Last Sunday I removed the narthex from the church I serve.
Some of you may be wondering, “What’s a narthex?” It is for you that our narthex was eliminated.
In a church building, the narthex is the entrance lobby, the room where one enters and is greeted (hopefully) before going into the worship space.
To be clear, I did not physically demolish our church narthex. It’s still there.
I performed a semantic renovation. And, I hope, sparked a perceptual reformation in our church.
At both worship services, I announced that I had stricken the word “narthex” from my vocabulary. From now on, I will call the lobby . . . the lobby. Because I edit our church publications, all future bulletins and newsletters will reflect this change.
No longer will I say during Sunday morning announcements things like, “See Nancy in the narthex for information about Orioles tickets.”
Because if someone is new to our church – and especially if they are new to church in general – then such an announcement will only provoke confusion.
Where or what the heck is a narthex?
Why not the Nationals? (That last one is my own lonely query as a Nats fan in adrift in a sea of O’s supporters).
By proclaiming, “See Nancy in the narthex,” we have instantly divided the congregation into insiders and outsiders. Insider, long-time members of the church will of course know Nancy. She’s involved in lots of things and loves the church. Who doesn’t know Nancy?
Guests and newer members of the church, that’s who.
“In the narthex” makes outsiders of those who do not have a church background, folks we want and need and are commissioned to reach with the message that God loves them. It reminds them that they are in fact “them” and not “us” who know how to find the narthex. It reinforces their feeling of being out of place even as they have courageously ventured into the unknown territory of the church, into our midst in spite of the prevailing (mostly self-inflicted) perception of Christians as a judgmental, closed-minded bunch.
No matter how welcoming we say we are, our hospitality rings hollow if it seems predicated on having some foundational knowledge about God, the Bible, and church architecture.
Some of you church folks are thinking (if you’ve read this far), “But they could just ask.”
I hear that sometimes from long-time church folks. “We don’t need signs pointing the bathroom, guests could just ask where it is,” or, “You don’t need to remind everyone each week how the worship book works, guests could just ask where the liturgy is.” These sorts of statements bring memories of my own introverted nature and the time in my life when I, an unChristian, ventured into a church. If the vibe I got was, “I could just ask,” I would have never gone back. Fortunately, I had someone to guide me through the strange rituals of worship (and to tell me where the narthex was).
But that is less and less true as more as more of our guests come to us without any background or guide.
And for everyone, whether introvert or extrovert, if we are serious about welcoming everybody then we will do whatever we can to reduce the insider/outsider dynamic.
I am blessed to be part of a growing congregation. We are reaching out to some folks without a church background, but of our 14 baptisms so far this year only five have been of adults. (It is disappointing and should be unacceptable that five is “a lot.”) I love baptizing babies – it is one of the best things I get to do as a pastor. But an adult who is baptized is usually someone who is relatively new to the church experience.
We can and must do much better at what is the primary mission of the church, reaching those who don’t know that God loves them with the Gospel message that God indeed loves everyone no matter who they are, no matter what they have done.
In the never-to-return past, most folks had at least a foundational familiarity with church. To operate on that basis in the current culture limits our reach – and more importantly, the reach of the Gospel – to the ever-shrinking pool of people who still possess that background.
Excising the word “narthex” from my vocabulary is of course a small, symbolic gesture. But it is a way for my church (and maybe readers of this blog) to consider how we perpetuate an insider/outsider dichotomy to the detriment of our Great Commission.
For my next trick, I’m going to try to start talking like a normal person when I’m leading worship. Sometimes I hear myself employing church-speak I have picked up somewhere – “At this time we will read the Scripture for this day” – and I want to slap myself.
How about, “Now we’re going to read today’s Scripture.”
Then, maybe I’ll try to do away with all the insider names for communion linens. With apologies to my worship teachers in seminary, I can’t remember the difference between a corporal and a purificator anyway . . . and what’s a fair linen again?