During the question and answer period of a recent congregational meeting which was called for the purpose of determining the will of the membership regarding fund raising for a church building expansion project, one member voiced concern over some aspects of the design proposal. The member said, among other things, that the room designated as narthex was “basically wasted space.”
Over the years I have developed a strong aversion to the term “wasted space” and regularly cringe at its use. This is because those with a limited appreciation of the nature of architecture often use this term to demean high ceiling, large volume spaces, or spaces which are generously proportioned in response to aesthetic and spirit elevating criteria rather than functional requirements alone. I assure you, the Chartres Cathedral does not have any “wasted space” in it.
In this instance the speaker was revealing a fundamental lack of understanding of this room’s deep significance to the life of the congregation–from the perspective of ministry and the perspective of the symbolic.
Ministry is of course performed by people. Church buildings are simply instruments for ministry; tools for the delivery of ministry. But while this is true, it is also true that buildings and their individual spaces also carry meaning beyond their basic functional purposes. It has been said that we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us.
In a sermon preached on the occasion of the installation of the current president of the Board of Church Extension of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the president of that denomination, Dr. Richard L. Hamm, said that the significance of church buildings is lodged in their speaking “of the lasting quality of the values and truth which the institutions they house represent;” and that they should be “incarnational manifestations of their mission.” The church buildings we create, then, do more than provide basic shelter; how they are fashioned and the choices we make as we shape them point very directly to whom we are as the Church.
Much as been written about the theological imperatives which come into play when giving shape to the spaces in our church buildings which are provided for the liturgy–the spaces designated and designed to accommodate the action of the assembled people of God in Word and Sacrament ministry. The 1987 Lutheran Church in America publication Where We Worship, states that the worship space has at its heart the “gathered people” of God–the “baptized assembly;” and is “at once assembly room, eucharistic room, baptismal room, and preaching room.” The literature on ecclesiastical architecture then deals primarily with how to manifest in authentic architectural form the relationship between the assembly and the centers of liturgical action.
The same literature has comparatively little to say about the full significance of the narthex. It deals only with the narthex as a companion or attendant space to the worship room–a place for gathering and prefatory interaction in anticipation of the worship event.
I myself have come to refer to the narthex as the second most important room in the church building. The word narthex itself is today increasingly inadequate to fully convey the potential contribution of this room to the life of the congregation. While the term is perhaps limiting, the historical origin of this room does suggest a connection to its current development. The narthex was a western porch of the basilica, the public building type which was adopted for early Christian use. This porch was used to hold penitents, catechumens and others who, after the fashion of the then contemporary practice, required accommodation outside of the place of the liturgy.
While these early distinctions between the use and accessibilities of spaces no longer provide instruction of any applicable relevance, they do serve to remind us that the proclamation of the Gospel has many foci and, by extension, suggest that different spatial “tools” may be variously appropriate.
Today the narthex is growing in importance as it takes on broader multiple functions which expand its public character to include dimensions beyond that of attendant gathering space to the place of worship.
Recently a prominent and acknowledged authority on church growth attended the dedication of an addition to a church building which included the construction of a new worship room and narthex. When I learned that he had made several favorable comments about the design of the narthex I telephoned him to see what insights I might glean from his observations. Having caught him unexpectedly and perhaps at a bad time, our conversation was brief. In response to my probes he simply said “Its a big room. A lot of ministry happens there”.
Ministry is action performed for and with the people of God and performed for and with those outside the community of faith. Action requires a place to unfold. The locus of much, though not all, of a congregation’s action in ministry is the church building. The narthex seems to be becoming–exclusive of the place set aside for the liturgy–the locus of the public face of Christian action.
Considered in this light the significance of the narthex carries a decidedly evangelistic edge. It is for member and visitor the place of invitation, first impression, reception, and hospitality. It should be generous and open in its dimension and public in its character.
In contemporary ministry the narthex in the service of evangelism has limitless potential. It can become the place of distribution for the food pantry, the gathering place for the weekly seniors meeting, the place of registration for the daycare or preschool program, the meeting place for the local ministerium, the “town hall” for the community forum. Each encounter is an opportunity to witness and proclaim the Gospel in action.
The narthex, then, as a principal unit of the church building harbors the potential to become an “incarnational manifestation” of what we value and believe as Christians. If we wish to practice authentic discipleship we cannot, in truth, separate or isolate who we are as the body of Christ from the ways in which we present ourselves to others. This means the buildings which serve our communities need to authentically reflect their mission and ministry. They need to be invitational. They need to be generous and gracious in their hospitality. They need unmistakably to reflect and nurture the action of ministry. They need, I believe, a focal place to play out Christian witness–a narthex.