And that is always the purpose, to help people focus on Christ, not on the stained glass. Many people in the places I've served have had little exposure to stained glass. Most have never sat in a church that has invested in stained glass windows. My photos will never parallel the blessings such churches enjoy. But in my experience, the little taste people get of stained glass helps them think about the Savior. So my purpose is not to rob the stained glass of what it is or of anything it gives the Christians who installed it. It is rather to share it with others less fortunate.

Thanks for your comments. I left you a post with some questions and am headed over to your presentation now. Blessings on your work!
Elise Johnson (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2021-11-09 4:41:58am
I really enjoyed your article! Personally, I also love the beauty and symbolism of stained glass. It is one of my favorite things, aesthetically to see in a church and is often the first thing I notice. I find that they are also great way to reflect on stories, teachings, moments from the bible. I am pretty sure that historically stained glass was also used as a tool to teach those who could not read, which I think was many of the common folk. Its really cool to see how stained glass has evolved but still stays central part of many churches. I find it to be incredibly interesting that you have taken the centuries old medium of stained glass and have developed a service that integrates music and God's word through modern technology. This intersection of history and the present is fascinating to me.