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Does Your Church Have a Narthex Mentality?

Community. It seems to be the word of the day. In a culture that increasingly relies on digital connections, churches seek ways to help people build meaningful and supportive in-person relationships.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, but a tool under our noses could be useful in this seemingly elusive endeavor. It’s nothing glitzy or glamorous. It’s not cutting-edge or unique. It’s so unbelievably ordinary that it brings to mind bathrooms and bulletins and babies who won’t be quieted. But it’s a physical space that has the capacity to hold great spiritual significance for a church community. Get ready for it.

It’s the lobby. Or in some churches, it’s called the narthex.

My family and I recently moved our membership from a large church with a long corridor to a much smaller one with no corridor at all. I couldn’t help but notice our interactions with fellow churchgoers changed drastically with the move. We went from 15–20 quick hellos in passing to one or two longer conversations each Sunday, and I had a hunch as to why.

Perhaps a church’s architectural footprint influences the way congregants move through the building and therefore has a bearing on how they interact with one another. Winston Churchill put it well when he said, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

Designed with Purpose

I took my thoughts and questions about the relationship between buildings and community to architects Carter Hord and Scott Fleming, both based in Memphis, Tennessee, and both at the helms of their own architecture firms. Hord Architects has designed over 300 church-related spaces, and 4FDesign (Fleming’s firm) has worked with many Christian denominations as well as Jewish synagogues over four decades.

A church’s architectural footprint influences the way congregants move through the building and has a bearing on how they interact.

Hord started by sharing some history behind old European churches. There was always a plaza or piazza with tables, benches, and chairs, offered to the broader community as a gathering place. It was the church’s gift to the community, and Christians and non-Christians alike spent time in the piazza. By doing so, they were offered the shade of the church’s grand facade in which to rest.

On the start of a service, however, those wishing to worship left the piazza and entered the church’s front door, walking into the narthex. “The narthex,” Hord said, “is the interstitial space between the secular and the sacred. It’s where we leave the secular world behind and greet one another as a community of Christ-followers, intentionally administering grace to one another before going into the sacred space in which we worship God as one body of believers.”

Fleming agreed and added, “There again, just after worship, we convene as a congregation in the narthex to catch our breath before we head back out into the secular world and engage the Great Commission.”

How a Narthex Can Build Community

Before these conversations, I’d never considered the spiritual significance of the lobby as I came and went from worship. Merely having this pointed out to me has—in no time—created a more grace-filled heart posture as I approach this preworship and postworship pass-through. I look to connect in ways far beyond a quick “How was your holiday?” simply by understanding the intention behind the architectural design.

If your church has a narthex, consider explaining its architectural significance to the congregation occasionally. This might look like an extra paragraph in the bulletin, an interesting tidbit in the welcome part of the service, or even a sign in the narthex itself. A simple explanation can transform an overlooked space into a context for biblical community building. Consider these three ways to intentionally use the narthex.

Courteous Reception

Of course, not every person entering a narthex will be a church member or even a Christ-follower. This important space is where we offer friendly reception and hospitality as we’re called to in 1 Peter 4:9. Often, people who aren’t members walk in with a level of insecurity, nervous about whether they’ll be welcomed or if people will wonder why they’ve even come.

The word “hospitality” is closely linked to the word “hospital.” Jesus is the Great Physician, and when we open our church doors to guests, our job, like that of medical staff, is to care for them as they move toward Christ. The narthex is often where church guests feel the love of Christ for the first time and where hospitality can encourage them to keep seeking to know more about Christ and his church.

Communal Reconciliation

Relational conflicts are an unfortunate side effect of sin in church communities. Some fractures are deep and need to be mended in private over time. But others can be sorted out when we see one another on Sundays. The narthex has the potential to become known as a place where two people at odds with one another can find peace through confession and forgiveness before worship.

At first glance, this may seem far-fetched. But this is what’s called for in Matthew 5:23–24: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” The narthex is ready and waiting for just such an occasion.

Collective Recalibration

A narthex can serve as a physical space where people offer one another personal encouragement to live in light of an eternal perspective. Hebrews 10:24–25 says, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

As a body of believers, we’re called to encourage each other to recalibrate our temporal thinking and move toward an eternal mindset as we apply Scripture’s truth to our specific situations. Once again, the narthex provides valuable real estate for this important preworship and postworship endeavor.

Hebrews tells us the temptation to neglect meeting in person has always been around. But our physical presence in a physical building with other physical beings has value both to us and to others. Caring for one another with reminders that this world isn’t our home is part of our God-given purpose for meeting regularly.

No Narthex? What Then?

But what if a church doesn’t have a narthex? What if a church meets in a school cafeteria, a home, a college auditorium, or an office basement? For many congregations worldwide, their physical meeting place doesn’t allow for a narthex. Still, the architectural insight of the narthex can help a congregation craft an intentional time before and after worship where attendees are welcomed and blessed as they come and go.

The architectural insight of the narthex can help a congregation craft an intentional time where attendees are blessed as they come and go.

A friend in Central Asia attends a church where they create a “narthex mentality” by how they structure their schedule. The advertised start time is 10:30 a.m. From 10:30–11:00, the church serves (good!) coffee and snacks outside the front door. It’s considered part of attending worship to come together as a congregation before singing, praying, and hearing from God’s Word. This time offers opportunities for the same things a narthex would: reception of guests, reconciliation between members, and recalibration for everyone. The service that meets later in the day offers sandwiches after church, with 30 minutes built in for communing before reentering the world.

The structures of our spaces and schedules can be important considerations in building community within our churches. Whether we meet in a cathedral or a cafeteria, may we remind one another, as we come and as we go, of the presence of Christ that is now and always will be with us as his people (Matt. 18:20).

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